Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The State of IndyCar Engine Supply in 2012

Subtitle: The Post Wherein The Speedgeek Finally Loses His Everlovin' Mind

There's been a whole lot of stuff that's been sticking in my craw of late when it comes to the World of IndyCar, specifically, in the realm of engine supply. I won't clog up the pixels here with all of the technical details, because most of you probably already know them, but IndyCar has gone to smaller capacity, turbocharged engines for 2012 (much like what I've advocated in the past, albeit with some subtle differences...all this said, I am perfectly OK with the path the ICONIC committee chose). The ENTIRE automotive industry is pursuing similar paths for most of their short- and mid-term production engines, and so it was smart of IndyCar to confab with GM, Honda and many of the other car makers to come up with this formula to grow technical interest in the sport.

Of course, as has been well documented in many places (most notably in the fevered ramblings of Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett on SpeedTV.com), things have come out of the box less than perfect. Normal? When compared to new technical packages in motorsport (ChampCar circa-2007, IRL circa-1997, GrandAm circa-2003, and probably multiple other similar examples from the 1970s and 1960s, if I felt like digging through some of my personal library...anyway, it is not new to have hiccups in the first year of a formula, no matter who you are), this is most definitely not a unique situation. Optimal? Most certainly not. Fixable? With time, certainly.

The most recent situation has centered around Mike Shank Racing's "exclusion" from the Indy 500 paddock. JP over at the most excellent and thoughtful JP IndyCar Thoughts had a great take on this today, and you can read my direct thoughts there in the comments. If you don't feel like hitting those links, here is the gist: We have a 100% new engine formula for 2012. When is the last time that happened in American Open Wheel Racing? 1997, but in that case, the formula utilized off-the-shelf production parts from Oldsmobile and Infiniti street cars, so parts and complete engines were relatively plentiful. Before that? We'll have to go back some 45 years to find the introduction of the 161-ish cubic inch turbocharged engines, that the Indy 500, USAC, CART and even the IRL used up through 1996 (for the IRL) and 2008 (for CART/ChampCar). At that, that engine formula was not all encompassing, as it ran for the first 15-20 years of that span against a mixture of various normally aspirated and slight variations of turbocharged engines (plus Andy Granatelli's turbines, which you should never, ever ask Donald Davidson about). This is possibly the first time, other than 1997, that in some 80 years that the Indy 500 will use 33 engines that are 100% new from the season before. There is no historical comparison here.

With the creation of IndyCar's new omelette, a few eggs have gotten broken. To revisit, Mike Shank, as Robin Miller puts it, is being "excluded" from this year's Indy 500 because he can not find a suitable engine (this sounds an awful lot like what happened with Sarah Fisher just a couple months ago). Mind you, he could probably get a Lotus engine, as Lotus has just dropped from supplying five cars to three, but Mike does not want to run at the back of the field. GM and Honda have already (as Robin Hisownself puts it in his column) "gone above and beyond" in supplying as many teams as they have (45% of the field each, which is more than their 40% contractural obligation). AND GM and Honda are each likely taking on one each of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport in the few days between now and Indy Opening Day. So, what's the option here? GM and Honda are already overrun with teams, working to the limit of their ability, manpower and budget. Lotus is capable of supplying an engine, but Shank doesn't want it (which I can understand, because it likely relegates him to a 15th place finish at best, and then only if the planets align and locusts and frogs drop from the sky at just the right time). Who is supposed to give here? Robin, as per usual, is doing a fantastic job of stirring the pot, but offers no tangible solutions. It sucks to say, but tough noogies, Mike. You might not make the 500 this year. Better luck next year (and I mean that, because I think he could be a great IndyCar owner and Jay Howard could be a better than average or better IndyCar driver).

Another "broken egg" has been that of the engine mileage targets that resulted in all the Chevrolets being replaced at Long Beach after James Hinchcliffe's engine blew up in testing and all of their teams receiving ten grid spot penalties. There has been a widespread fan uproar over this, with people saying that it's deplorable that something that happens in testing could spill over into a race weekend (typified by Marshall Pruett's apoplectic column on the topic during that weekend). What I'd like to ask everybody who has lost their minds over this is: what's your answer? I've heard several responses to that.

1) Don't penalize the teams, because they're innocent bystanders. Penalize the manufacturers directly somehow. Uh, what? Are the teams bystanders when they have a fantastic engine that they ride off into the distance like Will Power has done three times now this season? Because, to my mind, the only real way to hit the manufacturer where it hurts when there's an engine failure is to hamstring their ability to win races (and be able to use all that positive marketing PR that results). That means docking teams (i.e. the direct partners of the manufacturers, and the de facto representatives of the manufacturers in the starting field) grid spots. Penalizing manufacturer's championship points? You mean for a trophy that nobody outside of GM's or Honda's boardroom is paying any attention to? Hahahahahahahaha. You might as well fine them in imaginary drivers' license demerits. Nope, make it harder for the offending company to win races.

2) Allow the teams to have testing engines. How's that fit into the budgets of the engine manufacturers? You know, the ones who are supplying six engines for the season to each team to the tune of $690,000 each? Doesn't it stand to reason that if each team is now to get two testing engines to go beat on for a couple thousand miles each, that the engine lease price will go up accordingly? And that if the manufacturers are running experimental parts out on the test track in those testing engines that those two extra engines per team may not just cost the teams $200,000 more, but possibly $300,000-400,000 or even more than that? Geez, I thought part of the idea behind the new formula was to keep costs down. Silly me.

Really, those are the only two ideas I've heard for alternatives, and I don't have any faith that either would work. Meanwhile, you know who we have yet to hear a single word of protest from over the Chevy-gate affair? The engine manufacturers themselves. Oh, and also the teams. Why's that? It's because they know that if these rules (mileage limits, grid penalties for premature grenading) are not in place, then a cost war will break out that will eventually drive one or all companies out of the Series. Um, like we had in the last few years. Or, to put this more exactly, costs will go up to the point where no engine manufacturer can make the budget numbers work and they just pull out of the Series. After all, the engine manufacturers (that is all of them, nobody strong armed the others into accepting the rules, from what I heard) asked for these rules to be put in place. Let's let them work, and see what we get for a year, shall we?

One more craw sticker: yep, we're probably going to see a decrease in speeds at Indy this year over last year. Yep, probably to the tune of 4-5 MPH slower (though I still say that Pole speed comes in around the 223 MPH bracket, give or take 1 MPH). However, this is being achieved in the first year of an all-new engine formula (which will be around for several years and probably see power increases in ensuing years) and with smaller engines (37% smaller than last year, and 17% smaller than the much-pined-for 161 cubic inch formula that ran out in 1996, but continued in CART and ChampCar until 2008) than have been run since the days that Harry Miller was drinking Postum in the infield. Sorry, haters, but I guess I don't see how that's a big deal. If it is a big deal for you, how's about you take the year off and come back next May, when we're probably pushing 228-229 again?

In the meantime, it's May, everybody. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Take a deep breath. We're going to have cars on the track at Indianapolis soon. Life's not too bad, right?

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