The NTT IndyCar Series will try to curb the recent practice of exceeding the number of engines used per season in each lease by bringing back one of its most controversial rules. The route to understanding the reasoning for the return of grid penalties for unapproved engine changes is anything but brief.
In the construct of the current engine supply lease agreements between teams and IndyCar’s auto manufacturers, every full-time driver receives four 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 motors, meant to last a combined 10,000 miles of testing, practice, and racing throughout the season, at an approximate cost of $1.2 million per entry.
In some cases, often due to engine failure, drivers have exceeded the supply limit of their lease and required fifth and sixth engines to complete the year. In 2019, three Chevy entries used more than four motors; Honda’s tally was significantly higher at eight. And in those instances, the manufacturers alone paid the price through a rule that stripped those entries from earning points in the manufacturers’ championship once they went beyond four engines.
Of late, during the final rounds of the championship — where the fourth engines have inched closer to the end of their service lives and the risks of failure increase — manufacturers intentionally exceeded the four-engine supply agreement. This was done to give some entries — often the ones in the thick of the drivers’ championship — fresh motors to ease fears of losing the title due a high-mileage detonation.
By purposely circumventing the four-engine rule to close the season, it’s also possible that small performance upgrades were introduced, giving the championship contenders an extra boost in power, torque, or fuel consumption.
To stem the unnecessary late-season engine changes, IndyCar will apply new grid penalties of six positions for road and street courses, and nine for ovals, when a driver begins using their fifth engine.
Each subsequent motor — a sixth, or seventh, etc. — carries the same one-time grid penalty, and the penalties only start to take effect once drivers go beyond the four approved engines. Any engine used after the first four is considered unapproved, and therefore, comes with an automatic grid penalty.
If a new engine, beyond the original four, is needed prior to the race, the penalty will be served in that race by losing the six or nine starting spots. If a motor is lost in the race, and a fifth or more is required at the next round, the penalty will carry over to that race.
The Indianapolis 500 is the only exception where no grid penalties are carried into and applied during the event, nor will penalties earned during Indy practice or qualifying be implemented at the 500. Everything penalty-related coming into or leaving the 500 will be handled at the next race in Detroit.
“The main motivation is for the manufacturers to just keep the cost down, because normally if the fifth or sixth engine goes in, it’s at their cost,” Darren Sansum, IndyCar’s managing director of engine development, told RACER. “They’re a partnership with a team and it’s very hard for them to say no, if they’re going for the championship. Losing manufacturers’ points was not a big enough deterrent for that, and that’s really where IndyCar needed to get involved. I think that this will help.”
Looking back over the last few seasons, Sansum says the practice of contravening the four-engine policy has forced IndyCar’s hand.
“If you look back through the last two years, in 2018, the top eight were on their fifth engine or more, so it’s been fairly rife,” he said. “Last year wasn’t quite as bad. Scott Dixon did it on four engines and Simon Pagenaud did it on four engines, but the rest of the top eight were on fifth or higher. So, it is definitely a problem if you’re trying to keep the cost down to four. You only have four for the season, and there’s no manufacturers’ points as you go to five. I’ve always taken it as, if the engine has a failure or it needs to come out for any reason, the engine’s retired. It reached its change-out mileage. That’s an approved change-out. So, until you get to the fifth, there’ll be no unapproved change-outs, essentially.”
An interesting new amendment to the supply rules gives manufacturers the ability to choose the change-out mileage for the four approved motors. It’s a twist on previous rules where a hard minimum mileage number was required to be met before fresh motors could be installed without penalty.
With four engines and 10,000 miles to cover, Chevy and Honda are now empowered to tell IndyCar when they want to pull a motor from an entry, and if it’s at 2000 miles, for example, the three remaining engines will have to satisfy the 8000 miles left to cover to avoid being in breach of the 10,000-mile expectation.
In reality, both brands will look to divide the 10,000 miles evenly across the four approved engines, but the rules tweak does allow the ability to make a change slightly early if desired by Chevy or Honda. On many occasions in the past, teams have entered a weekend with a bare minimum of miles to complete before an engine is due, but the rules have forced those teams to turn laps simply to comply with the change-out mileage rule. Starting in 2020, Chevy and Honda can name their own change-out mileage number, affording teams a chance to avoid completing unnecessary miles, and performing a motor change during the event.
The shift to assigning penalties only after the four approved engines have been used should push the arrival of those penalties into the latter part of the season. Provided losing the six or nine starting positions is enough of a concern, the looming penalties could also act as a deterrent from going beyond four motors, barring engine failure.
It’s a welcome change from the grid penalty system used by IndyCar from 2012-2013, where every engine change prior to the mileage limit was deemed unapproved and came with a 10-spot penalty.
IndyCar regularly confused its fans by shuffling the starting grid based on engine-change penalties, and while it will return at some point in the season, the new take on the old rule will avoid making grid penalties a topic of conversation at every round.
As described by IndyCar’s former leadership team, the driver grid penalty system implemented in 2012 was designed to keep manufacturers from spending too much money on their engine programs by producing high-power, short-lived motors. At the most heated periods in the CART IndyCar Series’ engine wars, costs went unchecked and motors were often changed at the end of each day, if not between sessions.
To corral manufacturers in the 2.2-liter V6 turbo era, Chevy, Honda, and Lotus agreed to the grid penalty system which jumbled the starting grids and deducted points from the manufacturers’ championship. Once the grid penalties were abandoned for 2014, the manufacturers bore the brunt of the pain. From 2012-2017, Chevy went unbeaten in the manufacturers’ contest; Honda scored its first in 2018 and narrowly repeated last year.
Reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden used six engines in 2019 which, under the new rules, would have presented the Team Penske Chevy driver a longer distance to travel in two races last season. His closest rival for the majority of the season, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, went to a fifth Honda motor entering the last three races, and would have been impacted as well if the rule had been in place.
“If you look back, many of those fifth engine changes have not been because of actual blow ups throughout the season,” Sansum said. “They’ve been for mostly other reasons. There were some instances where people went to a second engine early last year. I think there was two blow ups at St. Petersburg, and it was almost inevitable that they would go through a fifth at that point.
“You could argue if you’d have stretched the mileage a little bit on the next three engines, you could have still done it on four, but of course you’d be having to give up performance. And that’s the thing, that performance and reliability are intrinsically linked. So, the push for it really is, ‘Hey, I can have a little bit more. I can push this one a little bit harder if I have more than four engines.’ That’s where it’s been trending towards.”
This story has been updated since it was originally published to include quotes.