Monday, December 6, 2010

F1: Convoluting the Hanford Device

In addition to banning F-Duct, or any systems that uses driver body movements to alter aerodynamics, Formula 1 appears set to... allow drivers to alter aerodynamics - but if they are trailing a car by less than one second.  The change is meant to improve passing, but it obviously confers an advantage to trailing cars.

This is likely to lead to grumbling among purists, but one thing that has me scratching my head is the method employed.  Electronic systems will enable the activation of the system when a car trailing by the indicated interval.  If the driver chooses, he may acivate the system, causing it to adjust the rear wing angle by 10 degrees to reduce drag, giving the car extra speed on a straight.  It will be automatically cancelled when the brakes are applied.

This all seems pretty convoluted when you consider that CART accomplished all of this with a single piece of carbon fiber.  The Hanford device was an aerodynmic piece fitted to the rear wing of each car.  It punched a huge hole in the air - allowing a trailing car that was close enough to slingshot past.

And it worked.  The oval races it was used on were fascinating to watch.  Well, fascinating in a "What would racing be like if we used this thing" sort of way.  After a couple of races where  thought "Wow, look at that.  It works.", the races became rather silly affairs where drivers didn't want to be in the lead at the start of the last lap,

The Hanford device was not used on road courses, but I imagine a modified version could be made to work.  And perhaps a with a more limited effect, it might not be so comical.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Proton, Lotus Gamble Big

IndyCar is celebrating a third manufacturer for 2012 in the form of Lotus – as both an engine and presumably, and aerokit manufacturer.  This, from a manufacturer whose road cars have always featured engines from a more mainstream manufacturer such as the current Toyota.
But this is not the strangest bit.  As many have noticed, Lotus now seems hell-bent on producing entries into virtually every top flight motorsport series on the planet.  And even this involves twists.
At the beginning of this year, the Lotus brand had one outlet in motorsport.  Lotus Racing campaigned two cars in 2010 under the Lotus Racing banner.  Now they are in danger of losing that banner to…Lotus?!?!  How can this be?
If we go back to the beginning, it starts out calmly.  The luminary Colin Chapman founds Lotus.  For business reasons, Team Lotus – the racing arm - is created as a separate legal entity.  This shields the carmaker Lotus from any liability issues from Team Lotus.  But upon Chapman’s death in 1986, the ownership of Team Lotus, and its purpose begins to unravel.
GM bought Group Lotus (consisting of Lotus Cars and Lotus Engineering) in 1986.  In 1991 Team Lotus was sold to a group of former employees.  Both companies would continue to change hands with Group Lotus ending up in the hands of Malaysian automaker Proton, while AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes ultimately would secure the rights to the name Team Lotus.
The two Malaysian organizations appeared set to work with each other with Fernandes securing the permission of Group Lotus to create a Formula 1 team using the Lotus name.  Thus, Lotus Racing competed in the 2010 Formula 1 season and finished the season ahead of the two other new teams.
Upon securing the rights to the name, Fernandes announced that Team Lotus was officially back.  However, Group Lotus seemed to shoot down that idea and made claims that they would take measures to protect their trademarks - leaving Lotus Racing officials perplexed, while rumors surfaced of Group Lotus buying into the more established Renault Formula 1 team.
It would appear that the change in heart comes from a reported $1.2B investment in Group Lotus from parent company Proton.  Proton appears to be taking advantage of the Lotus brand by producing Lotus inspired editions of their own cars.
So, on the one hand we have Group Lotus which, albeit with ownership changes, continued on in the traditions of the company - producing cars and selling engineering services.  On the other hand we have Mr. Fernandes who may have merely bought the rights to a name (Team Lotus had long lied dormant), but in doing so, has won the ardent support of Formula 1 fans who view him as the man who brought Lotus back to Formula 1.
The two sides appear willing to fight.  It doesn’t seem clear - either procedurally or geographically - where the legal proceedings will go.  However, it’s sad to think to think that Colin Chapman probably never would’ve wanted the two Lotus’ to be independent and working at cross purposes.
From a business perspective, things could be equally interesting.  Proton is betting on being able to woo the Porsche aficionado.  Can they succeed?  Well, according to Group Lotus Advisory Council member Bob Lutz, “Of course they have a chance. If you do nothing, then it's certain death. If you make a massive investment, then it's maybe death.“ 
Nice choice.  Well, I guess if it all comes to naught, I guess Tony Fernandes could buy up the pieces.

Monday, November 29, 2010

IndyCar: Cotman Enters the Minefield

While the confusion that followed IndyCar's ICONIC committee's announcement concerning the new 2012 IndyCar specs has largely dissipated, many important questions remain unanswered.  With the announcement featuring a holographic representation of what appeared to be one of Dallara's concepts, it wasn't immediately apparent that that wasn't the car the committee chose.  In fact, they hadn't picked a car at all.   They had identified a strategy and a chosen a manufacturer.

As it became clear that Dallara would produce the basis of the car to IndyCar's specifications, the wisdom of the strategy became evident - even if initially it will fall well short of restoring the broad technical competition that has been at the foundation of the Indy 500.  Dallara will build what is being called the safety cell, a term which has been stretched to mean nearly the entire car.  Aero Kits, consisting of front and rear wings, side pods and engine covers will be open to competition for any company that agrees to supply them to all comers up to a set price.  While Dallara is creating its own aero kit, it appears that it's intended to be used mainly for testing purposes.  Dallara, at least in the initial year, is limited by IndyCar to revenues roughly half that that other makers can sell theirs for.  I think its a clear message that they want Dallara to focus on the safety cell while they attract other aerokit makers.

The largely spec nature of everything under the skin was necessary in order to severely restrain costs for teams running in the beleaguered series.  However, the idea of having a standard safety cell is an outstanding one.  Safety features can be standardized and the cost of developing the best that current technology allows can spread across the entire field.  I hope this part will become an enduring feature of the series.  Hopefully, in the future teams will be free to bolt anything that conforms to technical regulations to the safety cell.  The strategy would allow this to occur over time.  Perhaps, for instance, in 2014, suspensions will be opened up for development.  A time goes on, more and more of the car can be opened up as (hopefully) increased interest in the series allows more finances to become available to teams.

In the meantime, the cars will only differ by engine and aero kit. With the recent engine announcements, we now know that Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus will be providing engines.  Chevrolet and Lola have both expressed interest in doing their own aero kits as well.  And it has been reported that Tony Cotman, who is overseeing the development of the rules, thinks we'll see six or seven different aero kits.

On the engine side, I think nailing down the rules will be relatively straightforward.  With the exception of Lotus (although they're presumed to be using Cosworth), the players have all worked with each other before. I'm just left wondering how little the engines may differ.

But there remains the main question of how these bits will be allocated to the teams and what combinations will be legal.  Clearly, a Chevrolet aero kit will not be allowed on a Honda engined car.  But it has been made clear that engine manufacturers will not be able to veto all aerokits.  Why would they go to the expense of creating the aero kit if teams are being allowed, or even encouraged to select other options?

A couple of Formula 1 teams seem as though they would be particularly good fits as aero kit makers.  Virgin and Red Bull Racing are both basically sponsor owned teams with distinguished engineers in the persons of Nick Wirth and Adrian Newey respectively.  Designing an aero kit would likely not be too much of a diversion for them.  And the risk of not having a winning kit is not very large as the main object would be to get the names Red Bull and/or Virgin onto cars.  Virgin appears to happy to have its name on just about any F1 car.

What if no one selects Chevrolet's aero kit?  Or they all do?  We're told these details are being worked out.  I suspect that much is being left to the team owners to work out among themselves.  Some owners have reportedly bristled at IndyCar spending their money.  I suspect that the owners may provide some sort of framework, but no final resolution.  The teams have repeatedly demonstrated that they can have very different perspectives.  And already, it would appear that Roger Penske has gone all in with Chevrolet due to his role (as part owner of Ilmor) in bring the manufacturer to the table.  That is ultimately a good thing, but surely a few eyebrows were raised.  Penske basically got the first choice in an allocation system that hasn't been defined yet.

It seems that the rules have purposely left fuzzy as manufacturers are being courted.  But the congoing adjusting of the rules is going to become a minefield.  Proper and frequent communication is going to be crucial between the team, the series and the manufacturers.  And the fact that the rules would appear to require some mixing of sponsorships (e.g. possibly a Red Bull Chevrolet), means even more sensitivity.

If it all goes well we could see harmonious relationship that actually build partnerships.  Perhaps Chevy could offer a Red Bull upholstory package on some models of their road cars.  But until all of the cats are herded and locked up in the pen, this could be a very frantic stretch for Tony Cotman and Randy Bernard.

And even then, penned up cats can get pretty cranky.