This Year’s Dark Cloud
With all the euphoria that surrounds the beginning of the Month of May, it’s tempting to try and gloss over and ignore some of the negative things heading into the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500. However, it would take a rosy-eyed cheerleader to overlook one dark cloud that has set an unfortunate tone for this year’s race. That would be engine-count.
In a few of the past years, one of the biggest questions was car-count as there were concerns whether there would be enough entrants to fill the traditional field of thirty-three. Although, the cars are brand new this year, there seems to be no shortage of the Dallara DW12’s. This year’s concern is the availability of engines. A car with no engine is not very useful, and the concern has now turned to outright fear.
For the record, I think the field will have thirty-three cars when the gun goes off at six o’clock on Sunday May 20. There may actually be some bumping if there happens to be a thirty-fourth entrant, which now looks like will be Jean Alesi, now that his strange insistence on entering this year’s 500 seems to have come through. We learned Saturday night that Alesi has finally landed a partner in former driver Tyce Carlson and his tiny Indy Lights team – Fans Force United, to prepare an IndyCar with a Lotus engine for Alesi. I have some definite opinions on this that I’ll get into probably tomorrow.
As I write this, there are actually thirty confirmed car/engine/driver combinations for this year’s Indianapolis 500, counting Alesi. It is widely assumed that Dreyer & Reinbold will partner with Panther Racing and will run a Chevy engine, bringing the bow-tie total to fourteen. Likewise, Bryan Herta Autosport is expected to announce they will have a Honda engine. That would bring the Honda camp to a total of fifteen cars, which they say is their limit. Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press reported last week that Jim Campbell of GM said that the Chevrolet effort was projected at fifteen, which leaves a coveted Chevy engine out there dangling for some team to grab.
Unfortunately, it seems that engine was not destined for Michael Shank Racing. I don’t claim to know everything that has gone on behind the scenes, but it seems strange that his team had everything lined up – a driver (Jay Howard) who came with sponsorship, a car, a crew and a desire to go racing. For whatever reason, it was not to be. Maybe it was the fact that Shank had openly courted Honda prior to the season, when it looked like that would be the key to signing Paul Tracy. Whatever the case, Shank has given up his efforts and released Howard to pursue other driving opportunities for the 500.
It speaks volumes that Shank would prefer to release Howard, shut down his team and go home rather than waste his time campaigning the laughable Lotus engine. With the departure of Dreyer & Reinbold and Bryan Herta Autosport from the Lotus ranks, one would presume that Lotus actually has a surplus of their unwanted powerplants. Yet so far, there are no takers. There are rumors that Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing may run a third car powered by Lotus. Along with Simona de Silvestro in the HVM entry, now that the Alesi deal looks to be real – that would put the number running a Lotus at five. Assuming the fifteenth Chevy went to some lucky team, that would mean there would actually be thirty-five entrants and some actual bumping on Bump Day – although almost assuredly among those running a Lotus engine.
Although I use the terms “laughable” and “comical” to describe the Lotus situation, the best word to use is “sad”. The Lotus name at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway carries a long and proud tradition. When Colin Chapman and Jim Clark showed up in 1963 with their rear-engine Lotus, they turned the racing community on its ear. It was not the first rear-engine car, but it proved to be far superior to the status-quo front-engine roadsters. By 1965, Clark won the Indianapolis 500 in dominating fashion. Two years later, there were no front-engine cars in the field. By 1968, Lotus was at the cutting edge again with the wedge-shaped turbine cars of Andy Granatelli. The futuristic design won the pole and occupied the first two spots on the grid.
Now, Lotus has shown up with this poor excuse of an engine and tainted the Lotus name at the Speedway. I’m not sure, but I think it was our friend Pressdog that coined the apt name of sLotus for the sickly powerplant. The name Lotus is now nothing more than a punch line, and I find that truly sad.
How did it come to this? Our society today demands someone to blame. I’ll tell you who is not to blame for our concerns to have a full field – and that’s Chevrolet and Honda. They have more than done their part to pick up the slack that Lotus has caused. Certainly, Lotus has to take the bulk of the blame. They entered an arena without fully knowing what they were getting into. They had an unstable ownership situation and actually went through a buyout since they announced their intentions to race.
Quite frankly, they aligned themselves with an inadequate engine builder in John Judd. When has Judd ever produced a winning engine at this level? Bobby Rahal gave Judd its only CART victory in 1988 at Pocono. At first, it was assumed that Lotus would pair with Cosworth, which is now owned by Kevin Kalkhoven of KV Racing Technologies. When rumors circulated that KV would run the Chevy engine, that pretty well told us that Cosworth would not be a possibility for Lotus.
But Lotus is not the only one to blame. I think INDYCAR has to shoulder some of the responsibility. From the outside, it appears that the series failed to do their due-diligence on Lotus. Their announcement that they were going to be a third manufacturer to campaign the 2012 season seemed to come out of nowhere, but we all assumed that discussions had been ongoing for some time. Now I wonder if it did come out of left-field and INDYCAR simply said “OK, great!” without exploring all angles of the ability of Lotus to provide a competitive engine.
From the start, there were question marks and red flags. Their parent company was sold, they were late in finding an engine builder and even later producing an engine. Their engine didn’t hit the track until January – barely two months before the first race. In the meantime, Honda was on the track in August, while Chevrolet soon followed. There were predictable missteps along the way, but far too many. At spring training at Sebring, there were barely enough engines for their five cars. All Lotus teams were forced to skip a test at Indianapolis in early April due to the low supply of Lotus engines.
Not only are the Lotus engines down on horsepower, they also seem to break a lot which is a curious combination. Before the fourth race of the season, two of the four Lotus teams broke ranks and made a rare, if not unprecedented, mid-season engine switch. It may have happened before, but I certainly can’t name a time in the modern era when a team changed engine manufacturers in mid-season. There was 1992, when Scott Brayton abandoned Chevy for the Buick V-6 – but that was for Indianapolis only. The following race, he was back in a Chevy. There was also the time in 1994, when Honda was ditched for Indianapolis, which I’ll discuss shortly.
Needless to say, the Lotus situation is a mess that has affected everyone. Last summer, I’m sure Honda and Chevy had no idea they would be providing fifteen engines apiece in the Indianapolis 500. It is their responsibility to provide winning engines to their partners, not to spread themselves thinner than expected just to fill the field for tradition’s sake. Some of their partners may have planned to run extra cars for Indianapolis, but now they cannot because they’ve had to provide more engines than expected to make up for the void caused by Lotus.
So where does Lotus go from here? Hopefully, back to the drawing board and not out of the series. Honda was a similar embarrassment in 1994. The strange sounding Honda engine was woefully inadequate throughout the season, but even more so at Indianapolis. Their sole team, Rahal-Hogan Racing, had to get Honda’s blessing in order to switch to Ilmor power for the race. Honda took its lumps, learned a lot and returned with an all-new engine for the next year. The 1995 version of the Honda engine returned to qualify on the front row, and would have probably won the race had Scott Goodyear not passed the pace car in the late stages.
As abysmal as their season has been thus far, Lotus needs to come back next year. It does no one any good to have them be one and done. If they can recover and come back strong next year, it speaks well for them and is a story they can build a marketing campaign around. After all, isn’t that why they are here? It does long-term damage to the series if an engine provider is chased out after one year. That does not create a tempting scenario for future potential manufacturers.
Hopefully, Lotus will eventually get it right. So excuse the rant and let’s carry on with the magic that is the Month of May.