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The Way It Is/ Taking a close look at this year's new Acura ALMS program

by Gordon Kirby
When it comes to utilizing racing as a training tool for engineers and as a petri dish for development Honda may be in a class of its own among the world's auto manufacturers, rivalled only by Ferrari and BMW. So as spec car racing overtakes American motor sport, Honda and Honda Performance Development (HPD), the company's racing and R&D division, have been looking for a place to race which suits Honda's engineering and competition-driven philosophy.

To that end, American Honda and HPD decided to enter the American Le Mans series this year because the ALMS has emerged as one of the last bastions of spec car-free racing. Under its Acura brand, Honda will field a trio of ALMS cars in the LMP2 category where they will race against a pair of Penske Porsches and two more Porsches run by Rob Dyson's team. Acura's ALMS engine is a 3.4 liter naturally-aspirated V-8, similar to the Porsche engine, and it will be raced in an Andretti-Green Racing Courage and a pair of Lolas run by Adrian Fernandez's team and Highcroft Racing, the latter owned by Duncan Dayton and Danny Sullivan. HPD's boss Robert Clarke explained the thinking behind Acura's new ALMS program which debuts at nexf month's Sebring 12 hours.

"It's a lot like the moons aligned on a variety of fronts," Clarke commented. "One is the Acura brand was going from just a North American brand to an international brand. It was introduced in China last year and it will continue to grow internationally. So there was interest from the company to promote it in a more international way. Of course, ALMS and Le Mans has a more international focus and feel about it.

"From American Honda's point of view, they wanted to make it more clear where Acura fit in the marketplace. They want to put more of of a focus on the performance side of that so getting involved in motorsports with Acura was an objective.

"From HPD's point of view, we already went through one situation with CART where we kind of got booted off the island, and it nearly killed the company. Luckily, we were able to save it and not just save it, but turn it into an R&D company, and we've wanted to diversify which meant getting involved in more than one series because it's too dangerous. Also, because we had fallen into being the sole supplier to the IRL, we wanted to be involved in something that offered us the technical challenge which is core to our existence.

"So all three of those things aligned and it was an easy choice to go to the ALMS. Nothing else came close to matching it."

John Mendel is American Honda's senior vice-president of automotive operations. Mendel joined the company in November of 2004 after spending twenty-eight years with Ford followed by a stint with Mazda. "To the degree that we are all defined by our competition in the consumers eyes ALMS makes perfect sense for Acura," Mendel said. "That's because you're competing with other high-line manufacturers like Audi and Porsche who are the kind of people you want to be competing with and rubbing elbows with. It think it's a great form of racing for the Acura brand and for Acura customers. It gives us an opportunity to showcase and develop the Acura brand.

"It also gives us an opportunity to compete with the first complete engine developed totally at HPD in Santa Clarita," Mendel added. "So taking Acura into ALMS is a watershed event for us."

In the past year or more, quite a few fans around the country have told your correspondent that they're gravitating more and more to the ALMS because there's some technical interest and differences in the cars. The series has also pulled some pretty good ratings when its on network TV, so there might be some hope after all for some technology and pizazz in racing.

"There's a level of frustration and tiredness in dealing with the open-wheel situation," Clarke observed. "And I think there are some fans who are moving to the ALMS because it offers the technology that there was in open-wheel racing in a format that's not so controversial. And they are the most sophisticated race cars we have at the moment in this country."

If this is true it will disprove the increasingly prevalent NASCAR theory that everybody's got to have pretty much the same thing and it's all about close, competitive racing. Some people and some segment of the market are equally, if not more interested, in attractive and different-looking and sounding cars.

"I might be totally wrong," Clarke remarks, "but I feel that the ALMS type of racing could be the motorsports of the future. You've got a combination of the frustration on the open-wheel side and I think there are some people who are just growing tired of NASCAR because it's basically the same old product no matter how they spin it. And the ALMS cars are sexy-looking, they're full of technology and they're fun to watch with a unique kind of racing that goes into the night with lights and driving in the rain--all that kind of stuff. These things all go through cycles and I think they are on the upside of their cycle."

Never before has Honda made a serious entry into sports car racing and Clarke and the company hope a good rookie season in this year's ALMS will result in an invitation to compete at Le Mans in 2008.

"It's a unique kind of racing for Honda," Clark remarked. "We really don't have much experience in endurance racing or sports car racing, not just for HPD, but for Honda in general. Racing at Le Mans is something that is very intriguing for HPD and for Honda. We've had some efforts in the past but none of them have been true factory efforts. We hope to get an invitation to go in '08."

John Mendel is equally excited about the prospect of Honda racing at Le Mans in the future. "We would love to be invited," Mendel commented. "That would be a great thing. We're new to ALMS and Le Mans-type racing and we'd love to compete at Le Mans. It's one of the pinnacles of worldwide motorsports. Having been there, I know it's as much about the event as the race. It's still very pure as far as what it offers to the competitors and what you must do to win. It hasn't changed it's basic philosophy as a race since it started and that's a great thing."

Adrian Fernandez's team will run the latest Lola LMP2 chassis in this year's ALMS while Andretti-Green and Highcroft Racing will run Courages. "We thought through it upfront," Clarke explained. "Considering our lack of experience and knowledge in that type of racing we figured we needed to structure the program in a way that would allow us to learn the most the quickest and we felt that dealing with multiple chassis definitely would be a plus. If you have just one chassis, you don't know if it's good or bad, or how to compare it.

"We went with Lola because it's proven, reliable and competitive and has been racing for years and parts are available--there's a real support infrastructure. We're using the Lola as the basis of our engine development because we know there are other Lolas in the field and we can compare apples to apples. We'll know exactly how our engine is comparing to those in any other Lolas."

With the start of the Acura ALMS program HPD is expanding into chassis engineering and aerodynamic research. "We wanted to get more involved in the chassis side," Clarke commented. "If you look at any series, including Formula One, the engine regulations are getting tighter and tighter. In order to find a technical advantage that we all want to have, we can clearly see that we need to branch beyond the engine. We saw with our chassis program that we had in the IRL in 2004 and '05 that it can make a huge difference.

"So we've taken that a step further, not just doing the simple thing like aero bits and tweaking on the differential and gearbox and things like that. Now we're looking at the entire suspension geometry and design and making major changes to the body configuration and things like that. We're going to play around and probably try things that don't work, but they'll all be part of the learning experience."

HPD will have its own chassis and aero engineers working with its Acura teams and with Nick Wirth's UK-based Wirth Research organization. "This is a whole new thing for HPD," Clarke observed. "We've got people embedded at Highcroft doing chassis development and we will embed some HPD people at Wirth Research to accelerate our learning curve and broaden our horizons.

"We're transferring people from Honda R&D in Ohio where they have chassis people. They're not racing guys but they are chassis engineers and we're transferring some of those people to HPD and to Wirth Research in England and basically building the foundation of our chassis program for the future. I can't tell you exactly how far we plan to go with it. We're kind of playing it by ear.

"I can tell you we want to be in the position to manage our chassis development in the future. Right now we can't do that. We have to rely on Nick Wirth and his people to drive us in that direction because we don't have the knowledge. So we want to be more in charge of our destiny and the choices that we have to make. We want at least to have that level of expertise. I won't tell you that we're going to design our own car and construct it in-house. That's the ultimate goal and maybe we'll end up there some day but it's not in the near term. There are all kinds of options in how you approach it between that and where we are today."

Adrian Fernandez's Lola-equipped team will focus on engine development while Highcroft Racing will concentrate on chassis development with its Courage. Andretti-Green Racing's Courage will undergo further chassis and aerodynamic development courtesy HPD engineers and Wirth Research.

"We picked the Courage as the basis for our chassis and aero development operation, believing that it had room for improvement," Clarke said. "It's one of the more contemporary cars out there. It's the newest generation. It hasn't been raced yet. Together with Nick Wirth we looked at the Courage and believed that it was constructed in a way that lended itself to changes. It wasn't so integral in its design that you couldn't change one part without screwing everything else up. So you'll see some dramatic changes to that car from the very first race."

Clarke says Andretti-Green in particular should benefit from the overall program in enjoying the latest, race-proven pieces. "We have AGR positioned in the middle," Clarke commented. "They will get the proven engine developments from the Fernandez Lola program. When those things have proven that they work and are reliable they will be going also to AGR. All the proven bits that come out of the Highcroft program will also go to AGR so AGR won't have the latest and greatest stuff from race to race, they will have the most proven pieces and package from a performance and reliability point of view. Therefore, we would guess that they would have the best on track results because they won't really be taking the risks.

"So we feel we have everything," he added. "We've got two development programs feeding another program. It should work well."

Clarke admits it will be an uphill push to compete with the Penske and Dyson Porsches which are purpose-built chassis/engine combinations and also enjoy one year of reliability and performance development. Indeed, the Porsches were three seconds and more quicker than any of the Acrua-powered cars in testing at Sebring last month. "We're already compromised with customer cars that don't know whether you have an in-line four, or a V-8, or V-12 in the back," Clarke remarked. "We're hampered by that."

Nevertheless, Clarke believes reliability will be the major issue facing the three Acura teams in the program's first season. "Everybody always plays their cards close to their chest at this stage of the game but we think from a speed point of view we'll be competitive. Our big concern is reliability. We don't have the experience. The engine has been on the dyno since August, running Sebring simulations back-to-back. It's run twelve-hour simulations and we think the engine is probably the strongest part of the equation at the moment."

The Acura ALMS V-8 is based on HPD's original plans for a clean sheet of paper IRL engine laid down five years ago but never built. "When we left CART and decided that HPD would be a development company we embarked on an IRL engine design for the future," Clarke explained. "It was going to be introduced in 2006 but when things started happening to go to the IRL earlier we did it originally with Ilmor. The thinking was also going on about diversifying and getting involved in another series and it became clear there was no point in developing an all-new IRL engine if it was going to be a spec engine.

"For us, it was a worthless exercise because we couldn't compare it to anything. We couldn't tell if we were doing a good job or not. So we decided to continue with the Honda/Ilmor IRL engine that we had and to redirect our theoretical IRL engine to become the sports car engine.

"We hadn't got as far as producing an engine. It was in the CAD system so we began to change the top end to make it more suitable for long-distance racing. So it has an architecture that is very similar to an IRL-spec engine."

Clarke has discovered that developing engines for long-distance racing is quite different than building high horsepower, sprint race engines. "There's a significant development program on the ALMS side," he commented. "We're trying to improve the performance of the engine while ensuring reliability at the same time. Because the engines are required to have long life, the processes and allowances you come up with for a development piece that improves the performance of the engine is then required to go through an 1,800-mile test to make sure that it lives. It's a different kind of world than we're used to.

"In CART, our engines typically had a rebuild life of 300 miles! I can't remember which year was the worst, but I remember the average mileage was 265, and of course, we had qualifying engines as well. We got 17,300 rpm with wire valve springs! That was pretty good.

"Obviously, an engine has to live the length of the Sebring race but because of where our program is in its development I think it's likely we'll end up changing engines every race. So you're looking at twelve engines for twelve races. We're not looking at qualifying engines or anything like that, but at least an engine per race per car."

After racing Honda engines last year, A.J. Foyt, who has seen the inside of Offenhauser, Ford, Chevrolet, Cosworth and Toyota engines, among others, believes Honda's components and workmanship are the best in the business. "That place they have in LA--Honda Performance Development--is unbelievable," Foyt said last week. "I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that place must be a $200 milllion operation. Toyota and Honda are both real big in the automobile business, but truthfully to me, because I looked at the engine stuff Honda has compared to when Toyota was in the IRL, and Honda is a lot more superior in manufacturing stuff. I mean, Honda does just fantastic work and a lot of the people who work at HPD are real racing fans.

"One of the guys making the camshafts out there said to me he remembered when I damn near died at Riverside back in 1965 when I busted my butt in a stock car. He said he was there. So I said, 'Do me one little favor, will you? When you make the cams for my motors can you give me another ten thou' more duration?' And he grinned and said, 'Well, you never know!' We were just joking, of course, but it's good to see so many people like that. It makes you feel good and you also know those people are putting a lot of heart into their work."

Now that Toyota has arrived in NASCAR many people believe Honda cannot be far behind. Clarke says NASCAR does not fit into HPD's operational philosophy but admits that some American Honda board members would like to see a NASCAR program. "We have no plans for NASCAR," Clarke declared. "It's something that comes up in every board meeting, but it's not being driven by HPD. It just does not really fit HPD's objectives. But our mission statement is that we exist to support American Honda's motorsports objectives. So if American Honda were to decide it needs to be in NASCAR in order to properly promote its products we would be required to support it.

"Honda, I think, is unique as a manufacturer in how it puts priorities on its objectives. NASCAR in our mind, and everybody has their own opinion, is not about technology development. It's about entertainment and it's very effective in that. But entertainment in our priority list of objectives is way down the list.

"Developing our people is number one and we can't do that through entertainment," Clarke added. "We can only do that through technology development. Honda believes that if we can develop a superior engineer then those engineers can produce better cars and those products will sell themselves against the competition. We can't do that through entertainment. We do that through racing because we know, having lived in racing for our entire existence, that we can use racing effectively to develop people.

"All the things you develop in racing are accentuated aspects of what you deal with in the real world of production cars and vehicles. The way that you focus and the strained time lines in racing provide everything to develop people and produce better cars and products. That's what Mr. Honda believed and our whole experience has proven it's true. It's not that we want to race. We have to race. It's part of our culture and it's what feeds the system. If we stopped racing, I think the company would derail. We wouldn't know what to do. How would we develop people and develop technology?"

Clarke points out that the majority of Honda's 'large project leaders', like those on the Accord and MDX programs, came through the racing program. "For Honda," Clarke says, "it's all about associate development, technology development, and motivating our associates within the company and our dealers and customers."

Vice-president of automotive operations Mendel says American Honda and HPD are far too busy with their ALMS and IRL programs to even think about NASCAR for some years to come at least. "We've got more than enough on our plate right now with IRL and ALMS," Mendel observed. "Certainly, NASCAR does come up frequently and there's no doubt that there's as much racing in Honda's blood from motorcycles to Formula One as anyone out there. If we build it, we race it, and NASCAR always comes up. But we race to win and we race to learn, and I think NASCAR is a bridge too far at this point in time.

"We're certainly engrossed in the development of the ALMS program and as sole engine supplier to the IRL we're continuing to develop and expand the IRL to make it one of the premier open-wheel series in the world. I think NASCAR is a maybe someday, but there are no current plans. We try to do what we do well until we get too far afield in other endeavors."

For the forseeable future NASCAR remains an unlikely destination for American Honda and HPD who are focused on achieving success in the ALMS series and long-distance sports car racing where technology and innovative thinking still play a role in the sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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