IndyCar: Mistake of Iconic Proportions

Andy BernsteinCorrespondent IJune 2, 2010

After two years of roundtable discussions, solicitation of auto manufacturers and a monopoly of power in IndyCar racing, The ICONIC panel announced the outline for the next generation of engines to be used in the Izod IndyCar Series:

There isn't a lot of detail in today's statement, and below are a few important points that IndyCar has failed to mention.

As the sole supplier of IndyCar engines, Honda Performance Development (HPD) has been calling the shots. You can't buy one of their engines, or modify any performance characteristics. Teams are forced to lease the engines at a price dictated by Honda. You only get one at a engine for your spare car...and can only replace an in-service unit at 1400 mile intervals.

With no other manufacturers interested in participating, Honda powers the game. Of course that's not all bad: privateers are barred from undertaking their own development programs and coming up with an engine that covers the field. Costs are at least predictable, in spite of the inordinate expense. Reliability is, in a word, superb.

The current state of IndyCar, and the world economy, has deterred involvement by any other major auto manufacturer or racing engine builder. These facts have not changed. So what changed today?

Absent of any other takers, IndyCar has invited all comers. This change to the formula  could have been announced two years ago, or seven. Today's announcement is essentially a "run what you brung" invitation...with one very big exception.

The Honda V8 will be killed off. That's OK with Honda, HPD's Erik Berkman has been pushing for a V6 turbo for two years. It is an engine platform they have been developing for competition in ALMS racing, and bears greater relevance to their street car lineup.

The announcement of today's open spec will not go into effect until 2012...IF the engines are available, as Honda's design has yet to be finalized and no manufacturing has begun. June 1 was Berkman's deadline to IRL for a decision. Honda still powers the game.

For the remainder of 2010, and all of 2011 at a minimum, IndyCar racing will remain unchanged. Except for the continued decline in ratings that this spec series has generated, that is.

This prospect seems to concern no one, as all eyes are on 2012. OK, if you say so. Teams have great difficulty in funding their operations now, as sponsorship acquisition is dependant on the ratings which IndyCar cannot elevate. Your racing isn't cutting it, folks. 

So what happens in 2012? Everyone who owns a Dallara chassis now has a worthless race car. There are currently upwards of 80 in existence. The engines for which they are designed have been regulated out of future competition.

Every team, large and small, will be forced to purchase the new spec chassis and select a new engine supplier. How many teams will be in the financial position to do so? Will there be enough viable investors to purchase 40 new chassis, and 20 engine leases, to fill the grid in Brazil for 2012?

And as the Series continues on its current path, will another auto manufacturer or engine builder step up to compete with Honda? The invitations were extended two years ago, and there have been no takers. What will incentivize a change of heart now is a question someone will have to answer for me.

Mine is not the voice of an idle critic. In late 2009, I began to write a series of proposed regulation changes under the title of "Stay On Track". Much of the information was published in public forums. It was sent to Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett of Speed in January 2010. Subsequently, IRL officials, team principals, journalists and broadcasters received the plan. Miller promised to share it with team owners, and hasn't responded since. Nobody else wrote a word in reply.

The spec for 2011 I wrote included the open engine regulations that were announced today. So I should be smugly satisfied, right?

No, they missed the most important points. First, suitable racing engines to fit within the new spec already exist. Turbocharged four cylinder racing engines like the GM Ecotec, Ford Duratec, and Mazda MZR-R could already be installed in Dallara chassis today. Even if minor equivalency regulations were required, the power to weight ratios would match the Dallara/Honda V8. And with removal of the airbox and a redesigned engine cover, we would watch, and listen to, and compare the performance of NON SPEC racecars. Different torque curves. Different fuel mileage and aero profiles. VARIABLES.

Well that won't work now, will it. The Honda V8 rebuild program could have been taken over by Ilmor...they do 20% of that work now. Small teams could have continued to run their old chassis and engines against the new ones, until funding was available for  upgrades. They could sell their old chassis to new entrants to the Indycar paddock, and the Dallara/Honda would remain as one of the variety of packages on track.

Or, they could start their engine development program as a separate transition step by installing the new engine in their old chassis. Penske was the first to repeat this idea publicly, this year at St. Petersburg. That option was effectively killed today. In 2012, it won't be worth the expense to adapt a Dallara for a year of competition against the new chassis. You buy all new gear, or you go home. And get zero for your obsolete equipment.

Today's announcement also has bearing on the new chassis that will be selected. One of the constructors has committed to a V6 from day one: they feel that a stressed engine installation and high power output are imperative to produce a durable and fast race car. They have no interest in the installation of a semi-stressed 4 cyl.

Delta is firmly entrenched on the opposite end of the scale. Their light weight concept vehicle was drawn around a 2.0 liter engine that weighs 164 lbs. Sorry, that's not what Honda is going to build for the IRL. Unless another manufacturer steps up, they are stuck with the $150k Mazda variant they have selected. Or they can completely redesign their chassis to accept the much heavier stressed engine V6 and all of the required ancillaries.

As for the other chassis designers, and the teams who will buy their cars, another complication arises. What engine architecture do you draw the car around? The Honda V6 stressed installation will be the sure thing, so that will be the first choice. Spec chassis, spec engine. What's new about that formula?

If and when a team opts to test a four cylinder installation, who does the development work? Is ICONIC going to require that the new spec chassis can be supplied with off-the-shelf components to install a semi-stressed four cylinder? Which engine?

The big guys will have all the choices. Buy a new chassis and a spare for each driver, and a Honda V6 engine lease for each car. Buy another spare chassis and initiate an engine development program to build a killer turbo 4 cyl. Base the future package on whichever yields the best performance, or run both programs and alternate packages to suit the demands of the circuit.

And the little guys? They will have two worthless show cars. They will have to come up with money to buy a chassis and a spare, and decide which engine to lease or purchase. The spec Honda V6 will be the obvious choice, and there won't be enough money to run alternate packages. If the chassis isn't supplied to also accept a 4 cyl, they will have to fabricate the engine bay reinforcement, coolers, engine cover, etc.

If they gamble on an alternate engine supplier, or opt to build their own, they will run what they brung. Too bad if it can't compete with the Honda V6 in performance or reliability. 

Any way you cut it, this means that 2012 requires new money and lots of it. New chassis, spares, service equipment, and a substitute engine lease or quantity purchase at a minimum.

Davey Hamilton won't be racing at Texas this weekend. The combined resources of Steve Luzco and Gil De Ferran is two chassis, both wrecked at Indy. Newman/ Haas has reportedly been running on fumes for a while. Dale Coyne Racing is running out of pocket, and likely fighting to keep Milka Duno's Citgo sponsorship intact. Indy one-offs are back in mothballs, available for only one more year. IMS Chief Jeff Belskus has stated that he wants to wean the entrants' dependence on the $1.3M annual TEAM payouts. That's the $20M deficit to erase which the Series continues to bear.

I don't see how this road enables the Izod Indycar Series to stay on track. Ganassi has his own path, and there remains no sign that the IRL, or anyone else, will accept it. Penske suggested another path, which now has been overruled. So we will wait and see what variables reach the grid in 2012, and who will be able to afford them.

The only safe bet is that all of today's cars and engines will be gone. That is a mistake of Iconic proportions.