Coming to grips with CART's HP dilemma

 by Mark Cipolloni
July 23, 2000

CART has a dilemma. Their Champ Cars make too much HP for ovals, yet just the right amount for road courses.   The racing show on ovals is suffering because the aerodynamic band-aides needed to slow the cars make them unsettled. Yet on road courses the 'show' is better than it has ever been. The engine manufacturers may leave CART if they go to a technology restricted formula such as what NASCAR and the IRL use.  What is CART to do?  Read and find out.

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This problem CART is faced with, their race engines making too much horsepower, is not new.  Engineers have always found ways to make cars go faster, and the sanctioning bodies have always had to change the rules to slow the cars down.  Race track safety has not changed very much, especially oval track safety.  Concrete walls 50 years ago were just as unforgiving as they are today.  Letting speeds escalate out of control is out of the question.

This problem CART faces would not be a problem at all if the cars only raced on road courses.  It's a problem because Champ Cars race on such a wide variety of circuits - streets, small ovals, superspeedways, and natural terrain road courses. Champ Cars do not have too much HP for road courses and street circuits.  However, CART wants to be able to say their drivers are the most versatile in the world so oval tack racing isn't likely to go away anytime soon.  Some would argue that oval track racing is part of CART and Indy Car racings heritage, yet attendance on race day doesn't seem to support that argument.

To slow the cars on the oval tracks, CART has had to implement aerodynamic changes to the cars that have resulted in turbulence behind the lead car.  This turbulence prevents the car trying to pass from getting close enough to make a pass, leading to more single file racing.  Because of NASCAR, Americans have come to expect close side-by-side racing, something open wheel Indy Car style racing has never really delivered, CART's Michigan and Fontana races, and the IRL's Texas race being the notable exceptions.

The drivers position

Almost to the man, every CART driver thinks HP is too high on the ovals, yet they feel on the road courses it is just about right.  That fact seems supported when you look at the weight to HP ratio of a F1 car vs. a Champ Car (Drivers weight included).  

F-1: 825 HP/1323 Lb. = 0.623 HP/Lb.
CART: 900 HP/1700 Lb. = 0.529 HP/Lb.

Clearly when one looks at road courses, Champ Cars do not have too much power, in fact they are underpowered compared to a F-1 car. As many drivers said in Cleveland, "we don't have too much power for road and street circuits". Taking up to 200 HP out of these cars next year for road and street circuits would put Champ cars at 0.411 HP/Lb. or 66% of a F-1 car and somewhere around that of an IRL car. The problem lies with the ovals, 900 HP is deemed to be too much. 

Some cars are hitting 250 mph in the draft at the end of the back straight at Michigan this year.  The drivers think that is too fast.  The concrete walls are too unforgiving should something go wrong.  Until a soft wall technology can be deployed it seems prudent to keep the speeds in check to a certain degree.

They want something done to improve the 'show', and they want it done quickly.  The drivers want the aerodynamics changed to where they were two years ago so they can race closer.  To do that CART must cut HP at the same time.

The engine manufacturers position

CART's current 2.65 liter turbo engine has served them well.  However, it's time for a new breed.
(Click on any photo to see enlargement)

Near term - Current regulations limit the Champ car engines to 40 in. of boost. We are told absolute atmospheric pressure is 29.5 to 30 in. The short term proposal put forth is to limit the engines to 34 or 35 in. of boost for 2001 and 2002. That will knock about 130 HP off of the current engines and can be implemented with the least amount of cost. The new electronic pop-off valves are accurate enough to control boost at those levels. This is in lieu of trying to restrict the intake or the exhaust.

The manufacturers are against an orifice type engine air restrictor as that would limit RPM's to 12,000 to 13,000.  They were at that level years ago.  When you restict the amount of air an engine can pull in, you restrict how many RPM an engine can turn. An internal combustion engine is basically an air pump.  In outer space where there is no air, they don't work.  A low-RPM engine would not be technically challenging to their engineers and they have flatly stated in this weekend's Manufacturers Forum at Michigan - they are in CART for two reasons, 1) the technology challenge and the training of their personnel to compete at the highest levels, i.e. to push the limits of their imagination; 2) and selling products.

The manufacturers all feel that just reducing HP alone won't improve the racing; aerodynamics must be changed too and that is what CART is looking at.  Since CART is likely to have a whole new engine formula starting in 2003, the manufacturer's don't want to make major changes to their engine designs to accommodate orifice restricted intakes, when in two years they may be obsolete.

Honda (Robert Clarke)

  • Reducing power will not guarantee better quality racing, Wings, tires - the entire package has to be considered, not just the engines. Honda is very supportive of the series. We wouldn't be here if we didn't believe in it. But having said that, we feel CART's thinking of reducing power on short notice as they're suggesting is very irrational and irresponsible. To impose that would require us to react within 3 1/2 months' time. There's a stability rule in CART for just that reason.

  • I voiced very clearly to Andrew Craig (former CART CEO) and Kirk (Russell, chief steward and tech director) and Bobby (Rahal) that CART needs a long-term business plan that any large company would have.  It has to include technical rules, the marketing plan, the tracks you run on -- every possible aspect of this series.  CART needs to look at where they are today and where they need to be in the future. But we haven't seen anything that closely resembles that type of plan.

  • Quality racing will enhance viewership. This is not necessarily accomplished by reducing horsepower alone. 

  • Honda feels that the technology in this series isn't meant to translate to the street car. Instead it is a training ground for the engineers. This program motivates them to think differently. 

  • It does help sell cars when Honda beats Toyota, Ford, et al.  We want the competition to remain.

M-B (Paul Ray)

  • We fought very hard with CART for a stability rule," "Now we have one that CART seems totally willing to ignore."

  • We opened the year with a new engine and a 24 month plan. Reducing the horsepower would be a "huge headache". 

  • We want CART to uphold the stability rule.

  • We doubt that reducing HP will improve ratings or get people in the seats.

Toyota (Jim Aust)

  • The easiest thing is to leave the formula the way it is.  Obviously, it costs money to change. In support of the series and from Toyota's perspective, getting fans in the seats and a TV audience is of the utmost importance. Whether reducing to 700 horsepower is the answer, I don't think any of us know. But if it is seen as important, then Toyota is in support of that.

  • Toyota will support CART's efforts to get people in the stands and higher ratings.

Ford (Bruce Wood)

  • We need to see the racing get better. No one...really knows that reducing power alone will get us back to where we need to be. Reducing power as part of a package of other things might get us back there. That will require a commitment from all of us to do it. If we could feel comfortable that it really will get the viewership up, then we'll be supportive of that. We need a little more information from CART to feel really comfortable enough to make that decision."

  • The one thing on which all four engine manufacturer reps agreed was that CART should go forward with all due speed in implementing the much-discussed plans for a 1.8-litre engine, with 55" of boost for the 2003 season.

  • We all expect something new in 2003. "Dropping the boost to 34" (from the current 40"), coupled with the elimination of the Handford MkII on the short ovals, might see us through the next two years. It won't break the bank and it MAY help the series, although I say that fully recognizing that each of the manufacturers looks at this from a slightly different perspective.

  • In our case, we could do that while using the same fundamental engine. Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, is in a rebuilding year and it would be more of a hardship for them, which is a fair point. "I still feel the 1.8-litre, 55" of boost (formula) is the way to go. We've all spent years developing boost control technology and we'd been reluctant to throw that in the bin."

  • We are not in favor of going to Indy with the current IRL rules package. There cannot be a "high-tech" IRL engine program. That is a point particularly important to Ford because of the Jaguar F1 program, CART is the only high-tech open wheel series that Ford competes with the Ford name.  We don't necessarily need to be in two low-tech series.

Long Term - The engine manufacturers still feel the 1.8 liter, 55 inches of boost (as opposed to the current 2.65 liter 40 inches of boost), turbocharged engine is the way to go for CART.  That proposal was made because:

  1. The 1.8 liter formula will be good for at least 10 years, i.e. rules stability

  2. Speeds can be controlled by reducing boost pressure gradually each year   It allows the manufacturers the freedom to challenge their engineers technically, without all the restrictions imposed by a NASCAR or an IRL type engine formula.  As at least two manufacturer's have stated, CART can choose to change to a low tech formula and it will be up to us to decide whether we stay or go.

  3. They have invested a lot of research in turbocharged engines and they don't want to throw all that away with say a normally aspirated or air restricted engine program that requires totally different research and development.

  4. The sound of Turbocharged engines are an important part of CART's heritage.

  5. Turbochargers muffle the sound enough so Champ Cars can race on street circuits, something CART has plenty of.  The new 3.5 liter, 180-degree crank IRL engines may sound better than the 4.0 liter 90 degree crank engines,   but they are still too loud for street racing.

CART's dilemma

Indianapolis 500 -  Unfortunately there is not a warm feeling in CART that a 1.8 liter, highly turbocharged engine is the way to go, especially if they want to someday get back to Indy on common ground.   It is widely agreed that CART will never get their cars back to the Indy 500 with a turbocharged engine.  However, based on recent moves by Tony George to return Indy to a three week program, and his past 25/8 rule, we are not certain Mr. George won't always throw roadblocks in the CART teams path.  What's to say he won't impose the 25/8 rule again if CART teams win the Indy 500 every year?  Then CART will have sold its soul, thrown away its heritage of state-of-the-art turbocharged engines, and still be on the outside of the Indy 500 looking in.

Costs - CART must keep costs in check, so rules stability is paramount.  Rules stability also means more parity and closer competition over the long run.

Marketing - CART markets itself as something unique. Does the world need another normally aspirated open wheel series?  We already have F1 and the IRL.  Going normally aspirated will cause even more confusion for the casual fan who tries to understand what is different between CART and the IRL.  CART is the most versatile series in the world.  It markets itself as the 'fastest' racing series in the world.  Taking 200 HP away may take that claim away.  What will be the 'theme' of CART's marketing initiative if it's just like somebody else?  If CART reduces HP on road course too much, the already critical European F1 crowd will say Champ Cars are too easy to drive, not enough HP for how much they weigh.

Making everyone happy - everyone seems to have an opinion of what to do and unfortunately not everyone agrees to what the best solution is.  However, everyone agrees CART must increase the TV audience and increase oval track attendance.  Unfortunately no one seems to know what the best solution is.

The solution

As I have written on numerous occasions in the past, NASCAR has a stranglehold on the oval track market in the USA and it's not going to relinquish it for a long long time.  What the IRL has found out, and what CART has found out, is that their form of racing - thoroughbred special built state-of-the-art rocket ships, just don't appeal to the oval track crowd like big, easily identifiable Winston Cup cars.  NASCAR puts on a better show on an oval track, it always has and it always will.  That's just the nature of their product versus CART's.  Therefore, why sacrifice the strong part of your series for a part that is running the risk of becoming extinct?  Why should CART sacrifice the success it enjoys on road and street circuits to slow the cars on ovals that might not be a part of the series before long?

Everyone who understands CART says what a great series it is - high tech, glamorous, fast.  The problem is that all this high-tech, state-of-the art stuff  does not appeal as much to the 'common folk' like NASCAR does.  Maybe CART needs to help them understand what it's all about with better marketing.  NASCAR has a car in the RPM2Night studio for Benny Parsons to show the fans what he is talking about.  Does CART?  Go to any NASCAR race and you will find a large majority of the fans to be from the middle class, the majority of our population.  NASCAR has the demographics on its side.

From my perspective, getting back to Indy isn't going to increase the TV audience, the other IRL races are a testament to that.  Their TV audience is no larger than CART's, except for Indy itself.  What makes NASCAR so popular is that NASCAR has managed to market their drivers into racing hero's, household names.  They have a unified Marketing Plan with all their sponsors singing the same song.  On TV we are bombarded by NASCAR everywhere - 36 races per year, RPM2Night, NASCAR Garage, Inside NASCAR, NASCAR today, and TNN's Raceday.  We are so inundated by NASCAR the casual fans think NASCAR is the only form of auto racing.  All that TV air time has, over time, made NASCAR the top form of motorsports in this country.

Whereas NASCAR is the premier oval track series, CART must become the premier road racing series.  Maybe it already is, just by virtue of the fact their road and street races are so successful.  With that in mind, the solution to this whole dilemma of what engine formula to choose, and slowing the cars, becomes clear.  CART must focus on what it does best and pick the engine formula that will serve it for the next ten years.  And that formula is the 1.8 liter, highly turbocharged engine proposed by the engine manufacturers.

And what about Indy you say?  That's quite simple too.  The Target Chip Ganassi team has shown a CART team can buy IRL equipment, go to Indy, and take home all the bacon with very little practice.  And what do you do with the cars after the race?  You mothball them for the next year if the rules don't change significantly (they won't because the IRL teams can't afford new cars every year), or you sell them used to an IRL team that wrecks one of their regular cars and are looking for a replacement.  As the IRL schedule expands, more cars will get wrecked and need replacement.  The lowly funded IRL teams would be more than happy to buy a like-new chassis at a discounted price than to pony up all that cash for a new one.

Of course we would love to see CART make the Indy Lights rules mirror the IRL rules so the teams can run them in the Indy Lights series before and after the Indy 500, but that will likely never happen.  It makes too much sense.  When were the Indy Lights cars due to be replaced?

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