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.

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