Dallara’s DW-12: The New Cars and Engines Two Seasons In
Everyone knows that I have a conflicted history with Dallara’s DW-12. I was a supporter of Swift Engineering, and I still am. I later came around to aero kits, and those still have not appeared. A lot of time has passed since then. 2010 (when the car was selected) was four years ago; 2012 was two full seasons ago. The passage of time has allowed me to move on, and the two seasons have given me enough races to give what I believe is a fair assessment of what Indycar has developed.
The DW-12 is not a good looking car. It is not quite as ugly as some of the current F1 cars, but it is still an unattractive car. Time has not changed that. The sidepod and rear pods are still very unusual compared to most other race cars. They were part of an attempt to prevent wheel to wheel contact sending a car into the air. Whether that was successful or not remains an open question. The car still gets airborne, just in different ways than the old car did. Whether intentional or not the same elements which were designed to keep the car out of the air have helped improve the on track performance of the car. The new Indycar is able to handle some contact (especially side to side) which has allowed for closer and more exciting racing.
Overall the new car and engine package has been a major improvement for Indycar’s on track product. Indycar runs too many small, narrow, road and street courses. However the DW-12 is probably one of the best open wheel cars for those types of tracks. Unlike some I would not say all of the races are suddenly great or even good. But it is undeniable that races from Houston to Barber to Mid Ohio and Belle Isle are much better with the DW-12 than without it. Drivers can pass in places where in the old car they simply ran single file. I am really curious to see what would happen with the DW-12 on a better road course like Road America or Watkins Glen. Even Austin could be an interesting test of the current car’s true road racing potential.
I worried that the DW-12 would not be a good oval racing car. I worried that the emphasis on road and street courses would mean that too little development would go into the oval portion of the car. Luckily the current car is capable of producing great racing on the ovals. It all comes down to the downforce level allowed. With the right amount of downforce tracks like Indianapolis and Fontana have seen great races with an incredible amount of passing. On the other hand Texas and to a point Iowa have suffered from too low of downforce levels. Some prefer lower downforce for safety; some prefer it for the increased emphasis on car control. However as NASCAR has demonstrated time and time again, too little downforce on ovals and the racing becomes very spread out. Indycar’s last few races at Texas have shown that. If you want to avoid pack racing, the new car has returned to the era of draft and pass. Fear of pack racing is no defense for the horrific “racing” out of Texas. And the desire to take away downforce at the .75 mile track of Iowa is insane. I also am aware some do not like the draft and pass at Indy; I love it. I have watched a lot of very processional Indy 500’s from 2007-2010 so I am for anything that improves the racing. It is not like plate racing; setup and talent still matter. I really hope Indycar allows the 500 to continue to be one of the best ovals of the year and not return it to the state it was in during the end of the last car’s reign.
2012 saw more than just a new chassis. It also saw the introduction of new engines. Chevrolet, Honda, and Lotus joined with turbo-charged V6 engines. Lotus was a disaster which likely killed a number of teams. Chevrolet and Honda have both been successful, and mercifully very close to one another. The engines sound good (unlike the new F1 engines) and the fact is the old engine package had grown stale. Horsepower has steadily increased since 2012 and the lap times continue to fall. Rumor’s abound that Cosworth is planning on joining with an undisclosed automaker. Generally speaking the 2012 engine format has been successful.However it has had some major issues. Personally I think the engine limit is too restrictive. At least this year the 10 place starting position penalty for engine changes has gone away. The biggest issue with the engines involves the engine supply. Due to the way the rulebook was written a number of teams in 2012 were unable to get engines and thus disappeared. During the 2012 off season there was a belief that 28-31 cars would race full time in Indycar. Instead car count was between 25-26. 2013 saw a number of teams leave and 2014 has seen even more team and car loss. 2014 will see only 22 full time cars at the start of the season. This is the smallest field since 2009.
Related to car count issues have been the Indianapolis 500 issues. The new car and chassis package has made Indy one of the best races of the year. It has also resulted in a frantic race for 33 cars not seen since the era of the Split. Due to a combination of cost and availability getting 33-35 cars for the Indianapolis 500 has been a struggle. From Unification in 2008 through 2011 Indianapolis 500 fields grew. Their growth cumulated in 2011 with a number of Andretti cars missing the race. 2012 and beyond has seen this process reverse. There is hope that car counts, both for the season and the 500 will increase as time goes on, and there is also hope it will increase if and when another engine manufacturer joins. Until this happens the car count crisis has to go down as the most negative legacy of the new cars and engines.
2012 brought change into a stagnating Indycar. Much of the change was positive. Racing has overall improved across the board. The places where it has not dramatically improved are either tracks that are hopeless (RE: Infineon), or situations where the series has reduced downforce to levels which create terrible racing (RE: Texas). Other than that the new cars and engines have done their job in improving the racing. The changes have also brought unintended consequences which have drastically reduced car count. Although some want to ignore the problems, they are real and need to be addressed. Still after almost a decade of the old car and engine package, Indycar needed a change. While I still would have prefered Swift, the new cars and engines have worked well. They have improved the racing and appear fairly safe. Next year may (emphasize the word may) see the introduction of aero kits which have the potential to be a great thing and improve the cars looks, or be a disaster which ruins the parity and close competition the new car has created. Two seasons in and the new Indycar chassis and engine package is a drastic improvement from the past. Equally important is that it has gone over better than Formula One’s new engine package or the trainwreck that is NASCAR and the COT.