IndyCar's manufacturer war tightening up

Image by Motorsport Images

IndyCar's manufacturer war tightening up

IndyCar

IndyCar's manufacturer war tightening up

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The numbers tell an unflattering tale. From the 17 NTT IndyCar Series races held last year, only one of the Bowtie’s partners delivered on a consistent basis.

Team Penske scored nine wins – nearly 50 percent of the victories available – and earned 16 of Chevy’s 18 podium visits – a staggering 89 percent – among the four teams with shots at placing inside the top three.

If Team Penske wasn’t there to stave off the imposing number of Hondas from Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, Harding Steinbrenner Racing, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan, Chevy would have been powerless to keep its rival engine manufacturer at bay.

That’s ready to change in 2020. Heading into the new season, all signs point to this dynamic shift in Chevy’s favor as new or strengthened teams in its stable appear capable of waging a stronger sustained fight against Honda.

The switch from Honda to Chevy by Arrow McLaren SP, along with a top-down makeover with new drivers in Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew, and added layers of engineering and management, should give the Bowtie more legitimate reasons to expect an uptick in podiums. Ed Carpenter Racing also has the look of a serious podium contender with its team owner and Conor Daly sharing one car, and rookie talent Rinus VeeKay in the other.

A.J. Foyt Racing, the Chevy team with the most in-depth overhaul between seasons, has new engineers, perennial front-runner Sebastien Bourdais and veteran Charlie Kimball added to the mix, and a fiery Tony Kanaan hellbent on going out in style with the Bowtie. Due to the jumbled schedule, Bourdais’ presence won’t be felt until later in the year, but that’s when the Manufacturers’ championship favors strength in numbers.

Factor in the high motivation from Carlin Racing’s Max Chilton and Daly taking over his seat on the ovals, and the possibilities with Felipe Nasr provided he’s retained for some road and street course races, and some of last year’s missing depth should be found. Ruminate on the untapped potential of DragonSpeed during its part-time schedule, and the return of Dreyer & Reinbold for a handful of races with Sage Karam, and the gap between Team Penske and the rest of its stablemates is set to shrink.

“It’s nice to be part of the Team Chevy fight, and they’ve done such a great job at Indy, and in general, for a long time,” Daly told RACER. “This engine is far into its life and development, but they keep finding power and performance for us. I have great relationships with both manufacturers; they’ve been a big part of my career, and I am proud to be back with Chevy. I think there’s every reason to expect a lot from Chevy this year.”

Honda has enjoyed strength in depth, but the return of grid penalties for unapproved engine changes could prove to be a curveball. Image by LePage/LAT

With ECR, AMSP, and other Chevy teams having made valuable personnel changes and upgrades, Daly says the expectations for increased success has risen internally ahead of the new championship run. Any gains made in having more non-Penske teams finishing towards the front at each round will also help the Bowtie to start a new winning streak of particular value.

Chevy earned six consecutive manufacturers’ championships from 2012-2017 before Honda took charge and claimed the last two. If the rest of the Chevy IndyCar teams can join Penske and tip the balance in their brand’s favor, we could be in for an epic duel between auto giants.

“This team has set the goal of being on the podium all the time,” Daly said. “Rinus is going to push me, and I hope I can lead us in a good direction as well, and he’s going to be one of the good rookies competing this year. Look, there’s a lot of cars now – 24 full-time – and maybe 27 at some other races, and it’s going to be busy getting to the front, but I’m confident we can get there.

“And we’ve seen the work Chevy has done during the off-season and we want to be up there, wearing those Chevy hats, posing for photos on the podium. I can’t wait to see how the year develops.”

At Honda Performance Development, maintaining its hold on the Manufacturers’ title has been the force driving its employees since the off-season began in late September. All five of its full-time teams won races in 2018, and in 2019, four of the five delivered victories for the brand, which played a significant role in its retaining the coveted championship. In anticipating the volley expected from the Chevy camp, HPD president Ted Klaus is mindful of how equal contributions from throughout its portion of the paddock will be needed to achieve a hat-trick of Manufacturers’ titles.

“We’ve been working even closer and more collaboratively with our teams,” he said. “We’re proud we’ve won the manufacturers’ championship two years in a row, and that all our teams regularly win on the circuit. We’re aware Coyne didn’t win last year, but we take pride that normally all are winning.”

A new consideration is certain to play a role in whether Chevy or Honda conclude the season with the title in hand. The return of grid penalties for unapproved engine changes will likely sting both brands as the championship starts to wind down, and with drivers being moved back on the grid, and some entries finding themselves ineligible to score Manufacturers’ points, supreme reliability is something the protagonists are chasing with their 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 engines.

“The rule change penalizes you heavily for not looking after your engines, so we want teams to get the mileage they need and have a plan to get the information required, but we need to manage the engine and its combustion with a Honda engineer taking care of it at all times,” Klaus said.

“We need our drivers to go as close to race pace at all times, but to be mindful of the care taken with the engines for longevity.”

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