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What’s next for Honda in INDYCAR engine wars?

October 7, 2012

Honda’s engine was great in the Indianapolis 500
Anne Proffit photo

Honda Performance Development (HPD) were first out of the box to enter the IZOD IndyCar Series when the new engine rules were introduced about two years prior to implementation. The former single provider to the series assisted in the development of the Dallara chassis that’s spec for everyone competing and did quite a bit of R&D for INDYCAR, with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon driving, prior to the commencement of manufacture competition at the start of the 2012 season.

At the final 2011 race in Las Vegas, marred by Wheldon’s tragic death, HPD and its soon-to-be former technical partners Ilmor Inc had a get-together where gifts were traded and thanks given for so many years of partnership. There was camaraderie all around between the folks at Ilmor and HPD.

Times certainly changed the moment competition began at St Petersburg at the end of March. Gloves were off and HPD found that its choice of a single turbocharger wasn’t quite as good on the street and road courses as Chevrolet/Ilmor’s choice of twin turbos. Lotus was also using twin turbochargers but was so far out of the game it barely bears mentioning.

Apparently, Honda failed to recall that the folks at Ilmor had been the ones to assist them in the development of their previous Indy car engine. Ilmor, of course, designed and developed Mercedes-Benz engines for CART use and helped develop the current M-B engine used by Mercedes and Mclaren in Formula One. Mario Ilien is no slouch, nor is anyone else working in the UK and Michigan Ilmor workshops.

The Ilmor-designed Chevrolet engine was dominant throughout 2012
photo courtesy of GM Racing

Honda and HPD admitted their primary thrust this year was to win the Indianapolis 500 – which they did with Dario Franchitti earning his third Indy 500 title – and his third title earned under caution. The Honda engines were nowhere in qualifying but came to life in the race itself. Honda went on to earn a few other wins but wasn’t able to win the manufacturers’ title that handily went to Chevrolet in 2012.

What’s next?

If history repeats itself, HPD and Honda will come back with a vengeance. One only has to remember what occurred in CART when Honda first came in. They were nowhere near the capabilities of the other engine makers in that field but inched their way up, gained good partners like Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and went on a winning rampage that began in 1996 and lasted until the time that CART/Champ Car pretty much kicked them out by stating – without conversing with engine makers – that they were intending to go to an Indy Racing League-type 3.5-L normally aspirated formula. That never happened, of course, but the lack of transparency didn’t sit well with Robert Clarke, at that time HPD chief.

Honda was pissed and threatened to go away, something it did in 2003. While not wholly successful that year, in 2004 Honda won the IRL championship with Tony Kanaan, who finished every lap of every single race in the season. It was a master stroke that drove away Toyota and Chevrolet from Indy Racing League competition; only Chevy came back this year.

I fully expect Honda and HPD to be far better prepared when they come to St Pete next March; I suspect Roger Griffiths and his group in Santa Clarita, CA are continually hunkered down at their computer modules and in the dyno rooms, readying pieces and parts that aren’t regulated by homologation so that they can beat Chevy and Ilmor at this game.

And that, friends, is what we all prefer to see – real competition between engine makers in INDYCAR.

As for Lotus, say bye-bye. There’s no money left now that the car maker has new owners with different priorities. Might they return? It’s possible, but a year to regroup and to better prepare will do the Lotus folks and Engine Developments Ltd a world of good.

By Anne Proffit

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