Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
Planning For The Future
Honda has dominated Indy Car racing since 2004, when it powered 14 of 16 race winners, swept the Indianapolis 500 and claimed the first three spots in the drivers' championship. It only got worse for the competition and, by 2006, there was no engine manufacturer left to try and challenge the Big H.
So, Honda has been the lone engine competing in the Indy Racing League for the past three seasons, but that's not what Honda Performance Development is all about. It thrives on competition and, judging from the recent engine manufacturers' summit at Indianapolis, somebody might join HPD by 2011.
In a roundtable hosted by IndyCar officials, big hitters like Audi, BMW, Fiat, Volkswagen, Mazda and Chevrolet came to Indy to explore the possibility of joining the IndyCar Series.
Engine builders Cosworth, John Judd, Ilmor, Speedway Engines and AER were also in attendance.
"We want to build open-wheel racing back up and we believe that bringing other manufacturers into the IRL is necessary to strengthen it," said Erik Berkman, president of HPD, who led the Honda contingent attending the event.
"We're competitive, yes, but on the other hand, we want to use our competitive desire to build the series. We welcome competition. We want competition. It's what drives us."
There were manufacturers from Formula One and sports cars and a few familiar faces from open-wheel racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 24.
And the numbers were equaled by the clout.
"It was a very positive meeting, and we were happy with the quality and quantity," said Brian Barnhart, who co-hosted the summit along with IRL Commercial Division president Terry Angstadt.
"We were very well represented, with a dozen engine manufacturers and race-shop engine builders in the room. It was a very positive meeting from all aspects. It probably exceeded our expectations."
The F1 contingent was led by Fiat, which owns Ferrari, Alfa-Romeo and Maserati, and BMW, recent winners of the Canadian Grand Prix.
Fiat's interest is believed to be in bringing its new Alfa-Romeo sports car to the United States, where Alfas haven't been sold for many years. BMW, of course, has an active passenger-car market in America.
Audi, fresh off its third consecutive victory at Le Mans, currently competes in the American Le Mans Series with its powerful turbo diesel.
The IRL has been a normally-aspirated series since 1997 but prior to that, every Indy 500 winner since 1968 had been powered by a turbocharged engine, which also dominated USAC in the 1970s and CART for three decades.
Barnhart didn't rule out going back to turbos.
"The best positives associated with it are twofold," he said. "One being that, with the diversity of the schedule that we run, it [the turbocharged engine] is a great power control and helps us adjust power levels. If we need a little more power on the street and road courses, we can certainly adjust the boost up. If we need less power, we can turn it down and control the boost level from that standpoint.
"Also, you can't underestimate the second positive, which is simply its sound. It's the natural muffler. With more road and street courses, city streets, and venues of those types on the schedule, it's nice to turn our adjustables down a little bit, and it's got a great sound to it."
Honda dominated CART from 1996-2001 in the turbo era and, as Berkman adds: "I think you'll be seeing turbos in production cars very soon."
Mazda, co-owned by Ford, has long been a regular competitor in lowerlevel sports car racing in this country and supplies the engines used in the Formula Atlantic series.
Volkswagen, a staunch supporter of Super Vees in the early 1970s, has no active motorsports program at this time.
Ilmor, which scored a dominating win in the 1994 Indy 500 with Roger Penske, helped Honda enter the IRL in 2003 and is still involved in engine rebuilds today.
Cosworth, with a storied history in major open-wheel racing, is pretty much in limbo since Champ Car closed its doors last winter.
AER is an English company that builds sports-car engines for the likes of Rob Dyson, among others, while Judd had powerplants in CART during the '80s and '90s, in addition to competing in other forms of motorsport.
The IRL will change engine and car specs for 2011, and Barnhart admitted that the reality of a united series had a lot to do with the interest level.
"I honestly think the participation level was higher than anyone could have imagined or I would have anticipated," he said. "And I would say it was clearly higher than it would have been had it not been for unification. It was so clear that the unification and positive direction of open-wheel racing is what triggered the high level of interest of everybody that was in the room.
"What was most encouraging is that throughout the discussions, there was clearly more agreement than there was disagreement. And a lot of energy for a follow-up meeting, and a lot of common ground."
Toyota and General Motors tucked their tails and ran after Honda spanked them in the IRL, and Ford is on record as saying it prefers not to rejoin Indycar racing as long as Honda is involved.
Berkman says whatever the IRL wants to do in 2011 is fine with HPD.
"We said we're willing to rewrite the rules if anybody thinks we've got an unfair advantage. We told them to write the rules and tell us what we need to do. We'll play with one hand tied behind our back if that's what people want."
The next engine forum should take place by early September. "The encouraging thing is that all of them wanted to come back," noted IRL founder Tony George. "We'll see how many are serious after that."
Honda is hoping for at least a couple of playmates because, as Berkman points out, "the Racing Spirit is part of the culture at Honda and racing is an analogy for everything we do.
"We want competition and the more the merrier."