Are Engine Failures Always A Bad Thing?
Last week, I was reading Curt Cavin’s Q&A when I noticed a perplexing comment. A gentleman from Hookset, NH greets the announcement that the IZOD IndyCar Series will allow multiple engine manufacturers, with mixed emotions. The reader said he is glad to have some diversification, but says he “hates to see engines detonate and driver’s spinning in their own oil as the manufacturers push the limit to exceed the competition“.
It’s about time there was competition. The current spec formula is the main thing that has made IndyCar Racing so boring lately. Everyone has the same equipment – the same chassis, the same engines and the same tires. Only the tweaks of the engineers and the driver’s right foot determines the difference in speeds from the front of the field to the back of the pack.
I’m ecstatic over this news. Plus, I believe I heard Brian Barnhart say on the Versus telecast that multiple chassis manufacturers may be a part of the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, as well. If that’s the case, then they will be taking what I think is another giant step in pointing this series in the right direction.
Getting back to what Curt Cavin’s reader said…maybe I’m twisted, but the potential for blown engines has been one of the missing key ingredients over the past few years. When Honda became the sole engine provider for the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2006, they detuned their engines for the sake of reliability. There was no need to push the engines to the limit, since they had no competition. This served the purpose of lowering costs, but also made for some boring racing.
First of all, it goes against the core fabric of racing to not be trying to maximize your equipment. Competition is the very essence of what racing is all about. Honda should be commended that they stuck around after Toyota and Chevy bailed following the 2005 season. They have been a tremendous partner to the IZOD IndyCar Series. They want competition, but their claim on their latest ad campaign that they have suffered no engine failures in so many years rings a little hollow; when you know that they are so detuned that there is no way that they should suffer any mishap with an engine.
The reader in the Q&A mentioned drivers spinning in their own oil. I’m certainly not being a champion for more crashes, but as I recall – when engine failures did occur, crashes were not that common.
However, one variable that has been missing since the engines were detuned, is the question if an engine will last. I don’t yearn for the early days of the IRL, when there was a good chance that none of the Oldsmobile Aurora engines would finish a race. That was too far towards the other extreme. But in the early to mid-nineties, it added some intrigue to a race to consider the scheduled distance of a race to be grueling on an engine – not mundane.
The Buick V-6 at Indianapolis comes to mind. This was an incredibly fast and powerful engine – and notoriously unreliable. Many years went by when they were at or near the top of the speed charts all month, only to blow up early in the race.
The Indianapolis 500 was supposed to be taxing on man and machine – not the engineer. Think how many Indy 500 victories Mario Andretti would have had on his resume, had he been competing against equal power plants that were detuned. He could be hard on his equipment with no regard to consequence. All he would have had to do would be to keep his foot mashed to the floor.
With the high downforce cars of today and a reliable engine that doesn’t even approach the limit – there’s not much for today’s drivers to worry about other than tangling with other cars and fuel-mileage. The rev-limiters and detuned engines have done away with the art of taking care of your equipment.
So with multiple engine manufacturers, comes competition. Unlike the message in youth sports today, where competition is downplayed in favor of self-esteem – competition is good. Competition fuels the desire to improve yourself to be better than your peers. In the end, there are clear-cut winners and there are losers. The winners enjoy the fruits of their labors. It is up to the losers to either find a way to win the next time, or fold up their tent and go home.
Honda is a perfect example. In 1994, Honda entered Indy car racing. They aligned themselves with Rahal-Hogan Racing and produced a very odd-sounding and woefully underpowered engine. They got their head handed to them on a platter. They were so uncompetitive, that Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff had to use year-old Penske-Ilmor’s to avoid being shut out of the Indianapolis 500 for the second year in a row. Although Rahal bailed on them for 1995, Honda regrouped and got their act together and came within a passed pace car of winning the 1995 Indianapolis 500. They have been a force to be reckoned with ever since.
An example in the other direction was Alfa-Romeo. From 1989 to 1991, they tried to be competitive in CART and failed miserably. Danny Sullivan, driving for Pat Patrick, gave Alfa it’s best CART season – an eleventh place finish in points. The Alfa-Romeo engine was underpowered and unreliable. They finally left the series at the end of the 1991 season with their tail tucked between their legs.
Engine reliability has always been a factor in racing – until recently. It throws a wild-card into the mix. It is part of the intrigue and the allure of motorsports. Ralph DePalma is remembered almost as much for his loss in the 1912 Indianapolis 500, as he is for winning the event in 1915. In the 1912 race, DePalma took the lead after the second lap and led the next 194 laps in complete domination. Yet, his car broke down on lap 197, which led to Joe Dawson taking the win. More recently, Michael Andretti had similar domination in the 1992 Indianapolis 500 before mechanical failure ended his day on lap 189; creating the now-famous Little Al/Scott Goodyear battle.
Without the pesky mechanical gremlins, 1912 and 1992 would both be remembered for nothing more than total beat-downs by one driver over the rest of the field.
So, I welcome the competition and the potential for engine failures as manufacturers push themselves to the limits. Seeking the limits is what racing is all about. The ensuing competition will mean that manufacturers will be trying to beat their competitors on the track and on Madison Avenue – which will ultimately make the IZOD IndyCar Series the eventual winner.