Wednesday, February 10, 2010

DeltaWing Indy Car Prototype

Check out the car in the photo to the right. If engineer Ben Bowlby has his way, the cars racing in the Indianapolis 500 will look a lot like the car below. The DeltaWing prototype car made its debut as a full-size mock-up today at the Chicago Auto Show.

While the car may look like futurism run wild, it is a serious design intended to reverse a two decade long slump in the Indy Car series. I'm an Indianapolis native and a big fan of the Indianapolis 500, and Indycar racing in general, but even I acknowledge that change is way overdue in the basic Indycar formula.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway was founded not to host a big annual race, but to be a testing ground for real world automotive technology. For nearly three quarters of a century technology from Indianapolis has made its way into daily drivers, starting with the rear-view mirror, an innovation from the first Indianapolis 500.

In the mid 1990s, technology reached the point where the cars couldn't get any faster without unduly endangering the drivers and spectators. You could change the cars all you wanted, but the g-forces on the drivers wouldn't change. At Indianapolis, the drivers hit a physiological wall at about 230 mph. When the cars got that fast, the focus switched from innovation to ensuring driver safety. Once they realized the cars couldn't go any faster, they focused on controlling costs. The car designs were basically frozen, and even though the actual racing was as good or better than ever, the lack of continuing change quite frankly made the series less interesting. (Incidentally NASCAR faced a lot of the same problems just a little bit later. Nascar's "car of tomorrow" was an attempt to address them. There are some signs that the fans haven't been too keen on the changes.)

The DeltaWing concept is the most focused effort that I've seen so far to reverse this trend. The goal was to make the cars safer, cheaper, more interesting, and more relevant to current automotive engineering issues. The DeltaWing concept addresses all of these goals head on.

The photo to the right comes from DeltaWing Racing itself. The best coverage of the Chicago unveiling that I could find was by the good folks at Jalopnik.

I wish the folks at Deltawing good luck, but I don't think Indycar should standardize on any single futuristic prototype. Instead, I think they should have a prototype series, and let all of the contenders fight it out. I think Indycar should go further, and every 5-years or so come out with an engineering challenge setting out the technical specifications for the next generation of cars. The testing would make weekdays in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway interesting again. The engineering challenges would draw more active support by world automakers and component companies.

Below is a Youtube video of a simulated Deltawing race at Mid Ohio.

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