A Possible Unintended Consequence

With all of the excitement of Lotus and Chevrolet joining Honda as engine manufacturers for the IZOD IndyCar Series beginning in 2012, there comes a new set of questions – questions that I’m not sure anyone outside of Tony Cotman’s inner circle has any answers to. Some are questions about the engine specs and what type of engine Lotus will provide. If I’m sounding intelligent like I can explain Chevy’s direct-injection twin turbo – I can’t. I never pretended to be a gearhead.

Brian Barnhart has often used the phrase “unintended consequences”. When the announcement was made on July 14 that Dallara would build a safety-cell tub that other designers could develop aero-kits for, I don’t think they intended for multiple engine manufacturers to jump on board so quickly. Nor do I think they expected each new engine manufacturer to announce they would also produce an aero-kit. This presents an unforeseen problem.

The way the rules were written in July, each team would have the opportunity to buy two separate aero-kits per season. This gave each team the option to run two different road course configurations as well as two oval track setups. The thought was probably that another engine supplier may join Honda and the choices of aero-kits would be designed and built by groups like Dallara, Lola, BAT and Swift. To date, Dallara is the only one from that group that has committed to build an aero-kit. The others to commit are Lotus and Chevrolet. Honda has yet to say whether or not they will build one.

Now that engine suppliers will supply two of the three kits, will politics dictate which kits a team can and cannot use? If recent history is any indicator, you can count on it. If Panther Racing casts its lot with the Chevrolet engine, yet they notice that KV Racing is able to get much better handling on road courses with the Lotus kit – will Chevrolet allow Panther to purchase and use the Lotus kit?

Curt Cavin brought up an interesting point on Trackside the other night. Although engine manufacturers will not be allowed to pay money to certain teams, they will probably be allowed to give aero-kits as an inducement to teams that run their engine. Who’s to say they don’t take it a step further and furnish aero-kits for free with the condition that teams run their aero-kits exclusively. The top teams will be in a position to tell them what they can do with their free kits, but what about the struggling teams? Will the league allow the financially strapped teams to be held hostage by the manufacturers?

Let’s assume for a minute that the Chevy engine is a success, but their aero-kit is inferior to the others available. Let’s also assume that HVM and Simona de Silvestro – a low budget team – follow Team Penske to Chevrolet. They see that Penske ditches the Chevy aero kit and goes with Lotus. They decide to do the same, but Chevy informs them that since they received free aero-kits, it is in their contract that they must run the Chevy kit as a condition for free kits. Roger Penske never signed such a contract, because he could afford to buy his kits and wanted no restrictions, just in case he needed to switch. So the distance between the haves and have-nots will grow in a way never intended.

Even if rules are put in place to prevent manufacturers from “strongly encouraging” their teams to use their aero-kits, how do you enforce it? Honda may be smart to not come out with an aero-kit. If other manufacturers are making it difficult to not use their own proprietary kit, that’s an incentive to stay with Honda.

Since when does a company like Chevrolet have any experience in racing chassis aerodynamics, anyway? I don’t think this is where their expertise lies. Will Chevy and Lotus actually try to develop an aero-kit from scratch or will they try to strike a partnership with a company like Lola or Swift. The companies that were spurned last summer have been quiet on the IndyCar front, as of late. Maybe a large incentive from a company with deep pockets is enough to lure them out of their doldrums, after being told “Thanks, but no thanks” by the ICONIC committee.

If some of the companies that the league hoped would enter the fray would commit to building aero-kits – the political problems wouldn’t arise. I don’t think that Chevy would mind seeing their engine powering a Dallara chassis with an aero-kit by Lola. But if Honda came out with an aero-kit, I have a hard time imagining that Chevy would sit by passively, as their bow-tie shared space on the same car with the Honda “H”.

Whether it’s Tony Cotman, Brian Barnhart or Randy Bernard, I think someone needs to come up with a way to defuse a potential problem before it comes to fruition. The IZOD IndyCar Series needs participation from multiple manufacturers. What it doesn’t need is a bunch of manufacturers calling all the shots.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “A Possible Unintended Consequence”

  1. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    I don’t mind it too much. This is motor racing – deals like this happen in formulae everywhere, without necessarily harming the competitors.
    Regarding who builds them, I would not be surprised if at least one company decided on a dual-badged effort (i.e. Lotus/Aerospace kit, etc…)

  2. It’s an interesting point, but I’m not bothered by it either–at least at this point. I’m assuming the rules and standards will be so close for both engine and aero that it won’t make much difference anyway. And teams who have more money are always going to have some advantage on those to don’t, no matter what you do, right?

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    One or two kits will become superior and everyone will eventually go with them. I think we will see a lot of experimenting in 12 and then just a few survivors of kits in 13.

  4. Donald McElvain Says:

    Cotman said the manufacturers cannot pay teams money. No paid factory teams. Can a manufacturer go to a driver, say Joe Doakes, give him 12mil and say, “Go to Acme Racing, give them 9mil and you put 3 mil in your pocket for your fees”? It’s just another “ride buyer”, right? The manufacturer gets the driver, pays a team (sponsorship to run their engine and kit) and everything is “legal” if not in the spirit of the rules?

  5. @Mike Silver: If the superior aerokit comes from an engine manufacturer, then only teams that use that engine will get it. Gotta preserve that brand identity.

    • Mike Silver Says:

      Since the car will be branded with the names of both aerokit and engine, it may not be a big deal. I am sure the engine/aerosupplier will discourage a mix, but as it stands now, the rules are they can’t keeep anyone from using a particular kit.

  6. Cowboy Racer Says:

    I thought if you made an aerokit, then you had to make it available to every competitor, just like an engine. If so, we may see a Chevy kit on a Honda engine and if this is a combination that a team is willing to try, then let it be. Each will get credit for their half of the car.

  7. We’ll see about the politics. I’m sure engine manufacturers will discourage their teams from running another company’s aero kits, but if there are more companies jumping on the aero kit bandwagon anyway (which some people suggest may happen), it may not matter. A Chevy-Chevy team that wants to switch may find itself with plenty of options other than Lotus… and there’s always the independent Dallara kit, which I’m sure will start out the best, as they’re the ones developing the car.

  8. A couple things:

    1) From what Marshall Pruett said on a chat after the Chevy announcement, it sounds like Pratt & Miller may be doing the Chevy aero kit. They do all the work on the ALMS Corvettes, so I think Chevy will be well covered there.

    2) I wouldn’t imagine even the tiniest of teams would sign a contract with an engine manufacturer with a “poison pill” along the lines of “you may not run any other aero kit” if the only stipulation is because the small team received a free kit. The kits, after all, are only $70k each, which is pretty small potatoes even for the Coynes and HVMs of the world. I could, however, see an engine lease coming with verbiage surrounding advertisements, like “you run our engine and our aero kit, and we’ll put you in X number of print ads and Y number of TV spots”, and then the team could be found in breach if they put on a Honda or Lotus kit later in the year. Who knows, though? With as much squaking as there’s been in the blogosphere and as many questions as I’ve heard Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett direct toward Tony Cotman, I can only imagine that they’ll be taking a very, very close look at how the leases are written long before any of the teams actually has to sign one.

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