Four consecutive Honda wins has the engine manufacturer feeling much better about the IndyCar season and its relationship with longtime partner Chip Ganassi.
The team owner was highly critical of Honda before the first qualifying session of the season, questioning the manufacturer’s commitment to winning after Chevrolet entered IndyCar last season.
“I don’t know if they want to win bad enough,” Ganassi said at the March season-opening race at St. Petersburg. “They talk about everything at Honda but winning. They said for years and years and years they want competition. Now they’ve got competition, and they are not talking about winning. I feel like they want to sit around and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. I want to win.”
The criticism certainly got Honda’s attention and made waves across the paddock, but the manufacturer understood Ganassi’s message.
“He’s a dyed-in-the-wool racer. He wants to win, and so do we,” said Stephen Eriksen, vice president and chief operating officer of Honda Performance Development Inc.
“He’s got the pressures of sponsorships and things to deal with. He feels that pressure all the time,” he said. “I understand him being frustrated. But that’s an emotional thing. If you take a step back and look at it logically from the steps we’ve taken together to be successful, those things have come together, and you can see it in the wins that we’ve achieved.”
Speaking on a racing panel Thursday at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars near Traverse City, Mich., Eriksen answered several questions about the IndyCar program, Honda’s early season struggles and the looming move to a twin turbocharger system engine for 2014.
It’s been a rollercoaster season for Honda, which has competition in IndyCar after serving as the series’ sole engine supplier from 2006-2011. Chevrolet dominated in its return to IndyCar last year, though Honda won the Indianapolis 500, and the early part of this season was no different.
Chevy opened the season with four wins in five races, including the Indy 500, to compound the friction between Honda and Ganassi.
But Honda has suddenly come roaring back over the last month — and has done it with Ganassi. It is tied with Chevrolet with seven wins apiece.
Honda kicked it off July 7 when Ganassi driver Scott Dixon won at Pocono, then followed it up a week later by sweeping the double-header at Toronto, and Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball made it four straight last Sunday at Mid-Ohio with his first career IndyCar victory.
Now any early season rumors of a possible Ganassi defection for Chevrolet, his engine partner in NASCAR, are maybe just that, according to Eriksen.
“There’s always opportunities when contracts come up for people to consider other options,” Eriksen said. “Honestly, I think the history of Ganassi and Honda together being successful is a pretty strong reason to stay together. If you look at it, I think we’ve won eight championships together, something like 77 Indy Car victories. We’re really on a winning streak with them. We’ve now won four races in a row with Ganassi. We’ve tied up the manufacturing championship with Chevy. So I think what you’ve seen over the course of the season is we’ve jelled tighter as a group, and our results speak for themselves.”
Eriksen doesn’t expect to lose any other teams to Chevrolet, either.
“In fact, I think our bigger challenge might be having too many teams,” he said. “We’re being very successful right now, and the new 2014 regulations allow quite a bit of update to the engine. You may have seen that IndyCar issued a direction that for 2014 and beyond it would be only twin turbos. That in itself is an instant step up for us. We’re clearly dominant in these last four races with where we were at today. When we go to twin turbo, watch out.”
As Honda spends its development time working on the twin turbocharger, which Chevrolet has used since its 2012 re-entry, the manufacturer must also juggle not losing anything in performance this season. Dixon’s three wins in July have vaulted him to second in the standings and only 31 points behind IndyCar series leader Helio Castroneves with five races remaining.
“It’s quite a challenge, because essentially what we’re doing is doing two engines at once,” Eriksen said. “Obviously we want to be continually pushing our competitiveness of the current engine, because we want to beat GM at every opportunity. But you also have to make sure that you’re in parallel making the very best twin turbo engine that you can. It’s a pretty big tear-up to go from single to twin.”
AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher contributed to this report from Traverse City, Mich.