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.

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