IndyCar: Honda in Uncharted Waters Heading to Indy

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports /

Honda for the longest time was the lone engine supplier for Indy Car. Since the opening up of engine suppliers in 2012 they have been a preferred choice, until now.

When Honda entered IndyCar racing in 2003 they struggled out of the gate like most new engine suppliers in the series. By 2005 they had become the dominant engine in the series powering the 2004 and 2005 champions. In 2006 they were awarded the right to be the sole engine supplier in the series with their v8 originally developed with longtime Indy engine manufacturer Ilmore.

The engine was virtually perfected and had very few failures while it was the sole supplier. It was said to actually be detuned as to not allow for any failures to help reduce costs with fewer crashes. There were no reported engine failures with the Honda power plant from 2006-2010 at Indy. During the time that Honda was sole supplier, they only allowed teams to lease engines as opposed to buying them.

In 2010 IndyCar announced a new set of specifications for the chassis and engines to start in 2012 to try and get brand identity back into the sport. Each engine manufacturer was allowed to add body kits to try and help differentiate the cars on the track. The common chassis was the Delara and the engine specifications called for a new 2.2l six cylinder twin turbo. Instead of just Honda, the engine program was opened up to all who wanted to come.

When the dust settled, three engines came to the track, Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus. The Honda and Chevy teams hit the track competitively, then there was the Lotus. From the drop of the first green flag of the season the four teams that signed with Lotus knew they were in trouble. By the time May and Indy rolled around only one team was left running the Lotus. There were concerns they were in danger of not maintain minimum speed to qualify for the race. Problem was there were not enough Chevy or Honda engines for the Lotus teams to change to.

The one Lotus made the race, but was a back marker. Once May was in the rearview mirror, so was Lotus. That left Honda and Chevy as the lone providers of power to IndyCar teams. Chevy was powering Ryan Hunter-Ray to the championship in its first season in 2012. Honda was under the hood of Scott Dixon’s car in 2013 followed by Power in a Chevy in 2014 and Dixon in 2015. By the end of the 2015 season the Chevy teams were starting to separate from the Honda teams.

Once the preseason testing started in 2016 it became apparent that the differential between the two manufacturers had widened. Indy officials and observers hoped that Honda would be able to find some power before the season started. The season opener in St. Petersburgand we saw a good mix of Chevy and Honda powered cars in the final standings.

Since then it has been total domination by Chevy teams. Eight of the top ten in Phoenix were Chevy powered, then in Long Beach the same numbers showed up in the final standings. There was hope that Honda would make a better showing at the dedicated road course for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama. Unfortunately the same result again, eight of the top ten were bowtie driven.

Now we are in May and that means Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the focus. It used to be teams had the entire month to make improvements for the 2.5 mile superspeedway. Now that the road course is run the second week of May, there is much less time to work anything out. The last thing that the people around Indy want is a month were half the teams that show up have no chance to compete.

With marquis teams like Andretti, Rayhal and Foyt running Honda engines where does that leave them? These teams are contractually obligated to Honda engines and can not do what the lotus teams did in 2012 and lease new engines. There are concerns that attempts to even the difference with aero could make for dangerous conditions with very little time to test.

This is the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, the crown jewel of North American open wheel racing. More viewers will watch this race than more than half the rest of the schedule combined. The lead up to this race is bigger than it has been in decades. The prospect of having all the teams with Honda badges on their cars being relegated to the back has to be sending shivers down the backs of Honda executives.

Honda has a proud tradition in motorsports and has never fallen this far behind in any major motorsports series in recent memory. There is still time for the geniuses deep in the offices of Honda Motorsports to come up with something to make sure that they are competitive come the 500. The likelihood of that happening is slim, considering after a generating of playing it safe it is hard to change gears and push the envelope.

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It would be sad watching the likes of Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Ray and James Hinchcliffe being forced to race each other in the back of the pack with nothing they can do. This celebration of the history of the Indy 500 should not be tarnished by the failure of Honda to keep up. This is an unfamiliar situation Honda finds themselves in, lets hope they can pull a rabbit out of their hat and help save the month of May.