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.

George Phillips


18 Responses to “This Year’s Dark Cloud”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    This is indeed another rant and perhaps you should have had one less bowl of grumpy flakes this morning George. I don’t agree that “society demands someone to blame” and anyway, who is “society” but us.

    I don’t know that it serves any good purpose for any fan or commentator to keep beating up on Lotus and IndyCar for this unfortunate situation at this point. Throughout the history of the Indy 500 there have been cars in the field so slow you could have timed them with a calender. So what? It’s not our money.

  2. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    I think you’re correct with regard to a possible lack of due diligence done by IndyCar; however for Lotus, a sheer lack of understanding for the game they are playing is to blame.

    As for John Judd, he has had success in Formula 1, going back to the Brabham days when he and Phil Irvine designed and built championship winning engines for Sir Jack’s team.
    But that was in 1966 and ’67 and Judd has not come close to that kind of success at any time since.

    Shame that the Lotus is collapsing before our eyes. If only that phone call to Randy said “we’ll come in good and ready in ’13, but first we need to concentrate on designing, building and testing…”

    One final note:

    Dear Jean,
    Please stop now. You have been out of the car for too long to be remotely competitive, let alone fast.
    You had lost your edge in your final season in Formula 1 – I fear the Alesi we see at Indy may be truly blunt with time.

    And Fan Force United…? Jean, they have had three Lights races with a best finish of 8th in a poor field with a chap who struggled in a middling to poor Formula 2 field.
    Please stop now.

    Yours, etc…

  3. redcar Says:

    I agree with both of those guys just above me there.

  4. George may be on a rant, but I don’t see it as an unnecessary rant. The lack of engines has been a HUGE concern this year and they’ve come very close to not having a full field. If that had happened, would we just sit around and say “OK, at least we got 31, let’s go racing”? I hardly think so.

    This is a relevant and current issue and George was right to address it. Lotus seems to be an easy target, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. The Lotus brand has diminished before out very eyes in a matter of months. Should it not be talked about because it is negative? Good God!

  5. What was IndyCar’s other option? You must first address this point before choosing to lay any blame at IndyCar’s feet for the situation Lotus/Judd has created for themselves. The answer is there was no other option. Toyota didn’t want to play. Neither did Chrysler or Ford(All stories reported Randy Bernard really trying to get them on board.) IndyCar had to dance with the only girl left. Even if she is homely and has two left feet. Honda and Chevy had zero interest in supplying the whole field.

    I also don’t think Lotus has broke an engine yet. Now the electronics have caused some “failures” but they haven’t been mechanical. Honda has had just as many issues but because the Lotus is slow, any problem they have is magnified.

  6. Spec racing is spec racing….but agreeably componded when it is quaranteened spec racing (aka INDY Car Racing) as we have been viewing for many years…. confinded to one chassis and one engine manufacturer… now basicly two engine manufactures.

    This is not a temporary problem (illness) that will go away once the so called kinks are ironed out.

    It is inherent in the INDY Car series even though the symptoms have been telling those who establlish the rules that enough is enough…if they cared to listen.

    All of which is being exemplified once again by the present rediculous situations leading up to the 2012 INDY 500.

    Return the INDY series to spec racing BUT allow each and every team to race a chassis & engine OF THEIR OWN CHOOSING which meets the specifications of the racing series.

    Limit chassis to one manufacture and engine selection to one or two manufacturers and there is less competition, etc ……….. and you witness the monotonous results that have been illustrated over the past years, etc.

    The INDY Car series is no longer the INDY RACING LEAGUE and no longer needs to continue as the INDY RACING LEAGUE (under cover of a different name).

    The INDY RACING LEAGUE , presently labeled the INDYCar series, has establilshed a base which will only flourish if ALL
    independent and qualified resources (chassis, engine, etc.), who wish to participate, are allowed the opportunity to pariticipate(aka compete) and thus reap the rewards of a job well done!

    Sound like that Good Ole Days (but utilizing modern technology) ????

  7. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    So the plot thickens…word is that Dragon has terminated their contract with Lotus. I’d say George was justified with his rant. This is a pertinent ongoing story.

  8. Brian in NY Says:

    I have to disagree with you on this one George. The fans were all screaming for engine competition which the series provided. They also wanted new chassis which was also done. Now fans are crying that the Lotus is not as fast as the Chevy or Honda and someone needs to be blamed. I just don’t get it.

    First some facts. The engine companies are taking a beating on the lease program. If INDYCAR hadn’t mandated a limit on what could be charged then I’m sure their would have been several teams who couldn’t afford to be racing. The fact that we have 26 cars each week is awesome. Also, who said that every engine has to be competitive? I watch F1 and I can tell you that there are several teams that don’t have a chance in hell, but it doesn’t take away from the show. I don’t cry that Red Bull or Mclaren is winning while poor Caterham is running in the back each week. That’s racing, you have good teams and bad teams.

    I think if we have 33 cars at INDY then great, job done. The people who get all twisted that we don’t have 50 cars for bump day are the natives. Hell I look at it that having 33 cars with an all new formula that was made affordable for the teams is a great thing. Just because every has been or never will be doesn’t get to run at Indy doesn’t take away from the show. How is it that the teams couldn’t afford the aero kits but have all this money to run second and third cars at INDY? I’m sure next year Lotus will be better and there will be more engines available, but we don’t need every Tom, Dick, and Harry to make the show. The 500 will be great with or without out the likes of Tracy, Howard, Schektor, Pippa, John Andretti, etc.

  9. Carburetor Says:

    I think that it is unfortunate that the Lotus engine has come up so inferior, but realistically we should have expected such differentiation among the manufacturers. Frankly, I’m not sure the Honda engines can keep up with the Chevy’s this year. My sincere hope is that Lotus will regroup and work to improve their product and come back stronger than ever next year. If I recall, Lotus was the only manufacturer to express interest in altering/developing their own aero package also–which is really the first step in differentiating the cars–which many of us have been clamoring for. They seem commited to INDYCAR, which I believe is a good thing in these times of uncertainty.

    I do not pretend to know any of the details leading up to the selection of this engine specification, but INDYCAR should have given more thought to the ramifications of limited interest in participation by manufacturers and the availability of powerplants in the initial year of the new formula. Personally, I think we are going to see a lot of inactivity at the track this month during practice time as most all of these teams will be holding back for fear of expiration of their limited engine supply. If that happens, it will be a disaster from a marketing/promotion viewpoint for a series that is struggling to gain marketshare.

  10. Lotus hasn’t exactly helped their reputation with their dueling group lotus Renault teams in F1, but then again I don’t really draw a connection to whatever Lotus was in the 60’s with these buttass operations we’ve seen the last few years in F1 and IndyCar.

  11. Bob West Says:

    What more can be expected when he “leadership” isn’t technically competent and “the bottom line” is their focus ! Poor planning and the lack of inputs from those to whom “racing” is their living can only result in a fiasco ! I long for the days of the Offy , Novi , and “stock-block” engines . Consider the advances in diesel power ; IRL management should look at opening the field to the power plants from diesel manufacturers who race at LeMans . Put “the proving ground” aspect back in the 500 and watch the interest grow from teams to fans !

    Phantom 97

  12. billytheskink Says:

    First, the “fault” (a poor word choice, I think) for this situation lies entirely with IndyCar’s cost and competition-control rules regarding the engines. I am not convinced we would like the car count at Indy much better if the rules were more open or the motors more expensive (or both), but we will never know for sure so I won’t sweat it.

    Second, the amount of complaining about and utter lack of patience with Lotus, not just from fans but from teams and owners, illustrates just how long it has been since we’ve seen engine competition. We seem to have awfully short memories. Have we really all forgotten Alfa-Romeo, Nissan-Infiniti, Porsche, and the fact that it took Toyota’s CART program nearly 3 years to score a top-5 finish? It is unfortunate that talented and well-liked drivers and teams have to use an uncompetitive engine, but before this past decade, that was life in IndyCar racing.
    Should Bryan Herta, DRR, Dragon, Michael Shank, etc. be entitled to a competitive engine? If so, it would be the first time in IndyCar racing history for that to be the case.

    The guys who tried to qualify for Indy in stockblocks and old Offys in the early 80’s and the guys who couldn’t get the Greenfield and those enormous ancient Cosworths up to speed in the early 90’s are probably wondering what is with all the fuss about running a Lotus.

  13. Blaming IndyCar is a bunch of bull. Lotus has dropped the ball and shifting the attention to the series is just wrong. If Lotus was up to par and cou;ld supply their share we would not even be talking about enough engines.Lotus was supposed to supply one third of the field and they cannot even supply five cars. Chevy and Honda now have to pick up the Lotus car counts and to say IndyCar is to blame is just bullshit.

  14. james t suel Says:

    I think Indycar & Lotus share the blame! Indycar let Loyus in hopelessy behind! Lotus gets the lions share of the blame,no dout. but Indycar set back an let it happen. Its the series job to make sure there partners are up to snuff! Why have we not seen some upgrades for the Loyus engine? Honda sure got one??

  15. Indycar created a engine market that is comparable to rent controlled apartments. You put a price cap that is below the cost of running/maintaining and you have a limited field and minimum investment.

    Indycar didn’t even understand the economic model they were creating. They own the blame.

  16. “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.”

    Sir, I enjoy most of your comments but this statement by you here is incredibly ignorant. Judd is a great engine builder and their record in multiple racing series shows it. We don’t base the competitiveness of this year’s Chevrolet engine on the fact they had to pay Cosworth to build them an engine in 2005 do we?

    • Oilpressure Says:

      The qualifier in my statement is “…at this level”. Show me where a Judd engine at this level has won other than the example sited before leveling the charge as being “incredibly ignorant” at me. – GP

  17. “The guys who tried to qualify for Indy in stockblocks and old Offys in the early 80′s and the guys who couldn’t get the Greenfield and those enormous ancient Cosworths up to speed in the early 90′s are probably wondering what is with all the fuss about running a Lotus.”

    I agree with billytheskink here. What has happened in auto racing is everyone in multiple forms of the sport has become professional and the end effect of this is they all converged onto whatever the winning formula is and they want to use this formula and only it. People decry IRL for going spec in the mid-2000s, but it wasn’t their choice. G-Force/Panoz dropped out of developing their car to be sole supplier for ChampCar after awhile when it became clear Dallara was superior, and Toyota and Chevy both left when Honda became top dog. I think the last major full-season team to have the G-Force was Rahal circa 2005 and I imagine if you were Bobby you thought to yourself “I can develop this car myself when it’s at 98% of the Dallara, or I can just use what everyone else is running and not suffer being behind doing development.”

    Now for people that want engine and car competition, that statement sucks, but if you were Rahal wouldn’t you do the same thing? It costs too much money to be running at a disadvantage. The G-Force never got kicked out, it was ran by Playa del Racing at Indy for a couple years and I remember Phil Giebler attempting one in maybe 2008.

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