Honda on IndyCar improvements and the junior open-wheel scene

T.E. McHale, American Honda’s motorsports manager, explains to Motorsport.com why Honda is aggressively pursuing young open-wheel talent and why last season’s IndyCar aero kit wasn’t up to par.

The “Honda road to Indy”

The Honda engine in the Formula Lites car, thus far, has been 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder, normally aspirated 16-valve. I understand the new engine will be smaller displacement but turbocharged. True?

I’ve been led to believe that both the Formula Lites and the Formula 4 engines will be based on the Honda Civic Type R’s engine, which is a two-liter turbocharged four, producing 306hp in European spec. It is therefore going to be detuned accordingly, to around 220hp-plus in Formula Lites and 160hp in Formula 4.

What is Honda trying to achieve with the brand-new F4 U.S. and almost-new FLites and how do you differentiate it from what Mazda does with USF2000 and Pro Mazda on its Road To Indy program?

Well, without trying to sound too mercenary, the biggest point of differentiation would be cost. That’s what we’re really hanging our hats on. Obviously the motorsport landscape is littered with organizations who said they could do X for Y price and it turned out to be Z price… twice as much. But I’m going to throw myself on the advice of our ex-Honda colleague Robert Clarke [SCCA Pro Racing’s chairman of the board] who advises us that the cost of a Formula 4 program will be half or less than half of a USF2000 program. And we’re looking to implement those cost savings above and beyond.

There are people who are wary of us cluttering up the junior open-wheel landscape, and I have great respect for John Doonan [director of motorsports at Mazda North America] who is an honest, straight-shooting kinda guy. But I do think the cost saving by taking the Honda route is considerable. Plus the Crawford Composites cars are much more modern, too… and Formula 4 is a global and FIA-endorsed program.

Are there plans for Honda to extend the rivalry whereby you have a rival for Indy Lights, as well as Pro Mazda and USF2000?

I can’t say I’ve been part of any discussion like that. It’s a perfectly logical question, and maybe it’s been considered, but I haven’t heard anyone articulate that.

But now that you’ve committed to IndyCar for three more years at least, it would seem smart to be able to create Honda protégés from the moment they hit the pro racing trail all the way to the Verizon IndyCar Series, to ensure the stars remain loyal to Honda once they hit the top rank.

Well, I will say you’re right to assume that is the endgame – to have stars that are Honda-loyal. But whether a Honda-powered Indy Lights step is required to breed that loyalty is another question. Mazda has built a relationship with these young drivers at a very early age of their career in order to offset the cost of the program and breed that loyalty to the marque, but these drivers are not racing Mazdas at the top of the food chain. There are two manufacturers in IndyCar and neither of them are Mazda.

So if a young driver has spent four or five of his or her formative years having his career progressed by Honda, but has to step off that ladder for a season to compete in Indy Lights, hopefully the memory of what Honda did in the early stages of his or her career will still incline that driver toward Honda-powered teams in IndyCar.

But to clarify, you’re not expecting drivers to go from Formula Lites at 220hp to IndyCars at 720hp.

No, absolutely not. However, the goal is to foster Honda loyalty among the best young drivers and for them to remember that when they reach the pinnacle.

Aero kits – what a relief

It’s fair to say there has been considerable dispute over whether it’s right that IndyCar, under Rule 9.3, allowed Honda to ‘catch up’ with Chevrolet in the aero kit department in the off-season by opening more of the so-called boxes of development. There was even – and forgive us our cynicism – comments that Honda had IndyCar by the balls, because HPD’s contract to the series was up for renewal. In other words, IndyCar felt obliged to allow HPD to remedy its deficiencies. How would you counteract such cynicism?

When we were discussing the original aero rules with IndyCar, there was recognition of the risk that one kit could be dominant. The rules were even more open than F1, so it was a distinct possibility. Obviously, that was considered bad for IndyCar as we were trying to grow the brand and interest here and abroad.

So as a result there was wording put into the rules that allowed for limited rework to guarantee future parity. You know, sponsorship dollars are key to the longevity of the series; we didn’t want teams to end up having bad relationships with sponsors because of lack of competitiveness in areas that were out of their control.

As such, the 9.3 “relief” was only put in place to balance the field. Also, I think it’s important that people don’t lose sight of the fact that we did not get everything we wanted. We had a clear, demonstrated deficit at the Indy 500 but based on IndyCar’s aero testing we did not get any relief in superspeedway configuration. Given how important the Indy 500 is, I think it’s clear the contract situation did not help in that arena. But we went ahead and renewed our contract with IndyCar anyway. It’s not as if IndyCar rolled over and gave us whatever we asked for.

We are pleased, however, that IndyCar ruled that we were entitled to some relief in short oval and road course aero packages – not that we’re happy to admit someone did a better job than us, obviously! We have to admit we started development too late and clearly weren’t as prepared as we should have been last year.

However, let’s say again, this rule exists to ensure neither manufacturer has a considerable advantage over the other, in order to promote close competition for the good of the series, and both Honda and Chevrolet agreed to this rule from the outset.

There is still a step to go, by the way, to make our remedies satisfactory to IndyCar, so that there isn’t a competitive imbalance the other way before we submit our 2016 updates.

Do you have to wait for that verification on the 2015 catch-up package before you can work on the 2016 updates that are open to both manufacturers? And if so, doesn’t that make it a fairly last-minute situation again for all teams?

For months we’ve had a fairly good idea of where we wanted to improve. It’s not a situation where we waited to get permission from IndyCar before we set to work on the remedial package. We’ve had prototype parts in the works for a while, and were prepared to submit them to IndyCar if they ruled in our favor regarding technical relief. I’m sure that’s also true of the 2016 updates.

Do you think going forward that IndyCar should test the aero kits before the season starts? Because whatever the rights and wrongs, there has been a considerable loss of face for both Honda and IndyCar that seems completely unnecessary. Had IndyCar’s independent aero research been conducted before the 2015 season started, whichever manufacturer was deficient would have had a chance to catch up in a far less public manner.

I don’t disagree with that. But we should take some of the blame for not getting the kits in the hands of the teams soon enough. It was disappointing that due to a parts supply problem, some of the Honda teams were seeing their equipment for the first time in Spring Training at Barber [Motorsports Park]. This off-season, we’re considerably more advanced. I think that soon after the new year, our teams will have the parts available to start evaluating on the race track.

What’s the situation with [the 2015 HPD aerokit design company] Wirth Research? How involved is that company now with Honda?

Wirth Research has not been as prominent in the implementation of the remedial work to the 2015 kit, nor in the execution of the 2016 kit. But let’s be clear, Honda and Wirth are very involved with each other in multiple projects and have been successful partners for years in numerous motorsports arenas. We wish to continue working with Wirth because of their demonstrated expertise in other areas.

Is HPD satisfied with their engine performance from 2015? There were conflicting reports regarding whether the sub-par performance of Honda in the first half of the season was entirely down to aerodynamic drag or whether the engine was lacking in certain departments.

I’d say that even in the nadir of our performance difficulties, our top drivers such as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal would be quick to say the problem was not with the engine. However, the teams did have some issues with power delivery that we are addressing for the future.

Final subject: how rigid is the engine supply deal for Indy? Obviously, this being the 100th Indy 500, it would be good to see maybe 38, 39 cars fighting for the 33 places in the lineup of the most prestigious edition of the most prestigious race. Is there a quick fix available for the contract should there be a surge in demand for engines?

Honda historically has always demonstrated a willingness to take on additional work for the good of the series, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing a full field at the Indy 500. If a team puts together a deal that looks like it’s valid – reliable sponsorship for a recognizably strong driver and team combination – I think we would find a way to get involved and make that work.

 

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About this article
Series IndyCar , Formula 4
Article type Interview
Tags aero kit, civic type r, formula 4, formula lites, honda, hpd, mazda