Dallara’s Big Blunder?

By John Oreovicz

It’s fair to say that the 2012 Dallara DW12 Indy car has been a disappointment in every way so far.

Many fans were aghast when they first saw the car, with its bulbous sidepods that almost completely envelop the rear wheels.

The car has also failed to live up to expectations on oval tracks, where it has lacked stability and speed.

The problems are fundamental: an extreme rear weight bias and mysterious amounts of drag that aren’t showing up in computer modeling and 50-percent scale wind tunnel testing.

The DW12 was named after the late Dan Wheldon, who handled the initial shakedown tests of Italian racecar manufacturer Dallara Automobili’s first new Indy car design since 2003. But Wheldon was too diplomatic, too much of a party-line kind of guy, so he never played up the car’s obvious shortcomings.

On their first experience in the DW12, the car scared the likes of Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan while resolutely refusing to top 216 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Following another round of testing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Scott Dixon gave the most honest assessment of the car to date, calling it “a bit of a pig” with an even more pronounced pendulum handling effect than the current Dallara IR03, which is already a tail-heavy car. The numbers don’t lie; the DW12 has a weight distribution of 41 percent front, 59 percent rear, as compared to the IR03’s 45/55.

The car’s handling got better during the most recent round of testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but the improvement came from an extreme measure: Placing 26 pounds of lead ballast in the nose of the car to balance out the weight distribution.

After initially blaming suppliers for suspension and gearbox components that didn’t meet target weight goals, Dallara is reacting to the crisis. Revised suspension geometry will help shift the weight forward, and a completely new oval track aero package (floor, sidepods, wings) is under development.

This update was not be available when the initial batch of cars were delivered to teams on December 15, but the pressure is not as great as it could be because the first oval activity of the 2012 season won’t happen until the month of May at Indianapolis. Still, the oval package will essentially be starting at ground zero when testing resumes in the spring.

This late redesign represents an opportunity for Dallara and INDYCAR to overcome the universally negative reaction to the DW12’s appearance. A poll of more than 6,000 fans at AutoRacing1.com resulted in 98 percent expressing dissatisfaction with the look of the car, especially the bulbous sidepods.

How could Dallara have gotten it so wrong? There are a number of factors. For starters, it’s been nine years since Dallara created a new Indy car chassis, and the IR03 was in many ways an update of the company’s 2000 car, albeit with a major change in front suspension philosophy. The key is that since 2003, development of the IR03 was almost exclusively handled by the teams, with little or no factory involvement. As such, Dallara was already somewhat out of touch with its own most recent design.

Dallara had an extremely tight box to work in, courtesy of the requirements made by INDYCAR’s ICONIC Committee. Most of those mandates were made in the interest of safety even before Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (in a Dallara IR03) on October 16, but it appears some of them - chiefly, the wider floor and sidepods that extend all the way to the outer edge of the rear tires and the rear bumper pods mounted behind the rear wheels - are contributing to the car’s greater than anticipated drag and high-speed instability on ovals.

INDYCAR 2012 car project director Will Phillips strongly defends the car, even when pressed about it’s awkward appearance. With so much of the DW12’s basic packaging dictated by safety, aesthetics clearly took a back seat.

It looks like one of those tank-like “safety cars” from the ‘70s.

“Everyone’s got an opinion,” Phillips said.

In fairness, Phillips inherited the DW12 project when it was too far down the line to dictate any significant changes. The thrust has been to prevent cars from getting up in the air - not only like at Las Vegas, where four cars took flight in the 15-car accident that killed Wheldon - but on at least half a dozen other occasions since 2003.

“Once it leaves the ground, it’s no longer a car - it’s no longer got its wheels in contact with the ground,” Phillips said. “It’s a serious challenge to try and make it a car and an airplane. You just can’t do it. Anything we can do to prevent a vehicle from leaving the ground would be of benefit.”

The worrying thing is that INDYCAR quietly admits it doesn’t know why the DW12 is not working the way the computer simulations say it is supposed to. The 50-percent wind tunnel model was re-tested in a known tunnel, and the results backed up Dallara’s initial numbers. The next step is to take a full-size IR03 and a DW12 to a 100-percent tunnel and compare the results using real cars.

The good news is that the drivers have been generally positive about the DW12 in road racing trim and the car is reportedly already slightly faster than the outgoing car, which admittedly was originally designed exclusively for oval competition.

The Dallara DW12 is not the first bad Indy car, and it certainly won’t be the last. Off the top of my head, I can think of the 1972 Parnelli dihedral car, the ’86-87 Penske PC15 and PC16, the March 88C and the ’97 Lola. The Parnelli and the Lola were eventually turned into race winning designs.

Of course those cars were not being used by the full field in spec-car fashion…

 It’s a bit disheartening that INDYCAR had nine years to come up with a new car and managed to legislate itself a dud, a car that’s both ugly and slow. But the DW12 can and will be fixed - even if it means running 25 pounds of lead weight in the nose.

John Oreovicz is a veteran writer and observer of Indy car racing, and his work can be seen on ESPN.com and other publications.