Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Open Wheel, Open Mind

by Simon

Tammy and that Steve Ulfelder chappie are forever picking on me because I like open wheel racing and racecars. I could hurl abuse at them which will drive them into back into their holes of unenlightenment, but I’ve decided to take the higher road and explain why I like open wheel cars.

If I’m being honest, I never wanted to race on circuit. I was intending to go into rallying but I took a spin in a single seater and I was hooked. This was the genre of motorsport I wanted to compete in and I was better suited to them.

Now, I could bat on about the power to weight ratio, the low center of gravity, etc., but I won’t, because it’s the not overwhelming reason. The simple reason why I like single seaters is because I like their simplicity. Yes, at first blush, an F1 or IndyCar looks immensely complicated and they are, but underneath their computers lay quite a simple and elegant machine. If you compare a production based road going car to a single seater racecar, the road car is more complicated with its power steering, computer, traction control, ABS, servo assisted brakes, airbags, doors, fan belts, etc. A single seater has none of this. Essentially, the car is stripped down to the basic components that the car needs. There were no complicated electrics. There weren’t any headlights, dashboard displays or control systems to worry about. Frankly, the electrical loom inside a road car frightens me. With all those wires, I don’t know what powers what. In my formula cars, a tiny battery powered the electronic ignition and starter motor and that was it. The brakes were simple with no servo. The same applied to the steering, no power assistance. The cars are air-cooled so fans and there's not even an alternator to keep the battery charged. This makes the car relatively low tech. The clever stuff came in the guise of the suspension with its wishbones and pushrods to push and pull at the shocks and springs—and despite its complexity, the suspension worked off very simple mechanical principles.

All this simplicity was very comforting to me. When I was setting up the car, I could see how the suspension worked. Need to adjust it and I could simply. If the electrics crapped out, it was very easy to establish to cause of the fault. The electrics fails on a production based racecar and with so many circuits operating so many items, I’d be lost for an answer. And I didn’t have any awkward bodywork to work around. I needed to get to a part of the car and the bodywork came away at the flick of a latch. No panel beating for me. All this simplicity boiled down to confidence. I knew the language of my racecar and I understood it. Nothing got lost in translation. And all because I knew how it worked and I could see how it worked. Production based racecars fall prey to the mystery of how an automaker primarily designed a car for the road and not the track.

So there you have it. Open wheel racecars—simple, elegant, clean and above all, fun.


  1. I think you forgot one really important thing about open wheel cars: standing starts! I'm not sure anything is quite as exhilarating as standing on grid with the battery plugged in under the wing of your Atlantic car, waiting for the call to "Start your engines!" Then bustling off the grid to the other side of the wall while the cars speed off close enough to touch. Closed wheel cars, like the TransAm cars, are great too. Big thundering cars that vibrate in your chest as they go by --- and, at least in our TransAm, not full of much but the essentials to make the car go fast.

  2. Here's my dirty little secret, Simon: I love and appreciate open-wheel racers far more than you think I do. Many years ago I took a Skip Barber School in a Formula Ford (that's what they were using at the time). The directness and, as you say, simplicity of those cars were amazing. You could look down at the shift rods and watch them operate.

    (Side note: We had to double-clutch those cars, as their transmissions lacked synchros. Old school!)

    As to the directness: It's hard to explain how quickly pure race cars respond to inputs. Touch the steering wheel and YOU TURN RIGHT NOW. Tap the brakes and IT'S AS IF SOMEBODY TOSSED A PARACHUTE OUT THE BACK.

    Production-based racers are my first love simply because I've always found them so cool, but yeah, I get it where open-wheel cars are concerned. Not that I ever plan to stop teasing you about those adorable little go-carts.

  3. Sigh. Well, I *get* it, Simon, and I can believe that for a driver, they're significantly more fun to operate than a sportscar.

    However, to the observer (at least this one)? Nothing beats battered and filthy sportscars (and prototypes) in their 18th hour of an endurance race, when there's still the equivalent of more than three open-wheel races to go! I love endurance races, and I love that the cars in them aren't fragile, but can brush a wall or bump another car and keep going. I guess I like the philosophy that "rubbin' is racin'."

    I'm always holding my breath when open-wheel cars get near each other. And even if I admire the strategy and minute forces that make open-wheel passing possible, I'll still vote for a little banging fenders as one car muscles past the other in a corner every time.

    And I, like Steve, refuse to give up picking on you. :-)

  4. P.S. Kathy, you're right about the drama and adrenaline and excitement of standing starts. Wheee! Have you watched any of the Aussie V8 series. Those are great!

  5. Steve: I knew you secretly agreed with me. :-)

    Kathy: Standing starts are an art in themselves.

    Tammy: Why so stubborn?