Engine longevity vs. competition

IndyCar commentary — By on June 29, 2011 1:03 pm
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on June 22nd, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.

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There was a small bit of information at the end of the press conferences from The Milwaukee Mile on Sunday that was largely overlooked but will be of interest to the gearheads of the INDYCAR Nation.

It turns out that the engine that Dario won with this weekend was the same engine that he ran ragged while driving from 28th to 7th in the second race of the Firestone Twin 275s at Texas Motor Speedway. By natural extension, it was the same engine that he drove to the win for the first of those races.

But this engine goes even further back than that: it’s also the one that Dario ran for the full distance and led 41 laps with in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“I should have asked [the team] before I got out,” Dario said. “I asked them when I got out of the car. Otherwise, I would have done some steamy burnouts because I won’t be using that [engine] again. But it was 1,400 and something miles that has done and just never missed a beat. It’s pretty cool.”

That performance is a great testament to the reliability of the engines that Honda has now been delivering to the IZOD IndyCar Series as its sole supplier for more than five years. It’s something that teams and fans alike often express an appreciation for but that many also have come to expect, possibly even take for granted.

But with manufacturer competition returning the Series in 2012 under new engine specifications, this point also has the potential to raise a great number of questions.

Honda currently provides a naturally aspirated V8 that produces 650 HP and hits a Series-mandated rev limiter at 10,300 RPM while actually being capable of quite a bit more. This shouldn’t in any way be taken as a knock on Honda, but those are hardly taxing specifications for a racing engine.

Next season, INDYCARs will carry twin-turbocharged V6s that need to be flexible to be tuned from between 550 to 750 HP depending on the type of track being raced. And, more importantly, they’ll be doing it under competition, which means a constant push to find more speed and improved performance.

In the past, this traditionally has meant reduced reliability. With rumors swirling that we may begin to see speeds creep up again as safety allows, particularly at Indianapolis, how often should we expect to see blown engines as manufacturers push their products to their limits? Will fans perceive this as a good thing in that INDYCARs may once again push the limits of technology, or will they be perturbed at the unfamiliar sight of favorite drivers losing races and championships due to external factors beyond their control?

After years of spec racing producing starting grids with ridiculously small differences in speed, will fans understand the greater intervals produced by multiple manufacturers as a good thing or as a decrease in the overall competitiveness of the drivers in the field? What if pack racing on 1.5-mile ovals goes away? Will more passing be greeted with open arms, or will the thrill of the danger of wheel-to-wheel action be missed?

What if one engine clearly dominates and only a select few teams ever have a serious shot at winning? The common complaint in today’s Series is that Penske and Ganassi don’t have consistent competition. But if, for example, Honda’s experience with INDYCAR means that they create an engine that gives the four Ganassi cars and the other Honda teams a distinct advantage, will fans perceive that as being any different from the way things are today?

And will INDYCAR be able to step up to the challenge of maintaining specifications that don’t cause the manufacturers to spend themselves out of competitiveness? It’s very difficult to strike the right balance between an environment that allows failing manufacturers to catch up and one that allows one company to spend so much that the others no longer see INDYCAR as a good business proposition. It’s been years since INDYCAR has needed to be concerned with this — can the sanctioning body achieve it? And given the many questions above, will fans want it to be achieved once they see the effect it has on the on-track product? Is a return to spec racing an inevitable part of the motorsports cycle, or can competition be maintained?

Now that the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 is behind us, the attention of the INDYCAR community is about to shift heavily forward. Interesting times are ahead, and decisions are about to be made that will be pivotal for this sport’s growth potential going forward. What does the engine competition about to be reintroduced mean for the future of INDYCAR in your eyes? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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