Sarah Fisher’s Engine Dilemma
There were five teams that won races last season in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Three of them consisted of the usual suspects: Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. The two others were Bryan Herta Autosport and Sarah Fisher Racing.
For 2012, teams have been forced to buy new chassis for the upcoming season: a formidable hurdle that many predicted would force some smaller teams to the sidelines. Added to that was the stumbling block of new engine manufacturers, Chevrolet and Lotus, joining Honda and relieving the Japanese manufacturer of their duty as the sole engine provider to the series since 2006.
With car count surely dropping for 2012 – late last summer, the series put what was obviously painstaking care into calculating a figure to provide the would-be engine manufacturers so that they could make their plans for the coming season. They decided that they were safe in telling the manufacturers that there would be no more than twenty-five full-time entries in 2012.
There was one problem though – the car count actually grew from 2011 numbers. Had everything fallen into place by St. Petersburg, there could have been thirty cars on the grid for the season-opener next month, compared to the twenty-five that started last year’s race. As it stands now, Conquest and Michael Shanks Racing are not expected to have deals in place by St. Petersburg.
Still, that leaves twenty-eight cars expected to answer the bell when the green flag drops on March 25th. That is, if Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing can secure an engine deal by then. As each day passes, that “if” is looming larger.
Our friend Pressdog gave a very well-written account of Sarah Fisher’s dilemma on Saturday. You can read it here. He and I are pretty much in sync with our views on the matter. This is my take.
We keep hearing from those that are supposedly in the know that all is well and not to panic. Sarah will surely get her engine deal done. Right? Well, common sense would tell us so.
On the surface, you wonder what the holdup is. When Ed Carpenter secured his engine deal with Chevrolet last week, it left SFHR as the only team capable of making the grid but without an engine. Not only is SFHR capable of making the grid, they’ve gotten everything in place to run the season – except for an engine to push the car around. They’ve gotten a hot young driver in Josef Newgarden, a new chassis, a new facility under construction and a new source of stability (read: cash) in partner Wink Hartman. Apparently all that and three dollars will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, when it comes to trying to get an engine deal done in INDYCAR.
None of this is Sarah Fisher’s fault. None of it. She has done everything right. In fact, she has done everything the right way ever since she started her own team back in 2008. She and husband Andy O’Gara have been methodical in not biting off more they can chew and have planned their growth accordingly. Unfortunately, getting everything in place has left her standing without a chair when it comes to an engine program for 2012.
Our society dictates that there must always be someone to blame. That’s just the way things go today. Unfortunately, there is no clear direction in which to point the finger. I’m not sure what criteria INDYCAR used to come up with the estimate of twenty-five cars, but I’ll promise you there was more effort than just pulling a number out of a hat. Whatever the case, they obviously underestimated the actual total.
Officials also mandated that each manufacturer be able to supply at least 40% of the field, in case there wasn’t an even split among the teams. That came to 120%. That’s should be enough of a built-in cushion, Right? Based on the original estimate, each of the manufacturers needed to be ready to supply at least ten cars with engines. Unfortunately, Lotus got a late start – make that a very late start. Consequently, Lotus has informed series officials that they will be unable to fulfill the 40% requirement for 2012.
The result is that Honda and Chevy are left scrambling to make up the difference. There is no giant warehouse holding an endless supply of new 2.2 liter twin-turbocharged V-6 racing engines for these manufacturers. Meeting their original deadline was a daunting task, but somehow Chevy and Honda were up to the task. Lotus was not.
So who gets punished? Lotus? Not a chance. Instead, it’s the two manufacturers who played by the rules and did what was expected and required. They have been forced to fill most of the void left by Lotus. But those receiving the most punishment for the Lotus failure are the teams that weren’t immediately chosen by a manufacturer last fall. Make no mistake, teams did not choose their engines – the manufacturers hand-picked the teams they wanted to work with.
So who is to blame? Well, there’s enough blame to go around in a lot of places. INDYCAR must share some blame for underestimating their car count for 2012 and not having a better contingency plan in place. The series also should have had some better safeguards set up to prevent the manufacturers from having all the say-so in who got their engines. I also say shame on the series if they do nothing to penalize Lotus for dropping the ball. So far, it appears that Lotus will face no consequences for their inactions.
So as much as I appreciate them joining the series, Lotus deserves the bulk of the blame for dropping the ball. Granted, their parent company has recently gone through an ill-timed acquisition; but that doesn’t exonerate them. If they weren’t fully prepared to hit the ground running when they made their announcement last winter, they should have pushed their participation back a year. Instead, they hoped against hope that they could get it done and failed, furthering the burden of the other manufacturers and holding several teams hostage. Yet they will apparently go unscathed.
Most seem to think that eventually things will work out where Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing will end up with a Honda engine. Even if they get it this week, think of the track time they’ve already lost to the other teams. They have a rookie driver in Josef Newgarden, who has never driven an IndyCar of any type. They have a full staff, but own a car that has yet to turn a wheel. It’s kind of hard to gather data on a car that has no engine. Most other teams have logged many test miles and are already way ahead. No matter how talented he is, Josef Newgarden needs seat time in his new surroundings.
One of the beauties of this season was that everyone would be starting with a clean slate. At least for the first part of the season, all teams would be considered to be at the same starting point. There are several scheduled tests going on this week. Teams are scattered across Barber, Texas, Phoenix, Sebring and Infineon. Many test miles will be logged, yet Josef Newgarden and SFHR sit still in Indianapolis trying to work out a situation they didn’t create. Every day that goes by without them on the track puts them further and further behind the rest of their competitors. Even if things work out this week, it’s almost criminal how far behind the other teams SFHR will be when Spring Training begins at Sebring during the week of March 5th.
Normally, I don’t think that a racing body should go out of its way to make sure a team makes the grid. I understand INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard’s hands are tied and I don’t pretend to know what goes on in dealing with engine companies. But when the team that won the most recent race in the IZOD IndyCar Series has no engine deal through no fault of its own – I think that is the time for Randy Bernard to step in and make something happen. This has already gone on way too long.