How Another Engine Might Help Things

Most agree that the maximum number of entries for this year’s Indianapolis 500 is going to be thirty-four cars. That means all but one will make the field. Regardless of how you configure the qualifying format, there isn’t a whole lot of suspense in finding out who is the one without a chair when the music stops on Saturday afternoon. Most of the comments from Wednesday’s post, indicate that any tweaking by IMS officials is simply masking the bigger problem – low car count.

There are all sorts of theories flying around on how to increase car count for the Indianapolis 500. But I think most would agree that having north of forty entries makes for a far more intriguing Month of May. I don’t think there are too few DW-12’s sitting around. We are in the third year of use of the “new” chassis. There should be an ample supply. Sponsorship is an ongoing issue, but funding always seems to magically appear in May. I think the largest obstacle out there has been purposely set in place by the existing engine manufacturers – Chevrolet and Honda.

By committing to only seventeen engines apiece, that doesn’t create a flood of entries. Granted, this situation isn’t entirely the fault of these two companies. When they committed to this current engine formula for the 2012 season, they were expecting Lotus to be a major player in this thing also. We all know of the debacle that occurred, when all but one team ditched the woefully under-powered Lotus by May, leaving Chevy and Honda in catch-up mode to suddenly supply more cars than they had planned for.

But that was two years ago. Are they still that far behind in their production capabilities? Plus, the expected life of an engine is much greater than when Ilmor and Honda were going at it in the nineties. Back then, demand was much higher also. Most back-up cars had spare engines ready to go, and there was no grid penalty for swapping out an engine. The time frame for going without an engine change has been increased for this year over last, helping to curb any supply issues for the engine manufacturers.

During the last decade, when Chevy, Toyota and Honda were the suppliers for the series – I was under the impression that each of the three engine suppliers had to have the capability to supply at least 50% of the grid. This was to avoid a shortage of engines. But that was based on three manufacturers, not two. If a team could not strike a deal with the engine of choice, there would still be engines available. This would have prevented what happened with Michael Shank Racing in 2012. Don’t forget that Sarah Fisher came dangerously close to being shut out of an engine deal that same year, before Honda stepped in at the last minute.

With only two engine suppliers, I think it should be a written requirement for both manufacturers to have the ability to supply at least 60% of the field – whether that be for the Indianapolis 500 or any other race. That would require each of them to have at least nineteen engines available for the 500. That would guarantee that at least thirty-eight cars could be supplied with an engine if needed.

Honda and Chevrolet have both made it clear that they want more manufacturers to participate. After all, they thought they were joining a three-way competition. Beating two is obviously a bigger accomplishment than beating just one. Besides, it would lessen the burden of having to produce more engines than they originally agreed to.

Fortunately, there is a third engine already designed and waiting to be built in time to run in the 2015 season. Longtime IndyCar engine builder Cosworth is ready to go with an engine that fits the current specs. Unfortunately, there is currently no engine manufacturer to badge this ready-to-go design.

IndyCar rules mandate that an auto manufacturer name-plate must be used on the engine, regardless of who designed and built it. The Chevy engine is designed and built by Ilmor, the British company partly owned by Roger Penske. They also built the Chevy engine of the late-eighties and early nineties. When Chevy pulled out after the 1993 season, the Ilmor was simply called an Ilmor in 1994, before it was badged as a Mercedes beginning in 1995. Of course, that’s not to be confused with the push-rod Mercedes that was built exclusively (and secretly) for Marlboro Team Penske strictly for the 1994 Indianapolis 500. Later, Ilmor built the Honda engines in the IndyCar Series from 2003 through 2011.

Now, the Honda engine is built by Honda Performance Development (HPD). The embarrassing Lotus engine was built by Judd – a British company founded by John Judd and Sir Jack Brabham. The Ford engine of the nineties that was also the sole engine for Champ Car was built by Cosworth – also a British company once owned by Ford in the late nineties and now owned by Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven.

I fully understand the logic behind the requirement to have a purpose-built IndyCar engine to be badged by an auto manufacturer. Not many outside of racing would be able to relate to an Ilmor, a Cosworth or a Judd – but who isn’t familiar with Chevrolet, Ford or Lotus? And it isn’t just brand familiarity that IndyCar is seeking – it’s marketing power. This is a golden opportunity for manufacturers to build their brand around the success of their IndyCar program. While the old racing adage of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” may not be as powerful as it once was – it still carries a lot of weight in the automotive world.

Most seem to believe that the most logical suitor for Cosworth is Ford. The Ford Cosworth XB was a powerful engine when it first ran in CART in 1992. Michael Andretti dominated that year’s Indianapolis 500 before falling out with a bad fuel pump on Lap 189. As powerful as it was, it did not win the Indianapolis 500 or the CART championship that year. The following year, Nigel Mansell won the CART title with the powerful Ford. It didn’t win the Indianapolis 500 until 1995 with Jacques Villeneuve. Ford has been out of American open-wheel racing since the final Champ Car season of 2007. Another allegiance between Ford and Cosworth seems likely and very natural.

But not everyone thinks that Ford will be on the Cosworth engine if it ever runs in IndyCar. I’ve read where some think it could be Dodge, while others think it might be Audi. Your guess is as good as mine, but if I had to make a wager, I would put my money on Ford.

The sooner this can happen, the better. By the latest car count, it appears that Honda is already officially maxed out at seventeen cars for this year’s Indianapolis 500. Chevrolet still has a few to go, officially. But for all the hand-wringing over the lack of cars being entered for this year’s race – I think the biggest culprit is the limited amount of engines available. Hopefully, the return of Cosworth will permanently eliminate that problem.

George Phillips


9 Responses to “How Another Engine Might Help Things”

  1. Don’t count on Ford. They have publicly stated that they only want to race their Ecoboost branded engine, as they are doing in NAPCAR and the sports car series. This is for exactly the reason you stated in your column, race on Sunday, buy on Monday. They are not interested in building or selling a pure racing engine.

    This also why IndyCar is now using the E85 fuel, they have to race on the same fuel consumers can buy for themselves.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    The Sunday/Monday analogy worked back when auto manufacturers had to actually sell a minimum of a quantity of 500 autos of the type and engine displacement they intended to race in tin tops…
    Personally the caveat of requiring manufacturers badging on a power plant that you will likely NEVER see in any passenger vehicle is asinine and just one more reminder of how the people “running” this series unnecessarily hamstring the growth of the series… If Cosworth has a mill that fits the spec get the damned thing hooked up and stop the madness…
    As if Cosworth were not already a huge enough racing brand name they need an auto company logo…??? Jeez…!!!

    • Exactly Brent!! For manufacturers auto racing is an add campaign and not much more. However, I would like to see one of F1 steering wheels hit the market at a reasonable price!!!!

  3. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I still wonder abt that Judd (nee Lotus). It’s 90-95% there in development and, while I have no personal knowledge, my strong hunch is that Lotus’ corporate debacle in 2011/12 translated into lack of money being paid to everybody, including Judd so you get the partially-developed motor.

    Further I suspect Judd went well beyond what he likely should have, without Lotus funding (or with the assumption that the funds were coming), just to not leave teams twist in the wind.

    My guess is a bit of money and development could have that Judd competitive. How positive would the news of having 4 different motors be?

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I find it odd that Honda has been filling up their engine quota for the 500 while Chevrolet has not confirmed any extra entries for May (Lazier is still unconfirmed, I believe). I am hoping this is a coincidence.

    Cosworth’s reputation should serve it well as it seeks a badging manufacturer. If they cannot find a partner, I’m not sure who can.

  5. I know a lot of people argue against Ford, I really think that makes the most sense with Cosworth. Dodge might do it, but it’s part of FIAT Group. Fiat group has plenty of connections to other engine makers including Ferrari. As for Audi they have enough racing connections I think they’d want to build there own engine rather than let Cosworth do it. Mazda and Toyota might need the help to get a program going cheaply and said someone in Europe was also in contact wtih Cosworth. Maybe if it was VW instead of Audi? Or perhaps someone smaller like Rolls Royce, Jaguar, or Aston Martin?

    Yeah, the engine supply has been one of the main disappointments since 2012. So much for the promise of large fields.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    I think that in order to maximize the impact of the engines that are available, there should be a goal of eliminating the grid penalty for engine failures/replacements. Those failures are, in large part, going to happen and to send someone halfway back in the field, (or a third of the way back at Indianapolis,) while it may reduce costs, is a pretty severe penalty, and could, particularly in qualifying for Indy, restrict the level of competition. Once there are more engine suppliers competing for victory, the engine manufacturers should assume responsibility for the performance of their product.

    • Ballyhoo Says:

      I am with you on the grid penalties. Nothing worse than qualifying well and then have it taken away by being sent back.

      I am curious. If Cosworth does come onboard would the engines be built here in the States?

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