It’s been roughly 10 years since there’s been full season chassis and engine battles in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
In 2005, teams had their choice of either Dallara or Panoz chassis, while Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota supplied engines.
With every passing year the element of variety on the technical side went away. Chevrolet and Toyota dropped out after 2005, and the Panoz chassis only ran part-time from 2006 until it faded completely in 2008.
Four years of single-spec racing followed, until the Dallara DW12 chassis was finally introduced for the 2012 season. Chevrolet also made its return too, and with Lotus also on board the series had reopened an element of technical variety of competition.
Lotus wasn’t long for the series, and so the last two years have seen the same chassis paired with either Chevrolet or Honda’s variant of their 2.2L V6 engines.
This year, it all changes with the most radical visual difference on an IndyCar in years.
As new INDYCAR president of competition and operations Derrick Walker put it in his first weekend on the job in Detroit 2013, “the infamous aero kits” finally make their race debut in 2015.
But will the kits – both of which GM and Honda wanted for brand differentiation and technical innovation, featuring hundreds of parts, albeit at a high cost in the millions – affect IndyCar’s best aspect of the last three years, the close racing and parity of competition?
Or will the kits only manage to increase the competition, while also providing a substantial visual difference?
The first battleground is at St. Petersburg this weekend for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix. The debut comes after two previous delays and years worth of buildup.
“When Chevrolet made the decision to come back into IndyCar or not, one of three things we looked for was the ability to design and engineer our own aero kit, so we can create differentiation from our competitors,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told MotorSportsTalk.
“That creates another element of the competition in addition to engine, teams and drivers. We’ve been working on it for quite a while; as you probably know, it got pushed back a couple times.
“Once you do an aero development, the more time you have, the more development work you do. The time we had from last race to beginning of the season, candidly, was just part of the longer development process. We didn’t waste a day. The competition is too intense.”
The competition to the Pratt & Miller-designed GM kit comes in the form of the Wirth Research-designed Honda Performance Development kit, which elicited a stronger and more evocative “look” response when unveiled earlier this month.
“We’re excited to reveal our aero kits as Honda welcomes this era of enhanced competition in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Art St. Cyr, president of HPD and vice president, auto operations, for American Honda said at the car’s launch.
“Coupled to our proven Honda Indy V6 engines, these aero kits are the products of literally thousands of hours of research, development and testing, as we seek to give our drivers and teams the tools they need to win races, the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship.”
Campbell stressed GM’s focus on an aero kit that provides the optimal combination of downforce, drag reduction and engine performance. HPD has stressed the aero element more so, having produced this kit on the back of its sports car programs its done over the years.
Simon Pagenaud, who’s renowned for his technical development and expertise, is a driver well versed to describe the aero kits. He had been a Honda IndyCar and sports car veteran, but now makes the move to the GM camp this year with Team Penske in a Chevrolet.
“There’s been a lot of evolution on the kit since I first tested at COTA,” Pagenaud told MotorSportsTalk. “The car already feels better and much faster; the first laps I turned, the laptime came quickly and we were already one second faster than the pole last year.
“The difference between the two should make it really exciting for the fans. It’s great for IndyCar, and it’s definitely a new era.”
Pagenaud said the unknown both in the aero kits and the engine development between both companies adds two additional storylines to the season.
His line about the fans, though, is the most important.
With an aging, graying demo as IndyCar’s primary fan base, it’s important the kits reach a newer and younger demographic.
The Honda kit in particular has made it to mainstream technical outlets Wired and Verge, which hits an audience newly exposed to IndyCar. In Wired’s case, it has more than 4.2 million Twitter followers – by comparison, IndyCar itself is in the 140K range.
The aero kits are risky, certainly, in terms of what they cost and what they’ll actually provide to the competitive landscape.
But for open-wheel racing, which has endured for more than a century, innovation and technical development was something it had to get back to by birthright.
And it would make a manufacturer’s championship all the more special, as Campbell alluded to.
“We’ve done a lot in the past, but focusing forward this year, it’s all history,” Campbell said. “If we could do it in a year where we provide the engine and aero kit, and partner with some excellent teams, it would be really special.”