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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

2012 Wish List: Mazda

Now that the specifications for engines and chassis in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season have been released, manufacturers have 18 months to throw together programs before the start of that season. The current Dallara-Hondas will see a lame duck year in 2011 before giving way to brand new equipment the following year.

Dallara will now build the "IndyCar Safety Cell," which is for all intents and purposes the chassis of the car. Aerodynamic parts such as wings, sidepods, and engine cowlings, however, may be crafted by any manufacturer willing to adhere to certain league standards for cost, safety, and availability. These parts must not exceed $70,000 in cost, be open to all teams, and pass certain safety tests before the league will approve them for on-track competition.

This decision, announced today by the ICONIC committee, preserves the relative fairness of a one-chassis system, while still emphasizing aerodynamic innovation and variability. Every car on the track will likely no longer look the same, unless one manufacturer's aero kit far surpasses the rest - and even then, because teams may only use two of these packages per year, the teams that guess wrong will be stuck.

The new engines will be even more of an open-source system. ICONIC set maximum parameters of 2.4 cubic liters of displacement, six cylinders, and 700 horsepower, while also mandating that the new engines will be turbocharged. Theoretically, any engine meeting these standards can take to the track in 2012.

Honda will be back for sure, producing a brand new engine that will likely adhere to the maximum parameters. Cosworth, too, will probably be back, with the engine company co-owned by KV Racing Technology principal Kevin Kalkhoven likely producing Lotus-branded motors for KV. Ford, Chevrolet, and members of the Volkswagen and Fiat conglomerates have also been rumored at various stages of the game to be mulling the production of IndyCar engines.

One brand that stands out, however, is Mazda.

For a moment, forget about the existing Mazda racing engines, and simply consider Mazda's most recent racing involvement. They were the sole engine supplier for two feeder series, the now-defunct Atlantic Championship and the Star Mazda Championship, the latter of which currently operates under the IRL's Road to Indy banner. They sponsor the development of plenty of top young talent - recent open-wheel drivers to progress through the ranks in Mazdas include John Edwards, Adam Christodoulou, Jonathan Bomarito, Simona de Silvestro, and Conor Daly.

The first three drivers, however, have shifted their focus to sports car racing in a poor market for open-wheel development drivers. They all remain Mazda-backed, but instead of having come to IndyCar, they compete in the Rolex Sports Car Series for SpeedSource. You can bet that if the 2012 system was in place right now, and Mazda had a team established in IndyCar instead, every single one of those drivers would still be in open-wheel. Sports car racing just became a necessity when the ladder broke.

But with the new 2012 system, Mazda can bring some of its sports car folks over to IndyCar, including ex-Atlantic champions Newman Wachs Racing and longtime sports car stalwarts Dyson Racing, to give their development drivers a prestigious end to the ladder. Instead of the monetary prizes offered in past Atlantic and Star Mazda championships, the prize can be a drive for Mazda's IndyCar program. Even if the program did not win races, it could at least serve as a stepping stone for drivers within the big series to go to bigger teams, much as Will Power went from KV to Team Penske and E.J. Viso went from HVM Racing to KV.

As for the motor, there is another reason why Mazda makes a perfect fit: it already has a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 in competition in the American Le Mans Series. While the motor, which is powered by BP isobutanol and runs in Dyson Racing's closed-cockpit LMP2, would require a handful of changes (especially in the fuel department) to work in IndyCar, it would be a cost-effective option due to the smaller amount of development work required.

A Mazda IndyCar team in 2012 would provide Edwards and Christodoulou with the means to reach their open-wheel goals, give its development drivers in lower series a goal for which to shoot, and perhaps keep Daly in America for another year before he heads off to Formula 1 as many expect. The brand seems one of the best fits for IndyCar competition in 2012, and they are certainly at the top of my personal wish list.

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