The 2011 FIA Formula 1 World Championship is over... well, statistically, if not literally. Red Bull Racing's irrepressible German wunderkind, Sebastian Vettel, has made it mathematically impossible for anyone else to win the title. What is even more impressive is the fact that the 24-year-old is now the youngest-ever back-to-back winner of the title (and, of course, the youngest-ever, to begin with).

The 2011 Formula 1 season now heads into the final few races of its calendar season; the inaugural Grand Prix of India being one of the few remaining highlights. However, being the extremely competitive sport it is, the teams, drivers and administrators are already looking to 2012. As the next few weeks wind up, teams will look to sign (or retain) drivers for next year and the sport's governing body will prepare for a 2012 season that promises to be a hugely interesting one! Why? Well... because Formula 1 is all set to make a competitive return to the United States of America.

The last time Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Vettel et al, raced in the U.S. was back in 2007, at a modified version of the iconic Indianapolis Circuit. This time, however, according to the first draft of the 2012 race calendar as released by formula1.com, the United States Grand Prix will take place, between Nov. 16 and Nov. 18, 2012, in the city of Austin, Tx.

Bringing Formula 1 back to the United States represents the opportunity of a lifetime and one that any city in the world would want, stated Red McCombs, the primary investor in the track and facilities, according to a statement released in July, 2010.

The size and scope of an F1 event is comparable to hosting a Super Bowl and will bring substantial economic benefit to Austin, San Antonio and the entire State of Texas, McCombs continued.

According to another release in September of that year, race organizers had hired Tilke GmbH, a race track design company recognized as the best in the world; prior credits for Tilke Gmbh include designs of Formula 1 circuits in Bahrain, Turkey and India.

While the fact that Formula 1 is to return the U.S. is wonderful news, particularly for those fans of the sport who have missed it, it cannot be felt that the conduct of governing bodies for premier auto-racing championships, both in the U.S. and in Europe will come under scrutiny, following the tragic death of Dan Wheldon on Sunday.

Wheldon, racing in the American IZOD IndyCar series that is governed by the Indy Racing League (IRL), died after a horrible 15-car pile-up at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway; the incident, the fourth IRL driver to die in recent years, has provoked strong criticism from fans and professionals across the country, who demand to see stringent safety measures introduced.

The re-introduction of Formula 1 - administered by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and enormously popular across Europe and Asia - will certainly throw up comparisons between IndyCars and F1, if only because the latter is, in terms of racing designs and category of race car, the closest thing to an IndyCar.

IRL and Formula 1 Cars

A Formula 1 car is, in almost every sense of the word, a very intricately-designed and tuned automobile. Teams, even ones with a minimal of funding, spend long hours, whenever possible, in wind-tunnels and in discussions over improving the aerodynamics of the car. Now... it is that word - aerodynamics - which is the key in any discussion of the sport. While a full draft of the 2011 technical regulations can be found here, consider this extract: Bodywork ahead of the rear wheel centre line must be a maximum of 140cm wide. Bodywork behind it must be no more than 100cm wide. Front and rear overhangs are limited to 120cm and 60cm respectively from the wheel centre lines. These are very detailed instructions.

The car is, visibly, a far more tightly-designed machine than an IRL entrant. The large and sculpted front and rear wings, the large side-pods, the smaller tires... all these speak of a race car that captures every bit of downforce it possibly can.  An IRL car operates on the same principal.

However, a cursory visual examination of the two cars suggests that the IRL car isn't built quite as tightly.

indycar.com;

indycar.com; Photo: Bret Kelley

There is, for example, far more open space between the front wing and the front wheel of the IRL car, than a Formula 1 car.

While this may be an intentional design element, could it be that the empty space disturbs the flow of air generated by the front wing? Ideally, one would think the onrushing stream of air should be sucked onto the car surface as soon as possible, allowing only a minimal amount to dissipate.

Could the flow of air over the front wing, over the sculpted nose of the Formula 1 car, over the tires and into the extended side-pods (the air is sucked in by the side-pods and used to cool engine temperatures) be more efficient than a similar situation in an IRL car?

For those who are as yet unacquainted with the concept, downforce is the term used for the downwards thrust created by onrushing air as it flows over the car's surface. Therefore, when a race car accelerates to 200mph, it punches a hole through the air in front of it.  The downforce generated refers to the action of that displaced air as it seeks to regain its place. What the Formula 1 car does is that by sculpting exposed car surface, it invites the displaced air to flow over the car, thereby pressing it down on the ground and making it a more stable vehicle to drive.

 

 

Creative

Creative Commons; Photo: Morio

The problem is that to create a car that is so reliant on aerodynamics requires a considerable amount of time and money. Such is usually not a problem for Formula 1 teams, since some teams (run by marquee brands like Ferrari, Honda, BMW and McLaren) can rely on financial backing. The others have access to an enormous fund, supplied by astute worldwide marketing.

In contrast, teams from IRL are, by design of the governing body, limited to fixed chassis styles, measurements and a number of other technical and mechanical details. There is, essentially, only a minimal amount of tinkering that they can do; this is not an open league.

On the one hand, this is good news. Formula 1 has, for a long time now, been trying hard to cut costs - the flood of regulations in recent years, banning expensive test sessions, controlling the number of tires used per race, stretching the number of miles each engine could competitively run, etc., is proof of that. Nevertheless, insofar as costs are concerned, it is possible that the IRL will always have the upper hand, simply because it is a much cheaper sport, relatively speaking of course.

However, and this could potentially be a very touchy subject, could it be that the IRL is carrying the idea of a cheaper formula of racing too far? Is Dallara, the company which has been supplying IRL teams with their race chassis, unable to provide significantly safer and stronger cars because of a cost constraint?

Consider this extract from a press release: Dallara's rolling chassis (for the 2012 IndyCar season) (encompassing everything but the driver's seat) will cost $349,000 -- a 45 percent price decrease from the cost of each of the 26 cars that will compete this weekend in the Honda Indy Toronto.

As explained in an earlier article, it would be naïve to suggest that the IRL does not care for the safety of its drivers; indeed, it would probably be a horrible thing to say. Unfortunately, rudimentary logic suggests that Formula 1, with its considerably more expensive cars, seems to protect its drivers better than IRL cars.

It must be emphasized, at this point and indeed throughout this discussion, that no argument is being made for safety with regards to the number of crashes in either IndyCars or Formula 1. Rather, it is a discussion to understand why as many as four IRL drivers have died in the recent past when no Formula 1 driver has.

Oval Tracks and Race Circuits

In the aftermath of Dan Wheldon's death, and subsequent parallels to Dale Earnhardt, Scott Brayton, Tony Renna and Paul Dana, a number of professional racers, past and present, have called on the IRL to stop racing on oval tracks.

I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place... I'd rather see them on street circuits and road courses-and no more ovals, said Jimmie Johnson, a NASCAR driver, was quoted as saying by AOL Sporting News.

On an oval track like that, with four cars side by side at 220 mph, cars touching the wall and 34 cars covered by three-and-a-half seconds, there is no margin for error, complained Mark Blundell, a former professional who has driven both in America and in Formula 1, according to a report by the Daily Mail. Finally, Australian Formula 1 driver, Mark Webber, also spoke out about the dangers of racing on oval tracks.

As an argument, honestly must compel one to admit that it may be a little skewed. One could point out that IRL does not race exclusively on oval circuits. In fact, over the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series contestants raced on only 8 ovals, out of a total of 17 races. The point, however, is that all four deaths have occurred on oval tracks. That is the worrying point.

There is probably much to be said about the work going on, behind the scenes, at the IRL headquarters, to introduce radically improved safety standards. There is, however, one question that they need to ask themselves - considering the sport involves race cars, filled with highly combustible fuel, traveling at 200 mph, wouldn't it be safer to allow the drivers a margin of error and provide run-off areas, like in Formula 1?