If you’ve been following the saga of Honda Performance Development in the world of Prototype Sportscar racing, you are familiar with all the twists and turns the program has been through. Starting back with the ALMS Factory Acura LMP2 program, going through the LMP1 era, then to the ALMS/GrandAm merger, and finally to the new Daytona Prototype International (DPi) class starting in 2017.
About that DPi thing, there has not been too much in the way of future direction coming from HPD , until now. This week, Marshall Pruett of Racer.com broke news of Team Penske joining the DPi field in IMSA with a factory team in 2018. The inference is the factory will be Honda. (Penske confirms DPi interest)
Knowing Marshall’s work, I am sure he has done his homework and there is something to this.
It’s a really interesting development which lends itself to further discussion/speculation about how this came about and some of the details. So let’s go through some of the questions this raises and some of the, more or less, speculative answers I might have for them.
As a reminder for those of you who have been lulled to sleep by this saga, a few words about DPi: The class replaces the “prototype” class as the top class in IMSA sports car racing for 2017. The DPi cars are based one one of four chassis blessed by the ACO for the new 2017 LMP2 class: Onroack (Ligier), Oreca, Dallara, and Riley-Multimatic. Instead of using the ACO spec Gibson engine DPi will use engines branded by major manufacturers with unique bodywork panels to go with the engines. So far, no manufacturer has announced a DPi program although it is becoming more widely accepted that Cadillac and Mazda are likely to be the only two manufacturers for the start of 2017. Honda was always thought to be a possibility, but now it looks like they are waiting for 2018 before entering.
Wait! What? Honda and Penske? Yes, Honda and Team Penske are opponents in Indycar. Roger Penske owns Ilmor, which makes the Chevy Indycar engine, is the lead Chevy Indycar team, and who stole Simon Pagenaud from Honda. But the relationship between the two organizations is not in any way an “enemy” relationship, think of it more like respected competitors.
Some background: In the late 1990s Penske found that it could not compete with the Honda/Reynards in CART and dropped his own Mercedes-Ilmor program to join the Honda team. Penske won championships with Honda in CART and set the world closed-course speed record in the process. A record that still stands.
When the time came for Penske to leave CART for the Indy Racing League, he effectively brought American Honda along with him. Although Penske was a Toyota team in the IRL , he arranged for a partnership between his Ilmor and American Honda/ HPD to campaign Honda-badged Ilmor engines in the IRL . When Penske went sports car racing in the ALMS with Porsche in the 2000s, it is thought that Penske helped HPD/Acura make the decision to join that series with him.
So, the choice of Honda to partner with Penske on a factory sports car team isn’t entirely surprising. They probably have a lot of similar goals (see below).
Why a factory team instead of partnering with an existing DP team? The short answer to this is that all the all-pro Daytona Prototype teams are spoken for. They needed to make a decision by now for 2017. Teams like Wayne Taylor Racing, Action Express, Visit Florida, etc. all need to have new DPi cars ready for 2017. Those teams will either run Cadillacs, Mazdas, or the ACO spec. car with the Gibson engine.
For a number of reasons
was not ready to make a commitment when those teams needed one (primarily, extra resources that had to be brought to the Indycar program slowed the effort). So there were not any existing all-pro teams for
to partner with once the decision was made. Also, having a “factory” team means you have more input on who drives for you. In endurance racing, with Balance of Performance rules, drivers are everything.
So HPD is sitting out 2017? Unless HPD finds someone who wants to run the updated ARX-04b: yes. It looks like Shank is going to run the NSX GT3 in GTD and there doesn’t seem to be anyone that wants to run a “grandfathered” car that will likely be down 50+ HP to the new cars. It’s possible that IMSA , seeing the possibility of a handicapped prototype field in 2017, changes its mind and lets the ARX-04b run with the same power as the DPi cars. If they don’t, HPD is surely sitting out DPi for 2017.
Are there any advantages to sitting out 2017? I am not sure if this entered into HPD’s thinking, but there are a couple:
- Partnering with a chassis manufacturer: In order to be on the grid for Daytona in 2017, you would have to partner with one of the four ACO chassis manufacturers (Onroak, Oreca, Dallara and Multimatic) by now. That means picking a partner without knowing which chassis might be faster or more reliable than the others. With four to choose from, you know that there will be winners and losers. And it won’t just be down to performance of the different cars. What if one of the three does not get any orders? Are they going to drop out? There are likely only going to be 10-15 cars made. Is that enough to sustain the four manufacturers? This gives HPD the chance to see how the cars perform and to see how sustainable they are before choosing a chassis partner.
- Seeing how the rules shake out: There are a lot of balls in the air. Not the least of which is the ACO’s LMP1-L class (also called LMP1-Privateer). This is the class of cars in ACO racing between the mega-buck LMP1-H hybrid cars that Porsche, Audi, and Toyota run and the LMP2 cars that are run by pro-am teams in the World Endurance Championship and at LeMans. There are now only two teams and two cars in this class (Rebellion and ByKolles). So the WEC is looking to attract more cars for this class (as well as more cars for LMP1, but that’s another sad story). And IMSA is looking for a way to get more of its cars into LeMans now that the DPi cars are automota non grata . So what if IMSA and the ACO were to converge the DPi and LMP1-L specs? Anyone who held off on designing the cars would have an advantage. As would anyone who designed their DPi car with the idea in mind that it could be easily configured to also run LMP1-L. How would you do that? First, you would need more power. So maybe you design your DPi to take the NSX engine package instead of the J-series-based V6. And maybe you design the engines so that they comply with the special portions of the LMP1-L specification? Would the ACO do this? It looks like there will only be six LMP1 cars at LeMans next year (two each from Audi, Porsche, and Toyota) and only two LMP1-L cars. Mazda, Cadillac, and Honda could give them six more high-profile cars to shore up the lead class. There’s a deal to be made here.
Is there anything more to this than meets the eye?
There are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First is that if Honda is going with a factory program for DPi, then they have changed the fundamental purpose of the program. The purpose of the old program was to sell customer cars. Which, frankly, hasn’t gone so well lately.
The purpose of a factory racing program is to win and advance the brand by winning. If they are going with a factory team in DPi, this is a fundamental shift away from the customer program. Choosing Penske as a partner makes all kinds of sense in that context. Just think of the drivers you’d have access to: Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya. Combine them with a few selected Honda Indycar drivers and add in the best organization in American racing. You could be looking at the racing equivalent of the 1927 Yankees.
With this change may come other changes. Let’s start with the engine. It’s been assumed than any Honda DPi car would be powered by today’s J-series-based twin-turbo V6. The reason for that was to keep the cost to customers down. However, in this scenario, we don’t care about selling these cars to customers. So why not use the NSX V6?
Winning a class like LMP1-L at Le Mans would be one thing. Winning overall would be another. What’s to stop Honda from developing a DPi car that could also run with the proposed Indycar V6 with Magneti-Marelli Hybrid proposed a few years back? Or how about a DPi car with a Honda-McLaren F1 powerplant in the back?
Looking farther down the road, there is talk about allowing fuel-cell based LMP1 prototypes in 2020.
The elephant in the room. Putting together a team to win the Daytona 24, Sebring and Petit LeMans is one thing and would be quite an accomplishment. But Roger Penske has made no secret of wanting to go to Le Mans. And winning Le Mans would certainly be on the bucket list of Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya. Winning at Le Mans would give JPM an incredible triple crown of racing accomplishments: How many people can you name who have won The Indy 500, The Monaco Grand Prix, and Le Mans? I know he has thought about it.
One thing’s for sure, a Honda-Penske factory effort would change the game in prototype racing for