The Return of a Bad Idea

What was a highly unpopular rule in the NTT IndyCar Series back in 2012 and 2013, is making an unwanted return for 2020, albeit with some improvements. How do you improve on a bad idea? Does the improvement make it not as bad? It doesn’t suddenly make it a good idea, mind you – it’s still a bad idea. I guess we’re just not supposed to gripe about it as much.

I’m talking about grid penalties for making an unauthorized engine change.

For two seasons, beginning in 2012 – drivers were punished for making an engine change before the engine exceeded 2,500 miles. Even if an engine exploded on the main straightaway at the season-opener, no matter where the driver qualified for the next race, he or she incurred a ten grid-spot penalty for that race. So even if a driver qualified outside of the front-row, that driver would start the race in the twelfth starting-spot.

Most casual fans did not understand this. They would leave the track on Saturday thinking that Will Power had won the pole, only to return on Sunday and see him starting inside on the sixth row. They were confused and seldom got an explanation that they understood.

The hard-core fans understood it, but hated it. Why should their driver have their great qualifying spot taken away from them, simply because their engine manufacturer made an engine that blew up?

Casual fans were confused and the knowledgeable fan base was angry. It was for those reasons that this practice went away for the 2014 season and beyond. Since then, the rules were changed to punish the manufacturer in the manufacturer’s championship instead of hurting the driver in the midst of pursuing a championship. In my opinion, that was the way to go.

But much like a bad Rocky film – it came back in a softened version. For 2020, grid-penalties will return but in a revamped version. For starters, the penalty is not as harsh. The penalty will be only six spots on a road or street course, and nine spots on an oval.

Another plus (I suppose) is that it will be a while before we see these enforced. It used to be that as soon as the engine was swapped out before the mileage limit, the driver was penalized at the start of the next available race. Even if the engine change took place just because it didn’t sound quite right on race morning, the penalty would be enforced that day for the start of the race.

With this new version of grid-penalties – the penalty is not enforced until the car has exceeded their four-engine allotment for the season. Theoretically, a driver could have a fresh engine for the first four races of the season, but that fourth engine would have to last for the rest of the season without the driver incurring a penalty. Whenever a driver goes to that fifth engine – that’s when the penalty will be enforced, along with any subsequent engine change for the remainder of the season.

To me, that’s an improvement – but I still see this as a bad idea. And I’m still not sure it’s possible to improve a bad idea. Personally, I am not in favor of punishing drivers over something that is not in their control.

If you listened to Trackside this past Wednesday night, you heard them explain that this rule was put in place to “…protect the manufacturers from themselves”. I’ve never cared for that phrase, whether it was referring to a person, a group of people or a corporation. It basically infers that someone is too stupid to make decisions on their own. That’s the same logic that requires nutritional information on every McDonald’s menu. If you’re really wanting to eat healthy food, why are you in McDonald’s in the first place? But I digress…

Honda and Chevy are certainly capable of making decisions without having to be protected from themselves. They chose to eschew the manufacturer’s title in favor of giving a driver in a title chase a fresh engine. For example, Josef Newgarden went through six engines (two above the mandated four) this past season, while Scott Dixon only used four. Chevy deemed it more important for their driver to win the title than for them to win the manufacturer’s title. Did they need to be protected from making this decision in the future? Apparently so.

I understand that the intent of this rule is to help hold down costs. It stems from the CART days when a car may go through three or more engines on any given race weekend. Those engines were built for high performance over a very short period of time, and money was no object. That is not the case today, so something does need to be in place to help hold down costs. But I am bitterly opposed to punishing a driver for something out of their control. Rarely is the driver responsible for an unauthorized engine change.

In sports, it’s never a good thing when the officials become the story – especially when a championship is on the line. We remember when Helio Castroneves was penalized for making what was deemed an illegal pass for the lead at Edmonton in 2010. If you don’t remember the incident, surely you remember the comical sight of Helio choking Charles Burns, head of IndyCar security and someone who was about three times bigger than Helio.

What will happen in September if Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden are separated by a single point after Portland, but during practice for Laguna Seca, Newgarden’s engine suddenly expires during practice. Through no fault of his own, Newgarden knows going into qualifying that no matter how he performs, the best starting spot he can hope for is seventh. If Rossi wins the pole and double-points are awarded with it being the season-finale – barring a miracle, it’s most likely game over for Newgarden before he even starts. Is it fair to put him in that much of a hole to start the finale simply because some piece in his Chevy engine let go at an inopportune time?

This is probably the worst example of officiating directly interfering or altering a championship. The fans don’t like it and I’m sure the drivers don’t either. Unlike past eras, there are smart people making these decisions with IndyCar. Couldn’t they come up with a better way to contain costs than by punishing the driver?

George Phillips

11 Responses to “The Return of a Bad Idea”

  1. But a team/driver can be responsible for damaging an engine too, whether it’s driving it too hard, using engine maps that are too aggressive, tweaking the engine in some way that isn’t advised,, crashing it so badly that the unit is unusable, etc. I don’t believe the manufacturer is always solely responsible when an engine dies, not should they be the only one to be punished.

    You praised Chevy for putting their driver’s title as a higher priority than the manufacturer’s. In my opinion this rule now encourages both manufacturers to prioritize the driver’s title over their own because now if they break the rules they hurt their driver which also hurts their own chances in the manufacturer’s title (this is the “protecting them from themselves” part).

    Not all fans don’t like it. I am in favor of this rule because the previous rule was being abused and ignored. So what was the point in even having a rule if it wasn’t followed?

    • Much agreed. The driver has the choice of mapping settings from ‘my spouse going to the grocery store’ to a Robby Gordon ‘I’m going to blow this damn thing on purpose’.

      The team and driver do have a choice but I have no idea how to separate an agressive team from a real mechanical fault. Maybe this is the best they could come up with.

  2. Dave from Mukwonago Says:

    I think this rule, combined with the Captain’s recent comments caring more about Honda & Chevy than a 3rd manufacturer says much about the those prospects.

    While I would really like more manufactures involved in the Series I care more about the viability and continued growth of the series.

    Perhaps this rule makes it easier to add more manufacturers. But the rules are the same for all participants and its up to all competitors to succeed within (or despite) them.

    I long for the days of the 80’s & 90’s with more innovation and less restrictive rules. We will probably never get there again, but perhaps we can be on the path to something similar someday. I guess I can only hope.

  3. I’m okay with the grid penalties but I don’t like the additional 10 point penalty for all parties under certain circumstances. That’s double jeopardy. The penalties are actually reasonable when compared to the 50 spot penalties F1 hands out.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I agree with this. I am comfortable with the grid penalties, but not at all with the point penalties for drivers and entries. If you race well enough to overcome the challenges of your grid penalty, you should not lose 10 points regardless. If you don’t race well enough to overcome the grid penalty, then the points penalty is baked in.

      I have heard conflicting things on how the Indy 500 is treated for these engine rules, but leaving it outside of the grid penalty rules would be wise given how much more that event asks of the engines than any other.

    • The F1 grid penalties, on their face, look stupid, but the reason they’re structured the way they are is to make sure that the drivers’ actual starting spots are stratified in the order of “least penalties” to “most penalties”. Meaning, they want to make sure that a driver who qualifies 2nd but then replaces the ICE/turbo/entire KERS system/gearbox (which is the sort of thing that results in 40-50 “spots” worth of penalties) will start behind a driver that qualifies, say, 13th, but then changes out just the turbo (which would be like a 5 spot penalty). I get what they’re trying to do, and I don’t know if there’s a much better way to do it, even if the penalties that are announced sound pretty goofy.

      For this matter, this is essentially what IndyCar is doing with their grid penalties: penalize the teams/manufacturers who are pushing beyond the spirit of the “each car can only use X number of engines for the season” rules. Like you and Mr. theskink mention, I’d rather the grid penalties (which can be made up for by having a good race) than the point penalties (which are levied and can’t be made up for).

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I don’t like this grid penalties rule. All engines are built and maintained by the mfg. Drivers have little control over the engines. Rule makers tend to be like politicians and insert themselves where they don’t belong. I understand the need to keep costs down but, these are race engines and are built to run at full tilt. If they fail that’s on the mfg. Teams are not allowed to do much of anything to the engines. This is a spec engine.

  5. Digression:
    “Choking” is a weeee bit of an exaggeration there… but Burns **is** a good 3 times bigger than Helio, that’s for certain! And yeah, there’s a whole lot that’s wrong with grabbing a guy’s lapels and shaking, ‘specially when said guy is 3x bigger than you. 😀

    Burns should be more famous from that. That was the best grin he gave Helio in return.

  6. Eliminate this wacko penalty, and allow all full-time cars to use eight engines per season. Teams would pay to use each engine rather than pay a fixed $1,300,000 or whatever.

  7. “It basically infers that someone is too stupid to make decisions on their own.” which answers the last question negatively.

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