IRL: Honda keeps on winning

It's been a heady 2004 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series season at engine maker Honda and for Robert Clarke, vice president and general manager of Honda Performance Development (HPD). When Honda decided to join the IRL in 2002, they came late...

It's been a heady 2004 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series season at engine maker Honda and for Robert Clarke, vice president and general manager of Honda Performance Development (HPD).

When Honda decided to join the IRL in 2002, they came late to a series that was changing its ideas and structure of how to build and sell engines to its competitors. When the League was initially formed, entrants would buy engine blocks and hire different builders to complete the process.

The League decided to alter that process for 2003 and began to permit engine leasing at the time, something it had not done before. That enabled both Honda and Toyota to join the IRL's premier IndyCar Series without losing their proprietary knowledge of the innards of their power mills, joining Chevrolet division of General Motors as suppliers.

Toyota announced its inclusion in the League well before Honda, but the cagey folks at the smaller car manufacturer had a secret weapon: Ilmor Engineering. Yes, the same Ilmor that has an affiliation with Mercedes- Benz and Formula One had joined the Indy Racing League two years prior to technical partner, Honda Performance Development and had experience rebuilding GM Racing's engines before affiliating with Honda.

That could be the secret weapon that enabled Honda to fight for the drivers' championship in 2003 with Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing (#11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda) and to pursue, with great determination this year's manufacturers title.

Honda sewed up the manufacturers championship this past weekend in Kentucky at the Belterra Casino Indy 300, thanks to the efforts of its highly competitive teams: Andretti Green Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing, Super Aguri Fernandez Racing, Fernandez Racing and Access Motorsports.

Adrian Fernandez won the race on Kentucky Speedway's banked 1.5-mile oval in his tenth IRL IndyCar Series start, after a pile of hiccups leading up to this ascension. Fernandez came to the League late after initially intending to run the Champ Car World Series. His debut was, to put it kindly miserable, as the Mexican veteran never even made the green flags at Phoenix, his adopted American hometown.

Fernandez was quick at Indianapolis this year, as was his teammate rookie Kosuke Matsuura, but they needed to step it up a bit to be competitive. "We've made some very hard decisions" in coming to the IRL, Fernandez admitted. "But it was necessary for me to make the decision, do it and go on."

He never tested the IRL car before jumping into his #5 Quaker State/Telmex Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone racer; the team didn't really have a sufficient number of chassis when Fernandez joined up. But they did have a wealth of experience from top to bottom that has certainly made the transition shorter, as evidenced by last weekend's victory over Buddy Rice's #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda.

It was even more satisfying for Fernandez to see Matsuura come under the checkers in fourth place with the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda, his best finish of the 11-race season. "Kosuke is learning how to get to the front," he emphasized. "We are learning how to win."

Figuring out the procedures for restarts after yellow flags, understanding the side-by-side racing that is part and parcel of Indy racing have been the key situations for Fernandez and Co. to overcome. Fernandez and Matsuura both are driving on many circuits they've never seen before, but it is the depth of their team that's seeing them through.

It's nice for these two drivers and their teams to be part of Honda's "dream season." Not only has Honda clinched the manufacturers' championship, they've also won the biggest American race in the world: the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race with Rice and they've finally gotten a monkey off their back by winning at home, on the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi circuit outside Tokyo.

The latter might have been - if not more important - equally so to the other two accomplishments of winning Indy and being the top engine builder in the IRL for 2004. "This is well beyond our expectations for 2004," Clarke stated, "and it's a tribute to hard work and efforts by our technical partner Ilmor and everyone at HPD.

"Most people think Indy was our greatest win of the year but Motegi is equally important for our company," Clarke continued. "We equate it to our first win in CART. It was a struggle to win Motegi and it took us seven years to achieve. To do it in such grand style (with Dan Wheldon's #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda from AGR) eased the void we'd felt. It's very special to finally get that victory at home."

If the folks from Toyota and/or Chevrolet are thinking Honda will now just sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labors, think again. "Now that we've met one of our key objectives with the manufacturers title, we're not backing off," Clarke declared. "We're keeping our nose to the grindstone" to win the drivers' title.

At this point in time, with Kanaan in first place, Rice second and Wheldon third, it would seem HPD is in the catbird seat, but Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. of Marlboro Team Penske are lurking in fourth and fifth places for the points chase in Toyota-powered cars. With five races remaining, it's not terribly likely they'll prevail, but you never know.

This season, as Clarke put it, has been "particularly difficult with two engine formulae. We spent last season playing catch-up, and we didn't come in as strong last year as we'd hoped. In the off-season we made some dramatic changes to our product and what we found applied to both the 3.5- liter engine [used for the first three races] and the 3-liter engine currently in use.

"We think we're double-resourced. We have HPD and Ilmor working together in three distinct places. Ilmor Inc. handles the lion's share of rebuilding duties in the Detroit area; Ilmor Ltd. in the UK is heavily involved in development with HPD," based in Santa Clarita, CA. "I'd have to say they are all very equally responsible" for Honda's 2004 success.

To contrast, Clarke cited the fact that Toyota's development comes almost completely from Toyota Racing Development in California while Cosworth has done the largest part of development for Chevrolet.

"We are also blessed with our strong teams. They stepped up their programs and I think you can see the dramatic changes." Andretti Green Racing went to four cars, while Rahal Letterman and Super Aguri/Fernandez Racing both decided to "focus solely on the Indy Racing League this year," Clarke noted. Although Adrian Fernandez had intended to run a Champ Car effort at the start of the year, he did change his mind, as did Bobby Rahal and David Letterman of Rahal Letterman Racing.

Indeed, neither team intended to have two-car IRL teams until the season began and now, between them have accounted for four of Honda's ten consecutive wins, with Rice earning three victories (and five MBNA pole positions) for Rahal Letterman and Fernandez picking up his first IRL win this past week.

The Honda camp is intent on bringing home the driver's title, but at this point in time it is unknown which driver will prevail. Race #12 of the 16- event IndyCar Series campaign takes place this weekend on the 1-mile Pikes Peak International Raceway oval. Isn't it intriguing that on this occasion the race is called the Honda Indy 225? Or is it just coincidence?

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Adrian Fernandez , Bobby Rahal , Tony Kanaan , Dan Wheldon , Kosuke Matsuura , Robert Clark , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Team Penske , Toyota Racing