INDYCAR: A new beginning

Indycar and its CEO Randy Bernard are under pressure to respond to safety concerns after the recent accident as Las Vegas motor speedway that resulted in Dan Wheldon’s death.

For 2012 a new car is being introduced (a decision taken well before the accident) and engine competition will be present for the first time since 2006 with Honda, Lotus and Chevrolet participating in the series.

It will be interesting to see what the impact of the new car will be – from a safety point of view, it has been designed to avoid cars taking off after interlocking wheels (a cause of several serious accidents over the years including Wheldon’s), although it’s not clear if this will be effective in high speed oval tracks. The car also seem to be more difficult to drive in ovals which may lead to more driver errors but may also reduce the amount of “pack racing” seen in recent years (and certainly in the tragic Las Vegas race) where drivers running with similar cars and engined are flat out throughout the track and end up running in packs of cars, often three abreast, with no one being able to complete a clean overtake.

From a racing point of view, we may have opposing effects as well. It could be an opportunity for new teams to fight for the title as everyone will be struggling to find the right technical specs, or it may well be that the most resourceful teams (Penske and Ganassi) will be the only ones to make this difficult new car work and their dominance will increase as a result.

Engine competition is certainly positive as it will lead to higher differentiation between cars and possibly a power race, both factors being useful to reduce the “pack racing” effect.

The other response to safety concerns has been to reduce the number of races in ovals. Only 4 races are planned, down from 6 in 2011. It is common for race organisers to overreact following a serious accident but this decision raises some concerns as oval racing is core to Indycar and the races are way more interesting that road courses. The solution is not to avoid oval racing, but to make it work better from a safety point of view. The solution may require more radical steps than the new 2012 car (more horsepower / less downforce / different aero packages available) but sooner or later those decisions will need to be taken if Indycar has any hope to thrive – or indeed survive – in the years to come.

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