The IndyCar Upside Down Duel That Really Deserves More Hustle – The Race
It’s really important not to call IndyCar a “spec” series. The structure may be standardized and there may be control parts, but there is a lot of work going on in myriad areas to understand why better becomes better.
Not least in the engine department, where this year we saw one of the most notable engine achievements in recent memory.
In the eleventh year of the current 2.2-liter cycle, Honda won the 2021 Indy 500, the IndyCar Championship, 10 races out of 16 and its fourth consecutive manufacturers’ title.
Keep in mind that the manufacturers work tirelessly every off-season — there aren’t many things you haven’t done for these engines left in your 2012 development cycle chart.
However, 2022 brought the greatest turmoil. While Chevrolet couldn’t overtake Honda and Ganassi in the Indy 500, it overturned the advantage by winning 11 of 16 races, capturing 13 of the 16 poles and taking 47 of the 5 best races in the Honda’s 38.
I’ve done this through a number of changes. First, it offered a driveability upgrade for its drivers that was instantly praised globally in the first round at St Pete. It also made small gains with performance and fuel economy.
Outside of on-track performance, the team has also worked hard with its teams to understand how it can best impact the geometry and aerodynamics of the car in unison with the engine. The addition of Ray Gosselin – former engineer Ryan Hunter-Reay – helped move this in the right direction as he joined forces with manufacturer partner Ilmor.
With Chevrolet Motorsports, Pratt Miller and Ilmor working for Bowtie, they may have struggled in the past to match Honda in this parts total approach. Honda has it all under one roof in California and you don’t need to outsource or get out of the building to get to a department. It is perfectly prepared for this new method of supplying the power unit.
However, it’s clear that Chevrolet has used its various divisions—now completely free from NASCAR activities as this program has become completely separate in recent years—to find the gains it needs to get Honda right.
But the driveability upgrade was the big, tangible change that helped her teams, along with other steps forward that were smaller but no less significant.
“I think just working with all the drivers and engineers has taken us a huge step forward in the driving field,” Rob Buckner, Chevrolet IndyCar program manager, told The Race.
“But at the same time, I think we used less fuel and gave more power, and we drove better. So from an engine perspective, you can’t ask for much more than that, except we’re just looking at more of that in 2023.
“So I think all of our drivers were very complimentary. It’s very rare that we get joint positive vibes, usually when you make a change, half like you, half don’t like it.
“This year, it has been good to just hit some of the things that have been universally acclaimed. You can see it on the race track. We just need to keep going in that direction.”
If you’ve been watching IndyCar neutrals, this year should give you a lot of hope. 10 years later, one engine runner could still tear up the model book and completely reverse the previous year’s results.
In fact, it’s strange to think that in one of the most competitive single-seat tournaments – and one of the few with no specs in the motors department – this isn’t talked about any further.
I’d be pissed off if I was in a Chevrolet. But it’s clear that Buckner is at least rightly focusing on the positives of his success.
“All credit goes to the team of people at the Chevrolet Program, our partners at Ilmor, Pratt Miller, our race teams, and I think it was the biggest collaboration we’ve had in the off-season, and really proud that we addressed a huge majority of our weaknesses in 2021.”
“From the start of the season, it seemed like we were well prepared to execute in every event.
“So we still have some work to do in Indianapolis. But we’ve won every other oval this season. I drove a lot of laps, there were a lot of events that felt like we were really in control from training all the way up to the checkered flag, Which is really what we are striving for.
“I’ve never seen our group put in so much effort and work so hard. And so they deserved the results. It was great to see them enjoying the achievement at Laguna.”
In contrast, Honda received a major reality check after four years of dominance.
The positive was taking first place and a third straight win for the Indy 500. Chevrolet has clearly struggled compared to Honda since the Indy windshield debuted, but the work Ganassi has done clearly helped raise the bar for Honda as well.
“The 500 is the big thing, isn’t it, our wonderful men and women have exonerated themselves very well with our very good teams and especially Team Ganassi who have done it,” HPD president David Salters told The Race.
“Yeah, the Indy 500 is always so special and getting first there is so special. Setting the fastest record over four laps was something, you try to look forward, but as you review the season, that was a huge distinction.
“We did really well overall in the whole Indianapolis stop, whether it was on the road, or Indy. So Indy was a big hit.
“It was kind of a halves game, if you want to use an analogy.
“So Indy was great, and everyone did well. The rest of the season was a bit mixed and it wasn’t as good as we would have liked.”
“We need a little more desire,” Salter suggested with a laugh.
“It involves being a little smarter and maybe doing more work, it doesn’t mean we’re not doing as much work anyway, we’re already doing as much as we can, but we have to figure it out.
“We just went through a lot of competitor analyses, where there are areas that we need to improve and all these things. That’s how this game works.
“We won six races, so it wasn’t disastrous in any way.
“Okay, well, not good enough, right? So we need to do a little bit better in other areas. That’s what we’re working on.”
Honda definitely faces an uphill struggle. Chevrolet has proven that off-season shifts are possible, so it’s not time to panic yet.
Salters – who used to head Ferrari’s Formula One engine programme – already has a pretty good idea of where those gains should come from.
“If you look at the stats, short ovals as a whole group, it’s not good enough,” says David Salters of HPD.
“So that’s obvious, isn’t it, I think?
And then, in general, [we’re working on] How to make the whole car kind of faster. We don’t seem to be overly competent in any one area.
“In general, we just need to look at every area of the car and understand how we’re going to improve it. So we’re particularly responsible for the powertrain – what else can we do there? And then in other areas of the car to help the team simulate the air, that kind of things.
“There are areas where we have not done as a whole group. Sometimes we have not done as well as we should have.
“Sometimes we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but this is a race. That’s why people watch it. That’s why it’s a race. Fortunately, you can’t predict the outcome all the time, which makes it entertaining, especially in IndyCar.
“So here we have some implementation actions that we’re all working hard to sort out. We’re looking at that at the moment, my experience with racing, it’s part of everything.”
As Salters hints, not a single gain gives you 15 horsepower now. We are very far from this development path.
The gains come from improving the entire car, not just the engine. Manufacturers help with this with their simulators – unlike F1, only Chevy and Honda have the best sim, not every team – developing the wind tunnel and driver’s driving options besides simply improving the basic functions of the engine.
So, given what happened in 2022, we can gladly throw the model record out the window for 2023.
The only gains Chevrolet might get is the driver pool. Arrow McLaren SP added a car and put Alexander Rossi in that car – who won the 500 in 2016 and has been a key Honda employee ever since – and Scott McLaughlin’s emergence as a title contender is also a huge blessing.
Honda has retained Alex Ballou – at least for another year – but elsewhere it looks like Chevy may come out on top in terms of drivers for 2023.
Everything is shaping up to be another interesting fight, which should highlight more than you do.
In fact, if you were looking to enter IndyCar as an engine manufacturer, would you be satisfied with the amount of exposure Honda and Chevrolet have?
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