Sunday, February 28, 2010

(102) What to do about IndyCar

IndyCar is in trouble. At least, that's what the stock car fans would tell you.

I do not agree. IndyCar is America's most attended open-wheel series. In the open wheel perspective it is quite successful. The Indy 500 is still one of the great spectacles of the world. Lots of money is still being made in IndyCar. The other road racing series all vie for spots on the calendar to run support races at IndyCar weekends. The only series to even come close to generating the kind of fandom that IndyCar enjoys is the American Le Mans series.

Yes, the Champ Car merge is a loss. Yes, interest is down from years past. However, IndyCar is far from dying. Still, they need something to revitalize the series and get interest to go back up again.

The IRL recognizes this. That's why they are working to develop a new car for the 2012 season. I have my own ideas about it that I'd like to share.

On the schedule side, they need to make sure that they have a balanced number of road/street and oval races. That they have. Two problems with it as it is, however.

Problem one. In 2010, on the road course side, there are 4 traditional permanent circuit races, 4 street courses and 1 airport course. Too many street courses. IndyCars are big cars by open wheel standards. Really big. They are the only open wheelers where the driver has to scramble over the bodywork to reach the cockpit. That's why you never see drivers getting into their cars on TV. It's ungainly. This also means that there is little room to maneuver in a tight street circuit. You have sedan-sized cars with no fenders. They have to be overly careful on street courses. Sturdy as IndyCars are, you can't keep banging wheels to nudge past in a short 100 foot braking zone. Less street courses, please. They're trains.

Problem two. They're too clumped. The first 4 races of the series are street courses separated by one road course. After that, you have a string of ovals including the Indy 500. Then 3 more road courses separated by a street course and the race at Edmonton Airport. Finally, a string of 4 more oval speedways.

Mix 'em up a bit. I know it sounds kind of pedantic, but you're trying to boost a brand here. Make it spicy and interesting. Make those drivers transition frequently, not just get into an oval or road course groove.

On the brand side things have to change too. IndyCar has a decent world perception, mostly riding on the 500 and the very multinational field of drivers. But I think IndyCar still has points to gain with the international community. I think they need to go a little bit more global, in two ways.

One, obviously, more international events. That's coming along. We've got the new Sao Paulo race as the season opener this year. Awesome. Keep doing that. Could you imagine IndyCars at Spa? That's a bit of a stretch, but I think the IRL should try to move a bit eastward with their events. An event in England wouldn't go amiss, I think. I think we also need one or two more events in Canada, or try for some more in the south. Mexico perhaps?

And two, get closer to F1. I know being swallowed up by the FIA is not on the IRL's to do list, but the Indy 500 has a long and glorious history with F1. F1 is kind of IndyCar's brother. If the FIA would agree to let the IRL run a support event in Montreal, I think it would be better for everyone. F1 would get closer to America, and IndyCar would get more international eyes on it.

Now the car itself.

In my opinion, the public consciousness is moving away from downforce. Downforce is so 2008. The latest breed of Formula 1 car has seen a reduction in the number of wings, and an increase in the mechanical grip owing to the reintroduction of fully slick tires.

I think downforce is fine. A bit of downforce makes for good oval racing. Just not too much of it. I don't think ground effects are a good idea. Wings first, but not too many of them. I actually think the oval car is pretty good as it is, but I'm not an oval racer, so look elsewhere for that.

I'm going to focus on improvements to the road car. If you're keen, you've already picked up that I'm alluding to two cars. One for road, one for oval.

In my mind, the road car should have less downforce than the oval car, not more. Bear in mind that most road racing tracks in the US were built for cars with zero downforce a million years ago. Many European tracks have aged rather well, but that's not stopping Formula 1 from building/using tons of new ones to suit the new cars. I think oodles of downforce is bad for road racing.

Know what else is bad for racing? Spec cars.

Sounds like blasphemy, right? Not really. Spec series are great for learning, and great for finding the best driver. But they make for kind of predictable races. Look at last year. Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing won 16 out of 17 rounds (Dale Coyne won at the Glen). Allowing some degree of influence on the car's design by the team beyond setting up the chassis adds more variables and more variables means more unpredictable. This is the pinnacle of American open wheel racing, and a team sport. So why does the team just set the car up, change a few tires and fill the car up with fuel while the driver does all the heavy lifting? Let them build the thing. Let them really get their hands dirty. They're a motor racing team. That's what they do.

Make IndyCar a Formula again. But hold your horses, automakers. Instead of a team using a bespoke engine, supply the framework for an engine from the supplier (Honda, or whomever it is in 2012). The team acts as a tuning house, not an engine builder. Let the engineers fine tune various parts of the engine. Let them use some of their own parts. Let also the engineers figure out which parts those should be. It shouldn't be inconsequential parts, either. A fuel gallons per minute limiter wouldn't go amiss, either, I think. Lets see the engineers make as much horsepower as they can with a finite amount of fuel flow. Now that's a real test of efficiency.

Same thing with the chassis. Let the engineers have free reign over certain sections of the bodywork to allow distinction, and allow them to alter the suspension geometry (like track width within a certain envelope) and various other parts. Allow different differentials, gearboxes, and other big bits, like brakes or shocks. Not only does this increase the engineering side, it increases the business side. You get more manufacturers involved and more money is changing hands. That's a good thing.

Add a spending cap and now you've got a Formula.

But hold on, there's a few more key changes I'd like to see.

Some guys want to see some really small turbocharged engines. I'd say no. That's not we do in Americuh.

Big engines. Bump 'em up to 5 liters at least. V8s. Not primitive ones like in NASCAR. Very advanced, big V8 engines. Give them a billion valves per cylinder, whatever. Just make them rev really high.

Then supercharge the living snot out of 'em.

I'm thinking anywhere between 850 to 1100 horsepower. About 900 sounds about right.

You might say that it's too much for ovals. It's not. We removed downforce, remember? The cars will be wheelspin limited and won't generate any more Gs than they already do. And remember, the amount of horsepower required for pushing the car faster at 230 MPH is cataclysmic. I don't think you'd see straightaway speeds increase a whole lot. The cornering speeds would remain pretty much the same (on ovals), if not a bit slower because of increased weight and less downforce. I mean come on. The cars now are doing about 600 horsepower. Most supercars have more than that.

You see now how this is fitting in with my earlier reductions in road course downforce? Big engines in low downforce cars like to go sideways. Sideways is exciting. We like sideways. Give them softer sidewall tires for road racing to encourage those big angles. Make those cars look difficult to drive. An example of a series that does this very well is GP2. Those cars actually do look like a handful, and it's exciting just to watch them go around the track.

Another change that I think might (might) be good. Success ballast.

Don't burn me at the stake just yet. Touring cars have been using weight handicaps for a while, and it works fantastically. It keeps the field incredibly tight, and it stops complete domination from one team. I see no reason why not to try it with IndyCar. Try it, if it doesn't work, fine. Same as everything else I've mentioned.

Am I crazy? Do you really have to ask that? If I was anything less I would be ashamed. Most good ideas start out crazy, and then get refined by more sane (smarter?) people. Stop taking racing so seriously.

Either way I'll be interested to see what they come up with for 2012. There's already been some crazy designs popping up.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

(101) Porsche 911 Turbo S

A few months ago, I bought a Porsche. Unfortunately for me, it doesn't have any wheels, or a cabin, or an engine (though it does have a motor). So no, it's not a real Porsche.

What I've bought, is a Fanatec Porsche 911 Turbo S. Google-fu practitioners will already know what that is, but let me explain it for those who do not have a black belt in cyberspace.

Fanatec (pronounced fanatic, not fan-a-tech) is a German company who makes gaming controllers. Their feature product is the 911 racing wheel (they have various models). The one I have here is the Turbo S.

Fanatec 911 Turbo S

Impressive looking, is it not? Lets run down the main features.

It costs $350.

It works on every major current-generation platform, that is to say, PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

The wheel has 900 degrees of rotation (2.5 turns lock to lock, same as most real cars).

It has a clutch pedal, and a 6-speed + reverse H-pattern stick shifter.

The wheel rim is leather wrapped.

It has 5 storable configurations for rotation, force feedback strength, rumble strength and a variety of other settings via the LED display at the top of the wheel center.

The buttons on the face of the wheel light up based on what mode you are in.

And it has belt driven force feedback, rather than gear driven.

Inroduction and Overview

So, why would you want this? Well, a few reasons. First of all, it's the only gaming wheel that will work on all 3 major platforms. Second, it's fun. And third, unless you want to spend upwards of a grand on your sim racing setup, this is the most high-end mass-market wheel set you can buy.

In the set, you get a number of things:

* The wheel.
* Table mounting system for the wheel.
* A drilling template for mounting the wheel to a cockpit using bolts.
* The pedals (brake, gas, clutch, in order of importance).
* Metal plate for mounting the pedals to a cockpit, or just to weigh them down on the floor.
* The shifters, both 6-speed and sequential up/down.
* 2 metal rods to connect the shifters to the wheel.
* Shifter cable, pedal cable, power cable and a USB cable for connecting to the PC and Playstation 3.
* A USB wireless dongle for connecting wirelessly to the PC and PS3 (the Xbox 360 connection is handled wirelessly through the wheel).

The Wheel

Lets start with the wheel itself.

As I mentioned, it's wrapped in leather. Real leather. So it does smell like a new car. It also feels good in the hands as the rim is pretty thick. It's nearly 12 inches across, so it's not as big as a real car's wheel. There are 8 regular face buttons on the upper spokes, with the directional pad and start and back buttons on the lower spoke. The paddle shifters are behind the wheel, and are part metal and part rubber. The buttons and paddles feel good to push, and all make positive clicks. On the PC, they are all programmable for whatever functions you want.

The rest of the wheel is made of textile rubber, with a legitimate Porsche badge in the middle. It's not heavy, it feels like about 5 pounds, maybe a bit more, and it's very compact - I would be surprised if anyone didn't have space on their desk for it. The construction is quite sturdy however, and there is absolutely no slop in any of the components.

On the top of the wheel is the LED display, which is used to select and save various settings. The settings are:

* Saved preset (1-5).
* Sensitivity (210, 270, 360, 540, 900 degrees depending on the platform and also the ability to set custom rotation limits in the PC software using any number between 210 and 900 degrees).
* Force feedback strength.
* Shock (rumble) intensity.
* Drift mode (1-3). More on that later.
* And ABS vibration.

This is very useful. Instead of having to jump out of the game, tune the wheel in the software, and then jump back in again, you can tune the wheel on the fly, as you're driving. Very, very convenient.

The only iffy feature is ABS vibration. By setting this, the wheel will rumble when you press the brake down by a certain percentage. You can set the ABS vibration to come on at 85% brake pressure, for instance. The problem here is that the wheel doesn't know if the actual tires in the game are locking up. So in my opinion it's a little useless.

The other negative of the wheel is the ergonomics. If you have big hands, your palm will punch the buttons near the rim. If you have long fingers (like me) there is no place to put them, because the paddle shifters get in the way. Speaking of the shifters, the little metal bits that are attached to them protrude out, and are not rounded. There are a couple of sharp spots on them, so you might poke yourself in the middle of a flamboyant drift. You might also catch your thumb in between the metal plate and the wheel, and with force feedback this strong it might give you a pretty good tweak. This almost happened to me once, but I managed to grab the wheel and stop it before it did any damage. You can unscrew the metal plates, though, if you want, and these problems go away.

The last point is not so much a problem, just a failing of physics. Clamp type mounts do not work. Period. The Fanatec table mount is no exception, and this one fails to grip the table well enough as well, and as a result the wheel will begin to migrate across your desk if you're driving spiritedly. The solution is a drill and 4 bolts.

Force Feedback

The video above demonstrates the force feedback. The wheel is set to 900 degrees in normal mode and I'm using Live for Speed on the PC. As you can see, the wheel responds well to the behavior of the car and gives you plenty of information. The belt drive rather than gear drive makes a big difference, and it doesn't feel like there's a mechanism behind it since it's so smooth. There is one rough spot. Literally. Every 90 degrees of rotation, there is a little "bump" in either the belt or something to do with the motor. Not noticeable during normal use, but if you just sit and gently turn the wheel you can feel them. The belt also makes slight squeaky noises until the wheel actually warms up, which takes about half a lap. I find this hilarious. I'm one of those "if it has mechanical annoyances, then it has more character and is a better product in the end" weirdos. So I like that.

Speaking of heat, being hand-made, every wheel is a little different. I suppose this won't happen on every wheel, but when the wheel gets warm, a little fan comes on. Sometimes a slight rattling noise comes out of the wheel when the fan is running, so I presume it's something rubbing the fan slightly. Might've been dislodged during shipping. It seems to have gone away, however. If you have a particularly demanding game, the wheel can get worryingly hot. Mine hasn't exploded, so it must be able to handle it.

Anyway, returning to force feedback, there is one more feature you might remember from earlier - drift mode. I like this feature. It sort of almost simulates power steering in that the wheel gets lighter, more "springy", and the damping gets removed, so it can spin very fast. Useful for catching slides. Using it is really personal preference.

The Pedals

The pedals actually surprised me. I thought they would be flimsy and plasticky and generally not feel very good. I was wrong. They feel very nice. The throttle is silky smooth and very light, but not so light as you can't feel it with shoes on. The brake is very stiff, stiffer than most passenger cars (story time: I went to drive after having used these pedals for about half an hour, and when I got to the end of my street, I braked much harder than I meant to. That's how stiff and convincing the brake is), and just as smooth as the throttle. The clutch is fascinating. It actually "springs" just like a real clutch. It's heavy at first (not as heavy as the brake), then it gets lighter as it sinks in. Apart from the short travel, about half that of a real clutch (which can make setting off smoothly a bit challenging), it is very lifelike.

The only downside to the pedals is just the positioning. But that is a Porsche problem. The brake is miles away from the throttle, so those of you who heel-and-toe by covering both pedals are going to have a tough time with riding the throttle when you don't mean to. I had to adjust my technique quite a bit to get around the fat bottom that the throttle has. Even after getting used to it after the first few days, I was still on the throttle occasionally when I didn't mean to be, as you can see in the video below. The pedals are also kind of slippery, so you have to make sure you get firm positioning on the brake. Shoes are recommended - socks are hopeless.

Footwork in Forza Motorsport 3 on the Xbox 360. Like my Nintendo stuff?


Lets start with the 6-speed (above).

The shifters are, unfortunately, the worst part of the wheel (though that's not saying much). The 6-speed is very clicky and stiff, and has a very short throw. The mounting system used (2 rods shoved into the wheel and clamped down) is slightly unstable, and wobbles slightly while shifting. Swapping shifters requires too much effort to be worthwhile - they sick onto the ends of the rods like glue, especially the sequential shifter. And, since the shifters are attached to the wheel, the act of shifting will make the wheel move around even more when using the clamp mount.

The sequential is alright. Again it makes a very loud click, which is annoying. But the most annoying part is the fact that the sequential uses the same inputs as the 6-speed. Up and down gears count as 2nd and 1st gears respectively. So that means you have to re-configure the control assignments in the software if you switch from 6 speed to sequential.

So, it's best just to leave the 6-speed attached and use the paddle shifters when you need to shift sequentially.

Playing Live for Speed with the Turbo S

So, conclusions then. The Turbo S is a great wheel, no question about that. But it does have it's share of niggles, like everything. It certainly gives, overall, a pretty realistic experience, and I would recommend getting one regardless of whether you want to just have fun or practice your real race craft.

Thumbs up from me. Go for it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

(100) Centennial

Well well well. The infamous 100th entry. How far we've come.

When I started this blog, it was really just a trial stage. I figured I'd write some stuff, and see if people would read it, but mostly it was just something for me to do. If someone found it interesting then all the better.

In looking back at the older entries, it's fun to see how my attitude towards racing and my thoughts about it have changed. This blog has been going for over 2 years now, and I've changed quite a bit since then.

Readership continues to increase every month. There are a lot of returning readers, and just as many new ones. Don't worry, obviously I can't see anything personal. Just the amount of hits, returning and new, and the amount of pageloads. I want to thank you guys for reading. I'm sure some of you have stuck it out since the beginning, and if you have, kudos. It means a lot to me. And my ego.

The blog will continue pretty much as it has been for the last 2 years. I like to keep it simple. There is a potential dry spell coming up, since I'm ready to move up to full size cars, but I don't have the money for it right now. I'll try to keep updating as much as I can, but without money to do actual racing there won't be as much to talk about. It seems the economy has finally caught up with us.

I played with the idea of monetizing the blog with a few ads, as that can be a good source of income, but I don't want to do that to you guys. This is free to run, and only costs a few keystrokes to keep updated, so I can't see the justification of doing that. Still, it's a possibility that might come about, so if it does, I hope it's not too inconvenient. I don't think it will happen, though.

I hope you all keep reading and hopefully enjoying my scribblings. Thanks for reading.