INDIANAPOLIS -- Indy car racing fans tend to get all wistful about the sport's glory days.
But right now, a seemingly minor technical squabble between Chevrolet and Honda that is unfolding behind the scenes should remind the participants and the powers-that-be of a somewhat similar saga from the recent past that was hugely detrimental to the sport.
It all went down in 2001. Engine manufacturer participation in the CART-sanctioned FedEx Championship Series for Indy cars was near its peak. Mercedes-Benz had just dropped out, but Honda and Toyota were engaged in all-out warfare, and Ford-Cosworth was giving the Japanese giants a good run for their money despite spending considerably less.
Although barely more than a decade ago, this was philosophically a totally different era. Honda and Toyota weren't throwing Formula One levels of money at their Indy car engine programs, but development was occurring at a rapid pace and it wasn't coming on the cheap. And CART wasn't doing much to stop it.
Five years into its participation in Indy cars, Toyota finally broke through for its first race wins in 2000 and was expected to be even stronger in '01. But Honda came out blazing in 2001. It may not have been reflected in the win column, but it was obvious that Honda had made some big gains over the winter and had a considerable power advantage.
Toyota soon found out why when a Honda Performance Development engineer joined the Toyota camp and revealed that Honda had extracted power gains by changing the design of its plenum, a chamber on top of the engine where pressurized air that has passed through the turbocharger is collected and forced back into the engine.
As so often happens in racing, Honda's "Eureka!" moment was a happy accident. I vividly remember sitting in the Mexico City paddock in late 2002 with Robert Clarke, then the head of HPD, as he explained what Honda had done.
A couple times in 2000, plenums on Honda engines literally exploded. At Toronto, Helio Castroneves' engine cover shot about 30 feet in the air after a plenum failure. So Honda set about strengthening its plenum. It integrated raised ridges on the outside of the plenum to give it more structural stiffness. In the interest of aesthetics, an effort was made to move the strengthening ridges to the inside of the plenum. That's when Honda engineers noticed an interesting effect during bench testing: increased power. So they started playing with the shape of the strengthening ridges on the inside of the plenum and came up with a design that CART approved multiple times during the development process.
Armed with that information, Toyota Racing Development chief Lee White went to CART and convinced series leaders that the Honda plenum was tricking the pop-off valve (a standardized pressure relief valve designed to regulate turbocharger boost) into allowing an extra 3 inches of manifold pressure and a subsequent gain of about 75 horsepower.
Mindful of the cost and time delay involved in developing and manufacturing its own aero-enhanced plenum, Toyota instead provided CART with a solution it believed would negate the Honda advantage: a three-quarter-inch spacer to be mounted underneath the pop-off valve.
CART issued the modified valve with the spacer to a few teams, without their prior knowledge, for tests at Michigan Speedway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Tuesday, June 12. On Thursday, June 14, teams were told in a CART Franchise Board meeting that CART intended to implement the spacer-valve, but not until later in the summer for the Michigan race, in an effort to cut speeds.
The next morning, despite a lack of approval from the Franchise Board (i.e., the team owners) the spacer-valve was issued to all teams for practice for the Detroit Grand Prix. All of the Honda and Ford-Cosworth teams sat out the first practice session, and by the end of the day, both engine manufacturers filed an official protest to CART.
On Friday night, the six-point official protest was unanimously denied by a CART board of three judges. Honda overcame the challenge of the unexpected rule change and Castroneves and Dario Franchitti earned a 1-2 for the engine manufacturer in the Detroit race. But CART's actions made a deep impression on Honda and HPD.
"This is extremely frustrating for Honda," Clarke said in Detroit. "The relationship between CART and the manufacturers is based on trust and I feel CART has totally violated that relationship."
"CART approved our plenum chamber and every aspect of our engine," added American Honda vice president Tom Elliott. "I'm very unhappy. In the eight years we've been in CART, I've never seen anything handled as poorly, and to do it in collusion with one of the engine suppliers causes us great concern. It really does make me question why we're here. I seriously question the value of our long-term interest in CART."
Honda lodged an appeal within the requisite five days, which was heard two weeks later in Cleveland on July 2. The appeal board reversed the decision, ruling in Honda's favor and requiring the standard, pre-Detroit pop-off valve for Toronto and the next two races on the Michigan and Chicago ovals. The appeal board also stipulated that CART work with all three engine manufacturers to determine a mutually agreeable solution to the plenum controversy.
Despite the theoretically final decision by CART's appeals panel, Toyota continued to push CART to require the extended valve that was used in Detroit, Portland and Cleveland to be required for the Michigan 500. On July 20, the day after the race in Toronto, CART confirmed it had bent to Toyota's pressure. The spacer valve became required for the rest of the season.
"Definitely there are different points of view, but I think the result of the appeal tells the ultimate story -- that CART was wrong in what it did," Clarke recalled. "Were we cheating? In my mind, no, because we had everything approved. Was there some advantage to our design? I hope so, because that is what racing is all about."
Later in 2001, without saying it would stop building turbocharged CART-spec engines, Toyota announced it would begin building normally aspirated engines to Indy Racing League specifications in 2003. CART quickly capitulated and announced it would adopt the normally aspirated IRL formula in 2003.
Just eight days after CART's vote to change its engine rules, Honda announced at Laguna Seca in mid-October that it would pull out of CART at end of 2002. Of course, Toyota and Honda both switched to the rival IRL in 2003.
Why retell this long tale? Because the current events in the Izod IndyCar Series are eerily similar to what happened 11 years ago in CART, albeit this time with Honda on the receiving end of a critical ruling in its favor.
To recap: Honda attempted to introduce a modified turbocharger inlet at the Grand Prix of Long Beach that featured a slightly larger A/R (area over radius) calculation to increase airflow.
The slightly altered compressor cover, produced and endorsed by turbocharger manufacturer Borg-Warner, was intended to equalize turbo performance between the single turbocharger layout utilized by Honda and a twin-turbo configuration favored by Chevrolet and Lotus.
Chevrolet has vigorously fought the introduction of what is known as the 0.74 A/R compressor cover every step of the way. It threatened to protest before the Long Beach weekend, so the new parts were pulled from the Honda cars before practice began and replaced by the previously used 0.57 A/R housing.
After INDYCAR verified the legality of the 0.74 part, Chevrolet then filed an official protest April 18, two days after the Long Beach race. On April 26, a three-man panel denied the GM protest and upheld INDYCAR's decision to approve use of the 0.74 cover.
Chevrolet had a limited period of time to appeal the decision and did; INDYCAR president of operations and strategy Brian Barnhart nominated retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice Theodore R. Boehm to mediate a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Honda cars utilized the larger turbo inlet for the Sao Paulo Indy 300, and while they were slightly more competitive across the board than they had been in the season's first three races, victory again fell to Chevrolet and Team Penske's Will Power.
Of course there are some key differences compared to 2001: The basic engine rules are much more stringent than they were during the peak of manufacturer competition in the CART series, in an effort to promote parity and reduce costs. Unlike back then, when engine development was rampant and went basically unchecked by the sanctioning body, INDYCAR has taken a much more active role in controlling the manufacturers to keep competition close.
And pop-off valves are a thing of the past, with turbo boost now controlled by an INDYCAR-issued electronic control unit (ECU).
As opposed to 2001, when Toyota fought to negate an advantage that Honda had created through its own engine development, the current case features GM attempting to set Honda back by denying it the ability to utilize a component provided and recommended by the turbocharger supplier to equalize performance between engines, and declared legal by the sanctioning body.
The troubling common denominator is the amount of discontent and rancor already present between the competitors just four races into Indy car racing's latest manufacturer era. History has shown that manufacturer participation can make and/or break a racing series; the prestige and marketing support they bring are critical to any series' credibility and financial health.
CART's mismanagement of the participating manufacturers in the early 21st century -- both on a technical and a political level -- was perhaps the biggest contributing factor to the series' rapid downfall.
Though the IRL rules were stricter and the series tried to regulate them, Honda and Toyota still carried on much as they had in CART. But within three years, Honda dominated to the point that Chevy and Toyota withdrew at the end of 2005, relegating the IZOD IndyCar Series to the level of a Honda-powered spec-car series.
Bringing back manufacturer competition was a key part of INDYCAR's commercial business plan moving forward. Yet almost from the get-go, the series is facing the kind of technical/political controversy that ultimately doomed CART.
No matter what Justice Boehm determines Wednesday, how INDYCAR handles the manufacturers in the aftermath of the decision is critical for the future harmony of the sport. Whichever manufacturer loses out (and the common wisdom is that Chevrolet is unlikely to win its appeal) must move on quickly and quietly from the verdict and get back to building engines to whatever specifications are deemed legal.
By doing that, everyone else can turn the focus back to the critical business of building the sport of Indy car racing as a whole.