When the cars take the track at the Indy 500 a few weeks from now, the margin of victory might be directly attributable to the person in the driver's seat. Or it might be related to an engineering detail so miniscule most spectators have never heard of it. "Sometimes the advantage comes from splitting hairs and extracting every last bit of performance out of the car," Eddie Jones, race engineer for KV Racing Technology, told us.
[Five engineers will win a free trip to the Indy 500. Enter by May 9 at Littelfuse's Speed2Design contest. ]
At Indianapolis these days, that's the only way a driver will get take the traditional swig from a bottle of milk after crossing the finish line. At this year's race, on May 27, all the teams will use the same chassis from Dallara Automobili. And they'll all employ an engine from one of three manufacturers: Chevrolet, Honda, or Lotus. Engine displacement, electronics, aerodynamics, batteries, dashboards, and countless other system configurations are spelled out for the teams in the 203-page 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Rulebook (PDF).
"It's really not the way it used to be many years ago, where you could build your own car, choose your own engine within regulations, and then go out there and run," Jones said. "It's really changed over the last couple of decades."
Tony Kanaan drove KV Racing?s No. 11 car at the Long Beach Grand Prix and will drive it again at the Indianapolis 500.
The unititiated might be shocked to learn that the engine displacement of the 230mph Indy car might be no bigger than that of the engine in their driveway. This year, displacement is limited to 2.4 liters on a V6 design. One of the few areas of technical freedom lies in turbocharging. Honda's engine uses a single turbo, while the Chevy runs with twin turbos. "Within those constraints, the month of May will likely show that those engines are pretty evenly matched," Jones said.
It makes sense to standardize the cars so that the race is a just comparison. We would all cry foul if one of the vehicles took off and flew around the track or spread wings and blocked competitors from passing. The objective is a car race and not a technical trickery competition.