What I Meant To Say…
In normal face-to-face conversations, I’ve always been accused of being brutally frank and straight to the point – at least, that’s what my ex-wife always said. Apparently, that trait of mine didn’t transfer to my long-winded blathering on this site. I say that because based on some of the comments I saw from this past Monday’s post, I don’t think I made my point clear on engine failures.
Although I meant to address this sooner, decency dictated that I pay homage to Roy Hobbson’s departure from The Silent Pagoda on Wednesday. Now that I’ve done the decent thing, it’s time to get back to the issues of the day – new engines for 2012. Now that Lotus has announced their own intentions, the future looks even brighter than it already did just a couple of days ago. But before we look too far ahead at how Lotus will change the game – more on that next week – I feel the need to go back a few days.
I probably could have chosen my words more carefully on Monday when I said that I welcome engine failures when Chevrolet, and now Lotus, enter competition with Honda in 2012. It seems that some took that to mean I want to see engines blow up for no reason and rob deserving drivers of a win. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When the Oldsmobile and Infiniti engines first debuted in 1997, they were blowing up right and left. It was almost comical. I got no thrill out of that because I felt like we were just watching inferior equipment break down. These were not high-tech engines that were pushing the threshold in search of another tenth of a second. It was just cheap equipment that fell apart regularly. That made for bad racing.
I did point out that there have been virtually no engine failures since 2006, when Honda became the sole engine supplier to the IZOD IndyCar Series. The reason for that is not because Honda suddenly started building bulletproof engines. Instead, it’s because Honda detuned the engine since there was no competition. Why would they run their engines on the ragged edge just to beat themselves? They shouldn’t. It was smart business on Honda’s part.
But the game has changed now that Honda has competition. All competitors will have to take chances, or else they will be playing catch-up. Don’t assume that Honda will have the upper-hand, simply because they have been supplying engines since 2003. The current Honda engine is built by Ilmor Engineering, who will be building the Chevy engine in 2012. Honda will be building their new engine in-house at HPD (Honda Performance Development). Proven engine builder Cosworth will presumably furnish the Lotus engine, although that wasn’t confirmed in Thursday’s announcent. I think it is debatable whether any company will have an advantage out of the gate in 2012.
The point I was trying to make was that the competition would force each manufacturer to take chances. The risk-reward will be how far to go. One reader correctly pointed out on Monday that watching Honda engines race without the possibility of any mechanical problems has removed any on-track drama. The reader went on to point out that the result was a collection of races that had become difficult for even the most die-hard fans to get excited about.
An engine that can run for 1,500 miles is not being pushed very hard. There is nothing sexy about reliability. One of the famous quotes from Indianapolis in the 1950’s came from legendary car builder, AJ Watson (who’s still building cars, by the way). When his winning driver, Pat Flaherty, crossed the line in the John Zink Special in 1956; his throttle linkage broke – preventing him from taking a victory lap. Watson said, “Hey, we only build ’em to run 200 laps”. The thrill of racing is having the car, the driver and the engine pushed to the very limit. Sometimes, they go just beyond the limit. It’s the good drivers that can recognize that fine line.
Beginning in 2012, there will also be some accountability for the drivers. No longer will they be able to just hold their right foot down and rely on a de-tuned engine and a rev-limiter to get them through a race. Drivers will be forced to be disciplined and take care of their equipment. Can you imagine how many Indy 500’s Mario Andretti could have won had he had the luxury of a rev-limiter? Tom Carnegie never would have developed his now famous line; “Mario is slowing on the backstretch”.
There once was a time when taking care of your equipment – your car, engines, gearbox and tires – were all part of being a successful driver. Those that could hold back and save their equipment until the end were usually rewarded. Rick Mears is famous for his line. “To finish first, you must first finish.” He didn’t mean don’t let your car get into the marbles and wash up into the wall. He said this at a time when there was competition on the track between manufacturers and risks were being taken. That’s simply a part of racing.
The notion was put forth on Monday that engine failures shouldn’t take away wins from deserving drivers. Excuse me? Some of the greatest champions at the Indianapolis 500 were beneficiaries of their rivals running their equipment too hard. Had Bobby Marshman not been obsessed with lapping the field in 1964, he could have won instead of AJ Foyt. Although Jack Beckley, his chief mechanic, kept signaling for Marshman to slow down – he kept charging. Marshman fell out on lap 39. Foyt also benefited in 1967, when Parnelli Jones dropped out when a $6.00 bearing failed in his STP turbine on lap 197, handing the lead and the victory to Foyt. In 1977, Foyt was there again to take his fourth Indy victory when Gordon Johncock’s engine failed on lap 184. Was Foyt not a deserving driver?
Bobby Unser benefited in 1968, by having Joe Leonard’s turbine flame out with nine laps to go. Does the first of his three victories have an asterisk by it because he was an undeserving driver? No. I also resent the implication that those that accept engine failures as a part of racing are nothing more than American rednecks that like to watch explosions.
So please understand that I’m not a fan of watching engines blow up. What I am a fan of is competition; and engine failures are a by-product of competition and innovation. It’s all about trying new things and sacrificing some reliability in search of speed. If this offends anyone, I think they might be better served to follow a sport like Tee-Ball – so that everyone can get a trophy and feel good about themselves.
We all became fans of this sport at some point in time. Some were bitten in the eighties, while others discovered it in the mid-nineties. I became addicted to Indy car racing in the sixties. It doesn’t really matter, because the one constant throughout every era was the search for speed. That was always the number one goal until the league became a heavily regulated one-chassis/one-engine series. At that point things just sort of stagnated. Now that we’ll have some sense of variety in the chassis and competing engine manufacturers, count on engine failures occurring while the manufacturers continue searching for speed. After all, isn’t that the core principle in racing?