Honda has been in open wheel racing in the US since the mid 1990s; this week marks the 20th Anniversary of Honda’s first big embarrassment at Indianapolis when Scott Goodyear passed the pace car, throwing away an almost sure victory.
In that time Honda has had long stretches of domination in both CART and the IRL . It’s an impressive history.
But the Honda Indycar program has reached a new low point this season. Since competition returned to Indycar in 2012, Honda’s story is littered with blown engines, marquee teams and drivers defecting, and a new aerokit program that has failed to achieve results. Honda is a second-class competitor in a series it used to dominate.
With Honda’s contract with Indycar up at the end of this season, it’s time for a major decision: recommit to winning, or quit the series.
Recommitting means accountability at Honda Performance Development with a fresh infusion of money from parent American Honda. In the new era of Indycar competition, HPD has made mistake after mistake. Honda has been behind Chevy from the first open test in 2012 and has never really taken the lead because American Honda has not spent the money necessary to catch up.
So it comes down to this: If American Honda is not ready to increase the Indycar budget significantly, then bow out now. The performance of Honda in Indycar is hurting the image of the brand. Honda is becoming more of a joke as the season goes on.
The 2015 Indy 500 is a case-in-point. All season we have heard HPD’s Art St. Cyr, Steve Eriksen and Allen Miller say over and over again that the Honda Indycar Aerokit and engine program were designed to win at Indy. When qualifying went badly, they said the aerokit and engine were designed to win the race. How’d that work out? Two cars in the top 11.
There clearly was no advantage to having a Honda. Not power. Not speed. Not fuel mileage and not tire wear. That Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti finished fifth and sixth was an accident. The Honda’s were a non-factor all afternoon and were only as close to the lead as they were because the pack was bunched up after late cautions.
After the result of the 500, the 2015 Indycar season is officially a disaster for Honda. A write-off. Honda has won one race, and that was due to unusual circumstances (rain and a timed race). Honda is far behind on street courses, clearly behind on road courses, and is weak on big ovals. So, where are the victories going to come? Only in the rain, apparently. At this point, I would be shocked if Honda wins even one more dry race this season.
The continuing weakness has serious competitive consequences. It’s unlikely that any teams will switch to Chevy, but if you’re a talented young driver, like Carlos Munoz, Jack Hawksworth, Graham Rahal or Gabby Chavez, aren’t you looking for a ride with a Chevy team next season? And once that starts happening, there’s no way for Honda to win consistently since driver talent matters as much as anything else in racing.
The problem now is that there are limits to what Honda can do to improve the performance of the engines and aerokits. And there are limits to the amount of testing they can do. To be competitive, you have to get things right out of the box. And HPD missed badly on aerokits.
So, if I were deciding the future of the Honda Indycar program, this is what I would be looking at:
OPTION 1: Take a break.
- Withdraw from Indycar after this season with the idea that Honda could rejoin the series once plans for the new formula (scheduled for 2018) are firmed up, if that formula suits Honda. The Honda-corporate line could be something like this:
- Indycar costs too much given the low return on marketing dollars spent.
Indycar’s rules have been unstable and developing a competitive car has been hindered by unpredictable course corrections that Indycar has made recently.
- The season is too short, and there is too little time to make the marketing investment pay.
- In announcing the withdrawal, Honda could announce that it would be willing to re-enter once its concerns are addressed, and once costs of participation are lowered through a new, more exciting formula and a management more committed to raising the profile of the series.
Given that the rules are scheduled to undergo a change at the end of this decade, this would allow HPD to be involved in talks on a new specification and be allowed time to “get it right” should Honda decide to re-enter.
It would also give Honda a strong negotiating position from which to influence the new formula, particularly a reduction in running costs for teams and for manufacturers. One of the universal truisms of Indycar in the 21st century is that the costs are too high given the rewards. This includes costs for teams, sponsors, and partners like Honda and Chevy. And the rewards in exposure and ratings are miniscule.
Honda would be in the advantageous position of having to be “lured back” by Indycar.
And Honda would have the options of just saying “no” to the new formula.
The problem with this is that Honda would make a lot of enemies. People would lose sight of the fact that Honda kept the series afloat throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Instead, this would be seen as abandoning a shaky endeavor that is trying to turn a corner. It would be devastating if Honda left the series. Especially if Honda dropped sponsorships of races at Barber, Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Milwaukee. The Mid-Ohio race certainly dies if Honda withdraws. And Barber might not be far behind. Milwaukee is not thriving and without Honda’s support it likely will not make it another year. Toronto might find a way to survive, but who knows?
Withdrawing would not help Honda’s relationship with partner teams like Andretti, Rahal, Foyt and Schmidt. But for those teams, is it better to be doomed to mediocrity with a underfunded, uncompetitive engine partner? Also, Honda could encourage those teams to be more involved with American Sports Car racing endeavors. This would include the IMSA prototype program, a possible NSX or sub- NSX GT program or a possible Super GT-based North American series.
In short, American Honda has to look at the image of the brand when making a decision like this. Right now, Honda’s participation in Indycar is not helping anyone.
OPTION 2: Stay, but with significant assurances from the series.
- Honda would get specific assurances on what the new formula for the series will be, and that HPD will be allowed to make changes to its aero package to catch up.
If I were American Honda, I would only stay in Indycar under certain specific conditions:
- The season is expanded to at least 18 races in North America and is expanded through September.
- Stabilize the car rules for the current formula. Bring in a more formal process with manufacturer input. The Clown committee that has been running the Indycar adoption of Aerokits has to de-commissioned. I would want to see some fairly high-level staff changes, perhaps including the firing of Derrick Walker
- I would want an agreement in principal, TODAY , on what the formula for the next Indycar will be, and what season it will be introduced. As part of that agreement, I would most want a reduction or elimination of the $500,000 per car per season subsidy that manufacturers absorb today. I would want running costs for the teams reduced significantly. And I would want there to be at least two manufacturers of race cars for the next formula (likely incumbent Dallara and someone like Swift or Riley).
- To help Honda’s current performance, I would want the “For the good of the series” rule quietly invoked, allowing Honda to “fix” the road course aerokit without penalty and without counting toward next year’s upgrade schedule.
Fixing issues with Indycar is not enough. If HPD is to stay in the Indycar series, then American Honda needs to step up its commitment to make the Indycar program competitive with GM. This means money. How much? I don’t know what the budget is now to determine the basis for an increase. But I can tell you what the results need to be:
- There has to be enough of an increase to make new teams want to join the Honda program. I am thinking specifically of the Carlin and Junkos teams, which are preparing to move up from Indy lights and would be a shot in the arm of the Honda Indycar program.
- Enough of an increase to lure young drivers to Honda and stop the loss of top talent (like Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden). To get back in the game, Honda will have to help teams fight for young Chevy drivers like Sage Karam, Newgarden and Charlie Kimball, as well as help teams bring drivers like Justin Wilson, Conor Daly and Simona deSilvestro back into the game full time. The fact that the Dale Coyne Honda’s are available to the highest bidder is just plain embarrassing. That has to stop.
Honda likely spends less than $30 million per year on the Indycar program. That’s less than Mercedes pays Lewis Hamilton as a driver. If that’s the case, a $10 million increase would make a big difference, to Honda and to the series.
If Honda is to stay in Indycar, there has to be some accountability at HPD . Graham Rahal, the top Honda driver this year, said something to the effect that he knew his Honda did not have the speed to keep up with the Chevys at Indy. There has to be a serious post-mortem at HPD to determine why that was. Why was Honda a non-factor? What is to be done about it? How much will it cost? Who is going to do it?
HPD needs to take a long hard look at the internal people who were responsible for those programs, and the processes they used. Clearly Ilmor and Pratt & Miller are kicking HPD’s butt. HPD should be familiar with former-partner Ilmor and its processes. Something has to be learned, and there has to be some accountability at whatever level of the organization is necessary.
Obviously, HPD needs to end the relationship with Wirth Engineering. Their new LMP2 coupe is a dog, and now the Indycar. Clearly, HPD needs to find another aerodynamic partner for Indycar and a sports car chassis manufacturer for IMSA/ ACO . There are a lot to choose from in North America: Riley and Swift leap to mind. Maybe you give one the job of fixing the ARX-04B and the other the job of fixing the Indy Road Course kit, and then decide who to partner with long-term?
Finally, there is the Indycar engine program. From the beginning, it has been marginally competitive with a lot of reliability issues. Understanding that this is the first “from scratch” engine program that HPD has ever done, lessons need to be learned and changes need to be made.
It pains me to say all this because I have been an Indycar fan and a Honda Racing fan since the early 1980s. It’s not healthy for Honda to continue down the road they are traveling in Indycar. Something has to change. Ultimately, this has to be driven by American Honda. If American Honda is committed to Indycar, how did it let Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden get away last year? How did it let Chip Ganassi Racing leave for Chevy the year before? And how is it sitting by while Justin Wilson, Simona deSilvestro, and Conor Daly don’t have seats in Honda cars and Francesco Dracone and Rudolpho Gonzalez do?
If American Honda is not willing to step up on it’s commitment to HPD and the Honda Indycar program, then leaving the series now is the step that has to be taken. Better to put the program out of its misery than to stagger down the track like this.