It has taken a few years of slow and steady recovery, but one of the most active prototype constructors could be back to full strength in 2014 with an interesting program that could bridge the divide between full factory P1 cars and the second-tier cars and engines made available to privateers.
The global financial meltdown late in 2008 took a heavy toll on the world of motor racing, and within North America, one of the programs that took the hardest hit was Acura's multi-team American Le Mans Series effort. The program, run under the auspices of Honda Performance Development's Southern California base, had seen HPD, along with chassis partners Wirth Research in the UK, helping to produce a golden age for the ALMS as the works Acura cars waged thrilling battles against the Penske-run factory Porsches of LMP2 (ABOVE). But the upturned economy rattled Honda to the core in September of '08, leading to the cancellation of its Formula 1 program on the international stage for 2009 and a progressive winding down of its ALMS activities.
A new LMP1 program had already been commissioned and budgeted for the following season, leading to a one-year exercise that netted the P1 championship with Highcroft Racing. Then, with a contract in place with Highcroft through 2010, the brand – now minus the Acura moniker and running under the HPD banner – won its final ALMS title as a factory effort before stepping back and turning its full attention to becoming a chassis and engine supplier.
For 2014, HPD will continue in similar vein, supplying P1 (and P2) chassis and engine combinations for its customers, but the level of equipment and support available to those teams will look and feel a lot like its former full-strength works program as the firm readies its most ambitious and aggressive client machinery to date.
In an exclusive conversation held with RACER at Le Mans, HPD vice president Steve Eriksen revealed it will offer a tailored package to suit the desires of its customers with a blend of new energy-recovery technology from partner Magneti Marelli, a small, turbocharged and direct-injected V6 engine based on the architecture of its race-winning IndyCar motor, and a coupe chassis from Wirth Research that has been lying in wait for a manufacturer like Honda to bring it to fruition.
HPD's move toward providing a works-level P1 solution, as Eriksen explains, got its start with the Acura NSX hybrid it announced and intends to race in an undetermined GT category.
“We've got our folks attending the FIA GT meetings to try to understand where the rules are going and to try and influence them in a direction that suits us,” he says. “We agreed the energy recovery side of things, since the NSX was announced as a hybrid road car, and it would be great to reinforce that technology through racing, but as that negotiation process continues to evolve, the energy recovery system (ERS) development has still gone on.
“It's hard to say when that NSX will race,” Eriksen continues. “We still intend to do so, but with the direction the ACO took on its P1 rules, there was a great fit which allows us to play in that realm right now with a P1 sports car. We're getting close to announcing the full details but, in short, we've been working hard on getting a 2014-compliant powertrain solution to be able to offer customers.”
Understanding the changes to P1 for 2014 almost deserves a separate story to detail what's coming, because, in the simplest terms, the ACO's new P1 rules represent possibly the biggest change in philosophy and physical execution ever required by the Le Mans-based governing body.
Rather than follow the normal convention of rewarding powerplants that use alternative fuels like diesel with increased economy, or to allow the add-on usage of hybrid motors to boost those gasoline- or diesel-fueled engines, a fundamental shift in thinking has been implemented. Forget the days of manufacturers trying to make the most power and the most fuel economy; starting next year, the ACO has simply outlined a matrix that rewards those that can make speed while consuming the least amount of energy.
The stated goal by the ACO is to see the reliance of fossil fuels reduced – by as much as 30 percent – which should lead to most manufacturer P1 programs leaning less on traditional engine power and more on ERS units to carry the workload per lap. For full factory programs, displacement limitations are gone, restrictors are gone and only a mandated fuel flow rate will govern available power output.
Five levels of hybrid system power output will also be permitted (0, 2, 4, 6 and 8 Megajoules) to work in conjunction with the new-breed P1 engines, allowing manufacturers to pick and choose a number of options – whether to go for the highest combustion engine+hybrid power solution but stop frequently for fuel, or to take the opposite approach with ERS units giving more zero-emission performance each lap than ever before. At the heart of the 2014 P1 rules is an expectation for manufacturers to use their Le Mans programs to drive road car ERS development, and the costs to play in that realm are hardly insignificant.
The HPD P1 solution stands out because it brings manufacturer-level machinery to privateers, rather than offering another P1 solution that has none of the tricks and toys the big boys like Audi and Toyota have kept to themselves. Whether the HPD chassis, Honda-badged engine and Magneti Marelli ERS combination will be capable of competing with the factories won't be known until next year, but the fact that the company is investing in the technology and program in order to give its customers a fighting chance – far more so than can the privateer cars on offer in 2013 – is noteworthy.
“The way the rules work, if you're a manufacturer you must race with energy recovery; as a privateer, you may race with energy recovery,” Eriksen explains. “If you race as a manufacturer, you pay a heavy sum to the ACO and those who race your car are effectively racing for your points as a manufacturer.
“We spoke with the ACO to make sure we were reading the rules the right way because we saw the opportunity to offer a full P1 car that would allow customers, provided they wanted to go all the way, to race with the same level of technology the manufacturers have but without the extreme costs of a manufacturer program.”
What Eriksen and the HPD team have come up with is a menu of ERS options for customers to pick and choose from.
“The rules say that if you're a privateer, you can add on the level of energy recovery that suits your needs, so we've chosen to let our customers go with whatever they want,” he continues. “Our vision is that we'll offer a variety of options, from no-energy recovery up to the full eight Megajoule maximum monster level. And that really becomes kind of the testbed for us to get more deep firsthand knowledge about energy recovery applications in motorsports.
“And by pouring so much time and effort into this, it allows us to give a sports car team something that really isn't accessible. If you want one of the cars from the current P1 manufacturers, they aren't for sale. Their access is beyond the reach of a privateer. This gives us the chance to bring the professionalism and quality engineering level that's been out of reach and make it available on a non-works program…and on a cost level that's palatable to privateers.”
HPD is keeping the final specification of its 2014 P1 engine under wraps until the formal launch, but Eriksen confirmed it will have quite a bit in common with the 2.2-liter IndyCar engine (LEFT) it's based on.
“We're going to be going on the dyno in a short while with the first pieces and, from an efficiency standpoint, smaller engines, turbocharging and forced induction are not only relevant to what Honda sells with its production vehicles, but also make sense from an economy of scale standpoint. If you ordered 20 blocks for the IndyCar program before, now you can double that or whatever figure to reduce the costs to the organization and your customers. And you apply that to all relevant areas of the engine and any sub components. It's just a smarter way of doing business when you're working within a defined budget.”
Magneti Marelli was announced as a new technical partner in March, and with its ERS experience in F1, will be responsible for the system fitted to the new ARX coupe.
“It's being designed in a modular way, and I had an update recently that one of the main components, for example, will be testing right around now and more will be happening in the weeks and months ahead. It's an exciting time. Our whole approach has been to start with the end goal in mind, which is to make the ultimate eight Megajoule option. Everything is configured around that but then you can step back from that, which represents a step back in cost and it also represents a step back in efficiency which will allow your customers to make a choice between efficiency and cost and determine which way they want to go.”
Even at the privateer level, the new HPD P1 car won't be cheap, but Eriksen hopes that despite having a small pool of potential customers who can afford it, the speed and support that comes with it will energize the privateer ranks.
“We are taking a leap with the investments involved in the powertrain activities we're doing,” he admits. “We are taking a leap hoping that we can have customers that are interested in it. Around Le Mans time, you see a lot of announcements about new chassis, but you really don't see announcements about powertrains. That's why we're putting together so many options; we need privateers and even with a bunch of new customer chassis coming out, they'll need viable new powertrains.
“I think what you're going to see is that if you are able to offer an efficient powertrain then it's down to what you can do on the chassis side to make a competitive chassis, just like it is now. And I think there's a select group of privateers who will be able to afford this, but we want to provide those options.”
Rumors circulated at Le Mans that the Strakka Racing team, which uses HPD's current P1 chassis and engine solution (ABOVE), had signed on to use the upcoming P1 package, but Eriksen confirms his team is still talking with prospective customers and has yet to ink partner teams for 2014.
“What we've done is continue to develop,” he says. “Absent a firm contract going forward on a team, we continue to develop, and then we're talking to our partners to find out if we can find a solution that works for all of us. If we do, we'll ramp up to meet whatever their schedule is. So it's very much in process and it's being built to our specification. It's just a matter of finding customers who are interested and ready to step up to the plate.”