IndyCar Must Do Whatever It Takes

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Last week, there were two separate articles that caught my eye and offered slightly different takes on sort of the same subject – the Honda aero kit.

Before I go any further, I will admit that I know about as much about racing aerodynamics as I do about brain surgery or rocket science. But that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to how Honda’s poor on-track performance is affecting the sport or what it may mean to Honda’s continued participation in the sport.

The first article is by Marshall Pruett of Racer.com and the second is by John Oreovicz at ESPN.com. Both articles should be required reading for any current fan of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The Pruett article discusses whether or not IndyCar should invoke Rule 9.3 which states "In the event that an Aero Kit is not competitive to such extent that it would be detrimental to the Verizon IndyCar Series, INDYCAR may permit in its sole discretion Approved Suppliers to implement modifications to their respective Aero Kits." The debate there among fans is whether or not IndyCar should interfere and allow one manufacturer to correct their mistake and completely missing the mark, as it appears has happened with Honda.

I have mixed emotions on that. I have a hard time with the sanctioning body interfering with what each manufacturer chose to run with. It sort of goes against the spirit of full competition. My gut feeling says they chose their fate, let them live with the results. But in the grand scheme of things, is it wise to let Honda die on the vine while IndyCar does nothing to help? History tells us it is not.

That brings us to the Oreovicz article, which is even more compelling. It serves as a history lesson, when Honda was on the opposite end of the equation. It refers to 2001, when Honda was dominating the CART season. CART interfered and allowed Honda’s competition, Toyota, a fix to possibly make their engine more competitive. While Honda won the 2001 CART championship, they were infuriated that the sanctioning body had interfered. They announced that when their contract was up at the end of the 2002 season, they would leave the series and take their manufacturing skills and marketing dollars to the rival Indy Racing League which is now known as IndyCar.

Fast-forward to 2015. Throughout the early part of the season, Honda was reported to be about to sign an extension with IndyCar to keep the Japanese manufacturer in the series for the foreseeable future. But that was before qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 last month. It was there that Honda was restricted in their qualifying setups, due to the uncertainty with the Chevy aero kits. Again, Honda execs are made to feel that their competition is being given special consideration because they made the wrong choice.

Honda believed that they had the faster (and safer) aero kit at Indianapolis, but were restricted to qualifying in race-day setup due to Chevy’s mistake. That’s ironic, because before the “500” – Honda had been playing second-fiddle to Chevy for the entire season. But so far, to their credit – Honda has not requested that the series intercede through Rule 9.3.

Although Honda has not asked for help, their teams are not happy. There have been only two Honda wins so far this season – both of them in rain-shortened fluky conditions. They have been down on speed all season – especially the non-ovals. Of course, there is the argument that the best teams (Penske & Ganassi) are with Chevy and that is why Chevy has accumulated seven of nine wins. But Andretti Autosport is not exactly chopped liver and they have struggled mightily this season.

Those two Honda wins came from teams owned by Sam Schmidt and Michael Andretti. Honda has shelled out an awful lot of money developing the new aero kits, and the teams are forced to buy them and run them – no matter how poorly they perform. Schmidt has publicly said that he thinks the money could have been better spent on marketing the series. Andretti never liked the idea from the beginning and their lack of performance has not changed his mind.

Schmidt fears that some sponsors for current Honda teams may defect to Chevy teams. Worse yet, they may choose to leave the series altogether. I’m not sure that was the original intention when the ICONIC committee first proposed aero kits in 2010, when they awarded the “new car” to Dallara. On Trackside last night, they cited an anonymous driver that supposedly said that they spent a fortune to go slower.

But I’ll go back to the main theme of the Oreovicz article – IndyCar needs to do whatever it takes to keep Honda happy and remain in the series. Honda has been a partner to American open-wheel racing for the past twenty-two seasons. They are too important for so many reasons.

First of all, remember when Honda was so good in 2004 and 2005 that they ran off their competition, Chevy and Toyota? Beginning in 2006, that left Honda as the sole engine provider for the entire field – including all thirty-three cars for the Indianapolis 500 along with any cars that would be bumped. This was not an ideal solution for Honda, as there was no competition for them to measure themselves against. But for the good of the series, they agreed thinking it would only be a couple of years before one of those two came back or a new competitor emerged.

For six seasons, Honda supplied all of engines used in IndyCar. They got no relief until new turbocharged engines were announced for use in the 2012 season. For 2012, there would be not one but two more companies supplying engines – their old foe Chevrolet and Lotus. Unfortunately for Honda and Chevrolet, the Lotus was a dismal failure. Most of their teams jumped ship before the Indianapolis 500. By the end of the season, Lotus themselves had bailed. That left the other two manufactures to supply more engines than they had bargained for.

Not only that, but Honda has been a great marketing partner for open-wheel racing, both CART and IndyCar. For twenty-two years, they have touted their involvement. Their sponsorship of the two-seater program has been highly successful. I would venture to guess that they have been the most visible partner that IndyCar has had over the years – and that includes Firestone and even Verizon.

But the extension remains unsigned. More and more, we keep hearing murmurs that Honda is now unhappy and that a lack of trust with IndyCar is a big reason for their foul mood. Generally, there is always something to the rumor mill. It’s the old saying; where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Sam Schmidt has a long association with Honda and he admits he doesn’t know what they’re going to do.

IndyCar has a history of taking their longtime partners for granted. They need to either come up with a strategy to make sure Honda knows they are still appreciated or come up with a Plan B. Something tells me that Chevy has no interest in supplying the entire field, as Honda did almost a decade ago. Ford has made it clear that they are not interested in getting back into open-wheel racing. I’m not really sure who else might be on the horizon.

But this much is clear – Honda needs to be saved. You do this by bending over backwards and doing whatever needs to be done to keep them. IndyCar survived the loss of IZOD and ApexBrasil as major sponsors. I’m not sure they can survive the loss of a partner like Honda. Honda has proven that they will leave a series they no longer trust. Derrick Walker and Mark Miles need to make sure they don’t do it again.

George Phillips

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32 Responses to “IndyCar Must Do Whatever It Takes”

  1. If you had asked me before the 500 I would have said Honda is gonna have to suck it up and deal, they got their aero kit wrong but both teams had equal opportunity. BUT once INDYCAR intervened (in the name of SAFETY) at the 500 and changed the rules for Chevy which both effected and punished Honda changed everything. Let Honda make some modifications…

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I have been saying this for months…
    I believe the engine manufacturers were forced to sign an agreement that they would be stuck with whatever they had before any meaningful real world testing had been done.
    Something needs to be done to help even up engine performance.
    If the shoe was on the other foot I would feel the same way.
    The series is already on thin enough ice, it certainly doesn’t need the specter of teams and sponsors departing the series or jumping ship and or Honda’s departure hanging over its head.

  3. Honda is by far the best partner IndyCar has had over the last twenty years (ok, Firestone too). If they leave, it will have nothing to do with getting beat, it will have everything to do with IndyCar’s complete and total mis-management of the aero-kits. But IndyCar needs to intervene in some way, not because Honda is asking for it, but because this is continuing the slow death of small teams, who didn’t want the kits, and killing any chances of attracting and retaining good new sponsors like Arrow.

  4. It’s a quandary. Can’t IndyCar open aero kit development up to BOTH Chevy and Honda? That way Honda has a chance to get better but Chevy also has the same chance to improve. Opening it up for one but not the other seems unfair. I don’t blame Honda for being pissed about Indy. There was no evidence their kit would sent cars airborne, yet they were impacted by Chevy’s issue. And since it was a SAFETY issue, if Honda complained then they would be labeled anti-safety.

  5. Why can’t there be a rule that allows ongoing development as the season progresses? With limited testing time, development should be allowed to be implemented immediately to test at the next race and throughout the season. Its dumb that both teams are hamstrung with their initial designs and are stuck with them with no development . Being frozen for the season only proliferates the disparity between the two teams. Why can’t they both be allowed to develop all season long?

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    Pretty much all I know about aerodynamics is what I learned from sticking my hand out my car window or by applying downforce to my John Deere cap to keep it from blowing off when I’m on my tractor. I would like to see both aero kits put in the IMS museum basement, but it was not my money that developed them.

    So, regarding the question put to us here: I am inclined to say that smarter minds than ours will find a equitable way out of this quandary, but then this is IndyCar so our concern is justified.

    A good agreement is one of which both parties are a bit dissatisfied.

    I think the team owners, large and small, may agree that cost is as big an issue as competitiveness. Losing current teams without deep pockets is a real possibility in 2016 in my opinion. And why would a prospective team want to get involved in this mess?

  7. In 2003 Chevrolet got a new engine for the last seven IRL races because they were getting clobbered by Toyota and Honda. And it was a Cosworth. I remember Sam Hornish getting the first one and winning. So, if I can remember correctly, changing set-ups and engines in mid-season is historic and traditional.

  8. Well whatever they decide to do, they better do it quick. Season is half over, and after Toronto we’ll have 6 races over 10 weeks before we go back to watching football.

    This is the part of the schedule that I really look forward to. The small ovals at Milwaukee and Iowa are my favorite. I really hope they figure something out to level the playing field before then.

    • That right there is the thing, Tom. Obviously, nobody can put a “fix” on track for Toronto this weekend (practice starts in just over 48 hours…I’m not sure you can even totally lay up and cure carbon fiber that quickly), and after that, the end of the season is just 10 weeks away.

      Let’s pretend for a minute here. Let’s say that IndyCar gives Honda the green light to throw the kitchen sink at their aero kit at noon today. Honda will likely have to spend a week (and in reality, it’d much longer than this, because these cars and kits are not simple, but we’ll pretend they can do this in a week) with a couple dozen engineers in front of CFD and CAD tubes and another 6-8 guys manning up a wind tunnel. Then, after just this single week of intensive research, they’re going to have to spend another week (though, again, in reality it’d be much longer than this) throwing carbon bits into autoclaves and machining new bits. Now, it’s June 24th, and practice for Fontana starts in 2 days. You can’t throw these completely untested parts on the cars there, because that is a recipe for disaster (and remember, the kits that we saw having problems at Indy this year had several weeks of testing, not just a couple hours, as these theoretical new kits would have). So, Honda has to run their old kits at Fontana, anyway (and besides, there are 2 superspeedway races left and 4 road course/short ovals left at this point, so Honda probably ignores the speedway kit anyway). At this point, following Fontana, Honda and the teams now have 2 weeks to prep and test the new kits before Milwaukee and Iowa. Theoretically doable (again, if you believe the super condensed time frame I’ve laid out can actually be met), but now we are down to just the last 5 races of the season. If there was a magic fix in the revised kit, great. Honda is back on even footing. If not, then they’ve just blown a couple million dollars just to go a tenth of a second or two quicker for 5 races. Meanwhile, IndyCar has probably squandered a bunch of GM’s goodwill by cutting Honda this break.

      It’s too late for this season. The Honda teams are going to have to take their lumps and do their best to work with Honda for next year while assuring current or potential sponsors that things are going to be better in ’16. It’s not necessarily a pleasant reality, but it’s unfortunately a part of competitive motor racing.

      • yep… I think you’re right. Save the $ and focus on next year. Maybe adjust boost to compensate at the flat ovals and road courses, and call it good.

  9. Jim Gray Says:

    They need to suck it up. IndyCar can’t deal with many more blows on its already shaky ground. The worse aspect is that, as they are slowly gaining ground with fans and exposure, they have now placed themselves as untrustworthy and shifty in the view of their supporters. That trust needs to be solidified or this will get ugly.

  10. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Indycar made a mistake in a moment of panic at Indy, which I believe unfairly penalized Honda. Prior to that I think most all was fair play based on the rules of competition and Honda really should have no complaints.

    Although I can’t recall where, I did also read that the original one mid-season ‘update’ time after Indy was removed just prior to the season by Indycar. Again, changing the rules after the game has started is very bad form.

    At this point, I don’t blame Honda one bit for not wanting to continue with Indycar and I’m not sure how much placation will help either. The damage is already done. Indycar makes the rules, changes the rules at their discretion amidships and must also live with their decisions.

    My gut tells me that Indycar has just one opportunity to make right with Honda and it better do it immediately if not sooner.

    I had much higher hopes for Indycar’s momentum in the aerokit era and working toward the new 2018 specs with new manufacturers seeing the positive momentum and value in becoming involved.

    I would be fantastically surprised if there are more than two manus in 2018. As surprised as I would be to see avian swine.

  11. billytheskink Says:

    The only thing I know for sure about this is that I do not envy Indycar’s management right now, which has been painted into a corner on the Honda issue by the conflicting interests of fans, teams, manufacturers, and of course their own mistakes. I agree with Speedgeek that invoking Rule 9.3 even ASAP would not likely do much for Honda this season, not when it ends so soon. I’m surprised the usually-thorough Pruett did not bring that up, actually.

    I’ve said before, Turbo contains perhaps the most accurate scene in the history of racing movies – the one where Indycar’s leadership makes an incredibly unpopular decision.

  12. SOCSeven Says:

    If I were Honda I’d be screaming like hell, but they’re not.
    They’re being very gentlemanly and sporting about it.

    I find this all ominous. VERY ominous.

  13. It does look like that decision on Pole Day is coming back to haunt big time. No, Indycar cannot lose Honda. Its amazing to me that its been 22 years since Honda came into Indycar. I remember they struggled early but before long ruled the roost.

    The frustrating thing, from my point of view, is that the path to fix Indycar is so clear. But the odds of any changes in the direction needed is practically nil with the current Indycar set up (management and team owners).

    Let them work on the aerokits. Chevy and Honda. Yesterday if possible.

  14. Because 500 qualifying really would have made the race different. Andretti isn’t even the best Honda team. Honda is kicking ass at McLaren too! Let them die if they won’t fight. Mazda? Cosworth? Anyone is better then a crybaby.

    • sejarzo Says:

      Why would any other OEM want to devote the cash to brand an engine and develop/source an aerokit with the current ICS management in place? If HPD goes, there is likely no replacement.

  15. Ron Ford Says:

    IndyCar got into this aero-kit mess listening to fans. Now they need to listen to the engine manufacturers and the teams to come up with a solution that all the parties can live with, assuming that is still possible.

    Perhaps the best fix to get through this season is to let the teams work on the aero kits. That should have been a no-brainer to begin with.

    While the aero kit development cost Chevy and Honda millions of dollars and is costing the teams additonal millions, watching the cars go around the Texas track at 200+ mph, the average fan probably could not see a nickel’s worth of difference between the cars other than the liverys.

    I can tell you this from my Wisconsin perspective………The Green Bay Packers are not as competitive as they are year after year because management listens to fans when building the teams.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I don’t recall any fans emploring the ICONIC committee to develop the aerokit idea. It was a compromise when chassis manufacturers declined to be in anything but a sole-supplier situation citing costs to develop vs. supplying only portions of the field.

      • That’s true, but Ron is correct. As the kits kept getting put off year after year – fans, including myself, complained loudly. He is also correct in the notion that fans should have a say-so in traditions at the “500”, available racing apparel and even marketing. But the engineering of the on-track product should be left to the experts, not fans.

        I’m not ready to declare this experiment a disaster, but I think some in-season tweaking should have been allowed by both camps all along. I still like the concept of individual teams having a great deal of latitude on which piece(s) to use from race to race. I just think certain aspects need to be addressed in the offseason. Do I think aero kits should come back in 2016? At this point, yes. – GP

        • Jim in Wilmington Says:

          I think SpeedGeek is correct and the time is way past for an aerodynamic fix for this mess. However a very easy fix might be to just raise the permissible boost for Honda and keep the Chevrolet boost the same.

          • simple, and cheap. I like it.

          • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

            Agreed. Honda either has an extra trick (kit) in their back pocket ready to go or not in which case there’s no time left for this season. I say let it play out for the year as is, keep Chevy right where they are now, but let Honda have their original speedway and r/s kits back, as see where we go from there.

            Tinkering with the motors gets into potential mileage and durability issues when they’ve “engineered” them to current specs.

            Overall I’m not disappointed with the racing or the drama of aerokits, only that Indycar changed the rules multiple times after the kits had already been developed and prepared.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        It was largely fans, and lots of them, who complained loudly that the cars all looked alike.

        • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

          I was one of them. Not merely an aesthetic issue to me, but also that the oval ‘racing’ w single-spec came down to just a few minor tweaks on the suspension and wings, making or losing places on pitstops, and/or driving 10mph slower to be on an alternate fuel/pit strategy. Not what I see as racing when so little of it was actually the skill of the driver’s hands. That’s why I oppose single-spec racing.

  16. Aero kits have been such a mess… at what point do we just throw them in the garbage can and either go back to the DW-12 or move on to the “new” 2018 car (I’ll be shocked if a new chassis is in Indycar in 2018, and I’m not entirely sure they SHOULD get a new chassis since car count is still down from 11). The loss of parity has been my least favorite part of the aero kits so I certainly hope the rule is invoked. Is there time to make a difference? I’m not sure. It depends if Honda already has a plan, or would it have to be thrown together at the last minute. But trying is better than what we’ve got now. Certainly next season this cannot continue, but if Honda doesn’t improve between now and the season end I worry Honda will simply be RHR, Hinch, and a bunch of ride buyers next year. Who’s going to want to sponsor them? And even for drivers who (hopefully) find sponsors next year, who’s going to want a Honda (RE: Daly/Wilson/Silevestro/Pigot)?

    The only nice thing I have to say about the kits is they look better than the DW-12 or the car before that… Hopefully the problems are solved over the off season but I’m not particularly confident that’s going to be the case.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I propose Indycar let Honda got back to their original low-df oval and higher-df R/S kits. I think you’d see the gap close up quickly.

  17. madtad1 Says:

    Don’t forget the other issue with the speedway kits was they were only unveiled in May and no one got very much time to do anything with them before qualifying. I think that was a recipe for disaster right there. There so few laps turned that no one really knew how to set up their cars.

  18. Its hard to believe that the season is half over already and the speedway aero kits have only been on the track for a month and a half.

  19. ecurie415 Says:

    I may the only contrarian who thinks “let Honda leave”. Manufacturers are in near total control of the series, and Honda, Chevy, and Dallara dictate almost all of the terms and conditions to the teams. When you talk about the marketing that Honda does for the series, I’d ask how much of that serves Honda and how much of that helps IndyCar (i.e., TV ratings)? If teams were allowed to build chassis and source engines more freely, it would bring down costs without harming competition. F1 made the same mistake when it effectively ceded control of the product to manufacturers. And no Japanese company will accept a championship where it received a performance break from the sanctioning body. It will leave before doing that.

  20. Disco Dave uk Says:

    If I’m not mistaken Indy was worth double points plus extra for qualifying so Honda so be given a mild boost in the rules for a race or two at the end of the season say maybe a extra P.s.i turbo boost but not enough to compleaty change the course of the engine championship

  21. Does a single comment or the original post even reference the fact that Honda has been forced to change their wing package since the start of the year and is now running a package that had zero hours of tunnel testing at the moment it ran the first lap in competition?

    Does any comment reference the rigid tunnel sleds provided by Dallara had negligable flex in the tunnel at the highest downforce settings and air speeds as high as 240mph?

    The development costs were extremely high in the first place and Honda was forced into them because Indycar was incapable of getting 3rd parties interested in developing. That meant spend the money or get left behind.

    Honda doubled down much more than they retracted from promotional spending and was put behind the 8 ball by further by the Dallara inadequacies. Then they have Indycar remove parts from their kit and have to reinvest again for both manufacturing and testing.

    Indycar is the epitome of a bad business partner toward the 2nd largest promotional partner for the series.

    Honda is not likely to walk away, but they do know their position when it comes to contract negotiations and they’ve got a great example from Firestone. The new contract is going to cost Indycar in a large way. Honda is not going to settle for less than full reparations for the events of this season and significant insurances going forward.

    An undeniable truth right now: Indycar absolutely needs Honda. Honda does not, in any way, need a presence in auto racing in the United States. It needs Indycar even less.

    That is not a negotiating position you want to be in if you are Indycar. Without the $100M in Indiana Taxpayer financing a 2017 Indycar series would be done.

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