CART Engines, If it ain't broke, don't fix it

At least not until everyone can agree on a common world-wide baseline formula

 by Mark Cipolloni
March 14, 2001

Go to our forums to discuss this article

"Champ cars have too much HP," that has been the cry.  Does CART, therefore, need a new engine formula to reduce speeds?  After studying this issue for about 12 months, and talking to representatives of CART's engine manufacturers throughout that period, it's becoming increasingly clear that the answer is not what you may have thought it was.


Issue #1. The lure of the Indy 500

No one can deny it, the Indy 500 is still a race everyone wants to win, like it or not.  But the fact remains that Tony George and the Hulman family control the Indy 500 and they have essentially told CART it's their way, or no way.

CART has two choices as I see it, 1) do as they do now, run their own series and let the teams who have the resources Cherry Pick that one race each year; or, 2) admit defeat, adopt the IRL rules and hope Tony George doesn't reinstate the 25/8 rule again.  He will very likely reinstate it if CART teams start to take all the starting spots at Indy.  He has to protect his regular IRL teams and, if anyone thinks for even one minute he's going to allow 33 CART teams to start the Indy 500 while his IRL teams all sit idle and watch, had better take off their rose colored glasses.  It's not going to happen.

The problem we are faced with is the stark reality that CART's engine manufacturers are getting left out of the Indy 500; and one of their drivers possibly winning the Indy 500 powered by another manufacturers engine (Olds or Nissan).  However, what's to stop Ford, Honda or Toyota from advertising on their drivers uniform and helmet for that one race?  Then, whenever they are on TV or featured in a photo, their company name appears.  A subtle, but effective form of advertisement at a much lower cost than building engines for the Indy 500.

Should CART adopt IRL spec cars that are essentially designed for one thing, and one thing only - oval tracks, when CART's best attended races are its road and street circuits?  We think not.  We vote for choice 1 - let CART's best teams cherry pick the Indy 500 each year.  Take on the IRL in their sandbox and let the best man win.   And when Michael Andretti drinks that swig of milk in victory lane at Indy, and all the cameras are flashing, the word 'Honda' will be plastered right across the chest of his uniform.  And when Michael Andretti gets announced at the following weekends race at Milwaukee, as the driver of the #39 Motorola Reynard/Honda and winner of the Indy 500, it will be Honda, and not Oldsmobile that will get the association with Indy.

Issue #2. Turbo vs. Normally Aspirated engines

Some arguments for turbos
1. Turbos create higher combustion chamber pressures at the top end (relative to an NA engine) which in turn requires stronger rods, pistons, etc. Consequently, because everything must be built to withstand the pressures at high rpm, engineers can't make the parts as light (as an NA engine) for the lower end of the rpm range (where lightness matters more) and, so the extra cost of R&D, as well as the need to make the engine more fragile, is greatly reduced. The result is a less-expensive and stronger engine relative to a NA engine. 

2. Turbo lag has been eliminated (through electronic mgmt and ball-bearing turbo development) making the cars now traction limited on many road course corners.  The need for lighter/fragile engine parts to provide quicker acceleration is reduced. (The cost of the turbo is nothing compared to the cost of R&D to make lighter parts).  However, the manufacturers are constantly trying to lighten their rotating and reciprocating bits for quicker acceleration and less pumping losses (parasitic power loss) anyway.

3. At high boost pressures, the positive flow into the cylinder during the intake cycle is beneficial to engine parts by reducing the stress of pulling the air in, extending engine life. If CART adopts the 1.8 liter high-boost (55") engine formula, this would be a bigger factor than at the current 37" boost level.

4. The increased chamber pressure does require that the compression ratio be reduced, however, because Champ cars just happen to use methanol, the higher octane allows them to not have to reduce it as much as a gasoline engine would need to be.  Also, turbos compress air, which in turn heats it up and could cause engine overheating. However, because of the methanol (which has excellent cooling properties) that problem is eliminated. They don't even need intercoolers like the old gasoline F1 turbo engines did.

5. Turbos are much more efficient for oval racing than NA engines where the speeds tend to be constant near the higher end of the rpm spectrum. Relative to an NA engine, the turbo engine running at top end is getting a *LOT MORE* air pushed into the cylinders with almost no penalty on the engine. (Well, not as much now at 37" boost) It's nearly free horsepower.

6. An NA engine airbox takes away much more air (relative to a turbo car w/o an airbox) from the rear wing whenever a car starts to oversteer (get sideways) on a turn. As the oversteer/wing-air loss increases it eventually causes a breakaway. This has not been a problem in F1 as the turns are relatively slower... but it's been a problem in the IRL when a car is running very fast around turns continuously on ovals.

Three non-tech reasons:

7. They provide muffling for what would otherwise be extremely loud NA engines (and annoying if they use 90 degree cranks) which might require mufflers.

8. Turbos provide a technical differentiation from F1 and NASCAR

9. Most current CART fans prefer the sound of the turbo engines.

CARTís turbocharged engines are not common in motorsports today, but they give CART a unique identity from the IRL and F-1. There has been a lot of debate lately as to whether CART should convert to normally aspirated engines or change to a 1.8 liter highly turbocharged engine as proposed by CART's engine manufacturers. NASCAR, the IRL and F-1 are all normally aspirated. Does that mean CART should follow suit? 

The sound of a turbocharged Champ Car engine at full song is music to the ears of every fan. Everyone loves the sound, and the turbo keeps the noise levels reasonable for the street circuits. Why mess with success?  Why?  Because some folks think CART should give away the farm just to get back to the Indy 500.  Changing CART's existing engine formula to an IRL spec engine, as a means to get back to the Indy 500, really isn't the solution to the problem.

The prime reason any of the CART engine manufacturers are even considering a normally aspirated engine is to bring CART and the IRL together because Tony George refuses to bend.  

However, even after CART's engine manufacturers were willing to give-in to a normally aspirated engine to bring the series together, Tony George pretty much stonewalled them, refusing to bend on his current formula and meet CART half way.   In a recent interview with the Star News Tony George addressed this issue - Q. There is talk of CART engine manufacturers switching sides when their contracts expire after the 2002 season. What do you say to them? Are you willing to change your formula in any way to accommodate their goals? A. "We have developed a pretty good product and anything that upsets that is not worth thinking about. We have invested too much. Our efforts are beginning to pay off and there is no reason to change what we are doing. No one has convinced me that anything other than what we are doing is necessary. We are set up for success."

There are many within the CART community who think a normally aspirated engine is a mistake.  If CART starts at 3.5 liters and doesn't limit RPM, HP will be through the roof in no time at all (F-1 is a prime example).  Then what?  Change the formula again?  Even with limits on RPM and far stricter engine design limitations than CART, the IRL has already found the need to change from a 4.0 liter to a 3.5 liter engine in just three years.  What's next?  3.0 liters?  Not too long ago, F1 settled on the 10-cylinder 3.0 liter formula.  Now there is talk of changing it to 2.5 liters to cut speeds.  If they were turbocharged, it would be less costly to lower the boost pressure instead.

Open wheel race cars from the beginning have always been the best race cars mankind can design and build.  One primary reason the IRL has been largely rejected by open wheel race fans is because the IRL tried their best to make an open-wheel Indy car like a stock car without fenders.  They tried to use stock block engines, place severe limitations on the engine and car design, and race on high-banked oval tracks, just like NASCAR.  Guess what?  It didn't work.  And it won't work in the future.  It is not the heritage of an open-wheel race car.

Then why should CART give in and change to a normally aspirated engine (and give up all the turbocharged engines advantages) because that is what the IRL uses, just to get back to Indy?  And who is to say, after CART makes the change, Tony George won't change the rules again?  Then what?

Issue #3. Compared to F1 cars, are Champ Cars underpowered?

On a road course, too much HP is not usually a problem, because the nature of the circuits usually limit terminal velocity. However, 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 is supported when you look at the weight to HP ratio of a F1 car vs. a Champ Car.  

F-1: 825 HP/1323 Lb. = 0.623 HP/Lb.
CART: 875 HP/1700 Lb. = 0.515 HP/Lb. (Note - F1 cars are weighed with the driver, Champ cars are not.  1700 lbs = 1550 car + 150 driver)

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. The low speeds at Mexico this past weekend attest to how heavy and slow Champ Cars are on a tight track.  They looked slow in person, and looked even slower on TV.

As many drivers said in Cleveland last year, "we don't have too much power for road and street circuits". Taking up to 200 HP out of these cars just to accommodate the superspeedway problem, would put Champ cars at 0.397 HP/Lb. or 64% of a F-1 car and somewhere around that of an IRL car. Champ cars will likely be looked down apon by the highly critical F1 set at a time when CART is making great inroads into the international market.  The problem lies with the superspeedways, 875 HP is too much. How do you keep those speeds in check without compromising the rest of the races?

Issue #4. How slow is slow enough? 

Gil de Ferran qualified his Champ Car at 242 mph at Fontana last year.  Is 242 too much?  230?  220?  200?

The IRL cars average close to 220 mph on some tracks and they have about 200 less HP.  An IRL car weighs the same as a Champ Car.  So is 675 HP the right number for CART?  If you want the world to look down their noses at CART as something grossly inferior to F1, then perhaps, yes.  There are better ways to control speed than lopping off 200 HP across the board.

Issue #5. Has the current engine reached the end of its life cycle?

Amazingly, the current 2.65 liter engine formula has lasted over 30 years because CART was able to reduce the turbo boost pressure gradually over those years to keep speeds in check.  For quite some time it was thought that the current 2.65 liter turbo formula had reached the end of its life-cycle because the turbo boost pressure was quickly approaching atmospheric pressure and speeds were still climbing.  That argument may hold true someday, but as you will see below, perhaps not as soon as you might think. 


From where we sit, there really are four alternatives that CART can choose from to put this long standing engine formula issue to rest:

  1. Adopt the IRL normally aspirated formula - Two of the three engine manufacturers we talked to have absolutely no interest in doing a low-tech normally aspirated engine (we did not speak to the third, so we don't know their position).  In order to compete in the IRL, the engine must be made available to any team that wants it.  Therefore, Honda for example, could be faced with supplying 75% to 100% of the IRL field (assuming their engine was the best) plus their existing CART teams.  None of the CART engine manufacturers have the budget to supply and develop that many engines.  Also working against this option is the high cost for the existing manufacturers to design and implement an entirely new engine.  Perhaps over $100 million for each manufacturer.  As CART teams who have tried to run Indy have found out, per mile it's just as expensive to run an IRL engine as it is the existing Champ Car engines.  Therefore, there will be no savings to the teams to adopt a normally aspirated engine formula.  Of the four options presented here, this is our last choice.

  2. Adopt a common normally aspirated formula with F1 - The amount of money the engine manufacturers are spending on F1 is ludicrous.  Don't get me wrong, I think F1 is a great spectacle, but the racing is terrible.  The F1 crowd is still talking about the one pass Mike Hakkinen made on Michael Schumacher last year.  One pass!  CART had more passes for the lead on its road courses in one year than F1 had in a decade.  So why, therefore, spend all that money on a F1 engine when you have only two (four for Honda and Ferrari) chances to win a race.  At least in CART, Ford, Honda and Toyota have around 10 cars in each race, that's 10 chances to win.  Champ Car engines are quite high-tech.  F1 engines are mind-boggling high-tech.  Should the F1 engine manufacturers get together and tell Bernie and Max that they want to cut costs and they want to adopt a common engine formula with CART, one with technology that falls midway between what CART and F1 have now?  Then they could spread their development costs between two series.  A common engine formula opens the door for BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault to enter the CART series.  Of the four options presented here, this is our 3rd choice.  Sensible idea, but the F1 hierarchy would go down kicking and screaming.

  3. Adopt the 1.8 liter turbo formula  - This concept has a lot of merit for all the reasons discussed in this article and this article.  However, like option 1, it will cost the manufacturers a lot of money to design and implement an entirely new engine.  Of the four options presented here, this is our 2nd choice.

  4. The Do Nothing Alternative - As the old saying goes - "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."  Looking at the results of last years races in CART, and this past weekends race in Monterrey, Mexico, it's quite clear that the three manufacturers, Ford, Honda and Toyota are nearly equal in power and drivability, and this with a formula that is not very restrictive and allows for a reasonable amount of engineering ingenuity.  One reason the performance is so equal is because the current 2.65 liter turbo formula is mature.  It's been around for quite some time and each manufacturer has developed their product to a level that is on par with the others.  Champ Car races are the most competitive top-line open wheel races in the world.  The reasons - the two chassis manufacturers are pretty equal and the three engine manufacturers are too.  The engines sound great, they have been accepted throughout the world, the turbos keep the sound decibel levels reasonable on street circuits, and their cost is only a fraction of what a F1 engine costs.  So why mess with success?  If it's just the excessive speeds on superspeedways that are the problem, then why not address just those tracks?  How you ask?  Read on......


CART should keep their current 2.65 liter turbo engines for the foreseeable future.  Having arrived at the conclusion that Champ Cars are only too fast on the superspeedways (Texas, Michigan and Fontana), much like NASCAR at Daytona and Talladega, perhaps CART's version of a restrictor plate is in order.  Not an engine restrictor plate, but an aerodynamic restrictor plate.  The Handford Device has proven that it can control speeds through aerodynamic drag,  just like NASCAR's carburetor restrictor plate has controlled speeds by starving a cars engine for air.  However, whereas NASCAR has changed the size of their 'engine' restrictor plate to control speeds, CART has yet to change the size of their 'aerodynamic' restrictor device for the Superspeedways. 

There is nothing stopping CART from inducing more drag on their cars by making the 'parachute' type effect of the Handford Device even more effective.  The vertical plate on the back of the Handford Device can be made taller each year to keep terminal speeds in check (say, 235 mph max. straightaway speed) at Texas, Michigan and Fontana.  Simple wind tunnel tests will enable CART to determine if the change in any one given year should be 1/4", 1/2", 1" or more.  Each additional 1" added to the Handford Device is equivalent to losing about 30 HP from the engine.  You'd need to add nearly equal amounts top & bottom to keep the downforce the same and just add drag.

We have seen NASCAR change the size of their restrictor plate during a race weekend.  There is nothing stopping CART from mandating a taller rear plate midway through a race weekend if they find the speeds are higher than anticipated.  When NASCAR makes such a change mid-weekend, their engine builders squawk because they tuned their engine for a certain size plate, and NASCAR changes it on them during the game, so-to-speak.  But they live with NASCAR's decision. 

We recognize that if CART were to change the size of the Handford Device during a race weekend (by asking the teams to rivet on a plate extension), it would upset the balance of their race cars.  However, as long as they do it early enough in the race weekend, the teams should be able to compensate.  In most cases, the change will be mandated at the beginning of the year and not changed.  The point here is that CART actually has a better 'Restrictor Plate' type of device than NASCAR that they can use to control speeds at these three tracks.

The only possible drawback to a bigger Handford Device is increased turbulence for the car following the one in front (this problem was addressed in this article) and a risk the car following will shake and impair the drivers vision.  Careful wind tunnel testing will be necessary.  However, as we have seen at Michigan, and even more so at Texas, as long as there are multiple grooves in the turns the cars will be able to race just fine, each in its own groove.  The benefit to a bigger Handford Device is a bigger hole in the air.  A bigger hole means more drafting.  More drafting means more passing.  More passing means more happy fans.  What a novel idea?  Since CART would only use this large Handford Device at these three tracks, we think the increased turbulence will have a minimal effect (and can be compensated with a bit more downforce), up to the point whereby the Handford Device gets just too big.  We estimate that to be some 3 or more years down the road. 

The end result of the 'Do Nothing Alternative' is a big cost savings for the engine manufacturers, it buys more time for consensus building (see below), continued close competition between all three makes, the retention of the great turbocharged sound that everyone likes, and last, but certainly not least, CART retains a very important part of their heritage, one that is synonymous with Champ cars - the turbocharged engine, a mainstay of the sport since the mid-1960's.  Ask NASCAR about the importance of heritage.  They have gone through great pain to retain the basic concept of their race cars - tube framed, low-tech, pushrod engines with, of all things, carburetors.  Unfortunately, their strict insistence on maintaining their heritage has gone a bit too far.  In all likelihood, their resistance to change for the sake of their heritage has cost them the lives of four drivers in 10 months because they overlooked safety enhancements that could have been made.

It would be nice to see a world-wide (CART, F1, IRL etc) engine size of 1.8 liter with turbo boost to suit the application (a combination of alternative #2 and #3 above). This would allow small, light, compact engines with the resulting weight saving ploughed back into increased driver protection and crushable structures. CART could use more boost at road courses than ovals (to keep the racing exciting) and "cooking" versions of the engines could be made for lower cost formula (IRL). "No-holds-barred" versions would emerge for F1 use. 

I still think it's bizarre that there is so much money invested in such a diverse range of power plants throughout all the different series. If the engine manufacturers were able to have a common configuration and concentrate on variations around that theme - then everyone from Tony George to Bernie Ecclestone could be kept happy.   And then all manufacturers can compete in all three series, if they so choose.

The CART community has fretted over what to do about a new engine formula.  Perhaps it's time to stop the procrastination.  Although all the engine manufacturers originally endorsed the 1.8 liter turbo formula, that was some 3 or 4 years ago.  Now, recognizing near term that there are less expensive ways to control speeds on the Superspeedways, the engine manufacturers we have talked to would like nothing better than to stick with a good thing and keep the 2.65 liter turbo engine formula for the foreseeable future, or at least until CART, IRL and F1 could agree to a common base-line formula.

Maybe CART will choose to go with a normally aspirated engine anyway, and as long as it's relatively high-tech and state-of-the-art, it should be accepted.  However, from where we sit, now is not the time to change, not until CART, IRL and F1 can agree on a common engine formula.  There are a lot of other things broke in CART.  The engines aren't one of them.  

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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