Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ A technical preview of America's duelling open-wheel series

by Gordon Kirby
Champ Car and IRL kicked-off their respective winter testing seasons at Sebring and Daytona over the last two weeks. Both organizations had nice, little turnouts with fourteen of the new Panoz DP01-Cosworth Champ cars at Sebring and seventeen Dallara-Honda Indy cars at Daytona and one couldn't help but reflect that a mythically unified series would provide a pretty healthy field of drivers and teams, as discussed in this space four weeks ago by Messrs Andretti, Mears, Rahal and Ganassi.

But the reality is that both leagues are struggling once again this year to field twenty cars. Each of America's duelling open-wheel series appear to have prettty solid chassis/engine packages but the abiding bottom line is that both have become de facto or intended spec car combinations with very little media following or commercial selling power. Indeed, I was struck at Daytona last week by a remark made by veteran photographer Don Bok who's been shooting at Daytona for forty-five years. Bok has seen a lot of racing in his time and was genuinely shocked last week with his first exposure to Indy cars in many years.

"My God!" Bok stammered between shots in the pitlane on the opening day of the IRL's two test days at Daytona. "What's happened to your sport? It's like SCCA spec car racing--one chassis and one engine. I guess that's the way all racing is going. Sad, isn't it?"

As everyone knows, I agree, but this is what American open-wheel racing has been reduced to in order to survive in the wake of the ravages of the eleven-year split in the sport. Nine teams assembled at Sebring two weeks ago for Champ Car's first test session of 2007 with the all-new Panoz DP01 spec car and the three days in central Florida provided everyone with a healthy dose of encouragement. Inevitably, a long list of detail problems were revealed and a large number of spare parts remain to be built, but the basic package clearly is very effective. The DP01 is well-balanced mechanically and aerodynamically and the new car works and performs extremely well. The car looks good on the track, braking, turning and putting the power down well, and this year's slightly revised Cosworth XFE engine sounds sharper and smoother than ever.

And most of the teams who ran at Sebring were very close to the pace. At this early stage the DP01 project appears to have levelled the playing field somewhat, providing guys like Dale Coyne and his team with the hope of being able to win a race, or at least compete for podium finishes.

Champ Car's technology director Scot Elkins has been the the chief shepherd on the DP01 project. It has occupied a great deal of his time over the past year and Elkins was pleased with what he saw at Sebring two weeks ago. "What we've done is get to exactly where we wanted to be at this stage when we set out to do at the beginning of the project," Elkins commented. "To have the cars as close as they are, hopefully that's a testament to how our season's going to go."

Derrick Walker's team didn't get much track time at Sebring, but Walker was impressed with the overall state of affairs he saw in Florida. "I think the whole exercise of building the car and going there with this many cars was a success," Walker remarked. "Our team had a lot of teething problems. We lost a lot of time with the gearshifting and a coil on the engine going and an oil filter collapsing. We also had some issues with the brakes. So we never got any clear runs to really get into it and we were struggling to know where we really are with the car. But at the same time when you look at all the problems we had, they weren't really big ones. For a new car, I think it was pretty impressive."

The DP01's chief designer Simon Marshall left the test with a long work list, but he was pleased to see his creation working well on the track and giving the drivers plenty of confidence. "The good news is that the rear end of the car is very secure and the rear end especially is secure under braking," Marshall observed. "That's due to the fact that we've changed the underbody of the car so it's less pitch sensitive. We were allowed to do that by changing the regulations to obtain a big diffuser and it's good to see that has actually transpired in a positive handling effect for the driver. They're going to be able to drive this car hard and hustle it and not be afraid of the rear end.

"Basically, the car puts the power down and it supplies the engine with the cool air it needs. The brakes work very well. There are some mods we are proposing on the braking system. The Zuhai race is potentially very hard on the brakes and brake fluid so we'll put some more cooling at it for that particular race."

Marshall is convinced the DP01 will be able produce quicker lap times at most tracks than the retired Lola B2/00. "The brief going in was to keep the engine and keep the tires," Marshall commented. "With the laws of physics in mind, if the car weighs the same and the downforce is at least what the Lola was, it should do exactly the same job. We are at the same weight. The car can be lighter, depending on what the regulations say. The engine is slightly improved so if anything the car can only be faster than the Lola."

It's not clear what everyone was doing with ballast and weight at Sebring and Marshall freely admits it's hard to gauge how much the DP01 has actually levelled the playing field. "Initially that seems to be the case," he remarked. "But you only really get an idea where people are when all the cars have gone through the tech procedure at the first race and everyone is squeeky clean. We don't know what these guys were doing with the weight of the car and the fuel levels of course. But it's good having all the teams with smiles on their faces with the potential that they see."

Veteran team owner Walker says the DP01 provides everyone with an opportunity to run near the front. "Nobody can say they haven't got the special dampers or the special diff that some other guys have got," Walker commented. "Now we're down to believing we are better than them because we've got the same car and we can beat them. That's the difference. There's less gray because everything's available to everybody."

Near the end of the Sebring test some of the Newman/Haas crewmen asked if I thought they were going to lose their edge because of the new car. I replied that I reckon they've got the technical resources and ability to try different combinations and the work ethic to continue to run up front. Marshall later told me that Newman/Haas is already demonstrating those qualities.

"You can see that they're exploring way more facets and areas of the car than anyone else," Marshall said. "They've got their heads into all sorts of issues on the car that no one else has even got to yet. They are right on the curve as early as they can be."

Indeed, Walker made the point that as time goes on the likes of Newman/Haas could edge steadily ahead of most of the field. "It could actually distant the front from the back even more over time," Walker suggested. "It could work in reverse because it can be harder to learn how to make the difference. The teams with more resources will find ways to find those differences."

Meanwhile, Champ Car's venerable Cosworth XFE turbo V-8 sounds even better this year. Refinements to the engine's electronics and a new exhaust system and wastegates to suit the new Panoz DP01 have resulted in a slightly smoother, sharper sound. The latest version of the XFE also runs without a pop-off valve thanks to a new electronic boost control and the duty cycle on each engine has been increased by 200 to 1,400 miles because of improvements in pistons and oil control.

Another change for this year is that Cosworth has ceded all the engine-related electronics to Pi Systems. Pi is supplying all the electronics, from ECUs, to wiring harnesses, data logging, sensors and gearbox control units. Cosworth has made more space available in the ECU by reverting from an electronic to a mechanical ninth butterfly in the XFE's turbo system.

"We've gone back to a mechanical ninth butterfly," commented Cosworth's Champ Car project leader Ken Daigle. "For the last ten years we've used an electronic system to fine-tune the boost curve. But we've learned so much in the last several years that we've put the burden of finite boost control back onto the wastegates and made the ninth butterfly mechanical. That in turn has freed-up some of the processor space in the ECU so that Pi was able to use one of their off-the-shelf ECUs to run the whole program."

With no competition from a rival engine manufacturer, Cosworth has been able to eliminate the top-heavy pop-off valve, a thirty-plus year-old dinosaur of Champ car racing. "We no longer need to have a pop-off valve," Daigle remarked. "The pop-off valve was there to insure parity across the grid when there were multiple manufacturers competing in the series. For the last three years, we've frozen the boost adjustment to the teams. They couldn't adjust it. They could go down in boost if there was a problem, but they couldn't raise it, and with the advent of push-to-pass we more or less narrowed the range they could even adjust it down. Without the pop-off valve, the system controls to a set point which is 41.5 inches in normal conditions."

Daigle also explained the reasons why the latest version of the XFE sounds sweeter and sharper. "I think the different exhaust note that you notice is from the wastegates and a slightly different tailpipe arrangement compared to the Lola's system which was a bit longer and a bit more directional. The new exhaust is shorter and dumps straight out. We've also tuned-up some of fhe fuel-mapping in the new ECU and because we have a split system where the gear control unit is a separate ECU altogther. And that probably has some effect on the sound as well. The end result is that the engine is a little bit more powerful with a bit more smooth of a power curve."

In the IRL, the well-developed Dallara chassis has become the de facto spec chassis with Honda supplying the field with engines. A new 3.5 liter engine has been produced by Honda to suit the IRL's move this year to ethanol fuel. The new, naturally-aspirated engine is referred to as the H17H Indy V-8. Honda Performance Development's boss Robert Clarke explained the development process of this year's ethanol-burning IRL engine.

"When the IRL decided they were going to go with ethanol fuel we studied the impact on the engine performance and reliability," Clarke related. "We came back to them and told them we were going to lose some power and it was also going to adversely effect the torque of the engine. We recommended that the best solution was to move the displacement back up to 3.5 liters. We had our old design so it wasn't really a major problem hardware-wise. We brought the engine back to 3.5 liters and regained the power loss through the fuel change and more.

"Because we ended up with more power we were able to detune the engine a little bit to keep it within the power range we preferred. We basically brought it back to the power range to the level we had last year which enabled us to detune the engine and make it more reliable. So now we've extended the mileage of the engine to where we can get three events instead of two per rebuild which is a good thing because now we can lower the price to the teams.

"We've also changed the electronics," Clarke added. "We had a Motorola/Honda ECU that we had been running actually in CART that we carried with us into the IRL. It was fine for the number of cars we were servicing originally but when we ended up with the entire field we didn't have enough units in the system and we couldn't put it back in production. That was a very extensive piece that had all the functionalities we had in CART like traction control, downshift-without-lift and all the features we had in CART.

"Those have been removed by the IRL so we were able to go with a much simpler, low-cost system that has the functionality that's required here for calibrating and adjusting the features that we have like the pitlane speed limiter and upshifting without lift and yellow flag conditions, plus continuing to monitor the reliabiliy of the engine."

In today's competition-free world, Honda's primary goal is to produce thoroughly reliable engines. "The best thing that happened to us last year was a perfect Indy 500," Clarke observed. "To have that kind of result was our core objective and we want to continue that. Without being able to show our performance through competition, the best way to show it is through reliability."

Clarke reiterated Honda's commitment to open-wheel racing but noted that his company is growing weary of the continuing Champ Car/IRL split and the IRL's poor market position. "Honda has grown up in open-wheel racing," Clarke commented. "It's our preferred style of racing. We still very much want open-wheel racing to exist, function and prosper in this country. That is still one of my key responsibilities in my job, to try and make that happen. I haven't backed off or given up. I'm still working to try and make that a reality and I think all the company embraces that at the moment.

"We haven't given up," he added. "It's not where it needs to be. We all acknowledge that. I can acknowledge that we're getting tired of it, but we haven't given up."

Of course, as everyone knows, given the parlous state of American open-wheel racing, Honda has decided to expand into the ALMS series this year. A trio of Acura-powered cars from Andretti-Green, Fernandez and Highcroft Racing will race against a pair of Penske Porsches in the ALMS's LMP2 category. Honda has been attracted to the sports car series because there's both competition and room for technical development in the ALMS. Next week I'll take a close look at Honda's move into sports car racing and discuss where the manufacturer may or may not race in the future.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page