Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why DeltaWing is the Grand-Am Concept

Open-source.  Concept.  Design exercise.

These terms have been thrown around a lot in the last few weeks, as fans and the media have debated the DeltaWing's merits.  Sure, it looks funny, but what does it mean?  As I said last week, the most important question still unanswered about the DeltaWing is what the designers mean by "open."  Do they mean that chassis builders can build versions of their design that vary in small ways from the core vehicle?  Or do they mean that chassis builders can build cars to meet a loose set of criteria, with the resulting vehicles perhaps looking very different from Ben Bowlby's solution?  This question has not yet been directly put to the principles involved, but it has been hinted at.  While they stop short of answering the question, it is fairly clear to me that the answer is closer to the former than the latter.  I think they intend for the core design to be as shown, and builders can then modify that design within certain constraints, so the cars will definitely differ in appearance, while all retaining the core "rocket-ship" aesthetic.  If you think about it, this isn't that different from what IndyCar (and F1 for that matter) have had for the last twenty years.  Put a 1995 Reynard and Lola next to each other, and show them to a casual fan from 100 yards away.  See if he can tell you which is which.  He probably can't.  They're both sleek little missiles with sidepods and wings front and rear.  Sure, savvy fans can point out the differences, but the essence of both cars is the same - and that was the era of wide open chassis competition that so many fans claim they long for.  So let's take it as a given that the DeltaWing concept could offer at least that much variety on the grid.  Where, then, have we seen such a concept before, of cost-controlled racing with multiple chassis builders modifying a common design, with power controlled across multiple engine manufacturers?  Here.

For folks who don't follow Grand-Am road racing, here's an admittedly over-simplified explanation of how the Daytona Prototype class works.  Grand-Am has a core chassis concept that manufacturers can bid to build.  Every five years, Grand-Am revisits their licensing, and new builders can come in while existing builders can leave gracefully, sometimes by selling their license to build the chassis.  The cars all look fundamentally similar, with fairly subtle variations in the body skin that give different manufacturers (including Dallara and Lola, notably) slightly different running characteristics.  Grand-Am can maintain certain safety requirements and racing characteristics while allowing development and innovation in other areas and keep costs under control.  They maintain level competition across engine manufacturers by tweaking things like gearing and the common ECU.  This is different from Bowlby's plan to limit fuel flow, but the principle is the same - that multiple very different engines can compete on a level playing field.

Grand-Am has problems of its own, to be sure (Among them, some fans think the cars are ugly!), but they are in far better shape than ALMS, who are looking at average prototype grids of 1.25 cars (OK, I'm exaggerating there a bit).  So while nobody with DeltaWing has answered the question fully, I think this is one model we can look at when considering what a DeltaWing-era IndyCar Series might look like.

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