Honda’s Problem: Engine Or Aero Kit?
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.