Following the five men with a realistic chance of winning the IndyCar Series Drivers' title will command most of the attention during this weekend's Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston double-header.
Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay have their marching orders and will look to earn as many points as possible to either seal the championship or keep their mathematical chances alive. Their respective engine suppliers, however, aren't counting points or positions, nor are they overly concerned about which of their drivers comes home in first place.
What matters the most to Chevrolet and Honda is which brand wins the Race To 10 – the number of victories required to earn the Manufacturers' championship.
The ongoing tug-of-war for that crown, which the Bowtie earned in 2012 with its 2.2-liter twin-turbo Chevy Indy V6, looked like it was going to be captured by the General Motors brand in midsummer. Four wins through the first five races, including the Indy 500, established Chevy as the dominant manufacturer, and by the time Round 10 at Iowa had been run, it had seven wins in hand. By the numbers, and with nine races to go, Honda would need to wage an epic comeback to keep its rival from securing its second consecutive title.
And then the series traveled to Pocono, site of Round 11, where Chevy's season was indeed turned upside down.
Thanks to the mother of all engine updates, Honda fed its teams more power and fuel economy than anyone expected, and after Chip Ganassi Racing scored a 1-2-3 on the Tricky Triangle, Chevy's 7-3 advantage became 7-4. Two more wins by Ganassi's Scott Dixon made it 7-6 after Toronto, and Ganassi's Charlie Kimball evened the score to 7-7 at Mid-Ohio.
Team Penske's Will Power took back the lead for Chevy at Sonoma and Schmidt Hamilton's Simon Pagenaud evened it up at Baltimore. Tied 8-8 entering Houston, the Race to 10, just like the Drivers' championship, could be decided by Sunday.
Speaking with Chevy IndyCar program manager Chris Berube and Honda Performance Development technical director Roger Griffiths, the spirited rivals told RACER the Manufacturers' title is what matters most to both brands.
“In terms of company goals, winning the Manufacturers' championship is right at the top,” said Griffiths. “While it might not be a big thing in the public's eyes, certainly for us, and I also know for GM, it's hugely important.”
“Our fundamental philosophy is to win all the championships,” added Berube. “Drivers, Manufacturers, Oval, Road Course; all the championships. Obviously the Manufacturers' championship means a lot to us as an engine manufacturer. But we try not to stay focused on winning championships because you can't win a championship, you have to win races. So each race we treat as a must-win situation and then the championships are a mathematical result of winning more than losing. Just stay even more focused on winning each race you're at.”
It's safe to say that neither manufacturer expected to be in a dogfight with three races left on the calendar. The die appeared to be cast by the end of June, and even Honda has been surprised by their turnaround during the ensuing rounds.
“When we came out of Indy and it was 4-1, it wasn't looking so great,” Griffiths added. “And despite the success we had in Detroit, we even got into a run of races where GM dominated. Going into Pocono it was looking pretty sorry. At that stage it was trying not to suffer the embarrassment of actually being worse off than we were last year. At least last year we had the Indy 500, where this year the rebound started in Pocono.
“We had a specification upgrade that was introduced at Pocono, and to be honest, as I think I said before, I was quite surprised how well it worked at Pocono. Ii wasn't intended to be an oval specification. It seemed to work quite well, and did at the next event in Toronto. Being either on road courses or street courses seems to have been our forte over the last few months, we think we've got as good a chance as anybody to win this.”
Berube's team at GM Racing, along with their partners at Ilmor Engineering, is determined to spoil Honda's plans. The mid-range power produced by Honda's single-turbo 2.2-liter V6 has helped its drivers to dominate the five street course races held since Indy, giving Chevy's R&D staff a clear target to hit for Houston.
“You have to do a little bit of self-reflecting on prior races that we haven't won,” Berube explained. “What we have is an after-action review after every race where we didn't do as well as we wanted to and basically dig into what were the differences and what can we do about them.”
Chevy has plenty of teams and drivers that are capable of winning in Houston, as does Honda, and both would like to see their Race To 10 receive more recognition for the drama it generates and the importance it holds for two of the series' most important stakeholders.
“I think it's an opportunity that IndyCar could and should take advantage of,” Berube continued. “The championship within the championship. Formula 1 regularly talks about the Constructors' championship. Not that we want to take anything away from the Drivers' championship, which obviously is prestigious, but I look at it more as an opportunity for IndyCar to have more things to talk about. It is another form of competition.”
“I absolutely agree,” said Griffiths. “And the other thing I'd like to see a little bit more emphasis on or a little maybe change is the way the points are scored for the Manufacturers' championship. Right now, with just two manufacturers, you're trading wins. Whilst it's great, there's no bonus for filling the podium or if you've got the top five spots in the race. Both Honda and GM have had that on occasion.
“Right now, it doesn't matter whether you've got the top five. If the other manufacturer is sixth, they score second place points. So really it is the Race To 10, it's first to get there, but there should be points incentives for when a manufacturer does something extraordinary.”
If it's possible, Berube and Griffiths would like to avoid a Manufactures' title crapshoot at the season finale in Fontana and get things done this weekend.
“Personally, I'd really like to get it wrapped up before we go to Fontana because I think if it comes down to a race at Fontana that we've got to be going into that as the underdog rather than the favorite,” Griffith's admitted. “But you never know. I mean, I didn't expect to win on the Pocono oval, but we did.”
Berube and this writer had a good laugh when he was posed with an intentionally daft final question to answer: since Chevy won the 2012 Manufacturers' title and the 2013 Indy 500, would he, in the name of balance, mind if Honda took home this year's Manufacturers' crown?
“Hell no...this isn't Little League!” he said. “I don't think Roger [Griffiths] would want us to stand down either. And again, it means more when you beat someone who's difficult to beat. And we're certainly not going to let up just because we got Indy this year. The more the both of us are extremely competitive then the more each win means something. I truly believe it.
“Honda ought to feel happy having [caught] us, we were the ones to beat. And now they've turned the tables and we need to beat them. So that's our intention.”