A brave new racing world beckons, we hope

It struck me recently that we really are coming to a turning point in automobile racing history and the surprise is it may be a more optimistic future than some of us have been predicting.

In the last year or so I've joined many people in the sport mourning the passing of the days of innovation and moaning about the arrival of the spec car age. I wrote about these things in the first few 'The Way It Is' columns and returned to the theme a number of times last year. Over the past winter almost everyone I know seemed to have begrudgingly accepted that the spec car age has arrived and they have to live with it.

Yet this spring both the FIA and IRL announced their own separate initiatives to create new, technologically-interesting green formulas for Formula 1 and Indy car racing in 2011. I've enjoyed exploring the early ideas from the FIA and IRL over the past month and will continue to discuss them over the summer. In this space on Thursday of this week, for example, top engine designer Mario Illien will provide his carefully considered views on the subject.

But the point is we've suddenly gone from looking back wistfully to looking forward optimistically, hoping the sport can make the right moves for 2011 and beyond. Wouldn't it be great if these fresh buds of optimism were realized in four years with invigorating and exciting new formulas for F1 and Indy car racing?

It won't be easy to properly reinvent either formula of course, and to achieve the goals of creating competitive, entertaining racing which appeals to the masses, not just to engineers, manufacturers and the cognoscente. Formula 1 has achieved and maintained this critical balance for quite a few years. Contrastingly, CART and IRL failed in that quest, as did the original incarnation of IMSA, leaving us with today's bifurcated and devalued forms of American open-wheel and sports car racing, and of course spec cars not only in NASCAR, but in Champ Car, IRL (effectively), the Grand-Am, etc.

My colleague Nigel Roebuck provided some perspective on the appeal of today's IRL and Champ cars while we were discussing the state of American open-wheel racing over dinner in Montreal earlier this month. "They look like nice, little cars," Roebuck remarked about Champ Car's Panoz spec car. "They look good, very tidy, but that's the problem. They don't look difficult to drive like the good old Lola."

At breakfast the following morning we compared notes on watching the previous night's Texas IRL race on TV after dinner. It turned out that both of us fell asleep, missing the finish. "They just drive around at the bottom of the track, protecting the inside, and nobody can pass!" Nigel shook his head. "I guess it's better than when they were flying. But really, it's pretty boring."

I agree. My view is there's not enough difference in cornering and straightaway speeds. Too many IRL tracks are run flat-out without lifting. Cornering speeds need to be reduced and acceleration and braking increased. That would make the cars more difficult to drive and also make for more passing and better racing. This is an old mantra, stated many times, but I believe it's irrefutably true.
Roebuck aside, most people in F1 lost interest a few years ago in seriously following Champ Car or IRL. Back in CART's heyday many of them watched all the races, excited by the racing. "It used to be great!" grinned McLaren's Steve Hallam. "There were so many guys who could win and every race was different. And of course, there was plenty of passing. We watched all the races. As pure racing, it was the best racing in the world."

As we all know, aerodynamics is by far the dominant factor in modern race car design and there doesn't appear to be any way to limit that influence other than banning the use of wind tunnels, which is not about to happen. So it's critically important to get the aero package right for the F1 and Indy cars of 2011 so that they can race and pass and allow us to enjoy a show of driving.

And too, it's equally important to have a path or method of controlling the aero packages as they evolve and improve with time and development. All this is much easier said than done, but again, I'll be discussing these issues with some of the best brains in the business over the following weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the calls by both the FIA and IRL for fresh starts come as we approach some momentous occasions for motor racing and American open-wheel racing in particular.

To read the rest of this column go to gordonkirby.com and click on 'The Way It Is'

 

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