CHAMPCAR/CART: Cosworth, Team Rahal on slowing the cars

Over the last few years, CART has worked with its teams and manufacturers to try and identify ways to slow the racecars in an effort both to make its racing safer and enhance the level of competition. Bruce Wood, Cosworth Racing's CART Program ...

Over the last few years, CART has worked with its teams and manufacturers to try and identify ways to slow the racecars in an effort both to make its racing safer and enhance the level of competition. Bruce Wood, Cosworth Racing's CART Program Manager, and Ray Leto, Team Rahal's Technical Director, share their thoughts and ideas on progress that the FedEx Championship series has made in this endeavor.

DO YOU THINK THERE IS A NEED TO SLOW THE CARS DOWN?

BRUCE WOOD - CART Program Manager, Cosworth Racing - "It's a difficult question because the reality is that during the season we'll run 240 (miles per hour) when we get to the superspeedways, and that's frighteningly fast. Equally, it's true that if you're going to have an accident at 230 it's going to be pretty bad as well, so there's certainly an argument that says you're beyond the speed that any accident will be small. But I think we do still need to slow the cars down because there are a lot of other influences, as we saw at Texas. The drivers' physical capability to control the car can diminish at a certain point, so I think we need to make sure we stay ... there are some hard and fast levels that you shouldn't exceed, and I think we need to make sure we stay below those levels."

RAY LETO - Technical Director, Team Rahal - "Yeah, I think there is. Most likely the first reason people would say is safety, for both the drivers and the fans. But I don't necessarily see the speed being the problem. The equipment is up to it, but it's just a matter of what happens when something goes wrong. So, yes, I think we can have good racing at a lower speed."

WHAT'S THE FIRST THING YOU'D CHANGE IN ORDER TO SLOW THE CARS DOWN?

WOOD - "While it pains me to say it because I know we're the ones who are going to carry the burden of it, but I think reducing horsepower is the way to go. I'm not an aerodynamicist, but I don't feel you can mess around with the aerodynamics and the mechanical grip without dramatically changing the handling or the stability of the car, which could make the racing either dull or dangerous. The one thing you can do and know exactly what the result will be without months and months of testing and aerodynamic wind tunnel simulations is to reduce the engine power. Anything else you do to the car, I think, would present too many variables. You might achieve what you set out to, but you also might achieve all sorts of unpleasant side effects as well. So, in the long term, trimming engine power is the way forward. However, there are some 'fixes,' like a sonic orifice or any of those kind of things, that are unpalatable to the engine companies. We want to be presented with a challenge just as the drivers do, so none of the manufacturers want a rev limiter or sonic orifice which caps what we're able to do. Although the engine manufacturers would probably be the ones burdened with the costs of doing a new engine, I think we all agree that losing power is the only safe, sensible way to reduce the car speeds. But it's got to be done methodically and sensibly because we don't want any 'band-aids' - we want an engine that's specifically designed to achieve certain performance levels and not something that's strapped on to restrict the formula. The only thing I see that we could do to restrict horsepower with the existing formula would be to take the boost down to 34 inches, which is the plan for next year."

LETO - "It depends on what type of track you're talking about, but I think for the fast tracks like Fontana, Michigan, Texas and places like that, it's really horsepower and drag, so in my mind we've got to change one of those variables. You can slow the cars down a little bit by taking away downforce from the cars, but we've taken away quite a bit of grip over the last three or four years with blockers on the underwing and the Handford Devices. Then Goodyear left the series, which left Firestone as the only tire manufacturer, and they have made harder tires for us to use. But all of these things together have progressively taken away grip, and it's slowed the cars down just a little bit because the engineers and designers of the cars have pretty much made up that difference so you're left with a pretty small reduction. Another small step has been the reduction of horsepower over the last couple of years. I see it as you need to reduce either the horsepower or the drag, and logically it comes down to horsepower being the easiest thing to change. It's not the easiest thing to do overnight, maybe not even for next year because you're talking about quite an expensive part of the car. You're talking about redoing something that people have a lot of time and money invested in. It's a tough call to change the engine rules to 200 less horsepower because the manufacturers will develop that back up to maybe not where they are now, but at least you'll take a big cut out of the speeds. Another way to slow the cars would be to adopt Formula One's grooved tires to try and take some grip out of the car. I'm not sure that that has been successful or not because I don't know if that was truly successful in slowing the cars down. They also narrowed the track width of the cars to slow them down, which initially did something they didn't expect. A lot of people come with these ideas that are supposedly the one thing to do, but narrowing the track width slowed the cars down a little bit in the middle of the corner but made them faster down the straightaways so there's always a tradeoff in everything you do."

IS THERE ANY ROOM LEFT TO MANIPULATE THE AERODYNAMICS OF THE CHAMP CARS BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO UPSET THE WHOLE FORMULA?

LETO - "With these spec wings we're running, my personal opinion would be to see more of a real wing instead of a spoiled parachute that we're running right now. It would probably make for a little bit better racing, but the problem is that with a regular wing you would really reduce the drag and we would achieve faster top speeds. So I understand the reason why they're on there, which is to counteract the horsepower increases that we've had over the last couple of years. It's a tough deal. Aerodynamically beyond that, yeah, there's ways to take downforce off but it would make the cars quite unstable. You might remember three years ago when we ran the superspeedway wing package or what was the superspeedway package before the Handford Device, at Nazareth and it was pretty scary for some of the drivers. It was right on the edge, which is not to say that that's a bad thing because you're putting the challenge on the drivers to control a twitchy car. Doing that however, doesn't leave them a lot of margin for error, so I would make the argument that that's not really a safer way. It's a more challenging way to race, but it may not be a safer way. Going slow that way with an unstable car may be more dangerous than running faster with a very stable car, but these are debates that I don't have a definite opinion on."

WHILE EVERYBODY RECOGNIZES THE FACT THAT THE CARS NEED TO BE SLOWED ON THE SUPERSPEEDWAYS, DO THEY NEED TO BE SLOWED ON THE ROAD AND STREET COURSES AS WELL?

WOOD - "Certainly that is a problem, although I'm not sure how much of a problem. You only need to go back, say five years when we only had 720 or 750 horsepower, and I think that racing on the road and street circuits was just as good then as it is now. Our road and street course racing has always been very good and I think that if you went back to a power level of 700 or 750 horsepower, you'd still have very good road racing while also reducing the speeds on the superspeedways, which I think is a reasonable solution. We do have a need to slow the cars down on ovals, but on the road courses I don't think so as much."

LETO - "I think our cars are really good on the road courses - they're fast and I don't see anything wrong with that. If we look at the superspeedways, unquestionably we could have a good race at 215, 220 or 225 miles per hour. We don't need to be going 240 in qualifying and 230 in the race. The races are typically slower than the qualifying speeds because everybody is pulling out all the stops with big qualifying motors and tweaks that you'd never run in a race. To make the car last 500 miles you have to take care of it, so the lap speeds in a race are usually five to 10 miles an hour slower than during qualifying. But I still agree that we could have better, or just as good, racing at 220 as we do at 230 and it might be safer, but in order to do that I think it still comes back to horsepower. On the other tracks, maybe we don't need to be taking away too much horsepower. If we just took horsepower away from the cars on the road circuits, they certainly wouldn't be as challenging to drive, so we'd have to do something to compensate that to keep them on the edge. As a series though, I think we have to watch out when you slow yourself down because with Indy Lights or other people running the same weekend, we (CART) still have to be the fastest cars on the racetrack."

SO YOU FEEL THAT THE ONLY WAY TO REDUCE THE SPEEDS OF THE CARS ON THE SUPERSPEEDWAYS AND NOT ON THE ROAD COURSES IS THROUGH THE REDUCTION OF HORSEPOWER?

LETO - "Yeah, and I think we kind of saw that a few years back when we were running two boost limits - 40 inches on the superspeedways and 45 inches everywhere else. But you add a lot of expense and everybody is always worried about how much money we're going to spend. What you don't want to have within one series is two specs of engines or anything like that because it's expensive. That being said, we already have four or five specs of cars we run - superspeedway cars, short oval cars, medium-speed oval cars, road course cars and street course cars, which are all slightly different. We basically have three aero packages we run and have mechanical setups that go with all of them, so we're already spending a lot of money that way to optimize the car for each track. But one way to look at it is to do something like a Handford Device or a lower boost limit or something just for these tracks that we think are too fast."

THE IDEA OF SLOWING RACECARS DOWN IS SOMETHING THAT'S BEING SEEN IN SEVERAL DIFFERENT SERIES AROUND THE WORLD, INCLUDING CART, NASCAR AND FORMULA ONE. IS THERE SOME COMMONALITY AMONG THESE SERIES? IS THE TECHNOLOGY PROGRESSING TOO QUICKLY? IS THIS A RECENT PHENOMENON?

LETO - "Well, over the last 10 years this has been fairly progressive and I think without the checks and the rules it would be extremely fast. And yeah, it's the technology. There's more money in the sport, there's more people in the sport, there's more technology in the sport and that's what we get hired to do - go faster. And there's been a big surge in motorsports in this country between NASCAR, CART, IRL and Formula One. All of these series have enjoyed a pretty good boom over the last 10 years, which has brought a lot of money and effort into the sport to go as fast as we can. Tire competition, engine manufacturers getting involved, car companies getting involved and throwing big money behind their programs has really pushed it to the limit. So yeah, it's common among all of these series. You see it with NASCAR trying the restrictor plates and roof spoilers and roof flaps and everybody is fighting the same things for the same reasons, so it's a challenge."

IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE EASIEST AND LEAST OBTRUSIVE WAYS TO SLOW DOWN THE CARS IN CART?

WOOD - "As much as I almost hate to say it, I think the argument for reducing engine power is the safest method. Whatever you do to the car aerodynamically, either by adding more drag or reducing downforce, it is very difficult to get an accurate picture of what it's going to do to the cars in a race situation. Obviously, we went to Texas thinking that we'd done enough things to make the cars slower, but in the end they weren't. And some of the problems we saw at Texas only became apparent after extended periods of running, which we didn't do when we were testing. I think it's very difficult to simulate any aerodynamic or chassis changes on a car without actually holding a race, so I think that puts the ball too much in the corner of the drivers. For us to trim 20 percent of the downforce and put on another 20 percent of drag puts the drivers in the position of guinea pigs that have to go out there and see if the thing is safely controllable in traffic. Until you've done 10 races in traffic, you can't ever protect yourself from that weird situation where somebody cuts across the front of your nose or whatever. If you take 200 horsepower out of the engines, they are definitely going to go slower. You don't change the stability or the handling of the car in any way, shape or form; you simply make it slower. If you were going to start from a clean sheet of paper and design a new car, I think it might be different because you might design it with narrower tires or whatever. But starting from where we are today, I think the safest thing to change is to reduce engine power. Again, if you put grooved tires on or make the cars narrower, you've got to do a lot of testing to prove that you really haven't introduced some other unsafe situation. Engine power is the thing to address, and the only two ways to do that in the CART series at the moment while leaving the series healthy for the manufacturers is boost reduction to 34 inches, which is consistent to what Ford and Cosworth have said since the beginning. When Bobby (Rahal) asked us to bring the power down last year, we (Ford-Cosworth) lobbied quite hard to just go straight to 34 inches with the belief that 37 inches would be too small a change. And since we're already going to go through the upheaval, let's just do it once and be done with it. Unfortunately, we were in the minority with our desire to go straight to 34 (inches), so in the end the only compromise we could agree upon with the other manufacturers was to go to 37. I guess the thing that we're looking at now is the confirmation that we should've gone to 34. For the slightly longer term, reducing the capacity of the engine would be the only other way forward. There's no doubt that if you take 500 cc's out of the engines they'll lose a significant amount of power."

IS THE REDUCTION OF BOOST WITH THE CURRENT ENGINE FORMULA JUST A SHORT TERM SOLUTION? IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG FOR THE MANUFACTURERS TO RECOUP THE HORSEPOWER THAT WAS LOST THROUGH THE REDUCTION IN BOOST THIS SEASON.

WOOD - "It is true that with the current formula we have made up most of the lost horsepower. Equally, if you look across at other formulas, Formula One for example, they've had stability in the engine rules for about six years and power hasn't improved in the same fashion. What happened this winter is atypical, and if you look across other formulas, Formula One in particular, they haven't made the same kind of strides forward on a year by year basis. I do believe that wherever we go in the future, we do need some mechanism by which we can address the ever-escalating power because you're right - whatever we do in two years time, we'll have more power. I think we should consider a way of maintaining power in the future, which might be capacity reduction. I think we all as manufacturers pretty much agreed that we could live with a 250 cc per year reduction in capacity. We could still develop engines that would last two or three seasons and it would be very difficult to claw back power that you'd taken away with the capacity reduction."

DOES THIS PUT MORE IMPORTANCE ON WHAT THE NEW ENGINE FORMULA WILL BE?

WOOD - "It's a very important part of it, that's for sure. Whatever we do in the future, we need to be conscious of that fact that we don't want to put ourselves in the position where we simply can't slow the cars down. I think there are other mechanisms for slowing the cars down, such as aerodynamic and mechanical changes, as well as tire grip, but they require far more in-depth testing to be sure they're safer than just reducing power does. Every time you take power off the engine you know exactly what the effect is going to be, whereas anything aerodynamically or grip-wise you never quite know what the overall effect will be."

IS THERE A CHANCE THAT, IF YOU TINKER WITH THE CARS TOO MUCH, IT MIGHT MAKE THEM TOO EASY TO DRIVE?

WOOD - "For sure. From a horsepower point of view, you want to have a power level that challenges the driver to control it. At the end of the day it's all about putting on a show and people want to be able to see who's the best driver. At Nazareth, while it was a good show, Kenny Brack was the only guy passing anybody. He made loads of passes and made it exciting for the fans, but if you made the car and engine combination such that everybody could do that, well, it makes it kind of dull really. Michigan provides some of the most exciting racing that we see, but as far as competition, I don't think it's very good competition because it's pretty much whomever ends up in front on the last lap, or at least who's in position to pass coming out of the last corner. I admit that it makes good spectacle, but the actual competition at those races isn't so good anymore, so it's a very difficult balance. But I certainly don't think taking 150 horsepower off the cars is going to damage the show on the road courses, and it will bring the speeds down by 10 to 20 miles per hour on the superspeedways, which can only be a step in the right direction."

DO YOU THINK THAT IN SOME CASES THE CARS HAVE "OUTGROWN" THE TRACKS THEY RUN ON? THERE ARE MANY INSTANCES, SUCH AS MILWAUKEE AND INDIANAPOLIS, WHERE THE TRACKS WERE BUILT CLOSE TO 100 YEARS AGO.

WOOD - "I think that is a valid point, and tracks do need to be designed around the vehicles that are going to use them. You mentioned Milwaukee, and I'm sure that the founding fathers that built Milwaukee could never have imagined that we'd be going there with cars that run close to 200 miles per hour. So I think there is a lot of truth in that. In years past, all types of cars could run at the same circuit. Pretty much everybody has raced at Phoenix - stock cars, IRL, Champ Cars, Silver Crown, everything has been there, and I think the days when that could happen are numbered. I believe the Winston Cup race at Texas is considered one of the best races for NASCAR, but the track is just not suitable right now for our kind of cars. Probably in the future it will be necessary to design tracks tailored to one type of car because it will be very difficult to make a track that will accommodate everything."

-Ford Racing

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Kenny Brack