Welcome to the RACER Mailbag. Questions for Marshall Pruett or any of RACER’s other writers can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t guarantee that every letter will be published, but we’ll answer as many as we can. Published questions may be edited for style or clarity.
Q: There was some Twitter discussion going on in regard to the Dallara contract extension and if it could offer an A/B chassis option to teams. (I like the idea, but sure cost is the issue). Someone pointed out that in 1990 March had different chassis for the Alfa Romeo team compared to the Porsche team. I always thought this was due to the engines, especially Porsche as they seemed to be radical with virtually everything! Hoping you can offer some insight (and of course there is a unique link here, as Big Al drove the Alfa and the Porsche! I believe he was the only driver to do both).
MARSHALL PRUETT: Great opening question to start the new year. As much as I long for the days of having multiple chassis suppliers, today’s IndyCar team owners aren’t receiving the same level of sponsorship funding to feel comfortable with the risks involved with chassis options. The costs are high enough to make sticking with a single chassis the popular choice.
What that means here is if Dallara offered a Type A and a Type B chassis, you’d have a few things taking place: Team owners would ask why all the best ideas weren’t put into a single chassis, because if there’s two options from the same company, both options will be lacking something.
And after that, as we’ve seen in just about every series where there are chassis options, one will stand out as the best all-round choice and that’s where the entire field will migrate the moment it becomes clear. If it’s Type A, all those with Type Bs will be forced to take big financial hits — since there won’t be a second-hand market of buyers wanting the less competitive Type Bs. And then they’ll need to buy Type As, which will take a while to arrive and force them to lose more races with the Type Bs.
We’ve seen it in the past as March had the upper hand, then Lola, and as Lola began to dominate CART in the late 1980s, March lost most of the market and was gone by the end of 1990. In the 1990s with customer cars, Lola was king until Reynard arrived in 1994, and by 1996, Reynard was the car to have. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the tides turned again as Lola made a comeback, Reynard fell to second place, and the Lola was the car to have until Champ Car went to a spec Panoz in 2007. In almost every scenario, the most competitive and financially capable teams migrated back and forth, parking the unfavored chassis to buy whichever model established itself as the best of the bunch.
It’s also not too far removed from the 2012 season where there were three engine suppliers, and only two (Chevy and Honda) were quality options. Those who were saddled with the Lotus engines suffered dire consequences, and even for the lucky few who got out of their contracts and moved to Chevy or Honda, most went out of business or left IndyCar or were forced to merge with a bigger team to stay afloat. All because one option was the wrong choice and as a result, poor finishes were guaranteed and sponsors got nervous.
I continue to hope CART-era dollars return so all of the awesome variety we had can return.
A quick closing note on the 1990 Marchs you referenced: The NTT IndyCar Series has two senior staff members in its technical/engineering department. By chance, one of them, Bill Pappas, was involved with the design of the 1990 March commissioned by Alfa Romeo, and the other, Tino Belli, was involved with the 1990 March that Porsche commissioned.
Q: When teams run a one-off Indy 500 project, how much funding, either from the driver or by sponsorship dollars, does it take to obtain a seat for a race?
Phillip Schmitz, Dallas/Fort Worth
MP: A few years ago, I’d hear $500,00-600,000 mentioned as a fairly common number. Over the last year or two, I’ve heard it creep closer to $700,000-$750,000 as a starting point for quality teams, and know of one or two teams with Indy-winning histories who’ve pushed that buy-in number to $1 million or so.
Simply put, the days of drivers walking around in Gasoline Alley with half a budget and drawing the interest of an Indy 500 entrant to work out a deal are long gone. Right now, in the first week of January, I know of one-two seats left that are truly open for the highest bidder to take. With Chevy and Honda holding the keys on how many engines leases are made available for the 500, we’ve had the equivalent of IndyCar eBay for quite a while.
Q: How can you say Max was a deserving champion when Hamilton had his measure all race long until Masi changed the rules? Your bias shows and hurts your credibility.
MP: Because the championship is settled over an entire season. If that’s something I’m telling you for the first time, we’ve got bigger problems to fix. If you’d bothered to read or listen to all I offered on the topic, you’d know that I’m no fan of Max and have been a big Lewis fan since his F3 days. And while that’s the case on a personal level, none of that matters when I’m at work.
From the first race of 2021 to the last, Max was better, and when the title decider is a contentious one like we had, I’m not going to blindly throw my support behind my favorite F1 driver who lost, so save the bias/credibility nonsense for someone who cares. I’m not the one.