Honda's IndyCar aero kit dilemma

Just one event into 2015 and it appears that Chevrolet has a clear edge over their Honda rivals.

Honda's IndyCar aero kit dilemma
The new Honda aero kit
The new Honda aero kit
The new Honda aero kit
CFH Racing nose section
Caution period
Andretti Autosport nose section
Race action
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport Honda
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

The results posted by Honda Performance Development’s (HPD’s) corps of teams at the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg Verizon IndyCar Series season opener are dismaying.

The backstory

Engine manufacturer Honda, after all, saved this series from extinction when all other engine makers departed after the 2005 season. HPD shouldered the supply side of motive power until Chevrolet re-joined the circuit at the start o the 2012 season, the same time a new Dallara DW12 chassis debuted.

During that period, HPD had a remarkable record for speed, safety and for a lack of engine failures. It might be noted there was a partnership with Ilmor Inc in Plymouth, Mich. where engines were rebuilt for competition; most certainly some intellectual property changed hands during that era between the two entities. At the end of their cooperative venture, gifts were exchanged and goodwill celebrated.

Then Ilmor and HPD went to war, as Ilmor Ltd worked with GM Racing to build the new Chevy Indy V-6 turbo and HPD constructed the Honda power plant.

Honda took the initial salvo with Ryan Hunter-Reay (RHR) securing the 2014 Indianapolis 500 victory (Dario Franchitti took his final and third Indy win with Honda in 2012). Scott Dixon earned his third championship for Honda in 2013 and then team owner Chip Ganassi switched to Chevrolet - did he know something we didn’t? Suddenly Chevy had Team Penske, Chip Ganassi and Honda partnered with Andretti Autosport as its top team.

Chevy has a clear edge early in 2015

This past weekend at St Pete, the first utilizing Chevrolet and Honda downforce-enabling aero kits, Honda looked outclassed by its competition. Only one Honda-powered and aero-kitted car made the Firestone Fast Six: last year’s pole sitter Takuma Sato started fifth. Only one Honda car led a lap and that was Sato’s new teammate Jack Hawksworth, who led five tours of the 1.8-mile, 14-corner airport/street course circuit during pit exchanges mid-race.

At the close of the contest, RHR was the first Honda to cross the line in seventh place; Marco Andretti cracked the Top 10 in 10th. The balance of the Honda camp fell toward the back of the 24-car final order, with Dale Coyne’s Honda-powered pair the first two - and only two - that failed to finish the 110-lap contest.

A flawed design?

The first half of the race was filled with caution periods as aero kit debris littered the circuit. The new aero kits, designed for Chevrolet by GM Racing together with Pratt & Miller Engineering and for HPD by Wirth Research, littered the course as drivers neglected to stay apart to save the little pieces from destruction. There were a total of four full-course caution periods to pick up myriad pieces of debris; these constituted a total of 18 laps lost to competition. There were two other full-course cautions, for contact. Those consumed a total of 10 laps.

As one who is grateful to Honda for everything it’s done to keep Indy car racing alive, I’m wondering about the wisdom of using an aero kit designed by Wirth Research. Certainly HPD has had some success with Nick Wirth’s designs, specifically its radical LMP1 car that won the title in 2009 in American Le Mans Series (ALMS) racing.

But even that grand design needed several reworks to make it right. The Acura ARX-02a had rear tires on the front and the period of adjustment to get it to work was immense; I remember the crew members battling the car at Sebring when it first entered competition. While it won pole for that race, the ARX-02a failed to finish.

An unwise association?

Wirth has been with HPD ever since, and is solely responsible for the new aero kit campaigned by Honda-powered cars in the Verizon IndyCar Series. I question the wisdom of the association and wonder that Honda had no other designer of merit to turn to?

While everyone in race car designs relies heavily on CFD (computational fluid dynamics) these days, Nick Wirth has taken that CFD reliance to an increased level. His failed design for Virgin Racing in Formula 1 was totally CFD-reliant and discarded as quickly as Virgin could do so.

In fact, as I look through his resume, it’s hard to find a car designed by Nick Wirth that has been reliably successful from incarnation. Chevy’s new aero kit designs, while not as interesting-looking as HPD/Wirth’s seem to be more practical, flying “rabbit ears”, as St Pete pole sitter and reigning champion Will Power calls them, notwithstanding. Some have even called them “venetian blinds,” notably Gordon Kirby.

Fan struck my debris

During this race, there was an incident exiting the 10th turn (a regular overtaking spot where late braking and curb hopping are essential) where a piece of rookie Gabby Chavez’s rear assembly on his No. 98 Bowers & Wilkins/Curb Honda entry from Bryan Herta Autosport vaulted the catch fence and the grandstand, stirking a spectator in the head. That person was hospitalized and, according to INDYCAR is in stable condition. Shards of carbon fibre are anything but delicate on an unsuspecting race fan’s body and essentially, that was the case.

There might have been a better way to keep these bits on the cars during competition, but in any case, it was a Honda part that scaled the fence - and people are going to remember that.

One can only hope that Honda gets its act together and gives Chevrolet a run for the championship, as a manufacturer and aero kit constructor. It would be a shame to have such a successful manufacturer and one so loyal to the INDYCAR community, become an also-ran.

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