Monday, September 4, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Farewell Aero Kits

The IndyCar championship comes down to a six-horse race in Sonoma. The penultimate round of the IndyCar season avoided rain. Formula One qualifying did not avoid rain and it took four hours for history to be made at Monza. Unfortunately, a race had to be cancelled in the process. The good news is two Italians won in front of the tifosi. The Pirelli World Challenge SprintX championship came to a close. The FIA WEC announced serious series changes before its round in Mexico City. NASCAR fans lost their minds over an incident in the Truck series that most will get over by lunch today. Daniel Suárez might have lost his Subway sponsorship over handing out Dunkin' Donuts almost two months ago. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Farewell Aero Kits
With one IndyCar race to go we have one race remaining in the aero kit-era of IndyCar. When it is all said and done 49 races will have taken place during the aero kit-era. Only two kit manufactures ever stepped up to the plate. The Chevrolet-backed Pratt & Miller kit and the Honda-backed Wirth Research kit and the Chevrolet came out on top. It will either be 33 victories for Chevrolet or 34. The Honda kit won just over a dozen times and will end with either 15 or 16 victories.

The origins of aero kits were to provide difference in cars while still being the same chassis for all teams. It is hard to believe it has been over SEVEN years since a summer afternoon when the hardly memorable ICONIC committee unveiled what the future of IndyCar would look like. I still can't fathom why IndyCar, when five chassis manufactures were beating at the door to come in, chose one instead of allowing all to play. Instead of having Lola and Swift and the DeltaWing and BAT Engineering compete with Dallara, the series loved the one it was with enough that it decided to maintain its monogamous relationship with its chassis manufacturer.

Despite sticking with Dallara, the hope was a plethora of manufactures, from the automotive industry and beyond, would enter IndyCar.

ICONIC committee spokesman, former Jaguar Racing team principal Tony Purnell left us with the only memorable line from that unveiling of what would become the DW12 chassis. Sadly, reality has never lived up to the hopes. "Come on Ford, GM, Lotus, Ferrari. Come on Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric. Come on you engineers working in your garage and small shops."

We got GM and Lotus and Lotus was gone after year one, before the aero kits introduction. Ford and Ferrari were never interested. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Electric probably have no clue they were challenged.

Aero kits were put off in year one of the DW12-era to save teams money. And again in year two to save teams money. And again in year three to save teams money. The teams had spent enough buying new cars for 2012 that any extra spending was trying to be avoided and then three seasons of eye-opening racing and passing on ovals that had not been seen since the Hanford Device-era of CART made many wonder why go to the aero kits at all? IndyCar had found the solution after a rough handful of years with the IR03/05/07 chassis where Tony Cotman had to issue a rule to prevent drivers from defending the inside line into corners at road and street course.

However, the manufactures had already started developing the aero kits and with that money spent aero kits were going to happen at some point. By 2015, enough was enough and IndyCar voyaged into another unknown. There was some excitement and trepidation; those two emotions are joined at the hip. Someone was going to come out on top. The hope was the difference between the two manufactures wouldn't be that great. It became clear quickly Chevrolet had gotten it right by a significant margin over Honda.

Chevrolet won every pole position in 2015 and it won eight of the first ten races that season. The races it didn't win were rain-shortened races at NOLA Motorsports Park and Belle Isle. Honda came back strong at the end of that season with Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay each taking a pair of victories but it ended 10-6 in favor of Chevrolet. Chevrolet drivers took four of the top five in the championship.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent developing these kits between the two manufactures. It ended up costing more than most thought it would. Many were tired of the aero kit before the 2015 season was over but there was no turning back for 2016. The original DW12 aero kit was already obsolete. We were stuck with the kits for another season. Once again, Chevrolet had the clear upper hand, winning the first five races all but confirmed no change for year two. But Honda was able to take the fight back to Chevrolet at Indianapolis and had advantage with the low downforce kit. We all know how the rest of the story plays out: Honda wins at Indianapolis and Texas, should have won at Pocono and 2016 ends with Chevrolet winning all but two races.

This year started with an encouraging sign. Honda won the first two races. It kept its low downforce kit advantage and took the upper hand on street circuits. Through eight races, with Honda leading Chevrolet with five victories to three, I even questioned whether the universal aero kit was necessary. I thought the freeze in aero kit development and subsequent engine developments by both manufactures had left the series at a state of equilibrium between the two manufactures. Since then, Chevrolet won six of the seven races prior to Watkins Glen and for the sixth consecutive season Chevrolet will have won more races than Honda.

I am the only one on the boat who enjoyed the aero kit-era. I loved the engineering struggle. I loved that one got it right and the other got it wrong. That is motorsports. I don't see it as a waste. Many thought and probably still do think the money used on aero kits should have been used on promotion of the series. The money never originally existed. It is not like Chevrolet and Honda each had $30 million to burn and decided to develop aero kits. The manufactures started developing aero kits and the project ended up costing $30 million. That was the cost to be competitive. Had aero kits never happened Chevrolet and Honda weren't going to pour $60 million into marketing the series. Hell, they wouldn't have poured in $6 million.

Think about aero kits in the same light as if you decided to re-design your own bathroom. You might have a budget but all of a sudden you need to different fixtures because the original ones you bought didn't fit the cabinet doors you bought or you need to get an extra case of tiles for the shower because a few were chipped or broken. You can't decide not to buy those things. You are going to want doorknobs on your cabinets. Those are things essential to a bathroom and you are going to have to spend on even if it means going over on the original budget. Aero kits were no different.

It wasn't perfect. What led to the downfall of aero kits, besides cost, was the manufacture ties to aero kits. Teams were stuck. You had to run what the manufactures provided. There was no independent option out for teams to choose and maybe IndyCar dropped the ball and should have regulated it so aero kit manufactures were independent from the engine manufactures and you could have seen two different aero kits on the Chevrolets and Hondas to mix up the grid.

It wasn't as bad as it seemed. Nothing changed in IndyCar. Chevrolet was the best manufacture in the first three years of the DW12-era and it was the best manufacture in the three years of the aero kit-era. IndyCar has still be an open series where any driver and team can win on any day. Take into consideration the number of different winners per season and number of different teams that won per season:

2012: Eight different drivers from five teams.
2013: Ten different drivers from seven teams.
2014: 11 different drivers from seven teams.
2015: Nine different drivers from seven teams.
2016: Eight different drivers from six teams.
2017: Ten different drivers from six teams and with one race remaining.

Take this year as the best example. Many thought Honda was going to get smoked this year and within the first seven races we had seven different winners, four of those winners were Hondas and those four winners came from four different teams and on top of all that the final Honda team to win this season was Chip Ganassi Racing.

Maybe the aero kit-era was something IndyCar had to go through. Consider what IndyCar will be debuting next year. Would the universal aero kit that drivers, teams and fans are excited about for 2018 exist if everyone had decided that aero kits should never see the light of day and everyone would stick with the original Dallara aero kit indefinitely? Probably not. Everyone would have probably reached a place of compliancy with the original Dallara aero kit and figured to stick with it because it wasn't broken. Consider that the ICONIC committee announcement was made on July 14, 2010. Next July 14th think about what will be on track, whether it be at Iowa or Toronto or somewhere else and ask yourself, would you be looking at that car if it hadn't been for what took place in the eight years prior? The answer is no.

There is a part of Tony Purnell's words from 2010 that stick with me and I wish came true and I wish could still come true. I really hoped aero kits would allow some guy or girl to take an idea, throw it at the wall, build it in a garage and take it to the race track and try something different. I think that was a lost opportunity of the last three years and it will continue to be a lost opportunity as long as the universal aero kit is around. I wish the door could be open for someone with a dream, a flicker of an idea to put something on a car at the Indianapolis 500 that has never been seen before and built in a barn and put up a time in qualifying that leaves the jaws of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi on the floor. Or at least has a respectable showing and qualifies in the top half of the grid.

Aero kits weren't all that bad but I think we all wish it could have been more.

Champions From the Weekend
Kyle Kasier won the Indy Lights championship by taking the green flag at Watkins Glen. He finished seventh and Aaron Telitz won the season finale.

Victor Franzoni won the Pro Mazda championship by sweeping the doubleheader at Watkins Glen.

Oliver Askew won the U.S. F2000 championship by finishing second at Watkins Glen to Rinus VeeKay in the finale.

The #8 Cadillac of Michael Cooper and Jordan Taylor Pirelli World Challenge SprintX championship at Circuit of the Americas with finishes of fourth, sixth and a retirement after one lap across the three races.

Lawson Aschenbach clinched the Pirelli World Challenge GTS Championship with two races to go after finishes of fifth and ninth from Circuit of the Americas.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Alexander Rossi, the Road to Indy and some of what happened from Austin but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Italian Grand Prix after he broke the record for pole positions in Formula One history when he picked up his 69th pole position.

Antonio Fuoco won the Formula Two feature race from Monza after Luca Ghiotto was handed a five-second penalty for exceeding track limits. Ghiotto would win the sprint race on Sunday. George Russell won the only GP3 Series race this weekend after the race on Saturday was cancelled due to rain.

The #2 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber won the 6 Hours of Mexico City, the team's third consecutive victory. The #31 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca-Gibson of Bruno Senna, Nicolas Prost and Julien Canal won in LMP2. The #95 Aston Martin of Marco Sørensen and Nicki Thiim won in GTE-Pro. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche of Christian Ried, Marvin Dienst and Matteo Cairoli won in GTE-Am, the team's second consecutive victory.

Denny Hamlin won the Southern 500 and the Grand National Series race from Darlington. Austin Cindric won the Truck race from Mosport after spinning Kaz Grala on the final lap.

The #58 Wright Motorsports Porsche of Patrick Long and Jörg Bergmeister won the make-up Pirelli World Challenge SprintX race held at Circuit of the Americas in place of the cancelled Mosport race. The #31 TR3 Racing Ferrari of Daniel Mancinelli and Niccolò Shirò won the Saturday SprintX race. The #2 CRP Racing Mercedes of Ryan Dalziel and Daniel Morad won the season finale of the SprintX season on Sunday.

Ian James and Rodrigo Baptiste split the Pirelli World Challenge GTS races from Austin.

Norbert Michelisz and Aurélien Panis split the TCR International races at Buriram.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR sets its Chase drivers once and for all at Richmond.
MotoGP returns to Italy with an Italian leading the championship at Misano.
DTM continues its slow death at the Nürburgring.
Super Formula will be at Autopolis.