Published November 20, 2014
As the Chevrolet side of the paddock worked feverishly Thursday to change the engines for all 11 of its IndyCar teams, Ryan Briscoe leaned out of his team transporter to deliver a message to James Hinchcliffe.
"Hey, James!" Briscoe shouted, "thanks a lot, buddy."
It was Hinchcliffe who blew an engine Monday during an open test session at Sonoma, and the failure was troubling enough to Chevrolet that the manufacturer decided to pull the engines from all of its teams. It's a significant blow to Chevy, which has stormed out of the gate in its return to IndyCar by winning the first two races, but has now earned penalties of 10 starting spots in Sunday's race at Long Beach for all of its teams.
"This is certainly a decision that was not made lightly," said Chris Berube, program manager for Chevrolet's IndyCar effort.
Berube said Chevrolet feared the problem in Hinchcliffe's engine could affect all of its teams, and "as a result, we feel it is prudent to change all engines prior to the start of the on-track activities this weekend.
"We intently discussed the situation with our partners and our teams prior to determining that this was the best course of action to preserve the integrity of the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series."
The decision to change engines affects the three-car teams of Penske Racing, which won the first two races of the season behind Helio Castroneves and Will Power, along with Andretti Autosport, KV Racing and the single-car teams of Ed Carpenter Racing and Panther Racing.
Even before Chevy decided on the mass change, IndyCar's rule against unaproved engine changes was under scrutiny because the sanctioning body had already said Hinchcliffe would be penalized for the failure at the Sonoma test. With the first manufacturer competition in seven seasons came an IndyCar rule that prohibits engine changes until this first batch has completed 1,200 miles — a minimum that would have been reached Sunday in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
After Sunday, engines must last 1,850 miles.
Among the gripes about Hinchcliffe's penalty was that it seemed unfair for a team to be penalized for something that happened outside of a race weekend, that a driver shouldn't be punished for a manufacturer problem, and that IndyCar should not enforce the rule until next year to give the engine builders a season to work out the kinks.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard deferred most technical aspects of the rule to vice president of technology Will Phillips, but seemed unsympathetic to Chevrolet's problem.
"That's sports," Bernard shrugged. "When we sat down with all the manufacturers, everyone made it very clear to us that the reason they left racing was because it became so expensive, they couldn't find the value when they were building the engines every single week.
"These rules were designed to make sure the long-term future of the sport is solid — not the short-term."
Bernard also stressed the importance of not letting Chevrolet off the hook after Honda and Lotus teams have already been penalized this season.
"I think it's important for the integrity of the sport that our rules stay consistent, and the past two races we've seen Lotus and Honda engines be replaced and take a 10-spot penalty," he said.
IndyCar had already announced Wednesday that Lotus driver Sebastien Bourdais would be penalized 10 spots on the grid because his team changed his engine after the April 1 race at Barber. Oriol Servia, who changed his engine before the Barber race, said Thursday his team believes he may need another new Lotus this weekend and also would be subjected to the penalty.
All told this season, Honda has had just one major engine issue, when Simon Pagenuad changed his engine before the opener. Lotus has now changed three — Bourdais, Servia and Alex Tagliani at Barber — and Servia's upcoming change would be its fourth.
Now come the 11 Chevrolet changes, and a wave of questions about the rule.
"We are blaming IndyCar, but I don't think it is IndyCar's rule. Wasn't it the manufacturers who wanted this?" Servia asked. "We all look bad right now, the series, all of us. It's a tough compromise we are in right now. I think for sure there should be for testing a different engine than the one we use in races. I think we all agree there."
Chevy's teams seemed hesitant to criticize, maybe because the manufacturer has been the decisive winner through the first two weeks.
Power and Castroneves won the first two poles of the season, with Castroneves winning the season-opening race and Power winning at Barber. It's given Chevrolet the lead in the manufacturers' race with 18 points to Honda's 12.
"This is obviously disappointing, but it is the same for all the Chevy teams and these things happen when you are in development programs," Chevy owner Michael Andretti said. "Luckily the problem was caught during a test rather than in the middle of a race. It's unfortunate, but we stand behind Chevy and whatever is needed to continue to set the standard."
Power said he understood the rule. Then again, he's evidence that the penalty might not be crippling on Sunday.
Power's qualifying time was disallowed at Barber, forcing him to start ninth before he drove through the field to win the race.
"It's the rules, and at the end of the day, other teams have already taken a grid spot penalty so you can't just change the rule now. That's not fair to the teams who have already been penalized," he said. "But the race now will have to be a straightforward strategy. We'll have to see what happens. We did it at Barber and it was a fairly green race, but it's difficult to say what will happen here."
Hinchcliffe seemed energized by the challenge and confident Sunday will now be a spectator show.
"Are you kidding me? It's going to be a great race," he said. "Half the field is starting in the back. I was excited about this even before Chevrolet decided to change all the engines. This is now going to be a challenge for everyone."