Panther Racing’s John Barnes discusses the DeltaWing proposal

IndyCar commentary — By on February 18, 2010 8:47 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

2012 that was the topic of conversation when Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes spoke with Planet-IRL recently.  Barnes has been onboard with the DeltaWing group since the middle of last season and has been an outspoken proponent of the concept since its public introduction on February 11th at the Chicago Auto Show.

He says that the first news of the DeltaWing project started making the rounds last year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May and continued to gain momentum throughout the summer.  Finally, at Motegi, all team owners were introduced to the concept, and most of them were immediately on board with the theories presented.  Barnes and many of his fellow team owners in the IZOD IndyCar Series paddock see the project as not only a way to shake up the current status quo but as essential to the success and future relevance of the IndyCar Series.  Such a radical change is seen by many in the paddock as a way to reach the younger viewers rather than presenting them with essentially the same cars that have been raced since the early 1970s.  Says Barnes, “Our success and whether we’re going to stay in business, in all motorsports, is determined by that 10-year old kid.  It’s not going to be determined the 40-year old looking at the computer.”  That isn’t to say that the League should turn its back on the current fan base but that the owners hope that reintroducing a period of innovation to the racing community will strike a chord with established and new fans alike.

In speaking of the car itself as it was presented in Chicago, Barnes says he understands that people are skeptical and is not surprised by the general negativity that the concept car has received from racing fans.  The same thing, he says, was said about the Cooper Climax that Colin Chapman and Sir Jack Brabham brought to Indianapolis in May 1961.  Soon though, what was mocked and ridiculed was accepted as the norm.  Barnes understands that human nature is to be skeptical of such a big change, especially when it is implemented in one setting, but his faith in Ben Bowlby’s genius puts his mind at ease.

Additionally, the car has been in computational fluid dynamic (CFD) simulations for 24 hours a day over the past several months.  The fact that the DeltaWing group actually presented a physical model of their ideas rather than just drawings and computer images puts them further down the development path than the proposals submitted to the Indy Racing League by Dallara, Swift and Lola.

In response to many fans concerns about the lack of open wheels, Barnes says that now is the time for that evolution to be accepted.  As he said, “IndyCar didn’t used to have wings, either.”  As the “person who has to pay for all our crashed [equipment],” Barnes is particularly excited about the decreased number of accidents that will result from reduced wheel interlock between cars.  Panther Racing currently has five Dallara IndyCar chassis in their inventory at a cost of approximately $800,000 each, plus roughly $1 million per entrant for a Honda engine lease.  For a new team to run a single entrant with a primary and a backup car, teams currently expect to spend roughly $2.6 million for just the car and engine lease.  That, of course, does not include any crash damage, tires, spare parts, etc.  A price tag of $3 million is more likely under the current system, with all prices subject to the rate set forth by Dallara.  Barnes says that the proposed DeltaWing car would cost roughly $600,000 for the car and engine and that the teams would own the engine.  More importantly, says Barnes, the prices of the car and all components of the car would be set by the engineering committee.

Of course, the DeltaWing group is proposing much more than just the radical car design.  The other major components of the concept are the open-source specifications and the aforementioned new engineering committee to determine the acceptance of individual car components.  With the new proposals, all technical specifications would be posted and made available to anybody interesting in designing a new part of the car — whether that part is a front nose cone, a halfshaft, or any other part.  The engineering committee, headed initially by Ben Bowlby himself, would be comprised of engineers from the teams and technical representatives from the IRL.  The committee would have the authority to accept the component submissions and would set the price for those components.  More importantly, the engineering committee would ensure that all teams have equal access to all parts.  No longer would we see a situation where Roger Penske spends millions of dollars to develop new mirror mounts or suspension pieces and race them exclusively on his cars.  If a piece is developed and approved by the engineering committee, all teams will be able to purchase the piece at the set price.

One particularly intriguing aspect of the concept is the applicability of a number of different types of engines.  Because the engine will not be a stressed component of the chassis, the DeltaWing group says that it can accept a variety of different engine types and all will be regulated by using an equal fuel flow rate.  The goal then is to get the greatest amount of energy out of a given amount of fuel.  Whether that comes from a V6 engine or a turbocharged inline-4 is up to the engine manufacturers to decide.  Barnes admitted that it would be possible for teams to own multiple engine variations and run them at different types of tracks (e.g. an turbo I4 on street courses and a V6 on longer ovals), though he would expect most teams to have marketing agreements with a particular engine manufacturer that would, in most likelihood, prevent that theory from becoming reality.  Nonetheless, if engine manufacturers see these engine specifications as relevant to their company’s goals, Barnes expects to see the manufacturers once again use IndyCar racing as a proving ground for their product, and with that comes increased marketing exposure for the League and its suppliers.

Understanding that many current IndyCar fans are skeptical of the proposed design, Barnes notes that it at least has people thinking about and focusing on IndyCar racing.  According to Barnes, on the day the car was presented at the Chicago Auto Show, the term DeltaWing was the 35th most-searched term on Google worldwide.  When, he asks, was the last time that has been said about anything related to IndyCar racing?  There are still hurdles to be cleared, but with the goal of having a prototype on track this fall, Barnes anticipates that a full catalog of parts should be available by fall 2011 for teams to test in preparation for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season.  With such time to develop parts for the DeltaWing, Barnes does not expect the 2012 season to start with an entire grid of identical cars and definitely thinks there will be alterations to the concept car unveiled last week.

Whether or not the Indy Racing League accepts the radical DeltaWing proposal or one of the more evolutionary designs from Dallara, Swift, or Lola, the ideas proposed by the DeltaWing group must be given some consideration and further evaluation.  The main focus of the new chassis is to significantly reduce the cost and make it easier for teams to participate financially.  Of course, as incoming Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard noted a few weeks ago, there are two ways to increase profits — increase revenue and decrease costs.  Decreasing costs helps in the short term, but long-term viability is based on increasing revenues.  For the next several years, the Indy Racing League will be in the unenviable position of needing to look at both short-term and long-term financial stability.  By making the IZOD IndyCar Series more relevant to today’s automotive industry and significantly reducing the cost of the cars, the DeltaWing group feels they have accomplished both.

Have they done it?  That answer isn’t clear yet.  But John Barnes feels the DeltaWing clearly represents the future of the racing machine.  “Did you see the trophy at last weekend’s Daytona 500?” Barnes asks.  “Enough said!”

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