The state of the cars mirrored this stagnant state. The Indy Racing League's standardized Dallara IR-05, introduced in 2003, lacked elegance, although it was designed primarily for an oval-centric series. On the other hand, the Panoz DP01 employed by Champ Car in 2007 was oblivious to ovals. Consequently, when the two series merged, the alluring turbocharged Panoz-Cosworth swiftly became outdated after a mere year of competition, yielding its place to the seemingly outdated Dallara, complete with its raucous 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V8 Honda engine, which became the embodiment of "IndyCar."
The arrival of Randy Bernard as IndyCar CEO in February 2010 sparked excitement among those who had bemoaned the series' lethargy and dearth of innovation in recent times. Having transformed Professional Bull Riders Inc from a modest entity generating a meager half a million dollars into a thriving $26 million brand over the course of 15 years, his lack of motorsport expertise was not necessarily a drawback.
Unburdened by the shackles of tradition and unhindered by the fog of others' agendas, he possessed a refreshing perspective. Remarkably, most of the series' competition department members, team owners, and drivers unified in conveying their urgent message to him: introducing new cars should be among his top priorities. But the question remained: from whom would this vision materialize?
Nevertheless, pragmatism triumphed over passion, prompting Bernard to assemble a diverse team led by retired US Air Force General William Looney. This formidable lineup included Tony Purnell, a former F1 and Indycar engineer; Neil Ressler, former head honcho of Ford Motorsport; Rick Long, a former Indycar engine-builder; Tony Cotman, the mastermind behind the DP01; Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, Brian Barnhart, IndyCar's then-president of competition, and the accomplished Gil de Ferran, a two-time CART champion and the victor of the 2003 Indy 500. Dubbed ICONIC, an acronym both cheesy and purposeful—representing Innovative, Competitive, Open-wheel, New, Industry-relevant, and Cost-effective—the project aimed to revolutionize the sport.
The vision of multiple manufacturers thrived, but they cautioned that unit costs would skyrocket from $385,000 to nearly $700,000 without a monopoly. Purnell, undeterred, devised a plan: one manufacturer would handle the chassis, wings, side pods, and engine covers, while other manufacturers could contribute to the remaining aerodynamic surfaces at a maximum cost of $70,000 per kit. This enticing proposition sought to attract race car manufacturers, automotive giants, and even aerospace companies.
The coveted responsibility of constructing the chassis fell into Dallara's capable hands. The ICONIC committee was swayed by the Italian manufacturer's commitment to establishing a factory in Indianapolis. By April 2011, the teams unanimously agreed to maintain cost control by utilizing all-Dallara bodywork for the initial year of the new car. The following month they witnessed the grand unveiling of Dallara's two bodywork variations—one designed for road/street courses and the other for ovals. Reactions were mixed. Some critics found the car bulky and contrived, while purists lamented that the rear "bumper" pods blurred the boundaries of an open-wheel machine. Yet, amidst these concerns, everyone acknowledged the enhanced driver protection afforded by the wider floor, larger side pods, and the presence of bumpers.
The test team encountered a significant aero conundrum at the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In a candid conversation with this author, the oval configuration generated considerable drag, and Wheldon confessed his disappointment with the car's stability during lateral maneuvers. Even though the test car employed an early iteration of the 2.2-liter V6 turbo, its lap speeds of 210mph fell over 13mph short of the fastest race laps set by its predecessor in the previous May's Indy 500. By the time the new cars returned to IMS the following May, drastic changes were made to the superspeedway rear wing, reducing the presence of vertical surfaces.
The allure of new engine regulations and Roger Penske's influence enticed Chevrolet to return to IndyCar, while Lotus also expressed their desire to embark on the American racing trail. The newly powered Chevy and Honda cars, tested by Will Power and Scott Dixon, respectively, were unveiled to the public at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, showcased by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal on the eve of the 2011 season finale. Tragically, this would be the final race for the old Dallara IR-05 and the last start for Wheldon, who lost his life in a horrifying multi-car crash. In the wake of such a devastating event, criticisms regarding the perceived lack of elegance in the safety measures on the new car, now renamed DW12 in honor of Wheldon, understandably faded away.
The focus shifted back to performance testing, although the term "performance" took on a loose interpretation in the case of Lotus. When they hit the track in mid-January, it became glaringly apparent that the Judd-built engines were far from matching the prowess of the single-turbo Honda and twin-turbo Chevy powerplants. By the time the Indy 500 arrived, Simona De Silvestro of HVM Racing stood as the sole representative of the British marque, and the iconic name founded by Colin Chapman vanished from the scene at the year's end.
Despite Bernard's departure at the end of 2012, the series remained receptive to the prospect of engaging external aerodynamic specialists to employ their expertise through the provision of kits. Unfortunately, no interested parties emerged. Nonetheless, Derrick Walker, the then-president of operations and competition, responded to the resounding demand within the series to enhance brand identity by granting Chevrolet and Honda permission to produce their own aero kits.
Two drawbacks loomed: firstly, the expense of crafting a 2.2-liter V6 engine and aero kit dissuaded the prospects of a third OEM joining the competition, and secondly, unrestricted aero efficiency did not always result in aesthetic beauty. Chevy's creation, masterminded by Pratt & Miller, appeared burdened with weight, while Honda's Wirth Research kit possessed a wonderfully eccentric charm, particularly with its comically flexible multi-plane front wings. Witnessing a Honda IndyCar accelerate from a standstill in 2015 evoked images of the peculiar contraptions that emerged during humanity's early quest for flight. This eccentricity took a devastating toll when Sage Karam crashed out of the lead at Pocono in 2015, scattering car parts at random, including the nose section that tragically struck Justin Wilson with fatal consequences. Moreover, there had been three instances of cars flipping over during qualifying at Indy, as the high-speed airflow, exceeding 200mph, caught the underside of the vehicles in a state of extreme yaw.
Faced with an unresolved solution, Walker insisted that Indy qualifying be conducted with cars generating race-level downforce. By the subsequent year, the introduction of the domed underwing significantly mitigated the risk of flips. In the era of high-downforce from 2015 to 2017, Dixon of Ganassi, Penske's Simon Pagenaud, and his newest teammate Josef Newgarden claimed championships, all powered by Chevy engines and kits. This outcome could be seen as karmic justice, considering that Honda had been permitted to homologate a greater number of its aero components for 2016, following the underperformance of the Wirth design compared to Pratt & Miller's.
The evolution of the DW12—or IR12 or IR18, whichever moniker one prefers—is far from complete: starting from the following season, it will house a hybrid unit linked to the 2.2-liter engines (the proposed and tested 2.4-liter engines, unfortunately, faced indefinite delays) and will feature a magnesium gearbox to counterbalance the added weight of the MGU. For now, its expiration date remains elusive. While it's challenging to predict when the next-generation Dallara IndyCar will emerge, it's even harder to envision a future where Dallara faces a worthy rival, and IndyCar transforms into a multi-chassis series. The introduction of the IR05 was intended to compete with the Panoz/G-Force chassis of the time, and regulations were loose enough for teams to customize them with flair and flourishes.
Conversely, one of the primary goals of the DW12 was cost reduction, prompting IndyCar to impose more stringent constraints on the creative avenues available to teams.