Will Lotus Answer The Bell?
Last fall, everyone was giddy with excitement with the news that after six straight years of only one engine manufacturer participating in the IZOD IndyCar Series; Chevrolet would be returning to join Honda in competition in 2012. Along with the expected aero kits for the newly announced Dallara safety-cell, 2012 promised to signal the end of the spec era in IndyCar racing.
An unexpected bonus came shortly thereafter, when Lotus announced their intentions to supply an engine in 2012, giving the series three engine manufacturers for the first time since 2005 when Honda embarrassed Chevy and Toyota into dropping out.
The Honda engine of recent years has been built by Ilmor. For next year, Honda will build its own engine, while Ilmor will build the new turbocharged V-6 engine for Chevrolet. Lotus had been rumored to partner up with Cosworth. It seemed logical, since Cosworth is owned by Kevin Kalkhoven – the “K” of KV Racing Technology, who has enjoyed team sponsorship from Lotus for the past two seasons.
Curiously enough, Lotus signed with longtime engine builder John Judd and his Engine Developments, Ltd. instead. Given the recent histories of Honda and Ilmor, most knew that Honda and Chevy would have a head start over Lotus. Not surprisingly, Honda had the first engine ready for the track. The engine powering the new Dallara driven in test sessions by Dan Wheldon is the new Honda turbo V-6. Reportedly, Chevy isn’t that far away from having their own engine ready for the track. In the meantime, Lotus has gone disturbingly quiet.
Robbie Buhl, of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, has been rather vocal that his team is currently on the outside looking in so far as having an engine manufacturer lined up for 2012. Honda has already teamed up with Chip Ganassi Racing, Sam Schmidt Motorsports and AJ Foyt Enterprises. Chevrolet has already announced their association with Team Penske; and there are strong rumors to indicate that they will also supply engines to Andretti Autosport, KV Racing Technology and Panther Racing. That leaves Dale Coyne Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold and surprisingly Newman/Haas as teams with no power plants for next season.
Robbie Buhl is upset because he believed it was up to the teams to choose a manufacturer. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that it has always been the manufacturers that chose the teams. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, only a select few teams were able to get their hands on the vaunted Chevrolet-Ilmor. Just as the Chevy became more readily available, the Ford-Cosworth XB became the engine of choice. Manufacturers partnered with elite teams such as Penske, Ganassi and Newman/Haas and allowed a few tag-along teams to run their product in order to avoid charges of total exclusivity.
Not much has changed since those times, except for rules prohibiting factory “works” teams to be propped up financially by a manufacturer such as the arrangement that Honda had with Andretti-Green Racing as the team and manufacturer made the transition from CART to the IRL in 2003. If Buhl thought for a moment that the engine manufacturers didn’t have a pecking order of whom to do business with, he just learned a hard lesson in the business of racing that most everyone else was already aware of.
Unfortunately, indications are that the Lotus deal may be in trouble. This is not the same Lotus that was founded by Colin Chapman in 1952 and took the Indianapolis 500 by storm in the sixties. That company was bought out of bankruptcy in 1994 by Malaysian automaker Proton, who us famous for building cars of a lower quality than Kia. Other than the Lotus name, the once-proud British company bears little resemblance to the Lotus of today.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Lotus deal may be on shaky ground. The announcement of their involvement as an engine manufacturer seemingly came out of nowhere. After signing as a last-minute sponsor for KVRT prior to the 2010 season, it was widely believed that they would be one of the manufacturers for the aero kits that have now been shelved until 2013 (or beyond). No one gave serious thought of them supplying engines for 2012. Then shortly after GM announced they would return to open-wheel racing after a six-year absence, Lotus surprised practically everyone that they too would join the party for next season.
Looking back, the decision to go with John Judd should have been our first clue that something was amiss. Judd has a long, but not so stellar history of supplying engines to Formula One and CART. Bobby Rahal gave Judd its only CART victory in the 1988 Pocono 500. Aside from a handful of podium finishes from the late eighties through the nineties, Judd engines had little success in Formula One. Partnerships with a struggling F1 Lotus team in the early nineties may have had something to do with this latest arrangement, but it certainly raised eyebrows when Lotus eschewed Cosworth for Judd.
Perhaps Kevin Kalkhoven has something up his sleeve for 2013 with Cosworth. I can’t imagine that fine company sitting on the IndyCar sidelines for long. The Cosworth-Ilmor rivalry between these British manufacturers has endured for too long not to continue. I expect Cosworth to return to American open-wheel competition shortly.
In the meantime, Randy Bernard reportedly flew to England on Monday to meet with Lotus executives to get to the bottom of things. The deadline for teams to sign with manufacturers has already been extended from September 1 to September 15. So far, no team has signed with Lotus. They have no engine ready for testing and according to Marshall Pruett of SPEED, Lotus is not returning phone calls or e-mails. That’s not a good sign.
In case Lotus doesn’t answer the bell for 2012, Honda and Chevrolet have assured INDYCAR officials that they do have contingency plans to supply more engines to the grid. There are still many teams scrounging around for engines in 2012. I have a strange feeling that Honda and Chevy may need to get those plans ready to put into action.