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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ The next decade's giant challenges

by Gordon Kirby
First of all, my compliments to the American Le Mans Series on its 'Green Challenge' initiative. In America, at least, the ALMS has set the pace in pursuing the first stages of 'green' fuel technology. The sports car series has put most of the American motor sports industry in the shade in responding to the rapidly-changing realities and politics of the world's energy sources and markets, and the ALMS's 'Green Challenge' is another small step for the sport on the long road to grappling with these issues.

Will racing be able to transform itself and contribute in some serious ways to the many questions about the fuels and power sources of the automobiles of the future? The future of the petroleum-burning internal combustion engine may be more seriously numbered than many of us imagine. Over the past twelve months the rising price of oil and the expanding global economy have transformed public and political opinions about the many questions surrounding the energy industry's future. In recent years, many engineers I respect have told me it's going to take another twenty or more years for the new age of hydrogen fuel cell or electric cars to arrive, but times may be changing even more rapidly than we thought.

As we all know, Toyota has taken the early lead in getting hybrid technology into the market. Honda and Ford are committed to hydrogen fuel cells. General Motors may be gambling its future on its new Volt electric car. Come 2020, it looks like many of us will be driving either hybrid, electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars and even trucks. 'Green' fuels it appears are a stopgap, at best, and as this seismic shift encompasses the global automobile industry it's going to ask some big questions about motor racing's essential appeal as a spectacle as well as whether or not it can rediscover its roots and contribute to 'improving the breed'.

But if we wind up with clean, green, exhaust note-free motor racing, will anyone care? So much of the sport's appeal always has been invested in the sound of the engines, individually and collectively. Will a field full of whispering clean, green cars have any appeal to 'Petrolheads' around the world? Or will a new crowd evolve of forward-thinking, environmentally-conscious fans?

We've talked for years about the distinct lack of leadership for most forms of racing when it comes to organizing, promoting and marketing the sport. But as I've written many times, the key to the whole thing is about technical leadership in determining and enforcing the rules and in attracting, managing and maintaining competition among manufacturers. People in the FIA, ALMS, IRL and elsewhere, are struggling to find the right path for the sport in the 21st century and over the next ten years they will be tested on these fronts like never before. Are they up to the job? Time alone will tell.

Following the ALMS's 'Green Challenge' announcement I had a number of entertaining conversations with some engineer friends. We chuckled over how reading the rules for the 'Green Challenge' reminded us of the 'Index of Thermal Efficiency' sub-category which existed at Le Mans back in the sixties.

"All credit to the ALMS for making the effort," one of them remarked. "But this seems waaay too complicated and abstruse to get much more than a yawn. It's sort of a geeky, now-we've-got-computers version of the old Index of Performance at Le Mans. Even if they are able to announce the results as the race ends, I just don't see much excitement in it. And counting points down instead of up seems like a meaningless gimmick. Just who is going to lose races in order to do better in this evalutation?

"I think," he added, "we need something that rewards 'greenness' with track position during the course of the race. That's inherently in the nature of things, and not something achieved by artifice."

My friend suggested a simple restriction on the size of fuel tanks.

"What about having relatively smaller fuel tanks, requiring more refueling and hence lost time? Could that possibly create a pressure for efficiency, one that we could see for ourselves without the aid of a computer? Use as much fuel as you like, but this is how big the tank can be. It's pretty easy to control and in a way it's always been a factor at Le Mans. Indeed, I believe Audi may have won this year's race on that basis if their tanks were the same size, or smaller, than Peugeot's.

"You could make the tank size the same for every car in a given class and stop using it as a handicapping tool. Of course, that would inevitably irritate some manufacturers. And using weight to handicap cars is as un-green as you can get. It artificially increases fuel consumption even if much of the time is lost in cornering and braking. I'd say, let the rules do the handicapping and make them the same for everybody.

"It's the eternal problem," he added. "Having a fair race for cars of completely different designs. But then, driving the designers to be more efficient is what we're trying to do. At least in the prototype classes, I think it's fair enough because that's where the manufacturers want to compete on technology."

A brief pause for breath and a conclusion.

"Of course," he observed, "there are so many unintended consequences to all these things, unless you think them through very carefully indeed. And usually, there are unintended consequences even if you do."

So goes the great conundrum of rule-making. Often, the unintended consequences have a considerably larger effect than the original vision.

Meanwhile, I can only conclude that all the talk about oil supplies and new energy sources means IndyCar racing needs not only a new formula for 2011--which has been much-debated in this space--but a complete reinvention somewhere between 2016-2020 to cope with the fast-changing world of new power sources. The next big test for the IRL will be determining the right formula for 2011, but the sport's longterm future will be invested in making IndyCar racing, and all forms of the sport, relevant to a new world none of us can quite imagine.

Maybe even NASCAR will be forced to respond.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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