INDYCAR must stay the course

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on April 13, 2012 11:15 am

Sometimes the smallest spark sets off the biggest fire.  Like an afterthought cigarette butt that sets off a wildfire engulfing half the state of California, a seemingly random engine failure this past week in James Hinchcliffe’s Chevrolet-powered racecar has set off the biggest firestorm in the INDYCAR world since Brian Barnhart’s decision to restart a race in the rain last year at New Hampshire.  And just as many called Barnhart’s head on a platter at the time because of his use of discretion in setting the final race order, so too are many of those same people calling for sweeping changes now that new Race Director Beaux Barfield has <GASP> applied the rule book to the letter of the law.  That rule (15.6.1) is shown below.

15.6.1. Any Unapproved Engine Change Out, except those caused by Engine failure in a Race, will result in a 10-place grid penalty. If an Entrant makes two Unapproved Engine Change-Outs during an Event the penalty for the second Unapproved Engine Change-Out will be served at the following Race.

So what is an “approved” engine change?  The rule book says an engine can be changed out, without penalty, if it is already over the 1,850-mile threshold or would exceed 2,200 miles before the end of a race.  Additionally, rule 15.5.5 says failure caused by factors beyond the control of the drivers, teams, or manufacturers allow for an “approved” engine change, as noted below:

15.5.5. An Engine that has experienced a problem deemed sufficient to require Change-Out as mutually agreed by INDYCAR and Engine Manufacturer that is beyond the reasonable control of either the Entrant or Engine Manufacturer (such as faulty fuel, accident, damage to the Engines caused by act of God, etc.) may be replaced with an Engine from the pool without penalty.

(Note that rules 15.4.2 allows manufacturers to make minor repair to an engine without penalty.  Minor repairs are deemed wear items like seals, brackets, etc.  Major structure components such as cylinder heads, crankshafts, and pistons are specifically listed as items that are NOT considered minor repairs.)

So what does all of this mean?  Basically, if a driver experiences an engine failure at any time except during a race, that driver will incur a 10-spot grid penalty, regardless of the cause of the failure (short of faulty fuel or an Act of God).  Is this a fair rule?  No.  Does it need to be altered?  Of course.  Should the Chevrolet teams get a reprieve this weekend?  Absolutely not!

I hate this rule.  I absolutely detest it.  In my opinion, this rule is far worse than the blocking rule that caused such an uproar over the past couple seasons because a.) it punishes a driver for a situation that is completely beyond his or her control, and b.) leads to situations like we see this week where drivers are penalized (and many casual fans are confused) for infractions that didn’t even occur at the race event.

Think about that for a minute.  Can you imagine Derrick Rose being forced to sit out the first quarter of an NBA game because a newly developed basketball from Spalding went flat while Rose was shooting free throws in practice?  Suppose Louisville Slugger asked Prince Fielder to try out a new bat design in batting practice and he was assessed a one-strike penalty in each at bat because his new practice bat shattered in warmups.  It’s that crazy.

And with all due respect to Mr. Barfield, the fact that all the manufacturers agreed to this rule should only serve notice as to how asinine it is.  Of course they agreed to it – it lets them off the hook without any real penalty!!!  This is like asking Willie Nelson if he would agree to a rule granting amnesty against paying his owed back taxes.  The manufacturers aren’t the ones suffering the consequences for their failures.  It’s the teams and the drivers who pay the ultimate price.  (To be fair, that statement isn’t quite 100% accurate as the rule book does specify engine failures occurring while being operated within the manufacturer’s guidelines will be replaced and repaired at the manufacturer’s expense, including parts, labor, shipping, etc.)

Just how did such a crazy rule actually make it into the rule book this year?  The intent was actually a noble one.  Originally (or at least recently) in effect in Formula 1, this rule serves as a safeguard to keep the engine manufacturers from outspending themselves by putting very powerful, short-life qualifying engines into cars that are not built with the reliability of going the full race distance, yet alone the full 1,850-mile changeout distance.  By creating this rule, the INDYCAR is forcing the teams and manufacturers to develop reliable engines that aren’t designed to last only through the short rigors of practice and qualifying.  That’s all well and good, but the problem is that while the burden and responsibility for developing the engine is on the manufacturer, the consequences for failure fall on the teams, who, by the way, are specifically barred by rule 15.1.6 from breaking the INDYCAR seals on the engine.

The other issue I have with this rule is that is fails to allow engine manufacturers the freedom to truly develop, test, and push their engines in testing.  If the intent is to save money under the current structure by reducing the number of failures, I suppose this is one way to do it, but this also seems to thwart development and the ability to find the true edge of engine performance.  What happens between manufacturers and their teams during private testing should be of little concern to the course of events on a race weekend.  If Honda, Chevrolet, and Lotus are never able to push their cars to the limit in testing for fear of race-weekend repercussions, how are the manufacturers to understand the weakest parts of their engine?  Even the test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a couple weeks ago was hampered, or at least toned down, because of concerns about these rules.  Team Penske president Tim Cindric admitted at the time that they didn’t want to push too hard because they had to use the same engines at Long Beach (if only they had known then that the engines were to be replaced anyway…).  Likewise, Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon admitted this week that he didn’t push his Honda very hard in IMS testing either because he didn’t want to risk a 10-spot penalty.  So now we’ll head in to the Month of May without truly knowing the limits or the power potential of the three new engines.  Hell, we won’t even know if they can go 500 miles until the checkered flag falls on May 27.

The one questions I’ve raised and yet to get an answer to is this – how does this rule come into effect if a team or manufacturer hires a non-competing driver to test a non-entered car.  For example, if Team Penske and Chevrolet hire a non-entered driver, e.g. Tomas Scheckter, to test a Chevrolet engine bolted into a new Dallara chassis that isn’t assigned to an entrant and they blow the engine, is there any penalty?  Do Chevrolet and Team Penske get off penalty-free because the failure wasn’t caused by Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, or Will Power?  If so, do all teams (or at least all manufacturers) now buy a spare test car and hire test drivers to find the limit to their engines?  Does that save any money as compared to the current system?  I honestly don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

With the rules and questionable consequence now in place, what’s the best path forward?  For the time being, the best option INDYCAR can pursue is to do absolutely nothing.  That’s right – nothing!  Look, I hate the rule as much as anyone, but the fact is that the die is already cast; we’ve already gone down this road.  If there is one thing that typically unifies Indy car fans, it tends to be the desire for rules uniformity.  Indy car fans love to turn their noses up at NASCAR whenever that sanctioning body changes rules and regulations midseason (or even mid-event) to rein a manufacturer or team that is deemed to have gained an advantage.  INDYCAR fans feel that rules are rules, and if someone has found a way to build a better mousetrap, then the responsibility for catching up should fall on the other manufacturers to level the playing field, not the sanctioning body.  Likewise, after several seasons of feeling that rules were not applied equally across the board and were too subject to interpretation and discretion by Race Control, fans have clamored for a Race Director that sticks to the rule book and applies black-and-white judgments in his verdict.  To his credit, Beaux Barfield is doing just that.

There is probably little doubt, as least among the fans’ minds, that this rule is not fair.  It would be just as unfair, however, to get rid of the rule now after some teams have already been penalized under it.  Would it be fair to the Chevrolet teams to get rid of the rule now and let Dario Franchitti off the hook at California if his engine should blow in practice?  Not in my opinion.

Some will argue that a rule such as this could have a major impact on the championship at the end of the year.   Well of course it will.  All rules have an impact on the championship throughout the year.  If Team Penske plays their cards wrong and have to use a sixth engine at the final race of the year, they too will incur a 10-spot grid penalty that could affect the championship battle. If Ryan Hunter-Reay is five miles per hour over the pit speed limit and loses the championship because of a drive-through penalty, those are just the breaks of the game.  The rules that were in effect when the first wheel turned at St. Petersburg need to be the same rules that are in effect when the final wheel turns at California Speedway.  Anything less cheapens the championship and erodes the integrity of the sport.

I would certainly like to see this rule completely gone for 2013, or at least rewritten in such a way that engine failures in testing do not have a detrimental impact on race weekend activities.  For the time being though, INDYCAR must stay the course and live with the consequences of a poorly thought-out rule.

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