When the flag goes down on the 93rd Indianapolis 500 May 24, it will be amid much fanfare for the history of the race and the Brickyard where it runs. Officials have declared 2009 as the start of Indy’s “Centennial Era,” during which both the race and the racetrack will celebrate hundredth anniversaries. But even with all that history behind it, the Indy Racing League (IRL) is facing more uncertainty than ever.
Although auto racing remains popular, some critics question the usefulness of expensive car races during an economic downturn. Others complain that the powerful engines propelling these cars are too polluting and that race officials don’t do enough to promote energy efficiency and emissions reduction.
Nevertheless, open-spec series like Le Mans have been making headlines as teams deploy fuel-efficiency innovations and even alternative fuels. Formula One has been struggling to determine how to keep its technology relevant while maintaining a level playing field and keeping costs in check, and similar issues face the IRL.
The 2009 season is the second in which IndyCar teams and former Champ Car teams are racing under one banner. Predictably, the teams that transitioned from Champ Car struggled to stay competitive in 2008, especially on the many oval tracks the IndyCar Series uses.
For 2009, there are a few rule changes that officials hope will keep competition interesting, some of which come directly from the former Champ Car circuit.
Tires could wake up competition
One such change to the IndyCar circuit is tire provider Firestone Racing’s introduction of alternate tire sets on road and street courses. In addition to the six full sets of regular dry-weather tires Firestone allots each team, racers will get three sets of alternate tires marked with red sidewalls. The red tires have softer tread which gives them better grip, lets drivers brake later in corners, and permits faster cornering and more overtaking. The downside, of course, is that the tires wear faster, so teams will have to deploy their limited supply carefully.
Teams must run each type of tire for a minimum of two laps during the race itself, but it is up to them to plan a tire-use strategy that covers practice, qualifying, and racing. Other than the two-lap requirement, the only restriction on tire deployment is that teams must reserve at least one set of new alternate tires for the race itself.
Firestone parent company Bridgestone introduced alternate tires to the Champ Car World Series at the 2004 Long Beach Grand Prix. The competition enhancer has also found its way into Formula One racing.
Firestone and the IRL hope the addition will increase overtaking and add another dimension to fans’ viewing experience. They believe the “reds” will play a key role in each street or road race’s qualifying system. Teams will have to choose whether they want to use the faster alternate tires in the first qualifying segment to assure themselves a top-12 position, in subsequent segments if they advance that far, in all of qualifying, or not at all. Teams making it to the final segment, called the Firestone Fast Six Shootout, get an additional set of primary and alternate tires to use solely during that portion of qualifying.
Firestone already formulates individual tire compounds to meet each course’s surface properties, banking and turn angles, and track width. (See sidebar.)
“The short ovals of Richmond, Milwaukee, and Iowa are closely related in length but light years apart in the demands they place on race tires,” says a Firestone spokesperson. “The six 1.5-mile Speedways — Chicagoland, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas Motor, and Twin Ring Motegi — necessitate consistent tire performance at constant high speeds. The permanent road courses — Infineon Raceway, Mid- Ohio Sports Car Course, and Watkins Glen International — and temporary street circuits — Long Beach, St. Petersburg, and Toronto, and the Edmonton City Centre Airport — each require different race tires than those used on the ovals to permit both left and right-hand turns.”
How much lap time could a driver shave off with the red-sidewall tires?
“We’re being a little bit private with our predictions,” says Al Speyer, executive director at Firestone Racing. “We found in the past that when we say the reds are about a half-second faster, everybody comes back and tells us ‘Oh, they’re about a halfsecond faster.’
“We are going to run different primary and alternate tires at each of the street courses, and we’re also adjusting the gap between what we think the standard tires will run and the alternate red-sidewall tires will run. So it’s not going to be the same time difference at each of the tracks.”
In addition to spicing up competition, Firestone is using the alternate tire plan for research and development that might have wider applications. Speyer says some of the alternate tires will have proprietary technology that could lead to better-gripping, slower- wearing tires for passenger cars.
All quiet on pit row
Another change, one which may affect fans more than the teams, is the new exhaust systems the cars are sporting this year. Engine supplier Honda Performance Development (HPD) added a mechanical silencer, first developed to meet noise restrictions in the American Le Mans Series. A bolt-on exhaust system with a new header and muffler design is part of the package.
The changes are said to cut by around 10 dB without hindering engine power. The exhaust tone may also lose some of its harshness.
Roger Griffiths with HPD says changes let IndyCars sound more like they did in the mid-1990s when rules allowed turbocharged engines. “You could actually carry on a conversation in pit lane with your headsets on,” Griffiths said of his experience during off-season testing at Indy. “It was so refreshing.”
Some IndyCar teams agree. “The engine tone seems to be more acceptable to people trackside and anything that is good for the fans is good for the sport,” says Brian Lisles, general manager of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.
The change brings noise levels at IndyCar Series races closer to those fans experienced in the former Champ Car Series. It also helps the IRL meet city noise ordinances when the cars compete on temporary street courses, many of which were added to the schedule under the reunification of the two series.
A clutch decision
One other rule change this year is said to have been proposed by some teams that transitioned from the Champ Car Series. Teams can now choose to replace their cars’ sintered powder-metal clutch with a carbon-clutch system similar to that permitted by Champ Car.
The carbon units costs more up-front than sintered clutches, but are said to need less maintenance over the course of the season. Because carbon clutches are lightweight, they have low inertia and may permit faster gear changes. The can also withstand longer exposures to high temperatures without distorting.
Teams that are adopting the new clutches hope to spend less time servicing and repairing the transmission throughout the season.
Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, a former Champ Car team, evaluated the new clutch. According to General Manager Lisles, “Total lifetime cost is very similar for the two clutches.”
Time for an engine change?
Engines in passenger cars are evolving quickly these days to meet government-imposed emissions and efficiency requirements. Free of such restrictions, and with much larger budgets than the average passenger-car buyer, racing engines in some series have been slow to make the same changes.
The IRL is now working with OEMs and race-engine designers to develop new IndyCar Series engine specs that could be released sometime this year. The goal was to have new engines in the IndyCar Series for the 2011 season, but officials recently said they would likely delay rollout to 2012.
Potential participants have held several roundtable meetings so far. Although they have made no commitment to continue with the process, HPD, Audi, Fiat Powertrain Technologies, Porsche, and Volkswagen have all been involved in the discussion at some point. Six specialty race-engine-design companies have also joined the working meetings.
Many details are still being ironed out, but the new engine will stick to a four-stroke cycle with four valves per cylinder. A dual-overhead cam will replace the current engine’s four camshafts. Cylinder count will fall from the current V8 configuration, but four and six-cylinder designs are both in play.
The engine will continue to use 100% ethanol, and it will upgrade fuel delivery to direct injection. Recently, direct injection has made its mark in higher-end passenger engines as a way to maintain power while improving fuel efficiency and minimizing combustion-generated emissions.
OEMs have also downsized some passenger-car engines and added turbochargers to provide the low-end power drivers expect. Following the trend, IndyCar will downsize its current 3.5-liter engine to under 2.0 liters. Rules will permit a single turbocharger; current engines are normally aspirated.
The new engines are expected to go 3,750 miles between rebuilds under race conditions, more than double the current 1,400-mile lifespan. IRL says it will soften the new engine’s cost impact on teams with an engine lease ceiling.
Although getting teams to adapt to a new engine in a slow economy might seem like a tough sell, IndyCar Series teams appear to trust that the IRL will take steps to keep costs in check.
“The costs of the engines and the level of investment the teams need to put into them should not change,” predicted Tom Brown, engineer for Sarah Fisher Racing. “The league has a very good control on what costs can be passed onto the teams and is aware of how much the teams can absorb in terms of development and test cost.”
Like the current engines, design will be fixed by a five-year sealed engine homologation process. The process will most likely define areas for annual updates, however.