An interview with Bruce Ashmore

IndyCar commentary, Interviews — By on April 6, 2010 1:37 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

Paul and I recently had the privilege of speaking with Bruce Ashmore, one of the principals behind the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series concept put forth by the BAT Project (in partnership with Alan Mertens and Tim Waldrop).  Mr. Ashmore has been designing championship-winning open-wheel race cars for more than two decades, including long stints with Lola and Reynard.  He provided insight on the key focus of his group’s design submission as well as an experienced and frank comparison with the DeltaWing concept that adds in-depth fodder to the discussion.

When asked about the main philosophies that are driving the BAT concept, Ashmore gets right to the point.  “We felt that there wasn’t a proposal out there that was really addressing the basic concept of what [the IZOD IndyCar Series] needed,” he begins.  “We need a car that’s going to put on a better show, put on a better race, but we need to be focused on the safety of the driver first and foremost.  So, we started off with the driver compartment, and we want it so that it doesn’t matter what type of crash the car has, the driver steps away from it.”

With driver safety being a key component of the IICS’s stated goals for its new car design, the BAT group’s singular focus on it is difficult to ignore.  And when it came time to decide who to talk to regarding safety matters, Ashmore knew exactly who to consult.  “[Dr.] Terry [Trammell] was the first guy we met with,” he reveals.  “As we designed the cars to beat the other cars over the years — Lola versus March versus Penske and Reynard — we strove to build a safer race car than the last one, but our push, if you like, was always for performance, and the safety really took a bit of a back seat.  So, the first thing we did was we met with Terry.  He’s fixed a lot of the drivers that driven the cars I’ve designed over the years, so I knew he’s the best guy to talk to.  And he’s very passionate about where the driver should sit and what shape the feet should fit in.  So, we sat down with him and mapped out what the driver compartment should look like, the angle of the drivers, feet back, the padding under his butt, the base of his spine, and laid that out so that when you look at our design, it starts off with the driver better positioned and then we go out from there.”

It’s an interesting point that chassis competition has driven improvements in performance while sometimes allowing driver safety to become less of a priority.  “The whole spec car versus competition car question is something that really fascinates me,” Ashmore admits.  “When you’ve got a competition arena and you’ve got two or three manufacturers racing against each other, the driver safety and the show always comes secondary to the competition, and obsolescence is the name of the game because that’s how we as race car constructors make money.  I think the point is really that the spec car as we know it, they’re left over from old competition cars, and the car has never been designed as a race car to put on a show.  If it’s a spec car or a car that’s designed for that series, you can put a lot more emphasis on the driver’s safety than ordinarily you would do.”

However, Ashmore adds that having a spec car doesn’t necessarily preclude the idea of opening certain areas of the car up for individual team development.  “I think initially you probably don’t want to do that because there’s going to be quite an expense for all of the teams to upgrade to the new, to switch from what they’ve got now to the new car, so you probably need to lock in the rules for a couple of years and be quite stringent and tight in a similar way to what they’re doing now with the Dallara.  But then, as the economy picks up, maybe you open up different areas of the car so that the teams will develop it.”

With that aspect of the proposal established, what does the BAT group have in mind for engine specifications?  “I rather suspect it’s going to be a V6 twin turbo,” Ashmore says, “and to me that makes the most sense.  The turbo engine is adjustable in horsepower, so anywhere from 400, say, to 750, 800 horsepower, which is what you need to put on a good show from a street track all the way to a Texas-type racetrack.  V6 makes sense because you need a stressed engine.  Having a horrendous crash at Indianapolis or Texas, you need the car to hold together, and the only way to do that is a stressed member — a straight four-cylinder just doesn’t have enough inherent size to it.”

This philosophy puts the BAT concept in direct and stark contrast to the DeltaWing project.  How is it that there are two groups of highly experienced and knowledgeable engineers telling us that we need completely different things out of the next generation of IndyCar?  “We as engineers are going to come up with a solution for what we think is right,” Ashmore responds.  “Ben [Bowlby] obviously believes he’s right, and it’s a very interesting concept.  I think it’s too far.  It’s not really relevant, having a three-legged stool at a racetrack.  Cars have four wheels, and that’s inherently stable.  I think 2012, 2015, is really too early to get a concept like that working and reliable, to have 33 cars at the Indy 500, but I’d love to see it somewhere.  I think it’s just too big of a step.”

But we’re being told that larger, higher-powered engines aren’t relevant to today’s road car industry, which is moving toward compactness and efficiency.  Ashmore disagrees.  “We live in America, so if you just take it from a marketing standpoint, there are so many V8 engines in this country that, in the next 20 years, all those engines are going to get replaced with V6s before they get replaced with an I4.  It’s a completely different situation in Europe where we drive shorter distances, where we want a car that’s nimble, accelerates, drives in the rain.  In America, we carry more passengers, more people, tow more things – you need a bigger engine.  200,000 miles is pretty typical from an American car, where an English car is pretty much worn out when it’s done about 80,000 miles.  So, if you take a marketing standpoint, then a V6 makes sense, and let the Europeans develop the I4.

“And the relevance to road cars — electronics, we can develop that.  I think start introducing the KERS device and things like that.  Energy recovery systems, I think things like that in the future are really good and will play a big part in road car development.  But I think to have a car that’s relevant to developing road car engines — I don’t know, is that really the point in what we’re doing?  I think we’re in the entertainment business, and I don’t think we should forget that.”

And what about the issue of stressed versus non-stressed engines?  “It’s really a case of inherent strength.  Around the engine, you’ve got a lot of systems.  You have exhaust systems, wiring, you’ve got the chassis and the gearbox, and then you’re going to slam this thing against the wall at 230 miles an hour, and you don’t want any of the broken bits to fly through the fence and hit the crowd.  So, you need something that is going to hold together.  We’ve been through the non-stressed engine arena.  We went through that to develop what we’ve got now, and there’s a lot of reasons — more than just, as I say, crash integrity.  You’ve got to take that into account.”

Of course, there’s also the possibility that this entire discussion may be moot, or at least premature, given recent discussion around delaying the decision on a new car until 2013 or later.  “I think that would be a real shame,” Ashmore opines.  “We’ve been promised a new car 2010, ‘11, now ‘12.  To move it back to 2013, I think that would be so sad.  We know IndyCar has got a lot of press and a lot of following now, and I’m sure — in fact, I’ve spoken to several people — there are teams that are waiting to come in, and those teams will come in when there’s a new car.  If you delay it another year, they will delay coming in another year.  Nobody’s going to buy a new car of the current era knowing it’ll be obsolete in a year from now.”

But what about those who are saying that 2012 won’t give the manufacturers enough time?  “I think there’s plenty of time to get the cars built.  If a decision’s made in June 2010 and then to have all the new cars on the grid in 2012, we used to do that whole thing in about eight months, and now you’ll be giving them a year and eight months.  So, there’s plenty of time to get the cars built, and there’s plenty of time to develop.  Now that you’ve got this momentum going, I think it’d be really sad if it all gets pushed back another year.”

Then let the discussion continue.  With that June 2010 deadline looming large and the ICONIC Committee rapidly taking shape, the key players would be wise to ensure their voices are heard.

To hear the interview in its entirety, click here.

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