Hey, everybody. I've been trapped under a rock, yet again, but I've managed to maneuver my arm out from under this thing just enough to operate the keyboard and mouse. Until I can get around to putting together some time to write up some very random thoughts from some days at the track that nobody's thought or cared about in almost a month now and until I can send up a flare to get a rescue party over here to get this boulder the rest of the way off of me, I've got a guest poster for everybody to enjoy. So now, ladies and germs, introducing my friend, occasional drinking buddy and longtime race-going companion Rick (and do not dare call him "The Rick", thank you very much, or you will be escored from the premises forthwith) with some thoughts about the next IndyCar. Enjoy.
Like most Indycar series fans, I have some opinions about the direction the upcoming formula should take. In short, I’m in favor of a radically different chassis powered by 4-cylinder turbocharged engines.
The engine formula must, first of all, attract one or more manufacturers to the series to assist with advertising, promotion, and development. At the same time, it must provide the chassis with sufficient power to achieve the desired performance (at or above current levels). Cost, durability, parity, and adjustability are other considerations.
In the current automotive market where fuel economy and emissions are key selling points, the four cylinder engine is experiencing a resurgence. Vehicles of all categories are or will be powered by four-cylinder engines, often with technologies like turbocharging and direct injection to assist efficiency and output. Indycar vehicles powered by similar engines give an immediate incentive for marketing and development. Even if the idea that modern race engine technology can actually relate to street car engines is laughable, the manufacturer can find immediate returns through marketing value and developer training.
Four cylinder engines offer the advantage of relative simplicity. Fewer cylinders means fewer pistons, rods, valves, and parts overall. Fewer parts translate directly into lower costs at all stages of the engine’s life, bringing value to every party involved. Simplicity and lower parts count also contribute to durability, which feeds back into the cost equation.
Many suggest that four-cylinder engines are inferior or undesirable. First, the value to a manufacturer that wants to change this perception would be considerable. Second, a shift to smaller engines could precipitate a marketable focus on efficiency and environmental concerns. Power levels of four cylinder engines should not be a concern (especially with turbocharging), as history is full of racing and street vehicles capable of impressive performance numbers with four-cylinders. Finally, the storied Offenhauser engine (owner of more than one quarter of all Indianapolis 500 wins) is a four cylinder engine. If a new engine is aesthetically similar, this could be a source for a heritage marketing campaign.
The primary advantage of turbocharging in this engine formula is power. A boosted engine’s output is largely dependent on manifold pressure. Even a small displacement engine is capable of very, very high power levels if pressure is sufficient. Further, this power level is adjustable. Engines of varying designs from different manufacturers could easily be equalized through management of their allowed boost pressure with the use of pop-off valves. Different power levels could also be specified for different types of tracks, again by managing allowed boost pressure.
I believe that an affordable manufacturer engine lease program is probably the best path to take. While individual engine builders may want to experiment and innovate to find an advantage, removing this possibility works to the advantage of all of the teams on the grid. Centralized test and rebuild services would keep prices for everyone down, and small teams would not have to be concerned with excessive costs, testing time, or being financially responsible for the destruction of an engine.