“So this sucks, doesn’t it?”
That’s the take offered by Honda Performance Development president David Salters on how their NTT IndyCar Series season has gone so far. American Honda’s 0-for-4 start has been as much of a surprise to its California-based racing division as it has for its five partner teams.
Entering the biggest and most important month on the calendar, the question facing Salters and HPD is whether the defending winners of the Indianapolis 500 will have solutions to keep Chevrolet and its engine builders at Ilmor Engineering from moving the tally out to 0-for-5 following Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix and 0-for-6 after May 29’s Indy 500.
“It’s pretty straightforward, and it needs a straightforward answer,” Salters told RACER. “We’ve had a pretty good run (over) the last three or four years, thanks to all the marvelous men and women of HPD. And plainly, where we started the season is not where we want it to be. You can’t hide. That’s why we do it. The highs are great. And the lows hurt. That’s the way this game works.
“So yeah, we’ve got work to do, and we’re looking at all areas of the car. Where can we improve? Looks like the Ilmor guys did a great job, hats off to them. And we never underestimate our competitor. So, what can we do on the powertrain? There’s a limited number of things there. And there’s no one thing, is there? It’s a racing car and you’re trying to improve all areas. So within the remit of HPD, we dwell in different areas, whether it be aerodynamics, or vehicle performance, or driver-in-the-loop simulator, all that sort of stuff, looking at each area to see where we can where we can improve. That’s the sum of what we do.
“Quite frankly, the start the season is not where we wanted it to be by our own high standards. Our competitive urges are not being satisfied. So we’ve got we got work smart, work hard, regroup. We’ve got a brilliant team. You learn a lot in these situations. So there’s some areas on the powertrain we can definitely improve. There’s some areas generally on the car we can improve.”
Over the 11 years where IndyCar’s current 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 engine formula has been in play, an exceptional amount of development has taken place inside the motors produced by Chevy/Ilmor and Honda/HPD. And while something close to parity has been achieved within the engines, HPD has long been regarded as the leader in extracting maximum performance through electronic tuning.
HPD’s advantage with ECU calibrations and tailoring engine behavior — how the motor responds when the throttle is or isn’t applied – to the individual needs of its drivers is where a race-winning difference was seen through 2021. But all that changed during the offseason when Chevy and Ilmor altered its approach to engine mapping. When Andretti Autosport race engineer Ray Gosselin made a return to Ilmor, he became a conduit for driver feedback and worked with its talented group of engine technicians to bring the same kind of tailoring to the needs of the Bowtie’s pilots.
With Chevy’s drivers raving about newfound improvements in driveability since the first official practice session of the 2022 season, four wins have been produced and it’s clear that HPD’s one key advantage over Ilmor has been nullified. So where will Salters’ team turn to regain what it’s lost and more?
“We do a lot of competitor analysis,” Salters said. “I’ve known Ray for over 20 years, I knew him at Ilmor when I worked at Ilmor. I don’t know the influence of Ray; that’s not for me to comment. But it looks like they’ve improved in some of those areas (like driveability). That’s competition; you look at all the areas you can improve. You know, it’s flattering, if people are doing what we’re doing. But that means we got to think of some other stuff where improvements can be found. That’s how this game works.
“We had an advantage and they will have done the work and they’ve come back at us. It’s a cruel, mistress or master, racing, isn’t it? Just when you think you may be okay, you never are, so I’m not surprised. That’s why we put ourselves through all this torture on a yearly basis. We’re humble about how we go racing, and you’re never quite good enough, no matter where you are, and you should be always trying to improve.
“We’ve had some pretty dominant years, but the competition’s caught up. We know how close the racing is in IndyCar. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? One tenth of a second is hero to zero, so it’s gotten very close. We liked it when it wasn’t that close. But that’s you know, that’s, that’s why we all do it. Well done to them. We’ve got to regroup a bit. And when we have regrouped a bit, we’ll come back.”
The sequencing of motor allotment during the month of May tends to have IndyCar teams carrying the motors they’ve used to open the season into practice and qualifying for the Indy 500. With the series’ rulebook allowing for fresh engines to be installed ahead of the big race, those high-mileage motors from Chevy and Honda get replaced with units featuring the best new ideas they’ve come up with to win the 106th running of the ‘Greatest Spectacle In Racing.’
It means that while the Indy road course race and all the activities leading up through Indy 500 qualifying might not look radically different than the first four rounds, all the work done by HPD to halt the Team Chevy steamroller — and all that Chevy’s done to hold onto its perfect record — will be seen for the first time on Carb Day. Until then, Salters will be waiting anxiously to see if the scale will tip in HPD’s favor.
“We are, as you might imagine, working reasonably furiously,” he said. “In these cases, you turn the factory upside down. We’re working as hard as we can, and it’s the men and women at HPD who make all this stuff and they take not winning personally. We will come back as quickly as we can. It’s not complete doom and gloom. We’ve got fast cars, we just got to get that little extra bit from somewhere. Things change very rapidly, they changed, and we’re responding to them.”