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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Explaining Honda's V-6 agenda

by Gordon Kirby
Honda has been the de facto spec engine supplier to the IRL since 2006. Soichiro Honda's company started its Indy car adventure in 1994 with Bobby Rahal's team and went on to win CART championships in 1996, '97, 98 and '99 with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan-Pablo Montoya and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Honda quit CART at the end of 2002 and made the move to the IRL where arch-rival Toyota thrashed them in '03. Honda bounced back to dominate in '04 and '05 before Toyota and Chevrolet departed the IRL leaving Indy car racing as Honda's exclusive preserve.

In recent years American Honda and its racing division Honda Performance Development have expanded their racing activities to include running factory-supported Acura LMP2 and P1 cars in the ALMS and manufacturing a new Fit-based Formula Ford engine. HPD will produce a new P2 Le Mans engine next year, which may herald a return to the ALMS, and the Formula Ford engine program is just the beginning of American Honda's plans to extend its reach through US racing's grass roots to karting in particular.

Erik Berkman took over from Robert Clarke at the beginning of 2008 as American Honda's racing boss and Berkman was a moving force in compelling the IRL to convene a series of on and off manufacturers' roundtables over the past two years. Berkman is also in charge of American Honda's product planning and he's been frustrated by the lack of progress from the IRL in determining the new 2012 IndyCar formula. Berkman is delighted that Randy Bernard has immediately tackled this important issue, appointing a seven-man committee to resolve the riddle by the middle of June.

"It's interesting and I'm glad to see where we're at," Berkman remarked. "But for me it's getting a little uncomfortable from a timing perspective. We've been trying to reach and promote a consensus on the new rules over a long period of time going back to when I came into this job in January of '08.

"Robert Clarke handed off to me and he had done a lot of work trying to advocate change. Before I started, Robert had started pushing the process of 'Let's change.' We funded the Art Center at Pasadena and helped the senior transportation design class with the funding to do their projects. The League was involved in the final grading to help the professors decide the grades and who won, who made the objectives. We got to see a fresh, new crop of designers. It was a win-win for all of us. We used the same process with CCS at Detroit roughly a year later.

"Then we said let's go ahead and have Honda's internal designers come together and design an Indy car with their ideas. We made a quarter-scale model that you saw at the IMS Media Center last year. It had all the design parameters to make a real race car. We didn't go to the step of CFD/wind tunnel, but by all other rules of car design we said you have to adhere to all these things like FIA compliant."

Berkman underlines the point that a few logs have rolled across the road to the new formula.

"I started advocating a manufacturers' round table and at our insistence and urging the League bought into that so we had a process to bring other engine manufacturers to the table. It was announced at Indy in '08 and we had our first round table on June 24th a little less than two years ago. Of course, in the meantime we had the collapse of Champ Car so we now had one unified series. Then at the end of '08 the recession hit.

"At the end of '08 the roundtable process had broken down and we were also into a serious recession," Berkman adds. "Everybody was stalled for making commitments, including Honda, for 2011. Up 'til that point 2011 was our goal but now that was off the table. 2012 was the earliest we could consider something new. Frankly, through the first half of '09 there was radio silence. It was all about, are we going to survive? We put on a pretty good show in the first half of '09 but there were real pains in the economy."

Ten or eleven months ago Honda began to push the IRL for a decision about the new rules. Berkman told the IRL that if a determination wasn't made by the end of 2009 the new rules might have to pushed back one more year to 2013.

"Going into the summer we started talking about resurrecting the process of getting a new car for 2012," Berkman says. "Honda made some pretty clear indications that we've got two years to develop a new car and new engine and if we can get to the end of the year with some clear direction we can do that. Through the round table process that preceeded that we got down to, 'Tastes great, less filling' arguments. It was four versus six cylinders. E20 versus E98.

"Of course, it's very important to know the fuel you will be using when you're designing the engine. Likewise, it's very important to know how much drag the car has so we know how much power the engine needs to make. We need to know what are the objectives?"

During the past year or more Honda has been working on designing a turbocharged V-6 Indy car engine under general terms the auto manufacturer believes the IRL was committed to for a new engine producing around 550 horsepower for the oval races and 700 or more for the ovals.

"The Bowlby Delta Wing radical low drag design had not surfaced at that point or been seriously considered," Berkman observes. "We knew Ben was working on it. We first heard formally about the Delta Wing design at Toronto last summer. Ben's design needs 300 horsepower so that would be a very different proposition to what we have been working on since the first roundtable which was a scale between 550 hp for ovals and 750 for road courses.

"Once the Delta Wing came out we asked the League which way they were leaning. We told them our strong advocacy is for a bespoke, custom-designed jewel of a race engine using all of the technology that we can bring to bear so it meets the three tenets that we set at the first roundtable. We said it had to be societally or environmentallty responsible, there's got to be production linkage and it's got to be cost-controlled. We have to bring the costs down for the competitors and for all the stakeholders. We think all the points being made about societal responsibility, being responsible to the planet, if a manufacturer supplying the product wants to talk about what they sell in the showrooms, so the technology transfer and cost containment - the three tenets that roundtable 1 produced - are alive and well in our proposal.

"We also have to have something to talk about in our marketing programs and we need to tie that into what we're doing with marketing our road cars. One of our programs is to increase the life cycle of our engines and we said our V-6 does all those things. But we said it also makes between 550-750 horsepower. We said we were going to keep going on that theme. We said if we can make an agreement by the end of this year we can keep going on on our design and development work and be ready to go two years later for 2012. Based on everything the League had told us we believed we were still on track to do that."

As the new year began to unfold Berkman and HPD realized they were looking at a moving target.

"By the first of the year Ben Bowlby had been out to HPD in Santa Clarita and we were beginning to understand his concept," Berkman relates. "Swift had also called us and said they had met with the League and been given the green light to talk to us. They wanted some basic parameters or a packaging model for the engine.

"The League had given us an assurance of their direction so that we knew we were on the right track but after the first of the year they were in a quandary. They had been constantly in contact with the engine manufacturers for eighteen months. Under Brian and Terry--no longer Tony--they were still making those solicitations to the manufacturers. Then of course, Randy Bernard came on board in March and now we're into a new process to determine the new car and engine.

"We've been continuing to march along a path but we are now at a point where we've stopped marching. We're standing still, marking time. We've told the League that June 1st is a hard date for us as an engineering company to get to our objectives for 2012. It should have been April 1st. But we respect and appreciate that Randy needs these two months to be able to do his process. It's a complicated and important thing to decide but now's the time. Everybody can't be happy because everyone can't win. But hopefully he can strike the right balance."

Adds Berkman about the turbo V-6:

"We haven't built any prototypes or ordered any tooling but we've started the design process and we're ready to pull the trigger on building and actually making something and start proving it out."

American Honda has also been working towards the V-6 becoming the platform for its planned new LMP2 and P1 engines. Despite pulling its Acura P1 program out of this year's ALMS, HPD's plans for a new V-6 P2 engine for Le Mans proceed apace.

"We've been working very closely with the ACO regarding the sports car racing rules," Berkman says. "They've got new rules in 2011 and we've got a production-based V-6 engine that's under development right now that will be out there next year. Think Odyssey, Ridgeline, Pilot, Honda Accord or Acura TL. That family of engines is going to evolve into a full-on race engine that will be in P2 cars from next year.

"Two years ago the ACO put out a directional briefing about what the engine will be for that series. There's constant conversation with them and they have a public process where people can be involved in the development of the draft rules through the final rules. It would be nice to have such clarity of how you work through the channels here in the IRL.

"We said allow us to have the option to have up to six cylinders. A two-liter turbo is fine. We can build a next generation engine that will fit in more than one series. We want to be back at the pinnacle in the P1 class and we need a new generation to be back in there. But we will definitely be back with a new generation engine in P2. The new rules for 2011 will give you a choice of naturally aspirated with petrol or diesel or turbo. So you have options. Do we do a two liter V-6 turbo? Or a four-cylinder turbo 'Global Racing Engine'? Or a naturally-aspirated 3.4 liter which happens to be this year's P2 configuration

"This year it's fundamentally a customer program. It's like Indy car leases - we're leasing the engine, or we've leased the car. Ray Mallock's team has a Lola coupe so we had to do basically an engineering services agreement to help them retrofit our engine. We're leasing them the engine but we had to do a few little adjustments to get it to go into the Lola coupe and they had to pay. We don't ask them to put HPD or Honda or Acura stickers on the car. They can livery the car, trailers, suits, the whole bit, any way they want. We've got HPD head covers. It's not an Acura Motorsports or a Honda Racing program. Duncan Dayton has got a little more support from us because we were under some terms of an agreement with him. But basically it's the same package. In the case of Straake and RML in Europe, they're paying us and they've got an engine lease deal. In the case of Highcroft, it's a little different but it's fundamentally the same thing."

Honda has also proposed to the IRL that it run a limited version of its V-6 in the Indy Lights series.

"In talking about IRL we have to think just like [Audi's Dr. Ulrich] Baretzky or any other guy leading a team of engineers about how to commonize the platform and stretching our dollars and being smart about it, and we're doing that. I hear a lot that the world is changing. My other job is product planning and we have four cylinder engines in our lineup and that trend will continue. But we also have V-6s. So we want to continue to develop our V-6s and we want the engine to be a stressed member not semi or unstressed. We think we have the techical basis to do that.

"Also we've been talking since last summer with the League about running the engine in Indy Lights because that's an unbranded series for an engine manufacturer right now. Our engine will plug in and play in an Indy Lights car with some small minor ancillary conversions which we will include in the kit for people to convert over. It's a production engine that's a fully-stressed member because we've done some work to strengthen the exo-skeleton but it's still a stock block, stock head."

Berkman says Honda has no plans to develop a 1.6 liter, four-cylinder turbo 'Global Racing Engine'. He also says American Honda has had no serious conversation with the FIA about the 'GRE'.

"There have been some conversations with other manufacturers and internally with our own motor sport people," Berkman remarks. "That might be the engine that the Delta Wing needs. It's 75 kilograms. I've got a 1.5 liter Fit engine. I could probably put a turbo on that and make the power that Ben needs, but not the power that Dallara, Swift or Lola needs. None of those manufacturers have provided us with drag targets much less any simulations they have done about why they think their targets or achievable. With the engine design we've conceived it's not easy to scale it down below 550 bhp. If all we need to make is 300 or 325 like Ben's talking about it needs to be a different engine.

"We don't have a GRE design. We have not put one ounce of engineering effort into designing a GRE. I hope we haven't lost all the time we've spent over the last six or ten months. I don't know that it's possible for us to start on a GRE and have it ready for 2012. I don't want to underestimate the power of Honda or HPD. In the old days we would just call Japan and they would make it happen. But we're standing on our own two feet now. So it is important to know which way we're going so I can put my energy into that direction.

"HPD and the FIA have not had communication about a GRE. The former motorsports division is now integrated into R&D. It's no longer a stand-alone group in Japan. The race engine people who have repatriated into R&D, still have some projects. So they continue to watch and monitor and have dialogue on all manner of things in motorsports, and they have had some contact. These former Formula 1 guys have had some contact with the FIA. They have all the connections. Our connection is with ACO, as we established that through the sports car program.

"We have not started work on a GRE. We have not wanted to take the time, energy, bandwith and start delving deeply into GRE because it was going to distract us from what we thought we had an agreement in principle with the League to do. I'm not saying the League's rule package that we've been proposing and dialoging on is exactly ACO compliant spec. But it's close enough that we can find a way to connect the dots between a top level bespoke Indy car engine, and the pinnacle P1 class, should we ever want to go back, with architecture that connects. We've definitely connected the dots between an Indy Lights level spec and a P2 class spec with a mass production based engine. That's already under development and someday we'll roll it out and show you guys what it is."

Berkman says HPD will definitely reduce its IRL lease price for next season.

"After we got to '06 and became sole supply, we haven't developed any performance enhancement," he remarks. "We've only tried to extend mileage and do some durability improvements fundamentally for reliability, to protect our name by not having an engine failure and to reduce costs. We've reduced the lease prices every year a little bit. I know it's dribbles, but we've had price increases for the parts we have to buy from suppliers every year. So the price is going up every year to me, but I'm reducing it every year to the teams. I don't know that I get credit for that.

"The number that we've been talking about has been about a 25 percent reduction from the current lease price. You can do the math, but the current lease price is $935,000. If we have competition, I want to use that number. If we don't have competition, and I've got guaranteed sole supply for the entire field for two years, I can probably do better than that. I don't know how much better right now. I'll do my math after I know that and then we'll come back and give the best good-guy price we can to the League because fundamentally we want to be here. We're not a profit center. We're trying to do the right thing and go racing. We're just trying to cover our costs once we're running with a rebuild program.

"Can the teams afford it? Can the teams afford anything in 2012? In our proposal, which hasn't been agreed to yet, the new engine will fit in the current chassis, allowing the league many options, such as: Run it with no changes to the car, other than putting the new engine in and the ancillary adjustments under the skin. No bodywork changes, or minimal. Two, keep the tub and keep as much of the car as possible with some changes to the car; to three, full-on change. The whole car changes. But how do you grandfather? How do you make sure you have 33 cars at Indy? How do you ease into this? The League's got to figure that out. We'll make sure that the engine is not a problem whatever they do."

Honda has a great history in racing and has been a bulwark of Indy car racing over the past decade and a half. Clearly, the company has a strong corporate commitment to the sport in a time when most manufacfurers have departed the scene. Today, American Honda and HPD have wedded their racing and marketing objectives around their V-6 in opposition to the push for the 1.6 liter four-cylinder 'Global Racing Engine' therefore providing one of the essential riddles to the IRL's new formula. Should IndyCar racing go down the 'GRE' path--potentially the way of the future for the FIA and international motor sport--or pursue an independent, more insular path with Honda? It's one a number of tough choices confronting Randy Bernard's 2012 rules determination committee.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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