This year, we’ve seen a surge in the performance of the Honda-powered teams. Most of that improved on-track performance has come from the aggressive engine mapping Honda has chosen at the behest of the teams they supply. It has made the motors more powerful, and they’ve shown dominance over the Chevrolet-powered cars, but they’ve also shown a tendency to detonate. During practice, qualifying, and Race Day for the 101st Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, there were no less than six Honda powerplants that grenaded either on track or in the garage. Bourdais and Kimball sufffered engine problems during the Indianapolis Grand Prix. Rahal, Bourdais (again), and Alonso all replaced motors prior to qualifications, and Servia lost his Honda motor during Monday practice. During the race, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s motor blew on Lap 137 followed by Kimball (again) on Lap 167 and Alonso (again) on Lap 179.
Indianapolis is not the only place where Honda has had reliability issues. All four of the Andretti Autosport cars failed to finish Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. While Honda Performance Development (HPD) and their engine builder Ilmor have been working hard to track down the weak points of the motor, but dialing back the performance is not an option for the Japan-based manufacturer. To be honest, it shouldn’t be. Honda, and the teams they supply, have made a decision to follow a more risky strategy with their powerplant understanding the inherent risks of “turning up the wick.”
Racing, as with most competitive ventures, is often a matter of compromise and weighing the assumption of risk versus the potential reward. The risk of running engines at the razor edge of their performance limit has paid huge dividends for Honda with the reward of winning the biggest race in the IndyCar season, and one of the most prestigious races in motorsport, the Indianapolis 500. Not only did Honda win, they won with their countryman, Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver to win the 500. So, yes, the ticking time-bomb that are the Honda engines is concerning, and an issue that they’re trying to resolve, but in the end, the payoff was worth the risk.
The unintended consequence of the Honda decision is of course the increased operational costs to both the manufacturer and to the teams. Engine homologation and the freeze of engine development was implemented by INDYCAR in an effort to contain costs, but good intentions are not as important as the real consequences of decisions. By not permitting engine manufacturers the latitude to develop their motors in a more open way, Honda’s hand has been forced toward this risky and aggressive engine map to be competitive against the Chevrolet motors which have been stronger than Honda for the past few seasons. Of course, we see this same side-effect of restrictive regulation in Formula 1 as well in that the more a series attempts to reduce costs, the price tag for being on top of one’s competitors seems to be. Perhaps it’s time to admit that a more open regulation environment, within reason, will permit a lower operational cost and foster improved competition.