The last time an engine manufacturer dominated all phases of the Indianapolis 500 like Honda did in 2020, Al Unser Jr, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Paul Tracy were driving Penske PC23s and toying with the field for The Captain and his Mercedes-badged missiles. Exploiting the allowance for pushrod-based engines, Penske and the Ilmor Engineering team created mythic 209 cubic-inch turbocharged V8 powerplant nicknamed ‘The Beast.’
Making obscene power that delivered top speeds in excess of 250mph in a straight line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Beasts gave Penske his famed ‘unfair advantage’ as Fittipaldi ran away, and when problems struck, Unser Jr was there to finish the job, earning his second Indy 500 win.
But that was 1994, and from an era where a thin rulebook gave engine suppliers all manner of freedom to start from scratch each year, try something crazy – and crazily expensive – like Penske’s one-off pushrod motors, and meet up in May to see which innovations were capable of winning. Jump to 2020, when the rulebook is like a boa constrictor tightening itself around motor development and big ideas.
In the ninth year of the 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 formula that launched in 2012, the engines built for Indy by Chevy and Honda are semi-ancient. In terms of new concepts and open permissions to play, Chevy Racing and its partners at Ilmor Engineering, and Honda Performance Development have nearly exhausted themselves in search of power and fuel mileage gains. With those facts known, what took place at the Speedway in 2020 defies explanation.
Of the 10 recorded Indy 500 sessions this year, Honda topped nine, captured the pole, earned eight spots in the Fast Nine, and owned the race as its drivers went 1-2-3-4 and claimed eight of the top 10 positions. In theory, with the 2.2-liter formula approaching its end, both brands should have been nearly equal in the performance department.
“Takuma Sato started the day by greeting Honda North America’s leaders, and he ended the day greeting them again, this time as the Indy 500 winner,” HPD president Ted Klaus told RACER. “I’ve said all month, HPD’s power and Honda’s power is only as good as our teams’ power. And, you saw there, at the end of the race, with drivers from Rahal and Ganassi and Andretti fighting it out throughout the race. And then, Dale (Coyne Racing), the little Honda team that can (placing fourth).”
Chevy had an edge in 2019 when Simon Pagenaud won for Team Penske, but he was chased home by Alexander Rossi, who finished second for Andretti Autosport and Honda. Although Chevy held the upper hand, it was nothing like the disparity shown on Sunday.
“I hope it was as good for the fans as it was for all of us because we left here last year with work to do, and we worked out butts off,” Klaus continued. “This is definitely a collective victory earned – all the boys and girls at HPD, everyone on the teams, all the cooperation. And so, now the hardest thing is going to be to keep that hunger as we go forward, because next year’s going to come around quick.”
Owing to the intentionally restrictive engine rules, Klaus says there wasn’t a single, sizable area of improvement that was responsible for Honda’s Indy 500 dominance.
“I’ve said this before, but it is many, many small things that add up,” he said. “It’s our technical director, David Salters, working with our simulation folks. It’s five years of evolution in our driving simulator in Indianapolis, and the teams really buying in this year to trust those tools, because we had to roll off the trailer fast at every race this year, because you didn’t have a lot of time to develop the car at the track.
“So, I think our collective focus on total performance and not only just engine performance worked to our advantage in a very strange year. Couldn’t have predicted it, but that’s how it worked out. Very, very proud of (Sato’s team at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), and they have new people this year. They engage with us. They really embrace the process. We engage with them. And, hats off to Chip Ganassi and Scott (Dixon in second). They were right there the whole race. They were literally the class of the month. And then, Sato-san really had something in his tank there at the end. He’s wily. He’s a veteran, so good for him as well, obviously.”
Klaus, who took over at HPD from Art St. Cyr in 2019, credited the current team responsible for Sunday’s demonstration, and those who helped build Honda’s American racing division, including the recently-retired T. E. McHale.
“Man, what a team. I am just so proud,” he said. “When I say team, it’s really the whole thing. HPD was formed over 25 years ago, and it was formed for this reason, to bring honor to Honda and our technology, and the only way to do that is working together with teams. And so, I know they’re proud to be powered by us. We’re proud to power them. That’s really our mantra this year.
“I’ve talked a lot about these little things, but these little things don’t matter unless you step up on top of something. So, T.E., Tom Elliott, Robert Clarke, Erik Berkman, Art St. Cyr. It really is an incremental thing, and they establish the culture. They establish that relentless passion for excellence and achievement and, man, we couldn’t have earned it this year if we didn’t have that strong starting point left by them. So, I’ll leave it at that. Big shout-out to T.E., the man of very few words, but always very eloquent. I hope he’s proud of us.”