IndyCar Must Do Whatever It Takes
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 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.