Honda prepared to supply entire field
FONTANA, Calif. -- The IndyCar Series breathed a sigh of relief Saturday as Honda officially confirmed its intention to supply engines to the series from 2007 to 2009. Honda is the first -- and so far, the only engine manufacturer to make a future commitment to the series.
For now at least, it appears unlikely that another manufacturer will step in to compete against Honda in the future. Chevrolet's last race in the IndyCar Series is this weekend's Toyota 400 at California Speedway, ending General Motors' nine-year association with the series; Toyota announced in June that 2006 will be its final season in IndyCar.
Manufacturers have until April 2006 to declare their intention to supply engines for the 2007-09 seasons, and even that deadline could be flexible of the right nameplate showed interest.
Honda entered the IndyCar Series in 2003 after dominating what is now known as the Champ Car World Series for a better part of a decade. After a year of getting up to speed with the series' normally aspirated formula, Honda engines have won 25 of the last 32 races and powered the last two series champion drivers.
With Chevrolet and Toyota out, Honda was hesitant to commit to the series, citing a desire to run against competition rather than supply a spec engine to the whole field. But Honda's public stance in that regard has softened considerably in recent weeks, and Honda Performance Development president Robert Clarke said Saturday that his company is prepared -- if necessary -- to transform the IndyCar Series into "Formula Honda" in 2007.
"Honda has made clear that it is our preference to have competition and that very much entered into our decision," Clarke commented. "But we see our desire to be involved in the premier open-wheel racing series as maybe a priority over the need to have competition. We understand that we may be the only manufacturer involved in the near term and we are OK with that."
IndyCar Series president Brian Barnhart expressed delight at the news and took the occasion to present Clarke with the trophy for Honda's second consecutive manufacturer's championship.
"Obviously, we couldn't be happier with Honda's announcement today," Barnhart remarked. "This is obviously a major commitment on Honda's part and we have a lot of good things to look forward to on and off the track."
It's easy for anyone who has seen HPD's new 123,000 square-foot facility in Santa Clarita, Calif., to conclude that Honda has been planning for the eventuality of supplying the full IndyCar field. The new facility is three-times larger than the building HPD moved out of and has the scope for additional expansion.
Assuming that Honda becomes the spec supplier for the IndyCar Series, the benefits probably outweigh the negatives. Although multiple manufacturers bring prestige to a series, when not managed properly, they can create problems -- as both CART and IndyCar can attest.
In CART, Toyota began the practice of subsidizing teams in 2000 and by 2002, Honda felt compelled to follow suit. The reliance of teams on manufacturer money was a key factor in the downfall of CART, and when Honda followed Toyota to the IndyCar Series in 2003, it upped the ante in terms of team support and is generally regarded as the culprit for the alarming rise in costs in the IndyCar Series over the last couple of years.
Champ Car's Ford-Cosworth program has on balance cut the engine costs for competitors and increased competition. But a spec formula only works if the competitors have absolute confidence in receiving equal equipment, and some observers question whether Honda, with a history of favoritism in Formula One and a financial stake in some IndyCar teams (in particular, Andretti Green Racing), would provide a level playing field for everyone.
"That's part of the discussion that we've had with the IRL as we've become a sole supplier," Clarke responded. "It's crucial that everyone be supplied with equal equipment and that's very much our policy today. Obviously we are not supplying the entire field, but within the 10 cars that we are supplying, that equipment is a very equal level and that is something that we pride ourselves on being able to do."
Barnhart recently confirmed that the IndyCar Series will keep its 3.0-liter normally aspirated engine formula with only minor modifications. The series would like to see the cost of engine lease packages cut in half to around $1 million through mandating longer engine life.
Honda's commitment to the IndyCar Series is bad news for anyone still wishing for open-wheel reunification or at least more cooperation between Champ Car and IndyCar. Champ Car recently announced its intention to continue with a 2.6-liter turbocharged Ford-Cosworth spec engine when it introduces a new Panoz chassis in 2007.
"Both series are holding their ground -- they are not moving closer or further apart," said Clarke, who unsuccessfully tried to convince Champ Car to adopt the IndyCar engine specs for the future. "We do not have the product available to support [the 2.6-liter turbo] formula in 2007, but that doesn't mean the door is closed forever."
Notes: Dario Franchitti claimed his first pole of the 2005 season Saturday with a 219.398 mph lap to best Tomas Scheckter and Sam Hornish Jr. All three of the IndyCar Series' engine manufacturers were represented in the top three, while Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick qualified fourth. Series champion Dan Wheldon will start seventh. 2004 Menards Infiniti Pro Series champion Thiago Medeiros, hoping to make his IndyCar Series debut, crashed in practice without injury. He did not make a qualifying run.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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