Which Will Be The Engine Of Choice?

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With all of the discussions going on about who has engines and who doesn’t, we seem to be losing focus on what we should be debating about. With the new 2.2 liter V-6 engines that will finally be competing next month, the biggest issue should be – which one is fastest?

The general consensus is that it won’t be the Lotus. For whatever reason, Lotus got a late start in their development and has been decidedly behind Honda and Chevrolet from the beginning. Honda got a slight jump ahead of Chevy and hit the track in early August. Chevy hit the track several weeks later, but I don’t believe Lotus actually turned a wheel until January. In the racing world, lagging that far behind is an eternity.

Although the Lotus engine came in several pounds lighter than the competition, officials in the IZOD IndyCar Series saw fit to punish Lotus by forcing them to make up the difference in weight by adding ballast to every Lotus car on the grid. Of course, series officials allowed them to go unpunished for their most egregious offense – not being able to meet their quota as an engine supplier, but I think I’ve addressed that inequity enough lately.

So that leaves Chevy and Honda to vie for the title of “coveted engine”. Remember those days from the late eighties, when only a select few were lucky enough to have a Chevrolet engine in their car? The rest of the field was saddled with a Porsche, Judd or Cosworth (or a Buick at Indianapolis). It ended up where the haves were the Chevy teams (Penske, Newman/Haas and Galles) and the have-nots were everyone else. That domination lasted until Ford entered the fray in 1992 with the Ford-Cosworth XB. Then suddenly, the Chevy-B, then Chevy-C engines were passé and Ford was suddenly the engine of choice. That is, until Honda finally figured things out by the 1996 season.

Will that be the case with the current versions of Honda and Chevrolet? Will one be a clear choice over the other? It could be. The problem is, I think most – if not all – teams signed three-year agreements with their respective engine lease deal. Whichever team comes up short, can expect some intense pressure from their teams to figure out a way to develop more horsepower – quickly.

So who is it going to be? In an ideal world, Chevy and Honda would split the amount of victories with a few thrown the way of Lotus. But that’s not going to happen. One of the engines will be woeful; one will probably be above average and one will likely end up being far superior. For argument’s sake, let’s assume Lotus is the woeful engine. That leaves Chevrolet and Honda.

Most are leaning towards giving the early nod to Honda, since they have been in the series since 2003. That would suit me just fine. I always owned at least one Honda (sometimes two) from 1981 through 2009, when I stepped away for a Nissan. Next week, that will change. My name is on a Honda that is due into the dealership in a few days. I’m glad to be getting back into one, especially since Honda has been such a loyal partner to the series for so long. That being said, my suspicion is that the new Honda engine will not be that strong at the beginning of the season.

Remember that the Honda engine that ran Chevy and Toyota out of the series after the 2005 season was built by Ilmor Engineering – the same company that built the dominant Chevy powerplant of the late eighties. Ilmor will not be building the new Honda engines. They will be built directly by Honda Performance Development (HPD), who built the last Honda engine to run in CART.

Ilmor will be building the new Chevy engine, reuniting the bow-tie with Ilmor for the first time since 2002, when the Oldsmobile engine Ilmor began building in 2001 was re-badged as a Chevy for ’02. In 2003, Ilmor began their association with Honda that lasted until this past season. Prior to the 2002 season; Ilmor Engineering had not been associated with Chevrolet since 1993, when Chevy announced they were leaving CART. What would have been badged the Chevy-D engine simply was known as the Ilmor D in 1994, before Mercedes-Benz joined forces for the 1995 season.

For whatever reason, the Ilmor-Mercedes CART program was underwhelming, at best. There were a few race wins, but no championships. It was considered the third best engine to have, behind Honda and Ford and just ahead of Toyota. Then Toyota caught up and passed them by 2000 – the year that Mercedes left the series at the end of the season.

These are all-new engines for 2012; different size, fewer cylinders, turbo-chargers. I am not an engineer, so take what I say with the proverbial grain of salt. Very little will translate from last year’s engine to this year’s. Honda engineers surely had access to the data but Ilmor owns the data. What little use last year’s data can be, I have this gut feeling that it will benefit Ilmor more than it will HPD – at least in the first half of the season.

My theory could be all wet. Remember, most “experts” seem to think Honda will prevail. Experts usually have earned the respect that they garner by being right in their chosen profession most of the time. I, on the other hand, am an amateur blogger who blogs at night and has yet to earn a dime from this site. My opinion is worth about as much as I’m paid to give it – nothing. If you’ve paid any attention to my race picks, you know what I’m talking about. But if you ask me – when the 2012 season is finished, Chevrolet will wind up being the engine of choice.

Shameless plug: Tomorrow night is Blogger Night on Trackside on 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. I will be interviewed along with many of my fellow IndyCar bloggers. The show runs from 7:00 to 9:00 (Eastern). I am told that I’ll be the first blogger interviewed somewhere around about 7:20 Eastern. To listen live, click here and then click on the link that says "Click Here to listen LIVE to 1070 The Fan!". It’s usually good to relate a voice to a name – except in my case where my incurable southern accent makes for good fodder. But Blogger Night is always enjoyable. This one should be no different.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Which Will Be The Engine Of Choice?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I believe that it is very possible that Chevy Ilmore will be the firecracker powerplant, however, it, the Chevy, may not be as reliable… Honda, generally being more conservative will be competative, but will be more durable and may prevail nearly as much as the Chevy from a reliability standpoint.

  2. Chevy has to be the main choice because they have a better group of drivers (Penske, Andretti and KV). Honda will be very competitive and Lotus, I see as a sneaker for some wins maybe a Simona de Silvestro at China or something like that.

  3. I will train my “expert eye” on Chevrolet because Ilmor can build an INDYCAR engine, but the main reason is that “the Captain always has a chair when the music stops.” With that said, I have long been a fan of Honda and have owned several and would be interested in driving another. I currently drive a Ford and I find that after 200K miles the ol’ Explorer is still reliable. It is also paid for! :)

  4. Savage Henry Says:

    I’m hoping that one engine is fast but of questionable reliability (my vote is Chevy) and another is a bit slower but rock-solid (I say Honda here). I hope that during the season Lotus catches up and is competitive toward the end of the year.

    Like many have already stated, I don’t think an engine blowing up here or there is necessarily a bad thing (as long as it doesn’t happen so often it becomes an embarrassment). It will add a lot of interest to some of the traditionally less exciting races (ahem, looking at you Belle Isle) if you don’t know if the leader is going to make it to the end.

  5. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Lotus. The lower weight is a huge advantage because they get to pick where they put the added weight to make up the difference (low). The car in theory should handle better. What I do not like about Lotus is the anchor teams are with the other two. Having Ganassi or Penske help develop your engines is a huge advantage.

  6. …and all of this Belle Isle bashing is making me nervous. I temporarily live in Michigan for grad school and already have tickets. The only thing I recall about Belle Isle is Helio’s famous block on J Will. Should I book a hotel and enjoy a case?

    • Savage Henry Says:

      Belle Isle is a nice place to watch a race. The road and street courses are always fun live. It’s just bad on TV. The course is narrow and bumpy and there’s nowhere to pass. As a result, the races have been processions.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    It should be noted that Ilmor/Mercedes-Benz was phenomenal in 1997, winning the CART manufacturer’s championship with 9 race victories to Honda’s 6 and Ford-Cosworth’s 2. They were never close to that again, though, winning just 3 Moore races.

    My pick is Chevy and that is a complete guess. I don’t see either Penske or Ganassi going winless, so I imagine something like 2005 (where Chip and Rog wrung 4 wins out of their Toyotas) is a worse-case scenario for 2012.
    I will also be very surprised if engine reliability is not a big factor at Indy this year. Could give us a real surprise winner.

  8. If Lotus has good results it will more than likely be at the hands of Oriol Servia in the DRR car. Simona could do well too, but it seems she’s (again) strapped to an inherent handicap between the team and now the engine.

    I’m looking for Honda to surprise everyone with their competitiveness with the Chevy-Ilmor.

  9. Let us not forget that the weight issues of the engines were established in the rules before the design process started. Lotus receiving a advantage and added weight because their engine was light was intentional. Lotus did this so the weight could be moved around, and that is why they went light and adding weight is fair and Lotus can determine where thay put it.Point is that people think that Lotus by building a light engine are now having a penalty and forced to add weight. Lotus loves the penalty mainly because thay can put weight where thay want it, not justn on the centerline of the engine.This could help them in handling performance.

  10. Not gonna get all nerdy here, but there are differences between the twin turbo setup (that Chevy and Lotus have) and a single turbo setup (that Honda is using) that should make for one engine or the other being better on certain tracks. Namely, the Chevy and Lotus will be using smaller turbos (in that there’s one for each bank of cylinders), which will spin up faster and provide power quicker than a single turbo (this is speaking generally…maybe Honda will be just as good, but I haven’t seen the dyno sheets to know). Earlier power delivery should provide better low end acceleration, better driveability and probably faster laptimes on road and street courses and maybe small ovals. On the other side of the equation, a single large turbo is more efficient (again, not to get nerdy here, and I sort of forget some of my engine design learnin’ that I did years ago, so I may be a little off, but bear with me), in that there is more volume inside the turbo that is not directly adjacent to the wall of the turbo (think of this as having a small, two room apartment versus an equal square-footage but single room apartment, and think about which feels roomier). The end result is that the large single turbo is better at high speeds once the turbo is spun up to peak RPM, which we’ll certainly see at Indy and Fontana.

    Of course, all of this is one of those “all other things being equal” deals, which they aren’t, and one engine could just be all around better than the others. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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