Roger Griffiths, the manager of development division at Honda Performance Development in Santa Clarita, discussed a number of topics about the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. From technological developments to seeking competition from other engine manufacturers to preparing for the Indianapolis 500, Griffiths talked about HPD’s role in all those areas. The following is the conversation we had on Wednesday, April 22, 2009.
Q: From Honda Performance Development’s perspective, how did the engines perform at the Grand Prix of Long Beach?
A: As far as reliability was concerned, we had no issues whatsoever. The engine has been extremely reliable really for the last three years. Long Beach didn’t present us any issue that we weren’t expecting.
In all honesty, it’s a very similar race track to St. Petersburg. Some of the problems with the street courses is the relatively slow speed, which means that the cooling of the cars can sometimes be compromised. One of the things that you have with these street courses is the concrete walls, it tends to contain the heat. When you have sort of an open race track, the air’s always moving. The air on a street course is much more stationary. As the cars run around and everything gets hotter and hotter and hotter, we had a couple of cars that were getting a bit on the warm side, but nothing that was unmanageable. As far as the way engines performed, we had no issues whatsoever.
The engine is quite well-refined now. We’ve been able to ensure that not only are our performances good, but also drivability and particularly on these street races where you can quite often get into a chain of cars following each other around where it’s difficult to pass. Fuel saving becomes very key. What tends to happen is all the drivers start going into fuel saving mode, they’re leaning out the fuel mixture of the engine. In the early days, the drivability of the car suffered. The engine wouldn’t pick up well off corners because it was just too late. The benefits of understanding this engine after having run it for a few years is that we know the characteristics of it. We’ve been able to calibrate the engine mapping so that we can overcome all these drivability issues.
Year before last, we had to go away from fuel saving because we were having some issues with the transition from methanol to ethanol. We re-introduced it for the 2008 season. You could argue well everybody’s got the same engine, so what does it matter? But it’s a race strategy tool.
(Griffiths said Sam Hornish’s win in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 would not have been possible without the ability to use an alternative fuel strategy. It allowed Hornish to rally from being a lap down to winning the race).
Having not had the ability to lean the engine out, save a bit of fuel, that actually wouldn’t have been possible. It’s a race strategy tool. It’s something that a smart driver or a smart team manager or race strategist can use to good advantage. That’s how Danica (Patrick won Motegi was on a very good fuel strategy.
We actually had a number of the Indy car drivers up at HPD here in Valencia on Monday. Talking with Dario and Scott Dixon, they said that really the drivability of the engines is really good, even on lean fuel mixtures. That was very good to hear.
Q: What are some of the things Honda Performance Development is working on, technologically speaking, with the engines?
A: We have a new exhaust system on the cars. It kept the noise levels down. The Indy cars traditionally have been a bit obnoxious. They are extremely loud. It makes it a much more pleasant experience for the fans. You can actually have a conversation with the person standing next to you as opposed to screaming in their ear. One of things that motivates me to do this is walking around the paddock and seeing all the small children with ear protectors on. It’s one thing to be a little bit older and been around racing cars for 20 years, you can compromise your hearing. But when you’re 4 years old, you feel you have some responsibility to people. I think it makes it a much better family experience.
We fell in love with the development of the new exhaust. One of the key things I set out when we forwarded with this project was to have minimal impact on performance. We’ve been able to achieve that. We’ve made a big reduction in the noise reduction of the cars, but for all intent and purposes, kept the performance level exactly the same.
It’s been a good change. Everybody’s been very complimentary about it. We jokingly set a 95 percent approval rating from St. Petersburg. There was some kind of bowling club or shuffleboard club that still complained. You can’t please everybody.
More and more the IndyCar Series is looking at running in urban areas. A lot of cities are coming to the IndyCar Series, saying hey, how about you host the race here because they see it’s a good party scene, it always brings out a lot of people, good for tourism. There’s always going to be people who say, but it’s so loud. If you can come and say, no, in all honesty, we’re not that loud. Long Beach has such a history of motor racing.
Q: Has HPD been seeking competition from other engine manufacturers to join the IndyCar Series and how much longer is Honda planning on being the sole engine supplier to the IndyCar Series?
A: The goal was always to bring competition back for 2011. We have been very much active in encouraging other manufacturers to come. We’ve had a number of meetings, from starting June of last year. The first meeting, there was probably six or seven manufacturers around a table talking about Indy car racing and possible participation. We’ve had subsequent meetings since and it’s kind of narrowed down to three or four other manufacturers: the Audi, VW, Porsche group, and Fiat, Alpha Romeo people and ourselves.
There’s been a lot of discussion about other manufacturers coming. I think the original 2011 timing is looking less and less likely. It’s unlikely we’ll see any additional manufacturers involved before 2012. The reason being when we sat down in June of last year, we said if you want this engine package to be reliable for 2011, we need to know what the rules are by Jan. 1, 2009. That date has come and gone. We don’t know what the rules may be. It would take us 18 months to design an engine from scratch to build it, to run it on the dyno, to go to the race track to test it, to be ready for a debut in 2012.
We may find that we get no competition and we continue to supply engines to 2012, ’13, ’14, whatever. We’re hoping that’s not going to be the case.
Q: How is HPD preparing for the Indianapolis 500, with as many as 40 drivers and teams and 77 cars entered in the race?
A: Right now we are looking at about 40 entries for the 500. Maybe we’ll find out when it comes down to it, the real number will be 36 to 38. Compared to where we felt we were going to be even just six weeks ago, I was struggling to see how we were going to get to 33 based on the conversations I was having with people. Now here we are looking at 36 to 38 cars. It would be fabulous.
As far as supplying engines, I think last year we had 37 engines in cars last year. We’re ready for it.