The Firestone Indy Lights Series is undergoing a series of rapid changes aimed at improving its overall strength. Finding an engine manufacturer to partner with the series and power its new-for-2015 chassis is at the top of the list, and as IndyCar engine supplier Honda tells RACER
, it could have an interest in supporting multiple steps of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system.
“We've been in dialogue with the IndyCar Series for some time now about wanting to support Indy Lights and potentially other rungs in the ladder,” said Honda Performance Development technical director Roger Griffiths. “The product lineup that HPD has developed as it currently stands has solutions from quarter midget, go-karting, all the way up to 600hp production-based engines, whether it be a four-cylinder or six-cylinder.
“We're very active in other formulas; our Formula F engine package is almost becoming the engine of choice, which is great. We also have solutions in the 200 to 300hp range based around our LMP2 engine, and we have solutions in the 450 and up range with the same engine in turbocharged from. So I think there's an opportunity for Honda to potentially power the entire ladder series.”
HPD is said to have made an attractive engine supply and advancement proposal to the IndyCar Series in 2012 when the first attempt to resuscitate the Indy Lights series took place, but as those plans fell through on the series' side, the concept was tabled. It even looked at replacing the Infiniti engines in the current Indy Lights car, but those plans were also met with a tepid response.
The recent announcement that Dan Andersen and his Andersen Promotions team have been given control of the Indy Lights series was soon followed by Andersen's move to seek a new chassis and engine supplier for 2015. And with his ownership of Pro Mazda and USF2000, the other two series on the ladder, IndyCar has a fully consolidated open-wheel development program to groom its future champions, giving a manufacturer like Honda the chance to step in and create a direct pipeline to its IndyCar teams.
“We've talked about our own ladder,” continued Griffiths. “It's not so bad in the United States because, if you look overseas to Europe, the ladder system is very fractured. I don't know how you get to the top. I was always trying to find a way, how can we best position the ladder to take somebody? The idea was to take a seven- or eight-year-old kid in a go-kart and take them all the way to IndyCar. That was my ultimate vision. Get them when they're young, keep them in the Honda family, take them all the way through to IndyCar using the ladder.
“That is my dream. Is it possible? Is there work that needs to be done to achieve it? I think it is. We're encouraged by what we're hearing out of the Indy Lights camp about there is a future for the series and they are looking for new technology and the rest of it. But if they want to bring manufacturers into the series then it has to work for both parts. It can't be just somebody turning up handing over cash and things like that. We have to understand there's something that comes out of it for us. Sometimes that's hard to establish. But if there was a way that we could nurture the driver talent, I think that would be really good.”
After being spurned on more than one occasion, Griffiths says Honda would like to work with the new Indy Lights administration to see what can be done to go beyond providing engines, but cautioned that the size and scope of a graduation award for a Honda-powered Indy Lights champion would need to be re-assessed.
“What we'd previously proposed came with a significant support package from Honda,” he added. “Obviously, that was a year or two back and times have changed and we have to re-evaluate how to do it. There's definitely still a willingness to promote the series to promote those involved in the series. What form that takes is still under discussion. Just recently we met with Dan Anderson and those guys; we had discussions in Toronto, and he's made the decision to put it out to tender to a variety of manufacturers.”
“He made the decision to look further afield to see if there was somebody, if somebody else was interested and prepared to go a little further than we were. We're still convinced that we have an ideal solution. In the big car we have a V6, and next year will be a twin turbo engine, direct injection. What we were potentially offering was a V6 production based engine, twin turbo, could be direct injection. So there's a lot of synergies there between IndyCar and Indy Lights.”
HPD's proposed Indy Lights engine solution is its 2012 championship-winning ALMS and WEC LMP2 powerplant which also captured the P2 victory in last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. The move to direct-injection fueling this season has come with a few setbacks, but with the option to use DI or non-DI versions of the long-lasting motor, Andersen has at least one new Indy Lights solution to consider that's currently in use and has proven to be successful.
Provided Honda is chosen as the new engine supplier, the topic of supporting and promoting a Honda-powered Lights champion is also one that will require more planning and consideration. Mazda currently provides funding for a free ride to its USF2000 champions to move to Pro Mazda, and for its Pro Mazda champion to jump to Indy Lights, while the IndyCar Series has partially funded the past two Lights champions (with $1 million) to graduate to the IndyCar Series.
Whether Honda — or Chevy, which has also tendered an Indy Lights engine supply bid — would want to fund its Lights champion to drive an Indy car that carries its rival's engine is highly doubtful, and only serves to add to the complexity of choosing the next Indy Lights engine manufacturer.
“It's a little challenging,” Griffiths admitted. “If Honda were to offer something like a free engine lease, or if GM could do something like that, then I think that's something you could make work because we could say: we will provide an engine but then you have to be able to find an opening within your lineup to slot that driver into. Maybe that means you have to run an additional car. And go from a one-car team to a two-car team; unless you had plans to make a driver substitution, you're looking to adding a car rather than moving something aside. So it's more than just an engine lease package.”
And what if an engine supplier other than Honda or Chevy gets the Lights contract? How would a free IndyCar engine lease be paid for when both brands are known to spend well beyond the maximum price of $695,000 they are allowed to charge?
“If it was a manufacturer that's not currently in the IndyCar series, I think that's harder because they would then have to come to an agreement with the current engine suppliers and IndyCar that you would be prepared to take on an addition. The reason I bring that up, and it's important, is because simply paying for the face value of an engine lease doesn't actually cover the cost associated.
“So if Mazda, if we use them as an example, were to offer a $700,000 prize when it comes to Honda (or GM) then giving out an engine lease as a prize they've paid for, we're actually adding in a few hundred thousand dollars of our own to the prize itself. So it's not so straightforward. It's easier if Honda was the engine supplier or if GM was doing it and they had to bring someone up from their ranks.”