Racing tech 2012

| May 01, 2012

Views from the Grandstands

Significant upgrades are nothing new, but this season brings more than usual to the major motorsports series

By Kay Bell

Adapting to new technology is seldom easy for me — you should have seen me trying to get used to my new smartphone. So I can relate to racers around the world as they struggle to adjust to the changes thrown their way each year.

NASCAR introduced fuel injection systems to the Sprint Cup this year and it took almost no time for them to bedevil some of the series’ most prominent teams. At Phoenix in the second race of the season, reigning champion Tony Stewart turned a potentially great day into a bad one when he made what we will generously call an unforced error.

Stewart cut off his engine to save fuel during a caution, expecting to be able to crank it right back up and resume racing. Not so fast, Smoke! The new Electronic Control Units that manage the fuel and ignition systems don’t react the same way as the old carburetors did, and Stewart’s car wouldn’t refire. He ultimately had to be pushed back to the pits, wound up two laps down and finished 22nd.

In the wake of Stewart’s gaffe, the Fox TV announcing team discussed the effect of fuel injectors on mileage that clearly indicated not all of them had done their offseason homework. And then it was revealed that at the Daytona 500 both Joey Logano and Mark Martin had made the same mistake Stewart did, but were able to salvage decent finishes.

Where NASCAR’s most significant technological upgrade is under the hood, the changes in open-wheel racing are much easier to see. In fact, for the first time in a decade, the IndyCar Series is running brand-new cars — new chassis, new bodies, new engines, new everything. And after warming up over a handful of road and street courses (where the effects of many of these changes will be minimized), the Indianapolis 500 promises to be one big honkin’ science experiment.

Why is that? Mainly because the most dramatic change is the addition of some jaw-dropping new bodywork. The cars now boast swoopy sidepods that flow out behind the front wheels and even partially cover up the front side of the rear wheels.

And when they run on super speedways like Indy and Texas, they also will have a separate rear piece that acts like a fender and helps prevent the front wheels of an approaching car from touching the rear wheels of a leading car, which as we saw in the Dan Wheldon tragedy in Las Vegas last fall, often catapults that trailing car into the air. These changes also should make for better front-to-back racing, though it’s likely to reduce side-by-side racing.

The new cars don’t look so bad from the side. But from just about any other angle, the new bodywork takes some getting used to, especially if you liked the sharp angles of previous models. Critics call the new look everything from “swollen glands” to “birthing hips,” and it’s hard to disagree.

IndyCar conducted numerous pre-season tests with both variations of the new bodywork, but there is no way to know how effective these big changes will be until a full field zips around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 200-plus mph at the end of May. That should be fascinating.

In Formula 1 this year, the changes are as plain as the noses on their, well, cars. The 2012 regulations forced teams to lower the height above the ground of their car’s noses from 24.6 inches to 21.7 inches. The move was made for safety reasons — nose heights had risen in recent years to help channel air under the cars to improve downforce, but that also increased the chances a pointy nose could get into the cockpit of another car during the T-bone collisions so frequent in F1.

The result is that most teams kept their 2011 chassis, but developed new “step-down” or “platypus” noses that look as awkward as they sound. Ferrari went so far as to apologize for the look of its new car! Of the likely 2012 championship contenders, only McLaren chose to redesign its entire front bodywork to produce a more naturally sloping front end.

The lowered noses alter the cars’ aerodynamics from front to back, and the subsequent recontouring of their sidepods and under trays became even more complex when F1 banned “blown diffusers.” Those controversial systems used exhaust fumes to create additional downforce, but now those fumes must be vented away from the cars. Now teams are searching for other tweaks to make up for that lost downforce.

It’s still early in the season, but I’m positive the racers will get a handle on these changes. Hey, if I can master my smartphone, anything’s possible!

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she writes about financial topics and blogs about taxes at Don’t Mess With Taxes (www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com).

LOOSE LUGNUTS

| Playing defense | One of Formula 1’s most contentious offseason debates resulted in a new blocking rule. This year, drivers can make only one defensive move to block an approaching car from overtaking. The rule could have a big impact — especially on drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and, even more so, Michael Schumacher, who are consistently almost impossible to pass.

The rule was designed to facilitate overtaking, but those who consider defensive driving one of F1’s signature characteristics immediately decried it. Personally, I love the cat-and-mouse aspect of one driver trying to hold off a challenger, but there are times when blocking becomes so flagrant it ruins the fun.

| Unfair punishment |

It really didn’t matter to me what penalty NASCAR gave the 48 team for flunking inspection before the Daytona 500. I don’t think crew chief Chad Knaus and his bunch should have been penalized at all.

In my view, you should be able to bring a tank or a rocketship to the track if you want, and see if it’ll pass inspection. If it doesn’t, then fine. You either go home or fix it. But nobody should get in trouble for a car that never even got on the track. If you flunk post-race inspection, that’s different. But in this instance, NASCAR really got it wrong.

| Back to the drawing board | In the wake of Dan Wheldon’s death, IndyCar seriously considered not returning to Texas Motor Speedway this year before deciding at the last minute to come back. One thing that will be different is the race will return to its usual format.

Last year, race promoter Eddie Gossage split the traditional 550-kilometer race into a pair of 275-km sprints. It was an interesting idea, but failed in large part because an hour-long “halftime” break ruined the day’s momentum.

Even worse, the lineup for the second race was determined by random spins of a “wheel of fortune” that unfairly punished some drivers who had excelled in the first race — most notably Dario Franchitti, who had to start 28th out of 30 cars despite winning the first race.

Texas is always one of IndyCar’s most exciting weeks, and deserves a prominent spot on the schedule. Last year didn’t work out, but I hope it won’t deter IndyCar from seeking new ways to make its events more appealing.

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