As most Honda motorsports fans know, 2018 was Honda’s best season of Indycar competition in quite some time. Honda won the Manufacturer’s title for the first time since competition returned to Indycar in 2012, Honda Drivers Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi finished 1-2 in the Driver’s Championship, Honda Driver Robert Wickens was the Rookie of the year, Honda won 11 of the 17 races, and every single Honda team won at least one race.
There was a lot to be happy about, except for the result of the biggest race, the Indy 500.
After Honda clinched the manufacturer’s title toward the end of the 2018 season, Art St. Cyr, the president of Honda Performance Development, sat down and talked about the season and the Indycar program with Temple of VTEC . Some interesting things came up, including why it took Honda so long to beat Chevy-Ilmor for the manufacturer’s title.
Looking at Honda’s previous success in American Open Wheel Racing both in the CART and IRL eras, many people in and around Indycar expected Honda to dominate the same way with the new formula as it had with the Indy Racing League naturally-aspirated V8 and the Turbo V8 of the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s in CART . But the path to winning the Indycar manufacturer’s championship had its share of potholes, not to mention lots of effort on the part of the HPD associates as well the HPD’s partner teams and drivers.
“This manufacturers championship especially with this engine, is a tribute to all of the associates at HPD an how hard they worked over the years making sure that we had the reliability and the power and the fuel economy you need to have a race-winning engine,” St. Cyr said. “We have a really strong collection of drivers and teams. All of our teams have won at least one race.”
POTHOLE NUMBER 1: “… especially with this engine”
So what’s with the “especially with the engine” part of that statement? In short, the basic design of the 2012 Honda Indycar engine, from which the current engine was derived, was not designed for competition.
To understand that, we need to set the 'Wayback Machine’ to 2010: HPD had been the single-source engine supplier of Indycar engines from 2006 through the 2011 season. That sole-source engine was a de-tuned version of its engine which won the 2005 championship over Toyota and Chevrolet, both of which withdrew for the 2006 season. One of the issues for that particular engine was that it was designed for competition against Chevy and Toyota, not as a sole-source engine. Because of that, the engine was less cost-effective than it could have been and it was estimated at the time that teams were paying $1 Million per car per season for Engine Leases. One of Indycar’s goals for the formula change in 2012 was to lower the cost of the engines to the teams. This was due to the economics of the time. The world was in the midst of the recession that followed the 2008 financial collapse so cutting costs for the Indycar teams was paramount when the parameters for the 2012 engine were announced in June, 2010. The goal was to get the engine lease costs down to about $700,000 per car per season.
“This particular engine was designed when there was not another competitor committed to the series, for sole supply,” said St. Cyr. “It was not something that we anticipated doing a lot of development on.”
Instead, it was designed with cost containment in mind. In fact, HPD did not anticipate any competitors coming forward at all. “Coming out of the recession. There wasn’t a lot of resources being poured into racing at the time.”
So when Chevy in particular announced it was entering the series (with former partner Ilmor), HPD was in a tough spot. HPD was too far down the path of developing a cost-effective single-source engine and there was no time (and not a lot of money) to do a complete re-design.
Going into the 2012 season, HPD had an engine that was designed for sole supply and was going up against their former partners at Ilmor (who co-developed the Indy Racing League Honda V8), who were working with Chevrolet. Ilmor knew they would have competition from the beginning, and when both engines first hit the track, it was obvious who had the upper hand. “It took us longer than we anticipated to ramp up and get things going.”
POTHOLE NUMBER 2: Turbo-Gate
The big controversy the first year was Honda choosing to go with a single large turbo, while Chevy and Lotus went with smaller twin turbos.
“We looked at both,” St. Cyr said. “The two turbo configurations were supposed to be equivalent, but they were not. Not being equivalent meant that there would be a winner and loser.”
At one point, Borg-Warner developed a “fix” to make the single turbo system more competitive. But Chevy complained about the change and Indycar landed on Chevy’s side.
“With the understanding that the configurations were supposed to have the same level of performance, it should have been competitive, but it wasn’t.”
The “Turbo-Gate” controversy left HPD with the task of fixing deficiencies and trying to make gains where it could. The other major deficiency of the Honda effort for the first several years was the fact that Honda had only one of the series’ top three teams. For 2012 and 2013 Honda had Chip Ganassi Racing, whereas Chevy had both Andretti and Penske. The results were mixed.
In 2012, Honda won four races compared to Chevy’s 11. A saving grace was Honda winning the Indy 500 (Dario Franchitti).
After the season, Lotus ended its program and Honda made some significant changes to its engine, though it remained single turbo. The 2013 results were a lot better as Honda won 9 of 19 races. Ganassi-Honda’s Scott Dixon won the Driver’s Championship. 2013 was the closest Honda got to winning the Manufacturer’s title before 2018. “Probably should have won, penalty at Sonoma that cost us that one,” St. Cyr recalled.
The season ended with the shock announcement that Honda’s highest profile team, Ganassi Racing, was switching to Chevy. After a couple weeks of discussion, Andretti Autosport switched from Chevy to Honda. So Honda still had one of the top three teams, just a different one.
Indycar also decreed that both manufacturers would use twin-turbo configurations beginning in 2014. Switching to the twin turbo configuration was not a panacea for Honda, as it won only six of the 18 races, although one was the Indy 500 (Ryan Hunter-Reay for Andretti). The consensus was that Chevy had the engine to beat.
POTHOLE NUMBER 3: Aerokits
The arrival of Manufacturer-designed bodywork for the Dallara cars (called Aerokits) in 2015 signaled the arrival of the darkest age yet for Honda in Indycar. It was clear at the first open test of 2015 season that Honda had missed the mark by a wide margin.
St. Cyr knew Honda was in trouble well before that test. “When Indycar decided to implement the aerokits, we knew we were in trouble. Aerodynamics is one of those things if you tinker and tinker with it for a long enough time you will get better.” While Honda was spending its time lobbying hard against the adoption of aerobats, Chevy was hard at work developing its design.
“Our stance all along was that the aerokits were not strategically the right way to spend our resources in Indycar,” St. Cyr said. “We fought very hard not to implement aerokits.
From my perspective, the other side was very much in favor of aerokits ever since Randy Bernard (former head of the series) talked about doing aerokits prior to the 2012 season. They (Chevy) started with the intention to implement them when we did not. So effectively, they had a two-year head start on aerokits.
“When Indycar said ‘We are doing aerokits,’ we said we still want to be in Indycar, so we have to do aerokits.”
HPD worked with-long time aero partner Wirth Engineering on the project. Wirth had designed and built HPD’s IMSA LMP cars with significant success. While the Chevy kit was simple, elegant and well-balanced. The Honda kit was complex, unstable and had too much drag. “We actually found it worked pretty good, but we quickly found out that it was not as competitive as we had hoped,” St. Cyr said.
How uncompetitive WAS Honda during the Dark Ages with Aerokits?
2015: Honda won 6 of 16 races and lost the Indy 500.
2016: Honda won 2 of 16 races, including winning the Indy 500 (Alexander Rossi).
2017: Honda won 7 of 17 races, including winning the Indy 500 (Takuma Sato).
THE ROAD BACK
For Honda, the road to success in 2018 can be traced back to a number of developments during the off-season between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
1) Indycar announced that Manufacturer Aerokits would be eliminated after 2017.
2) Ganassi signed with Honda, giving Honda two (Ganassi and Andretti) of the “Big Three” teams for the first time since engine competition returned in 2012.
3) During the 201616-’17 off season, HPD was able to achieve benefits of the ‘15-‘16 development update.
Indycar eliminated aerokits primarily because the development of the kits had made competition unbalanced and had unleashed unanticipated spending by the manufacturers on Research and Development. Spending on aerokit development was several times more than what the competitors were spending on engine development.
None of which helped the series or the competitors, in St. Cyr’s view. “In hindsight I still believe it did not do much to improve the product either for consumers or for us at Honda.”
And the level of effectiveness of the aerokit was the determining factor in the car’s performance. The best example of that is 2016. “We did get a pretty big jump (in engine performance) in 2016, but it was masked by the aerokits.”
Ganassi’s decision to switch to Honda had an impact that is impossible to overstate. For the first time, Honda had two of the three strongest teams in the indycar Paddock with Andretti and Ganassi. That left Chevy with Penske and … not much else. Since Ganassi left for Honda, the only Chevy team that has won an Indycar race has been Penske.
“It’s always important to have top teams and top drivers,” St. Cyr said. “All of our teams have been contributing to this. We have a lot of bullets in our gun.”
Since the start of the 2017 season, the battle at every event has been Honda vs. Team Penske. That gives Honda much more margin for error. Odds are that if the Andretti cars are having a bad day and missed the set-up, odds are that one of the other teams (Schmidt-Peterson, Ganassi, Coyne or Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan) hit it. On the Chevy side of the ledger, if Penske has a bad day then Chevy is going to have a bad day. There is really no other team to step up and pick up the slack.
One of the best examples of this was St. Petersburg, the first race of 2018. Robert Wickens (Schmidt-Peterson) and Alexander Rossi (Andretti) were leading the race when they collided on the last restart. Because so many of the Hondas are competitive, that left two other Hondas (Sebastian Bourdais of Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan and Graham Rahal of RLLR ) to pick up the pieces (Rossi recovered to finish third). The top Chevy finished seventh (Josef Newgarden).
About those 2016 Engine Developments
Since the start of Engine Competition with the 2012 season, there have been regulations for what areas of the engines that competitors could and could not develop, and when. Generally, there has been an open window for some area of the engine every other year, until stricter limits were agreed to by Honda and Chevy beginning with the 2018 season. These stricter limits are meant to allow Honda and Chevy to work on their new designs for 2021 and not having to work on major areas of the 2012 spec.
Some areas of the engine are always open. This would include electronic settings and things like pistons and rings, etc. But most of the time you can’t change really important things. So the manufacturers were stuck with the major elements of the 2012 design through the 2012 and 2013 season. Then there was an open window that allowed Honda to change its turbo configuration, among other things.
The 2015-2016 window was an important one: The entire fuel and air flow of the engine was open for the first time: Intake design, cylinder head design (with certain limitations) and the exhaust path. All of this was a particular weakness of Honda’s 2012 sole-source design. “We did not allow a lot of room for development,” St. Cyr said. There was a lot for Honda to gain in this area, compared to Chevy.
This did not show up in results at the track in 2016 (Honda won only two races that year). And there were many more engine failures than HPD was used to.
Then in 2017 (after an off-season where development was very limited) Honda surprised the paddock by winning five of the first eight races, seemingly out of nowhere, including the Indy 500. Lots of people in the paddock and in the media were left scratching their heads. It was clear that HPD had found something. And that at some tracks the 2017 engine was strong enough to overcome the parachute effect of the aerokit. It was also clear that once common aerokits showed up in 2018, Honda was going to be the engine to have.
What happened? Some people (including me) have surmised that HPD’s redesign of the intake and exhaust prior to the 2016 season was too effective, at least initially. That led to reliability issues as one part after another of the engine’s bottom end failed under the new stress. It is thought that HPD actually dialed back the performance of the 2016 engines to make them last as the engineers played whack-a-mole with the component failures. By 2017, many of the failures had been addressed and the performance improvements were starting to show, even though they were still masked by the Honda aerokit. Finally in 2018, the implementation of common aerokits showed how good HPD’s powerplant is.
All St. Cyr would say about it is: “That’s kind of an over simplified view of how that came down …. (but) it’s safe to make that assumption.”
In the end, the 2018 success is the result of finally dealing with the original engine’s sole-source design shortcomings.
“Winning the championship is a culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of effort, a lot of soul searching quite frankly about what HPD is and how we go about doing our business. And I could not be more proud of the activities of the entire staff and the associates of American Honda that support us as well. This is truly a group effort not just from HPD , but the teams and the drivers and everyone else.”