Art St. Cyr was gracious enough to spend some time talking about Honda’s first manufacturer’s title at the end of last season. During that conversation we touched on a lot of topics that didn’t fit into the story of winning the manufacturer’s title, but were interesting nonetheless. We’ve put those together in this article which should be interesting for Indycar and general racing fans who follow Honda.
Honda’s Goals for the Indycar Program
“Our goals at the beginning of the year are to win the Indy 500, manufacturer’s championship and the driver’s championship. But within that, we want to win the race. Whatever race that happens to be. If a Honda wins the race, we are very happy.”
The importance of the Indy 500 in Honda’s thinking
For Indycar competitors, winning one particular race outweighs all others. And if you ask drivers whether they would rather win the season-long driver’s championship or have their face on the Borg-Warner Trophy with all the other Indy 500 Winners, the answer will be easy. It’s no different for Honda.
Although 2018 was the first full-season manufacturer’s title that Honda won, it would be silly to think that Honda views the Indycar program to have been unsuccessful. While Chevy leads the full-season title tally 6-1, Honda leads in the most important category: Indy 500s won. Since the advent of competition in 2012, Honda has won 2012 (Dario Franchitti), 2013 (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 2016 (Alexander Rossi) and 2017 (Takuma Sato). That’s the big score everyone keeps track of, and it’s 4-3 Honda since 2012.
“We make all of our decisions for engines with the Indy 500 in mind,” said St. Cyr. “There are lots of other types of tracks that you need to be cognizant of. But even the casual viewers know the Indy 500.”
The engine performance characteristics of the Indy 500 are something of an outlier. The engines run at or near maximum power and maximum revs for the entire race, and they run at lower turbo boost pressures (turbos produce up to 1.65-bar of boost on road courses and only 1.3-bar on superspeedways).
So neither Honda nor Chevy can afford to make a design change that would negatively impact performance at Indianapolis.
Similarly, because the new engines that every car gets before the race at Indy need to last for 2,000 more miles after the 500, they can’t be completely optimized for Indy to the detriment of performance at other types of venues. An engine optimized solely to produce a peaky powerband at low boost is unlikely to do well the following weekend at the temporary circuit on Belle Isle in Detroit, for example. Like all street circuits, that one places a premium on low-end torque and overall driveability because of the slippery nature of those venues.
“It’s important to your brand to do well at the Indy 500, but we don’t do Indy 500 specific engines.”
On Engine Development and the “qualifying problem”
For the first several years of the current V6 twin-turbo engine specification and competition, the symbol of Honda’s inferiority to Chevy was Chevy’s domination of Road and Street course qualifying sessions. It was not unusual to see Chevy sweep five of the top six places on the grid, and even eight or nine of the top 10. The Chev’s always had an extra level of performance that they used only for qualifying. And though the Hondas were competitive during race conditions, most often they could not overcome the deficit they were put in from qualifying.
Solving that issue went to the roots of engine development, according to St. Cyr. “When you do engine development, you’re trying to make power. Whenever you make more power, the first thing that happens is that the engine breaks. Then you have to fix it. Then you add more power and then you fix the reliability issues the extra power exposes.
“When you look at the (road and street) qualifying deficit that we clearly had (from 2012 through most of 2016) it was very important to create more power. And then figure out what is the weak link and address that. So in the course of doing that you figure out that we can make more power, but we can’t deploy it all the time.
“You have to limit how often you use that maximum power. I assume they (Chevy-Ilmor) had the same issues. They could turn the power up during qualifying. But then in the race we were more competitive. So, I assume they had to turn the power down as well. In a perfect world you could run at full power all the time. But you never actually achieve that. But power and durability have to go together.
“You have to manage the durability that is in the engine itself. We’ve made power, we’ve increased our durability and we have figured out how to deploy that power in a much more targeted fashion.”
The consensus in the Indycar paddock is that while the engines are close in absolute top end power, that Honda is able to deploy it better. And gets better fuel mileage while doing it.
“In the engine development process you are always iterating. There are technologies in the engine today that were not in the 2012 engine.”
On the new Indycar engine formula
Unlike the development of the 2012 engine, HPD knows for sure there will be competition when the new engine formula takes to the track in 2021. Chevy has committed, and there are persistent rumors of a third car manufacturer joining the competition. The engine rules for we finalized toward the end of the 2018 season.
Given how the introduction of the 2012 formula turned out, is St. Cyr losing sleep about designing the new spec engine? “I’m pretty excited about it. We will be designing the engine for competition. It keeps our chief engineer up a night. I have confidence that we will get what we need out of it.
“The overall architecture of the engine is not really changing: We’re going from 2.2 liters to 2.4 liters twin turbo. We’re not reinventing the wheel. That being said, we’ve learned a lot about how to run an engine and make the most out of the fuel that we have. We will utilize that technology moving forward and that always gets better.”
“Road Relevance” in Indycar
Series like Formula E spend a lot of time promoting the relevance of the formula to the development of road cars. Especially with the increased importance of road car electrification. Is there a point at which Indycar has to look at something more relevant?
“It is always important to be relevant,” St. Cyr said. “But you have to balance that with what you are. You can’t be what you’re not.
“(In Indycar) the racing is fantastic and what we’ve built that on historically is being fast and loud. Part of the emotion of pinnacle racing, right now, is that the cars make noise. One of the issues with Fomula E is that the cars don’t sound like you would expect them to sound.
“That being said, electrification is the wave of the future. There’s no way around considering how does the way of the production car world relate to what we’re doing in racing? How do we incorporate that stuff to make it relevant? Like it or not, the new generation (of potential fans) is going to be used to hybrid cars, electric cars, charging stations, those types of things. These are the kinds of things that racing has been used to help develop. You have to apply it when it makes sense.”
Honda considers the current and future Indycar formula to be plenty relevant without electrification. “There’s more technology than just pure electric,” St. Cyr said. “If you look at combustion efficiency and the tools we use to design our race engines, those are absolutely transferred over to our production engines and our production car side. So we use the racing program as a test bed for those technologies. The thermal efficiency of our race engines are way more than they were ten years ago. While we are still using an internal combustion engine, the technologies that we use are pushing our production cars into the future.
“I think it’s naïve to think that there does not have to be some push toward electrification in all forms of racing. But you have to make sure that moving to that new technology does not damage what you have already built.”
On the Number of teams: Is there a point at which you just say “no”?
Honda’s biggest challenge rolling into the 2018 season may be the number of cars that it’s supplying: 15 cars for more than half the races and 14 for the rest. “That’s a very real problem and I have talked to (President of Indycar) Jay Frye about that,” St. Cyr said. “Especially for a company like Honda that has never had a layoff. If we expand capacity and then don’t need it it’s hard to manage that from a resource allocation standpoint. Our capacity is 11 full-time entrants. This year (2018) we did 12, and we can do that with overtime and that kind of stuff.”
Expanding capacity to support 14 or 15 going forward is another matter. “It doesn’t really make sense especially in the era when we are trying to bring more manufacturers into Indycar. It’s no secret that we have been seeking more and more competitors.”
If Indycar were to get a third manufacturer, it would be reasonable to expect that manufacturer to pick up something like one-third of the cars on the grid. Because Honda supplies most of the cars on the grid, most of the cars picked up by the third manufacturer would likely be Hondas. So HPD could go from 14/15 full season cars to 10, or even fewer. The problem for HPD becomes what to do with the extra capacity, particularly the people.
Similarly, if there is no third manufacturer, yet the Indycar grid keeps growing, HPD is in a different pickle. “It’s not so hard to figure out how to service and supply a couple more cars if you are talking about a solid reliable engine design. But if we get to a new era of a new engine and we have 30 cars that want to run we’d have to look hard and deep about how we want to supply that.”
As of this writing, Honda will be powering 15 cars at 10 races, and 14 at the other 6 races (not including the Indy 500’s expanded grid).
Andretti Autosport: 4
Arrow SPM: 2
Rahal Letterman Lanigan: 2
Meyer-Shank is expected to do about 10 races
Working with Drivers and Teams
As much effort as is expended in designing and developing race engines, as much or more goes into developing partner teams and drivers. The relationship between HPD and its teams isn’t a simple matter where the teams write checks for roughly $850,000 per car/per season and HPD drops off a crate with a new engine every few weeks. It’s much more of a partnership.
“I will say that having teams and drivers is a key component to overall performance,” St. Cyr said. If the teams are no good, it does not matter how good the car or the engine is. And while good teams do occasionally get poached (Ganassi is a prime example of that), it’s more common that a manufacturer nurtures the teams it has.
One of the best examples of that is Dale Coyne Racing, whose capabilities have improved considerably over the last few seasons to the point where it is no longer an upset for DCR to be in contention on any given weekend.
The most visible aspect of team nurturing is in the drivers they hire. And while HPD plays a role, it more subtle than is generally suspected.
“We won’t necessarily tell teams who they should put in the car, but we will encourage, with incentives or whatever we want and say ‘Hey, if you put this driver in maybe we’ll do something for you.’ Ultimately it’s the team’s call on who they want to put in the car.”
Another part of that is HPD taking care of drivers by arranging for opportunities outside of Indycar. It’s no secret that HPD played a role in getting Alexander Rossi interested in Indycar when his Formula 1 opportunities dried up in 2015. And it’s no accident that Rossi drove a Racing Ridgeline in the Baja 1000 this past winter, and that Rossi is driving at the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring and Petite Le Mans for the Acura Penske sports car team in 2019.
Keeping track of young talent is part of what HPD does. HPD is the engine supplier for all the cars in the US F3 and F4 open wheel series, as well as supplying racing Fit engines for the FF series (formerly Formula Ford). This gives the company an excellent chance to observe on-track talent.
“We have people at every race, and we take notice of who are the successful drivers,” St. Cyr said. “Obviously Kyle Kirkwood, who won formula 4 this year and has locked up the F2000 and won all the F3 races, he would be someone that is on our radar. We look at all the drivers.
And they look pretty intently. “It’s not just about race wins. It’s about closing rates. And it’s about passing and race smarts that we also have metrics for to try to figure out who are the ones that we believe are going to be the most successful.”
So when it comes time to make a suggestion, odds are the HPD staff in the paddock will have a list of drivers. “Ultimately, the teams are the ones to make the decisions.”