Thanks to HPD , TOV Motorsports got a chance to discuss a few Honda racing issues with Steve Eriksen, Exec VP of Operations for Honda Performance Development, the racing subsidiary of American Honda. We met with him before the Indycar race at Milwaukee.
We’ve divided this report into two parts: The Indycar program and sports car racing.
In this entry we discuss Indycar.
It’s been an interesting season for HPD in Indycar. The Indycar aerokits that were introduced to much fanfare have been an adventure from the time tires hit pavement. The HPD aerokit was slower than the Chevy counterpart, and more temperamental. This left HPD in serious catch-up mode. Especially when Indycar started playing with the rules at the Indy 500.
And then there’s the current off-track issues, some of which are certainly related to the changing rules and regulations at the 500. Honda’s contract ends this September, with discussions continuing. There’s a lot of uncertainty. But we’ve discussed that before.
Some Momentum for Honda?
Lately, Honda’s fortunes have been on the rise. And Eriksen was upbeat. Honda was coming off its best race the week before in Fontana. All the Hondas were competitive, and Graham Rahal won the race. It was the first race Honda won in 2015 without rain at some point in the proceedings. It was also the first race Honda won that went the full distance.
Things were looking pretty good for the Milwaukee race. The Hondas were competitive in practice, and Rahal ended up third in the race. One car, Sebastian Bourdais’ Chevy, clearly had everyone else’s number. But the Hondas were competitive throughout the pack.
Of course, there was the matter of losing three engines before the race and two during.
Overall, there is a sense that things are getting better for Honda in Indycar.
First, about the contract, or lack of one: “We are all working under the assumption that things will work out and that we’ll be back,” said Eriksen. “If we didn’t think and act that way, we would fall further behind.”
Of course, the performance of the aerokit has been the main focus of
since the season started.
“We had no idea where we would be versus the competition until we got out on track together. When we saw where things stood, of course it’s not what we had hoped for.”
Fixing it has involved a lot of full-scale wind tunnel work. “We asked the teams what we could do, and what they wanted was mapping.” So HPD went to the wind tunnel, testing all imaginable configurations and mapping results with the aerokit. Making a degree change in this part yields a certain amount of downforce along with a particular amount of drag, and changes the center of pressure this much. That kind of thing.
In the beginning, HPD was supplying teams with as much mapping data as it could, as fast as it could. And then as Indycar made changes to the kits (removing pieces for safety reasons, adding some and stiffening others), more mapping was done. First to the Road and Street Course kit, then to the oval kits.
“What’s been most interesting to me is how some teams have done better than others,” Eriksen said. “Some of the gray hairs in the paddock have a better handle on this. They lived through a time when cars changed every year. So they don’t have a problem going in a wider direction.”
During the glory days of CART in the 1990s, teams got new cars every year and new parts every couple of weeks, either from the chassis manufacturer or parts the teams made themselves. “This year with aerokits, it’s like a whole new car.” And the kits have a lot of options. So the engineers who have experience with that kind of major change, and lots of choices, seem better able to deal with these aerokits. They will try things that might be outside someone else’s comfort zone. Sometimes those things they work.
In case you are wondering, Eddie Jones, Graham Rahal’s engineer, would likely fall into that “gray hair” category, and Rahal has consistently been the most competitive Honda all season. Another engineer that falls into that category is Allen McDonald, who is the engineer for the No. 5 that has been run by James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Briscoe and Conor Daly. While that car has not gotten the best results, it has consistently run with the likes of Rahal and with the top Chevys.
As the season goes on, the challenge is to learn from each practice and each race. Sometimes there are surprises. “Based on what happened to us at Texas, I was not optimistic about how we would do at Fontana. I didn’t think we would be that close.”
But when the cars took to the track, it was clear the Hondas were competitive. So you start looking at the differences between the configuration of the cars at the two races. Indycar mandated a different rear wing angle range, and there were a couple of other differences that Indycar mandated. You can see that changing those things equally on both cars brought the performance of the Chevy and the Honda closer together. It also brought the performance of the Chevys closer to each other. “That’s a clue into what’s going on with the two cars. Not the whole story, but a clue.”
“Every race is different. No two ovals have the same configuration. Fontana was different from Texas. Indy is unique. We have never used the configuration we have here (Milwaukee). And Iowa will be different.”
No time to test
The biggest problem for someone like Honda trying to catch up in this kind of environment is the schedule itself. “There’s no time to test. The schedule is so compressed.” There’s only so much you can do using Computational Fluid Dynamics (computer aero simulation), or even in the wind tunnel. “Sooner or later you have to get out there.”
But in these days of cost control in racing series, testing is the first thing that gets cut. “We probably need to add some testing back in,” Eriksen said. “Six days to test the aerokits wasn’t enough.”
But to make room for more in-season testing in Indycar, the schedule needs some air in it. From the time of the introduction of the aerokits, there really hasn’t been any time to test this season. And by the time there were a couple open weeks, the season was almost over.
“This schedule is really tough on teams. You work to the point of exhaustion for six months and then … how do you keep mechanics busy during the off-season?” Eriksen said. “I think Indycar will fix that next year.” Based on hints about the schedule, it seem like teams expect next season to run past Labor Day into at least September. And for there to be a two weeks on/one week off pattern to the summer.
At this point in the 2015 season, HPD is working on each race as it comes and making plans for the fall, when they can start testing again. “There is something like six manufacturer days and three days of aerokits,” Eriksen said. Still not a lot. So HPD is making plans now to make the most of the fall testing and be better next season.
Assuming that pesky contract thing gets worked out.