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Function following form: The struggle to adapt performance to a traditional aesthetic

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The Dallara DW12 has had teething problems since the beginning of testing for the 2012 season. (Photo: IndyCar)
The Dallara DW12 has had teething problems since the beginning of testing for the 2012 season. (Photo: IndyCar)

The much-publicized growing pains of the Dallara DW12 "next-generation" IndyCar should not surprise anyone.

Marshall Pruett over at SPEED has all of the nitty-gritty details about why the car is having its developmental issues, and his piece is definitely worth the read.

But if you want to know why I think the engineers working on the DW12 are going to take every minute of the extended off-season before they can have the car ready to hit the track in anger, the main thing you need to understand is that its advent onto the INDYCAR scene is not quite the natural evolutionary process that has historically occurred with high-performance racing machines.

Over the century-plus history of people making combustion-engine automobiles go fast, the most adhered-to aphorism for people building and developing race cars has been form follows function. Oversimplifying things as only a blogger can, I will describe this as engineers pursuing speed goals and constructing machines to achieve them; the aesthetics of the machine itself end up being completely secondary to the primary goal of going as bat-out-of-hell fast as possible.

The exception to this rule is "spec" racing (stock car racing, sports car GT-class racing, V8 Supercar racing, and so forth), where constraints such as stock bodies and manufacturer components create the necessity of having to live with performance compromises. For instance, in the old days of NASCAR when the sanction required the stock cars to at least have stock-appearing bodies based on production silhouettes, one manufacturer or another would have to suffer through a season or two of poor results until the production car design could change to make the race car more competitive (viz., the famous Monte Carlo Aerocoupe from the 1980s, built specifically to counter the Ford Thunderbird on larger speedways).

These constraints historically have not applied to purpose-built race cars like IndyCars or Formula 1 machines, however. Abandoning the need to conform to production designs after the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, the form follows function maxim dictated the evolution of these cars over time. The process largely occurred incrementally over the course of years except for the rare but significant giant leaps forward (the rear-engine revolution that quickly killed the front-engined roadster for good, for instance).

This evolutionary process - for IndyCars, at least - hit a giant bottleneck in the mid-1990s with the advent of the CART/Indy Racing League split. While CART continued to develop its cars for a few years after the schism, the Indy Racing League - laboring under the administration-mandated constraints of reducing speeds and increasing downforce using a low-cost engine formula - was faced with its first function follows form quandary. The 1997-vintage Indy Racing League cars were supposed to look like IndyCars, and the technical aims for the cars had to fit those constraints. The function follows form was in part a concession to the series' fans and their comfort level - to the point that, eventually, the series even mandated a change in engine specifications specifically because the existing IRL powerplants sounded too much like stock cars and not enough like IndyCars.

CART was able to delay resorting to this function follows form paradigm because their cars were not yet limited either by the series' rulebook or its financial state. But as the Split continued to wreak its devastating political and financial effects on both series, even CART (and later, Champ Car) was forced to bring their evolutionary process to a standstill.

In its final year, Champ Car elected to build a new car, the Panoz DP-01, which incorporated new advances in car-building theory achieved in the years after CART/Champ Car froze their chassis development. But the DP-01, as beloved as it eventually became by the series' fans, was a function follows form project - a car that was meant to retain the "classic" Indy car/Champ Car look.

On the INDYCAR side, chassis development virtually ended eight years ago with the Dallara IR03. In truth, if it had not been for the Chip Ganassi-and-Ben Bowlby-backed Delta Wing project, there is no reason to believe that the IZOD IndyCar Series would have seen a significant technological change in its cars for at least another half-decade. The stasis was created by a myriad of factors - a lack of competition, financial hardships on the ownership side, and, not insignificantly, the gun-shy attitudes of ex-Champ Car owners who came over in the series' merger who had nearly lost their shirts on the DP-01. But the most critical element was that there was no real impetus to evolve the existing spec - no speed goals, no critical performance goals, no function that required a change to the form.

Bowlby's Delta Wing changed everything. A classic example of form follows function, the tricyclic Delta Wing looked almost nothing like a conventional IndyCar because it was designed to meet certain speed, weight, and performance goals. It was revolutionary and breathtaking in many ways and it served to convince the INDYCAR world that the status quo was no longer acceptable.

What it was not was acceptable to traditionalists. The INDYCAR world by this point had been stuck in the function follows form rut for so long that nobody could quite wrap their minds around the idea of what was essentially a three-wheeled race car turning laps in the Indianapolis 500. So, when the series decided that a new car made marketing sense, it tended to side with concepts from aspiring manufacturers that adhered most closely to the form with which the INDYCAR community was comfortable. The new car became an aesthetic exercise instead of a technical one.

The Dallara design that would eventually become the DW12 was one of the least revolutionary of the submitted proposals. And because the car was designed and built to adhere to a certain form, it stands to reason that the function would require significant time to be tweaked and massaged before the car's performance would become ideal - or, at least, acceptable.

As the off-season progresses, we will see the DW12 evolve under the ministrations of engineers who will be required to act within a somewhat strange corollary to the classic maxim - a form follows function following form dictum, if you will. There will be months of adaptation, adjustment, and amendment before the car is fine-tuned enough to see action.

Perhaps someday, if the economy improves and technology advances sufficiently, INDYCAR may yet return to an environment where form will follow function in a more pure sense. Optimists hope that aero kit developers will adhere to that classic formula - but that presupposes that there will be aero kit builders of sufficient enterprising spirit to attempt the feat, as well as a willingness from INDYCAR to let the aero kits be built at all.

For now, the engineers working on the DW12 will do the best they can to make the new car perform its function as well as it can in its current form.