INDIANAPOLIS – Honda and IndyCar Series officials have quietly made a decision that might have a profound effect on the outcome of this year's Indianapolis 500.
Teams have been notified to expect they will lose the ability to control fuel mixtures during the race, which in the past has been a key part of race strategy for the Indy 500.
In the past, drivers have been able to change their fuel setting using a gauge that allows them to set it to a variation of full rich or full lean. Full rich produces the optimum horsepower; full lean the optimum fuel mileage.
Instead of having a variable option, teams will be given just two choices: full rich or a setting that leans the engine out slightly, which is intended specifically for use during cautions.
This decision will most likely eliminate any possibility of the race being won on a fuel mileage strategy and instead reward the driver who is the hardest (and smartest) charger.
"It's going to be up to the talent of the driver and not the fuel mixture you are running," said Tony Kanaan, who starts on the front row, in second spot.
"The only way I know how to run is flat out, so (by) taking the fuel mileage away, you're going to have to run flat out, you can't just keep lagging around in the back. Races should be won by people who run flat out and not by ones who save fuel."
Honda engineers originated the idea and proposed it to IndyCar Series officials, arguing it was necessary because of this season's changeover from methanol to ethanol fuel.
Roger Griffiths, technical group leader and spokesperson for Honda Performance Development, says that Honda's experience with ethanol is minimal.
"Every day we learn something new running on ethanol and how the engine reacts to it," Griffiths said. "Coming into this year, we had 30-40 years experience of running on methanol. We fully understand every aspect of running on methanol.
"Ethanol is a very new fuel. We've run something like 64,000 miles on ethanol compared to millions of miles on methanol."
Griffiths said that since the start of the season, his group has closely monitored how the new fuel reacted to the engine. "We've seen some things that made us a little bit nervous and we just wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing."
How does losing the ability to extend one's fuel mileage affect race strategy? Crew chiefs and race strategists believe several factors come into play.
One is that the driver now will be more responsible than ever for controlling the fuel mileage with his or her foot and brain. That obviously favors the more veteran drivers in the field.
It will also present an interesting scenario during the race. Drivers who want or need to conserve fuel will be forced to do the one thing they find the hardest to do while in a race car – lift their foot off the gas pedal.
"I expect we'll see some drivers fall out of the lead pack when that happens," said George Klotz, race strategist for Andretti Green Racing's Kanaan. "In the past, everyone would lean out during mid-race and you could stay up front with the leaders. Now, you'll have to fall back."
Klotz, who prefers to have the ability to lean out the engine, ironically credits Kanaan's victory at Twin Ring Motegi in April to being able to lean out the engine, get better fuel mileage and save fuel for late in the race. "It will force you to pit for fuel late in the race, which in the past, you might not have to do," Klotz said.
Rick Rinaman, crew chief for two-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves, sees the change as making for a more exciting race, as drivers will have to work their way back up to the front.
"It puts a premium on making sure your car handles well in traffic," said Rinaman. "Let's face it, there are a dozen or so cars out there that will keep up the pace with the leaders and the rest will present a challenge for those drivers who are in the lead pack."
Rinaman said he expects more cars will be drafting together in order to save fuel. "If you can get right behind another car, it makes it a lot easier to lift off the gas and save fuel," he said.
That tactic already seemed to be in play as AGR's teams worked together in two- and three-car drafts during practice on Friday afternoon.
Honda's Griffiths expects the change to be temporary. "It is our desire to get back to having mixtures," said Griffiths. "I personally want mixtures because I think it makes the racing interesting.
"We're working hard to bring them back. We want them. We just want to bring them back at the right point to make sure we've done the proper testing and make sure we're happy with the package that we're providing to the teams."
For Kanaan, the decision to eliminate the mixture settings couldn't have come any sooner. "I definitely think it's the best for me," he said. "If I had to choose, I would have chosen them to make this decision before now."
This is not the first action taken this month by Honda engineers and series officials that has affected the performance of the 3.5-liter engines introduced to the series this season.
Prior to the start of practice for the Indy 500, Honda engineers remapped the electronics for their engine, in effect de-tuning it to reduce the amount of horsepower it produces – a process described by engineers as difficult and not among their favorite functions.
Speeds at this year's Indy 500 were expected to approach the 230 mph mark and after monitoring speeds at both Twin Ring Motegi and Kansas, series officials asked for the change for safety reasons.
"It's been a genuine concern all along," said Honda's Griffiths. "Brian (Barnhart – IndyCar Series president and CEO) has always said that 230 mph was the hard ceiling and we've been aware of that since early in the year."
Drivers admit they haven't been able to notice a change in the power output of the engine nor the 4-5 mph difference in speed. Series officials add that most fans cannot distinguish the difference between a lap at 226 mph and one at 230 mph.
- Tony Kanaan