Running On The Ragged Edge

Much has been made of Honda’s lack of durability that was on display for the three weekends in the Month of May and bled over into this past weekend in Detroit. Heading into the Indianapolis 500, there had been seven Honda engine failures throughout the month including the Grand Prix, practice and qualifying. There were three more during the Indianapolis 500. In Sunday’s race, James Hinchcliffe had his second engine failure in a little more than a week. Let’s just assume it’s fair to question the reliability of the Honda engine.

But there is no questioning Honda’s speed. Most people that know more about such things than I do are all making the assumption that Honda, along with their teams, made the joint decision to turn the wick up and risk reliability for the sake of power and sheer on-track speed. Some are critical of this approach. They say it will eventually drive up the price of doing business.

Logic has it that the three Chevy teams (including Team Penske) will grow frustrated as the losing wears on them. Remember that Chevy lost only two races last season and only six each of the two previous years. In fact, since Chevy rejoined the series in 2012 – there has never been a year that they did not win the majority of the races. At the present time, just before the halfway-point of the season, Honda has won five races, while Chevy-powered cars have won only three. It’s safe to say that Chevy is probably worried their stranglehold on trips to victory lane may be coming to an end, unless they follow Honda’s lead and forsake some reliability for more power.

While the Honda teams are holding their collective breaths that their car may be the next one to suffer an engine-failure, it seems to be paying off. Honda has been dominant at several tracks, including the oval at Indianapolis and they swept qualifying and the races last weekend at Belle Isle. Yes, there have been some blown engines along the way, but there have also been wins – and near-wins for teams that didn’t even sniff a victory over the last couple of seasons.

Chevy has had their glory this season, all from Team Penske – but it has been short-lived. Chevy won at Barber, Phoenix and the Grand Prix at IMS; but Honda dominated Indianapolis 500 qualifying, the race and now the double-header at Belle Isle.

Is it as simple as turning the wick up and putting the engine at greater risk of failure in the pursuit of more speed? If it is that easy and I’m with a Chevy team – I say do it. Otherwise, Chevy teams had better get used to finishing close, but never in front. Is it better to finish fifth and never be a threat to win, or always be in contention so long as the engine holds up? If it’s me, I choose to always be a threat to win each race and risk the chance of my engine blowing up now and then.

When Honda became to sole engine supplier to the series in 2006, they detuned the engines significantly. Why? Because they had no competition. Speed was not the goal, longevity was. It was the same in Champ Car. The Ford-Cosworth XFE had no competition. Their only incentive was to save money with fewer engine repairs.

The way I see it, not only do the teams and drivers win, but so do the fans. For the most part, blown engines have been as much a part of racing as exhaust fumes. How many times did fans hear that Mario was slowing down on the backstretch as a result of an engine failure? It’s part of the deal. It’s all about taking care of the equipment.

What’s the one common-denominator of the blown engines we have seen from Honda drivers? None of those drivers came up in the CART era when drivers had to protect their engines. You may mention Sébastien Bourdais who had two engine failures in a six-day span in May, but his championships were all won with the detuned Ford engine.

Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan all came up in CART at a time when engine manufacturers had competition and allowed their engines to run on the edge and maximize power. Even though they both drive Honda-powered cars, you’ve seen no blow-ups from them, have you?

Those that suffered blown Honda engines this season are all drivers that never really had to take care of their engine before. Ryan Hunter-Reay came up in the same Champ Car era with only one engine provider, just like Bourdais. Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Jack Harvey, Fernando Alonso and Charlie Kimball all had engine failures in May, but none had any experience in CART when protecting your engine was an art form. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

The knock on Mario Andretti as to why he couldn’t get a car to last for five-hundred miles was that he was too hard on his equipment. Speed and handling are not the only factor a driver has to deal with. Reliability is another one. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the first time a Buick engine lasted for five-hundred miles; it was in the hands of Al Unser, who had a reputation for saving his equipment. When reliability is a known issue, the driver makes the difference.

Look, I’m not saying that James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay are bad drivers – in fact, quite the opposite. The thing is, they are now faced with a temperamental engine for the first time in their careers. Up until now they have been driving cars with engines meant to last, but not necessarily to win. This is just another factor they now have to learn to deal with.

But what about Chevy? Are they content to sit around in each race and hope that all of the Hondas blow up? That’s not likely with thirteen full-time Hondas on the grid each week and eight of them coming from Ganassi and Andretti. When Helio Castroneves saw the Honda of Fernando Alonso smoking down the straightaway at Indianapolis, he thought he had a clear path to victory. He forgot about Takuma Sato.

As long as Honda keeps winning while they are losing a few engines each week, I think Chevy is going to have to do something – whether it’s forsaking reliability for speed or something else. Roger Penske is in this to win. I’m assuming he is still part owner of Ilmor Engineering, who builds the Chevy engine (and used to build the naturally aspirated V8 for Honda up through 2011). I can’t imagine he is content to play the tortoise while Honda’s hare is scoring victories.

I mentioned earlier that the fans win out in this. Why? Because this adds a level of intrigue we haven’t seen in American open-wheel racing in about fifteen years. For the past decade or so, if a driver had a big lead like Graham Rahal had last Saturday in Detroit – you knew he was going to win unless he did something boneheaded (see Ryan Briscoe at Motegi in 2009). But with the threat of the unexpected plume of smoke, we fans can no longer assume the engine will hold up as it has in the past. Aside from the added costs, I see that as a good thing.

The long and short of it is this. Above all else, racing is about speed and competition. When engines are not tuned for optimal speed, the competition is watered down. The drivers that can walk that thin line of achieving speed without abusing their engine will succeed in the long run. When a driver has a safety net and they know their engine will always be there, that sort of dilutes the sport. Running on the ragged edge is what defines this sport. I, for one, am glad to see it coming back into play.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Running On The Ragged Edge”

  1. This is something that is missing from racing these days, fatigue, whether it be driver or engine. I miss the days when you knew the driver was tired and the part were tired, hoping Mario could pass Sneva from getting a 2nd win, etc. I am glad it’s a variable again. Used to be drivers were tired after races, now with hydration and medical help, a driver is usually pretty good. That’s a reason why I like the challenge of the doubleheader weekend, it adds that fatigue option. You see in NASCAR, those drivers can run all of the different series in a weekend, maybe 1000 miles with no issue, power steering, hydration and physical fitness has helped them and it makes thing… boring…

  2. S0CSeven Says:

    At Detroit, Chevy entered 36% of the engines and thus far in the season have won 37% of the races. Sounds like a dead heat to me and nothing to get too wound up about.

    If Honda wants to blow ’em up more power to them. It adds back the old intrique that you didn’t know what was going to happen until the checkers. I like that.

    And ‘cmon, really …….. shedding tears over having to work a couple of days on a weekend is bogus. If my old boss heard me complain about yet another 24-hour work day he’d say ‘If you don’t like it, quit!’ .

  3. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’m a huge fan of what Honda did and also the results.

    Motors going kablammmy adds intrigue, the perception of pushing the envelope of performance, and also vastly increased drama to a sport where reliability had been eliminated as a variable.

    This, as you stated, was extremely helpful in controlling costs, but I support Honda more for their gamble and I hope that everyone can see the importance of adding drama and intrigue to the sport.

    However, if all else being equal, let’s assume Chevy were to ratchet up their motor another 10HP and have the same reliability issues as Honda. Chevy returns to the dominance seen in ’15, ’16 and all we’ve done then is to create more costs to the engine suppliers via reduced reliability for similar results as before.

    I want to see Chevy stay right where they are and see how this plays out over the season. Assuming the facts noted above by S0CSeven are accurate, the proportion of wins to motor population in the field is actually relatively even.

    Is Honda reliability due to engineers or drivers?

    Can Chevy gamble on reliability, save costs, and still win more than their share or even take the Manufacturers Title?

    If you like these types of storylines in racing, stay tuned to the rest of the season.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    Some interesting takes here on the current engine failure situation. As for me, I am quite sure that Ilmor will meet the challenge. Having witnessed a few frantic engine changes at the Milwaukee Mile, and speaking only as a shade tree mechanic, it was (and is) amazing to watch the allegro-like movement and coordination of the mechanics involved. Well, I’m off to grab my spanner and work on my John Deere.

  5. George, this may be one of your best posts. You make a very interesting point about drivers who have experience making engines last the distance.
    Engine reliability, or lack thereof does add interest.
    I remember the last time Johnny Rutherford got a chance to try to qualify for the 500. It was a last second try in a Foyt spare car with, if I remember correctly, a Chevy engine. I was standing next to Betty in the pits at J. R. charged down the front straight and a big cloud of smoke erupted from the back of the car.
    In that case it signaled the end of a career.

  6. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    another good blog post, George

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    While what follows is not directly related to the subject of George’s article here, after seeing his title “Running on the Ragged Edge” I could not resist adding this classic Stirling Moss quote: “You go through a corner absolutely flat out, right on the ragged edge but absolutely in control, on your own line to an inch, the car just hanging there, the tyres as good as geared to the road, locked to it, and yet you know that if you ask one more mile an hour of the car, if you put another 5 pounds of sidethrust on it, you’ll lost the whole flaming vehicle……….You’re on top of it all, and the exhiliaration, the thrill is tremendous, and you say to yourself, all right, you bastards, top that one!

    That is one of my favorite racing quotes. I have had that on my racing wall for at least 40 years. I would be curious to know which of the current IndyCar drivers any of you reading this think drives to the above mantra. I’m thinking Will Power for starters. How about you?

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