Indycar vs. F1: A tale of two engines

What a difference an engine makes. Reading veteran journalist Gordon Kirby’s latest column for Motor Sport Magazine, I was reminded of just how disparate F1 and Indycar are. Sure, they are both open-wheel racing series but that’s, by some measure, where the similarities end.

F1 recently announced its plan to return to a 1.6-litre 4-cylinder turbo engine in 2013 while Indycar has taken a more robust road in their quest for more horsepower with a 2.4-litre twin turbo 6-cylinder specification. Both engines are to produce approximately 700-750 bhp with F1’s spec targeting 12,000 revs while Indycar’s lump will contain a boost button for oval versus road course work.

Two engines producing similar performance in two different series. If I’m honest, I would rather have seen F1 go with a twin turbo V6 instead of the 4-cylinder turbo but I understand that F1 and the FIA’s goal here is to lure manufacturers back into the sport and using a ubiquitous engine specification that many car makers are already producing is better bait than Indycar’s V6 option. While car makers are certainly still making V6 engines en mass, it is the 4-cylinder that seems to be the most cherished amongst several of the marques as they combine these with their hybrid technology. Weight and performance are key to a hybrid succeeding in the global market or not.

Indycar, as evidenced by Kirby’s story, is desperate to find horsepower in the series. Many drivers claim it is the missing element to exciting racing returning to the series but some drivers, such as Scotland’s Dario Franchitti, suggest that this isn’t the magic bullet that some may believe it is as he shared with Kirby:

“Having more power obviously makes the straights shorter so it’s harder to pass,” he observes. “That’s the downside. It’s easier to pass on tracks we’ve been going back to with today’s car that we used to race on with 900-1000bhp CART cars, because you get a longer draft with this car. With the CART cars the straight was over so quickly that you couldn’t make those passes.”

You’ll deduce from Franchitti’s statement that Indycar has its own “passing” struggles similar to those bemoaned in F1 and while more power is certainly desired from the Indycar camp, it is the ill effect of sweeping change Franchitti is prophetically speaking of that pragmatism is usually bereft of.

F1 has argued less wing and more ground effect to combat the wake left by a leading car which makes a trailing cars hopes of passing near impossible. It remains to be seen what Dallara’s new Indycar chassis will provide but suffice to say, F1 may have a better angle on this subject. Ultimately you can suggest it is a parallax at best and both series are looking at the same object from galactically different positions while the object remains the same.

How do we interpret the two approaches? Indycar is not wooing manufacturers as ardently as F1 and the use of a twin turbo V6 is purely intended to increase the value of the racing within the series. It is attempting to fix a wound that has been festering in the series for quite some time. To those ends, Indycar may be rounding the corner of tedious, wrist-cutting racing and I am the first to support that notion. I would love nothing better than to see Indycar rise from the flaming heap of ashes to return to its glory but I would be remiss in not mentioning that I am optimistically cautious.

As for F1? They have their own cross to bear in the goose chase that is exciting racing. Passing, aero-effect, downforce, power plants, weight, fuel, rubber compounds, money and politics will always be a part of the series and depending on which side of the coin you have chosen, it either marred the series irreparably or it is an exciting part of the machine that is F1.

If I juxtapose the two decisions, I sense that F1’s message is that to improve the F1 entertainment value, the series need serious participation from serious car manufacturers and will change their milieu in order to accommodate even the most persnickety of car makers in order to get their cash, engineering prowess and sponsors in the sport. This has been ignobly labeled as being “Green” and “technologicaly challenging”. A nice bow and ribbon on an otherwise brown paper box.

Indycar has chosen to shoe-gaze by seeking to suture the wound regardless if it is a car maker-friendly specification or not. It doesn’t seem as important that the V6 twin turbo may not be as ubiquitous of a specification as the 4-cylinder because what Indycar really needs is a power plant that fits their chassis and produces the horsepower they feel they need to improve the show. A noble cause but I would be shortsighted if I suggested there weren’t politics, money and manufacturer wooing involved as well.

And before we leave this notion, we also can assume F1’s rebuke could easily be argued that the V6 doesn’t allow room for the KERS unit and thus renders F1 less environmentally conscience and that is antithetical to their entire notion…it has nothing to do with wooing car makers. Sure, whatever. Maybe this story will help shed some light on where car makers are heading with subcompact, small engines and why F1 is seeing the trees, forest and all the peat moss in between.

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