INSIGHT: Honda's matchmaking continues

INSIGHT: Honda's matchmaking continues

IndyCar

INSIGHT: Honda's matchmaking continues

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When HPD majordomo Tom Elliott was searching for the most fitting description for Honda’s new competition department back in the early 1990s, he chose wisely by including the noun “development” in the title.

Every manufacturer has certain personality traits that shape its activities, and with the folks at Honda Performance Development, a healthy curiosity for developing driver talent something far outside its scope as an engine and chassis supplier has been a fascinating topic to follow over the years.

The latest example came to light last week when sports car champion Lucas Luhr, who pilots a HPD P1 chassis for Muscle Milk Pickett Racing in the ALMS (ABOVE), was named to drive for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing at Sonoma.

It was a classic HPD move one that actually caught Luhr by surprise and follows a theme the company has explored numerous times in North America.

“I remember saying to [HPD technical director] Roger Griffiths how much I like the IndyCar Series and that it was always my dream to one day race at the Indy 500,” Luhr told RACER. “But there was never the thought that it would happen, or even that it would happen at another race. Then, kind of out of nowhere, Roger tells me he thinks there could be a chance to do a race with Sarah and it was almost like Christmas for me. It was so cool.”

What Luhr didn’t know at the time was that Griffiths and his HPD brethren have long been committed to looking outside the usual cast of open-wheel and sports car drivers to improve its fortunes. Think of the limited pool of free agents in IndyCar, for example, and a few good names come to mind, but if you look back two yearsthree yearsmaybe even five, has that pool grown in talent or stature? Does it include champions in need of a drive or shooting stars who’ve had some back luck? Or is it dominated by occasional race winners and those who can crack the top 10 but will probably never come close to earning a title?

Rather than wait for new talent to migrate to IndyCar, HPD has taken it upon themselves to expedite the process, and while they’ve had mixed results, there have been some success stories to come from it.

It began in earnest during the 2000s and drew from Honda’s F1 driver development program as the manufacturer began to wind down its Grand Prix endeavors. Super Aguri F1 driver Franck Montagny and Honda F1 test driver James Rossiter were drafted into HPD’s Acura ALMS program, winning at Belle Isle on their debut for Andretti Autosport.

Montagny would continue with the team for select rounds, scoring another LMP2 win before Acura withdrew its factory participation at the end of the season. The Frenchman returned to drive for Andretti at Sonoma (of all places) in 2009, making his one and only IndyCar start as Andretti and HPD took one final look at his abilities.

Two-time IndyCar Series race winner Mike Conway also benefited from his association as a Honda F1 test driver. The Briton was paired with Panther Racing in 2008 and tested at Sonoma (also a recurring theme), and from that impressive first outing, was connected with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing when Dan Wheldon was signed to lead the Panther team. Conway went on to win his first race for Andretti Autosport in 2011, the last year of Honda’s sole supplier status in the series, and backed it up at Detroit Round 1 this June with Dale Coyne Racing’s Honda-powered No. 18 entry.

Ireland’s Adam Carroll, also a test driver within the Honda F1 program, was the next driver to pique HPD’s curiosity and took part in two IndyCar races for Andretti in 2010.

With the pool of Honda F1 testers having been thoroughly explored, HPD turned its attention to the ALMS for its next driver project as former Champ Car driver Simon Pagenaud was groomed for a second shot at open-wheel racing.

The Acura ALMS effort, rebranded as an HPD production by 2010, had run its course after Highcroft Racing won the P1 title that season with Pagenaud, David Brabham and Marino Franchitti. It left the smiley Frenchman without a drive in 2011, but HPD’s advocacy for his driving talents and strong development skills would soon pay off.

Like those who came before him, Pagenaud was suggested as an option to consider, and when DRR’s Ana Beatriz was injured at the season opener in St. Pete, he got his chance at Barber, finishing eighth on his IndyCar Series debut. He subbed for DRR’s Justin Wilson at Mid-Ohio, for HVM Racing’s Simona de Silvestro at Sonoma, and from those outings, eased his way into a full-time drive with Sam Schmidt’s Honda-powered team in 2012.

Pagenaud’s win the day after Conway at Round 2 in Detroit completed a fairytale weekend for HPD which saw two drivers it brought to the series come away with a sweep of the event.

Along with Luhr at Sonoma, HPD will get the chance to work with a second driver of interest this year as 2011 GP2 runner up Luca Filippi will finally climb behind the wheel of an IndyCar starting this weekend at Mid-Ohio.

Thanks to HPD’s urging, the Italian was signed to drive for Bobby Rahal’s team last year, but a lack of finances put the 27-year-old’s plans on ice until Bryan Herta created an opening by parking Alex Tagliani.

Time will tell if Luhr and Filippi become more than late-season experiments, but as Griffiths told RACER, the company’s quest to nurture new talent (new to the IndyCar Series, at least) will continue as one of its core initiatives.

“If you look at the situation with Sarah and Lucas, the team came to us and said they wanted to run a second car at a few races and I asked who they had in mind,” he explained. “They threw out a few names, and I said they all sounded good, but I asked if they’d considered someone outside the standard IndyCar substitute drivers. That’s something we’re always on the lookout for because things become somewhat stagnant otherwise.

“The other option is to wait and see who comes along [up the open-wheel ladder], but that’s something no one can control. If we can make some introductions and explore talent that hasn’t been seen yet in an Indy car, you can at least say that you’re trying to see who else is out there that might be good.”

Griffiths sees the deal between SFHR and Luhr as a prime example of how HPD works with its teams beyond the confines of delivering engines and technical support.

“I mentioned Lucas as a possibility to Sarah because he’d expressed an interest in the past and has been bloody fast in some wicked [prototypes], so why not consider him?” he continued. “Being an ex-Audi and Porsche factory driver says he’s got considerable talent and we were able to make introductions around the Pocono event. And Luca Filippi is another driver we’ve been keen on seeing over here, and it’s good something has worked out with Bryan Herta’s team. But to be clear, we’re not placing them in those teams.

“It’s not a case of [only] supplying Sarah with a second engine provided she takes Lucas. We’re fortunate to have exposure in many other fields of racing and many other drivers, and if we can share some of those prospects with our IndyCar teams and they might not have seen or have gotten to know some of the drivers we work with then it could help both sides.”

At present, HPD stands alone in its willingness to play matchmaker between its IndyCar teams and promising drivers looking for a way into the series. Rival IndyCar brand Chevrolet can also claim to have an extensive roster of talent outside of open-wheel racing, but so far, it has chosen to limit its activities to the mechanical side of the sport.

HPD’s efforts to influence the human portion of the equation has yet to become a decisive factor in the engine manufacturer wars, but with six champions in the IndyCar field combining for an average age of 36,  being proactive in the hunt for the next wave of champions could eventually pay off.

“It’s a little bit surprising our friends [at GM] aren’t doing the same thing, but this just seems natural to us,” added Griffiths. “You look around at the various drivers you come in contact with and say, I like that guy’s style. I like his feedback. I like his approach to developing a car,’ or whatever.

“For us, we’re an engineering organization and we love drivers that are engineering oriented. We like drivers that push us, who are never satisfied. That’s what drives us and excites us and I think you can see that in how we’ve helped some drivers and teams come together. It would be strange if we weren’t doing this, to be honest. That’s just our way.”

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 10 – ROAD AMERICA

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