Casual fans might look at the state of Honda’s professional auto racing programs and say, ‘They’re not doing so well’. TOV had the opportunity to spend time with some senior HPD staff at the Detroit Grand Prix (where both Indycar and IMSA were running) and were reminded that perspective is important when considering Honda’s position in professional Motorsports. Let’s analyze the three core series in the U.S.
It’s no big secret that Honda has been trying to catch up with Chevy since the return of engine competition to the series in 2012. First, Honda chose to use a single-turbo configuration for its V6, which proved inferior to Chevy’s Twin-turbo configuration for the first two seasons (2012 and 2013). Then Honda suffered from a tough start with introduction of aero kits in 2015. HPD had to wave a white flag of sorts in getting special dispensation to make changes for 2016 allowing it to make up most of the lost ground in the aero department.
This season, Indycar allowed significant updates to the engines. Chevy was ready with an updated engine at the start of the season. HPD’s redesigned engine did not arrive on track until the Indy 500, which Honda won, but it was the only race Honda won until that point.
Consequently, there is talk in the Indycar paddock that the Hondas have an advantage on Ovals. TOV learned that HPD engineers are looking to the Road America race June 26 as a yardstick to measure where they stand against Chevy on Road Courses, as they have calculated the high-speed track to rely on a near perfect balance between power and aero.
If that proves out, then Honda would be in good shape going forward on two of the three types of tracks Indycar races on: ovals and road courses. On Street Courses, the Chevy-powered Penske and Ganassi teams seem to be ahead of the Honda teams in the area of suspension development. With relatively little engine development allowed in 2017 and rumors of the elimination of manufacture-specific aero kits after this season, Honda would seem to be in its best position ever vis-a-vis Chevy for the 2017 season in Indycar.
However, all that catch-up in Indycar may end up having a negative effect on other programs HPD is working on.
Things are looking pretty good at the moment in IMSA . Honda HR35TT-powered (3.5 liter) Ligier JS P2s of Extreme Speed Motorsports and Michael Shank racing have won three of the five races this season. ESM won the “Florida 36” (The 24 Hours of Daytona and The 12 Hours of Sebring), Shank won at Laguna Seca, and there are some P2-frinedly circuits coming up on the calendar.
The good times may be short-lived, though, as HPD’s focus on Indycar could prevent them from fielding a factory team in IMSA’s [new] 2017 DPi class as they reportedly desired to do. We covered this possibility in our piece 'After 2016 Success, What’s Ahead for HPD in Sportscar Racing?’ and it now looks more like this is the scenario that will play out.
Cadillac and Mazda are likely to have brand-new 2017-spec DPi cars ready for Daytona. And at least one other team will have a WEC-2017-spec LMP2 car on the grid. Honda will likely be stuck with either the then-to-be grandfathered Ligier or the ARX-04b which, after being mothballed, has been resuscitated with reportedly good results.
HPD is rumored to be in active talks with at least one potential taker for the ARX-04b which presents an interesting possibility: If they find a customer to run it in 2017 and HPD presents it as a stop-gap and commits to replacing it with a 2017-spec car in the middle of 2017 or beginning of 2018, IMSA might treat it as a new car and give it a chance to compete. It would not be the first time IMSA did something like that. The current Ford GT, for instance, does not meet either GTLM or GTE specs but races in that class. And neither does the BMW M6. So needing entrants, and understanding that Honda is looking for a way to participate in DPi for 2017, IMSA might help a bit. If not, any team racing it would essentially be committing to a “lost season” (or part of a season).
Either way, and just as interesting, is that Honda could strategically sell the ARX-04b at a loss to lock in a team or drivers they want to work with when they do field a DPi entry in mid 2017 or 2018. It’s a difficult issue for HPD and for IMSA . And the fact that no one (including Mazda and GM) has announced a DPi program for 2017 is an indication of how sticky this has become. The 2017 Daytona 24 is going to be held but no one yet knows what prototype cars will be participating.
In discussing P2 machinery we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Le Mans where Michael Shank Racing will be competing for the first time campaigning a HR28TT (2.8 liter) powered Ligier JS P2 (borrowed from Extreme Speed Motorsports). With new P2 rules set to take effect next year, 2016 could be the last year for some time that we see a Honda-powered entry campaign the 24 hour endurance classic. Our hopes for Micheal Shank Racing are likely better than their chances, though. No one in the WEC series uses Honda power, largely because the HR28TT engine lacks torque relative to the Nissan-powered entries.
To recap, things are good at the moment but perhaps not for long. Can we blame Honda for this? Not entirely. While they are responsible for resource allocation to the programs they participate in, the FIA/ACO’s decisions with the P2 class effectively boxed Honda out of being a constructor or engine supplier in favor of what is essentially a new spec. racing class. In the lead-up to these decisions with the P2 class Honda actively campaigned to participate in both capacities so their desire to compete and win was real but extinguished by external influences.
Pirelli World Challenge
An interesting program saw the Acura TLX-GT launch as the only all-wheel drive entry grandfathered into the series’ GT class last year with mediocre results. In a desire to align with the rest of the GT field the TLX-GT was reworked over the winter to debut as a nearly FIA GT3 complaint rear-wheel drive car. Over the two years it has been campaigned in the series it would be easy to assess the car itself as lukewarm knowing the [high] caliber of crew and drivers behind it. While the car may have a more challenging lineage than its class brethren, this assessment would be a mistake. It is quietly known that Pirelli World Challenge suffered from some faulty management last year which prevented proper BOP adjustments from being made. Management changes were made over the off-season but even this year BOP adjustments have been slow to come however a recent adjustment showed that the car can crack the top four in races at Mosport and Lime Rock Park.
Still some fans may be distracted from this improvement by the specter of the sexy [and more class appropriate] NSX GT, which is set to take the stage next season. Running the TLX-GT in the GTS class, where it more logically belongs, and the NSX , if it’s as good as we know Honda has the ability to make it, in GT could set them up to be a powerhouse in the series again.
And what about HPD as a whole? Having spent time with them it becomes apparent that it is run by a smart and passionate group of people who don’t always take themselves too seriously. This combination is exactly what you look for in a group that can not only achieve great things but also have staying power to do it over the long haul.
So when considering Honda’s place in professional auto racing remember: HPD is still the same company that has had tremendous successes in the past. In many cases external variables, be they regulatory or political, may present an illusion to the contrary but it is just that: an illusion.