Honda’s Problem: Engine Or Aero Kit?

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Honda has made it clear that they would like to be able to make substantial changes to their aero kit before they sign another long-term commitment to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Before I get into my questions, let me get it out that I am a big fan of Honda. I appreciate them sticking with the series as the sole engine provider from 2006 through 2011. Except for a three-year period when I got a deceivingly great deal on a Nissan, I’ve always had at least one Honda in my garage since 1981. I’ve owned my current Honda since 2012.

That being said, I read an article on Racer.com where Honda Performance Development (HPD) race team leader, Allen Miller, told Autosport last week that while acknowledging the deficiencies of Honda’s aero kit this year, a big reason for their poor performance since 2012 was that they spent five years as the sole engine provider to what is now the Verizon IndyCar Series.

When I first read that, I asked myself “Is he joking?” His logic was that with no competition, Honda’s goal was not to make the engine quicker and more powerful – but rather to make it safer and last longer. Once Chevy got back into the game in 2012, the stakes changed. Competition forced Honda’s hand to be quick.

Although the Chevy engine was always perceived to be the quicker of the two, Honda won the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with Dario Franchitti behind the wheel of his No.50 Target DW-12. Chevy did win the championship that season with Ryan Hunter-Reay driving for Andretti Autosport. In 2013, the results were flipped. Tony Kanaan and KV Racing gave Chevy their first Indianapolis 500 win since 2002 and only the second for the bow-tie brand since 1993. Scott Dixon won the championship for Honda just as Chip Ganassi was announcing his switch to Chevy for the 2014 season, indirectly forcing Andretti to switch to Honda.

Again, the tables were turned for 2014. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indianapolis 500 for Honda and Will Power gave Chevy the championship. It wasn’t until 2015 that either manufacturer swept both honors. In the age of the aero kits, Chevy took the 2015 Indianapolis 500 with Juan Montoya; and the 2015 Verizon IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon.

One might hear those facts and think that Honda and Chevy were on par with each other for those first three seasons before aero kits came into play. They weren’t. A closer look reveals that in 2012, Honda won a total of four races. One of those just happened to be the Indianapolis 500. Chevy won eleven, almost three times as many races as Honda. Honda was actually considered more of a laughing stock in 2012 than the first part of this past season. The only thing they really had going for them was that they were considerably faster than the Lotus.

The following year, in 2013, was Honda’s best of this era. Honda won nine races, while Chevy won ten. They came close to matching Chevy, but not quite close enough. In 2014, Chevy doubled up Honda, winning twelve races while Honda won only six. If you’re keeping score, over the first three seasons since Chevy came back into the series after being driven out by Honda after 2005; Chevy won thirty-three races to Honda’s nineteen.

Although some considered the 2015 season to be a disaster for Honda, it was their second best season of the DW-12 era. Honda won six races to Chevy’s ten, giving Chevy a 43-25 edge over the four seasons.

So I got to thinking that maybe Mr. Miller was on to something. Was it possible that five years of playing it safe and having no competition adversely affected HPD and their ability to produce a winning engine? Or was it that they couldn’t make the transition from a naturally aspirated V-8 to a turbocharged V-6? Does five years of having no competition make you that complacent?

Then I remembered a key piece of information. When Honda was winning championships, while chasing Chevrolet and Toyota out of the series a decade ago, then in the ensuing years when they were the sole engine supplier – the Honda engine was built by Ilmor Engineering and simply badged as a Honda. Yes, Honda engineers had input on the engine design; but make no mistake – the engine was an Ilmor.

This current version of the Honda engine that has been running since 2012 is designed and built by HPD. Can you guess who builds the Chevy engine? If you guessed Ilmor, you would be correct.

Throughout all of the examinations into whatever inner-workings that might be known of each engine, is it possible that the explanation of why Chevy has better results is as simple as Ilmor knows how to build a better engine?

Ilmor has been doing this for a long time. Mario Illien and Paul Morgan founded Ilmor with the financial backing of Roger Penske in 1983. Rick Mears gave Chevy-Ilmor its first Indianapolis 500 win in 1988. From 1988 through 1994, Ilmor-built engines would power the winning cars to seven straight Indianapolis 500 wins and six CART championships. Mercedes picked up the tab for the Ilmor after Chevy left the sport. When Honda left CART following the 2002 season, they went with Ilmor to build their engines – a relationship that lasted through 2011.

I’m not an engineer, nor do I pretend to know the behind-the-scenes relationships between engine builders and manufacturers who pay to badge an engine. But I can look at results and see that except for the Mercedes era of the late-nineties; Ilmor has a very impressive track-record.

While Honda’s woes for this season have been blamed on their aero kit design, what about 2012-14 when Honda (HPD) compiled a 19-33 record against Chevy (Ilmor)? How many HPD engineers worked closely with Ilmor from 2003-2011, when Ilmor was building engines for Honda?

So, I guess my main question is…are Honda’s problems from its aero kit or its engine? Or do they have problems with both? I don’t know the answer, but I’m assuming it’s much cheaper and easier to change the aero kit design than it is the engine design.

Whatever the case, should IndyCar allow Honda to make the substantial changes to the aero kit they are seeking, while only allowing Chevy to make minor tweaks? IndyCar rule 9.3 is a provision to allow changes for one manufacturer if the on-track disparity is great enough. Is Chevy winning ten races to Honda’s six, great enough. That’s what Honda says and appears to be using as a bargaining chip for a long-term deal to remain in the series.

Honda has been in Indy car racing since 1994. They have been very good for the sport and they have derived a lot of good publicity in those twenty-two seasons. Should IndyCar allow Honda this freedom, while restricting Chevy, another good partner?

I’ll be honest, I don’t have an answer. On one hand, I can understand IndyCar bending over backwards to accommodate a long-term partner like Honda. On the other hand, if you accommodate them, where does it stop? You don’t want any one partner to have so much power that they control the series and alienate the other partners – like Chevy.

If I were the IndyCar czar, I would allow both manufacturers to make substantial changes. But then, why have a rulebook if you’re not going to adhere to it? Of course, I thought it was a stupid rule to begin with. I understand the idea is to cut costs, but I have no problem with spending other people’s money. I’ve always leaned towards improvements and innovation in the name of speed and competition, rather than restricting designs in the name of saving money.

So, for once – I’m torn. I don’t think my choice of allowing both manufacturers to make wholesale changes will be IndyCar’s choice. I think they will either grant Honda’s wish so they will stay, or risk watching them walk if IndyCar says “no”. It’s too bad there is not a legitimate third manufacturer to team up with Cosworth. Then things would really get interesting.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Honda’s Problem: Engine Or Aero Kit?”

  1. Very good analysis. Did not realize this either.

    I think this one is simple. If you allow Honda to make wholesale changes, you have to allow Chevy the same.

  2. Honda deserves a refresh but Chevy, I believe deserves one as well, after all this is competition right? This would be Honda’s big chance to get it right and gain an edge that is if they have been doing their homework. There is also the risk that Chevy could widen their performance gap over Honda. Its only fair and its all in the spirit of competition which is why these two companies are doing this in the first place.

    I am partial to Honda as well. I have 4 Hondas : 2 motorcycles, a car and a lawnmower and potentially a weed eater ;-). I also still can’t get the General Motors’ bailout out of my head. Even though the Chevrolet engine is really an Ilmor, it is tough for me not to pull for Honda. After all they did hold the series up during the period when Toyota and Chevy left.

  3. I think Honda has certainly paid their dues through the years so they should and probably will be accomodated. Honda’s contributions to the series have gone beyond just supplying engines. It is not realistic in my opinion to simply give the engine builders free rein without some sort of spending cap. Engineers in any field always have to work within a budget. Often times the budget dictates the design parameters. One need look no further than the current presidential race to see that having the most money does not always result in the best product.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      …may not result in he best product….

      However, it is great for the economy ! !

      Just think of the positive nature of all the money being spent and will be spent by all the ‘candidates’ locally and nationally plus the additional individuals being employed which will help boost the economy…………

  4. I’m surprised the rules don’t let them both come up with new designs in the off-season for the following year. IndyCar is in a weak position, big time, and will eventually give in to Honda’s demands. Chevy might not even be all that angry since I doubt they want to supply engines to the full field of Honda bolts. But, if Honda gets what it wants, then Chevy and Firestone may say … “wait a minute” when their contracts come up too.

  5. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Part of me thinks that if manufacturers want to spend their money to redevelop and update engines or aerokits, let them have at it, but I simply don’t see how the updates don’t come at an additional cost to the teams (prepare yourself for some w(h)ine).

    OR

    A balanced approach might allow “limited/specified” items for update to all competitors, perhaps something like you are allowed to update either your engine OR your aerokit, but not both.

    From my view, this issue actually boils down to three things –
    1. Honda flat out got beat in the very competition they asked for and agreed to.
    2. Indycar very likely adversely affected Honda (and the Road/Streets/Small Oval competition) by requiring removal of parts to the RC/SC/SO aerokits after St. Pete due to the spectator being struck.
    3. Indycar again adversely affected Honda at Indy with the pitching/rolling/airborne issue found with the Chevy and again mandating changes to both Chevy and Honda that appeared only an issue with Chevy’s kit.

    Issues 2 and 3 don’t change the fact of issue 1.

    Do issues 2 and 3 indicate some remedy of goodwill be allowed to Honda? Maybe, in the best interest of the sport and one of it’s best partners.

    The multi-million dollar question is:
    “What is, in fact, in the best interest of the sport?”

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I think Honda gives up a bit to Chevrolet on both the engine and aero kit sides, but they also have had a weaker lineup of teams and drivers in each of the 4 years using the current car. They have never had more than 1 of the “big 3” teams and have consistently supplied a greater number of one-car teams than Chevrolet. I think this is as big a factor in their gap to Chevrolet as anything.

    Balancing the quality of the teams each manufacturer supplies would go as far in closing the gap as anything done under rule 9.3, but it is most definitely not something Indycar can control. I would expect Indycar to come to a compromise between Honda’s desired concessions and the status quo, with Honda getting most of what it wants.

  7. George, thanks for you research on the subject.
    The biggest problem, as I see it, is that IndyCar wrote a rule saying they can change the rules – if they decide to.
    It seems both manufacturers built engines and aerokits within the rules. the season started without any significant on track testing of the aerokits and problems surfaces. IndyCar started mandating changes (changing the rules?) and the mess developed.
    Given that Honda did better on road/street courses following the mandated wing modifications, maybe that was good for Honda.
    We will never know, but it seems Honda really had to make do at Indy after focusing their efforts there.
    The bottom line now is, if Honda decides to leave, will there even be an IndyCar series next year? Chevy does not want to support the whole field. Fans wanted differentiation.
    Also, until IndyCar decides what to do, and Honda decides what to do, can anybody involved in IndyCar, free-agent drivers, team owners, sponsors, track owners, make any decisions about next season? How long can those decisions be delayed?

    • I think Honda has already made it clear they want to be around for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. The bigger and more pressing question is; will they be around beyond that? That’s why I said a long-term commitment, but I should have made that point about next year more clear. Thanks for bringing that up. – GP

  8. Once Andretti got things figured out the Honda’s seemed just fine. Does anyone really think if the Honda teams and the Chevy teams swapped places that Penske and Ganassi wouldn’t be two of the best three teams? Andretti let Honda down the first half the year. Plain and simple.

  9. I would like to stuff one of those Ilmor 396 engines that ARCA uses into my tired old Town and Country van. I’m sure Paul Newman would smile on that idea. For whatever reason, Ilmor has produced racing engines of many types including marine and motorcyle engines that are badged by others. I can only conclude that they prefer to work that way. Honda will have their hands full keeping up with Ilmor, but I think they are up to the task. Mr. Honda was a riding mechanic on race cars going back to 1924. If he was still alive I believe he would be delighted in this engine competition.

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