Editorial

A proposed solution to CART's engine dilemma

 by Mark Cipolloni
September 28, 2001

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CART has a difficult decision to make on engines. While CART tried hard to come up with an engine formula that would make Honda, Toyota, and Ford happy, at the end of the day, that was not possible. In this article, we examine the current state of affairs, and provide a recommendation for a long-term, cost effective engine formula that is still high-tech enough to challenge the best engine designers in the world.

Existing CART Engines

Ford Cosworth XF

Toyota RV8E

Honda HR-1
Is CART prepared to throw away a stable platform of 2.65L turbo engines when they are still perfectly good?

Current State of Affairs
With the recent downturn in the economy, and the new Speedvision TV deal that promises lower USA TV ratings, at least in the early years of the contract, reports are that engine manufacturers are taking a hard look at their budgets and questioning their involvement in CART. 

Toyota either willing or unknowingly, forced CARTís hand earlier this year saying it would develop an engine for the IRL, and if CART essentially adopted that formula too, they would supply engines for both series. 

In a daylong meeting on Thursday before the Texas race in April, CART met with the three engine manufacturers and a tentative agreement was reached. CARTís new engine would be a normally aspirated, 750 HP engine with no rev limit, but otherwise pretty much like the IRL engine. 

The details to be ironed out were 1) the exact displacement of the engine, as some felt 3.5 liters was too much for an engine with no rev limits, and 2) others felt as long as you had no rev limits, the two engines would be too different. Solving those issues was not easy, and was not going to be solved overnight. Now five months later, clearly the challenge of accomplishing a dual-purpose engine was greater than anyone initially thought walking out of that Texas meeting. 

Frustrated with no decision, and with the fact that the CART engine committee, headed by Jim Henderson and which included the likes of Derrick Walker, Chip Ganassi and others, disbanded after the pop-off valve debacle back in June, Toyota could wait no longer. This week they issued what amounted to a firm ultimatum, either CART adopts the IRL engine specs as early as 2003, or Toyota is out of CART after 2002, period, end-of-story. They were not going to supply two entirely different engines.  For those of us on the inside, this came as no surprise.  This was known for quite sometime.

In some respects, as good as Toyota has been to the series overall (race sponsorships, Toyota Atlantics, Etc.) it's recent practice of throwing money at the better teams to improve their chances of winning, has come back to bite them.  This practice has contributed, in some respects, to driving up the cost of participation, and we hear Ford is not the least bit unhappy that Toyota might be leaving the series since Ford operates (and wins) on a much smaller annual budget.

Since Ford and Honda are not prepared to supply a similar engine in 2003, if CART were to go that route, Honda and Ford will definitely be out of the series. Ford and Honda have been with CART the longest and have been the most loyal.  Is CART willing to toss them out on their butt?  Neither are prepared to provide a normally aspirated engine in time for the 2003 season, and they have expressed no desire to produce an IRL engine. If CART were to adopt a normally aspirated engine for 2003, Ford and Honda would be out.  That's not going to happen.

Current engine contracts donít expire until the end of next year, so 2002 is not a problem.  However, 2003 is a critical year. If CART were to adopt an IRL spec engine (exactly) then Toyota and perhaps Nissan and Chevrolet could supply engines in 2003, but then CART has locked themselves into an IRL formula, and is that formula whatís best for CARTís long-term prosperity? If CART does not adopt the IRL engine, can Honda and Ford supply the entire CART field w/o Toyota in 2003? Both scenarios leave question marks for 2003, but the problem is not insurmountable.

Making matters worse for Ford is the fact that they are faced with several big lawsuits in the passenger car business and sales of their cars have been way off. Whatever CART does, it must be a cost-effective formula to enable Ford to stay in the game. Working to CARTís advantage is the fact that although NASCAR gives Ford a great USA presence, the Jaguar name is used in their F1 program, so itís CART that give the Ford name the international exposure. This fact is important to Ford and they have told me so, including Dan Davis back in April at Long Beach.

With Toyota now playing their card, the $64 question that now must be answered - is an IRL engine whatís best for CART, and is CART as a series going to bow to the pressure of one engine manufacturer? Later we will answer that question, but one thing is for certain, CART must do whatís best for CART, not whatís best for Honda, Toyota, Ford or any other manufacturer. CART must make itself attractive and successful, and it must pick an engine that fits who they are and where they want to go. 

I have talked to all three manufacturers, and others in the industry, including many fans. There is no clear-cut agreement as to the best solution. 

Discussion
From where I sit, there are several long-term issues to address with engines - 1) How to control HP/speeds and increase safety, 2) How to control costs, 3) How to make CART attractive to new engine manufacturers and retain as many existing engine manufacturers as possible, 4) how to deal with the dilemma of staying high-tech yet cut costs, given CARTís need to retain itís identity/heritage and compete in a world marketplace.  Any solution must address all four.

There are some out there who have predicted the end of CART since 1995.  It's rather humorous to see them make fools of themselves year after year. They would have you believe that the sky is falling on the most competitive race series in the world, and the only solution is for CART to cave in and adopt the IRL engine specifications.  Such is not the case. 

The naysayers would have you believe that the IRL engine specification is low cost.  In fact it is not. Any engine manufacturer will tell you that competition drives cost. If all the manufacturers were producing IRL engines, the competition would be so fierce, the development costs would go through the roof. Winston Cup engines, as archaic as they are, are as expensive to develop each year as a CART engine because the competition in NASCAR is so fierce. Engine builders will always spend as much as it takes to beat the next guy. If not, you probably wonít win and will make your company look inferior. Itís like a dog chasing his tail.

Toyota is probably spending more money on their CART engine program, yet it's Honda and Ford winning the championships.  That must be frustrating to Toyota, and perhaps they will meet with more success in the IRL where the competition is not as stiff.  Toyota does assure us they will stay in CART with their other sponsorship commitments, so we have not seen the end of them just yet, and who knows, perhaps they will reconsider their position someday.

CART is becoming a strong international player.  Japan had a record crowd this year.  Australia is strong.  Brazil was strong until it was cancelled this year for political reasons.  Canada and Mexico are huge success stories. CART was very well received in Europe and many European fans told me they loved the sound of the turbo engines. We hear the same cries from USA fans Ė donít eliminate the turbos. However, while I do think a 1.8 liter turbocharged engine was, and still is, the best platform for CART, given todayís current economic environment, I donít see anyone but Honda willing to tool up for an entirely new turbo engine.  Maybe they don't have to, read on..

By competing on the international scene CART will always be compared to F1. If Champ Cars run a 650 HP IRL engine that sounds like Detroit iron, will that meet with acceptance?  CART is trying to brand it's product as a high-tech, highly diverse form of racing, not an American stock-block series.  While some may think engine sound is a non-issue, think again.  F1 cars have a signature sound.  Winston Cup cars have a signature sound.  Champ cars have a signature sound.  If you put a F1 engine in a Winston Cup car, what have you done to the image of a 'stock car'? 

There is an internal battle within CART - stay a domestic series, or go global. We have argued ( A true global vision will serve CART well The inevitable globalization of CART As CART goes global, what about its sponsors?) that CARTís future is to be more like F1 and less like NASCAR and IRL because the USA Motorsports market is over saturated and if CART is going to play ball around the world, Detroit iron isn't going to cut it. The IRL is in for a tough road ahead butting heads with NASCAR, while CART has met with great success overseas. This fact cannot be ignored by the domesticates who think CART should forget about overseas races.

HP is another issue.  The existing turbo engine has been around for a very long time.  Some think that because turbo boost can't be lowered much more, the 2.65L turbo platform is dead, too fast for today's tracks.  Think again.  What if I told you it can last another 10 years?

Because of that stable platform, CART has become the most competitive form of motorsport in the world (11 different winners in the first 16 races, ditto for the last several years).  However, the cars have become too fast for many ovals, and everyone agrees that at least 100 HP must be removed from the engines.  Some argue 200 HP, but that would be too much for the road and street circuits.  Imagine CART lap times at Montreal vs. the lighter F1 car if CART removes 200 HP.  We can hear it now - "those Champ Cars are overweight, underpowered hogs.  Anyone can drive them."  CART must find the right balance between HP and speed, and a way to control it.

Engine Options for CART

As CART gets close to choosing a new engine formula in the next few weeks, here are the options left.

Option

Description

Pros

Cons

1. IRL Engine

3.5 Liter normally aspirated with or without rev limit. Strict development and supply requirements

If 100% IRL spec then Toyota, Nissan and Chevrolet can supply engines. If not 100% IRL spec, including IRL supply requirements, engine will likely be too different for CART for a manufacturer to do both series. Gives Ford and Honda a chance to also compete in the IRL, though both have told us they have zero interest.

Honda and Ford are not interested in an IRL spec engine. CART would be saying goodbye to two companies who have been with them for quite some time. International fans and USA fans do not like the IRL engine. Cost will skyrocket as competition increases. Engine is heavy, and needs more HP for many circuits. Getting rid of turbos will save very little cost, and is that minuscule cost savings worth the risk of ruining the 20+-year heritage CART has developed?

2. Spec Engine.

A Cosworth supplied 2.65-liter turbocharged engine. Cosworth has said they will supply the entire CART field if they had an exclusive contract. They would cease development of the existing engine, detune it slightly, and charge the teams a reasonable price to lease them

This is certainly the lowest-cost alternative and every team will be on equal footing HP wise.

CART is instantly perceived as a spec series and loses all other manufacturers and the money they pump into the series. CART is not about being a spec series, is it ready for that drastic of a change? Does not get Ford or Honda back to Indy 500.

3. Keep Existing

The same 2.65-liter turbocharged engine that Ford, Honda and Toyota already have. Same rules as today, but engine must last 1,000 miles between rebuilds, i.e. two full race weekends

No need to design a new engine. Ford, Toyota and Honda already have all the engine blocks. Engines must be detuned to last 1,000 miles Ė speeds and HP drops. The number of engine rebuilds per year drops by 66%. Speeds can be controlled over time by bumping up 1,000 mile requirement to 1,200, 1,500, etc. or from 2 full race weekends to 3.  This means 20-year old engine platform is good for another 10+ years. Still a difficult engineering challenge, but not unlike a passenger car engine which must get 100,000 + miles. Far less restrictive from an engineering standpoint than an IRL engine. Sweet sounding turbos are retained Ė fans are happy. Audi likes a turbo platform and they are good at building endurance turbo engines so instantly they are a player. My sources tell me Audi is very interested.

Toyota still might not play, but with that much cost reduction, CART engines are now as cheap as IRL engines. Initially, more development costs to make engine stronger, but still cheaper than designing whole new engine and rebuild costs are reduced significantly. Does not get Ford and Honda back to Indy 500.

Recommendation
Looking at the pros and cons of options 1, 2 and 3, I conclude that option 3 is the best choice.  I don't feel an IRL engine is right for CART, and at a time when CART is trying to define its niche in the world, now is not the time to mess with your heritage, nor play copycat to a formula that is looked upon as being a step below.  CART markets itself as the fastest racing series in the world.  It certainly won't be that with a 650 or 750 HP engine.  I wish I could sit here and recommend the IRL engine so, perhaps, all the manufacturers could do both series if they choose.  However, the IRL's new engine spec did not go far enough to meet CART's requirements.  It was a step in the right direction (smaller, lighter, more injectors), unfortunately it was not quite big enough.

While option 2 certainly is attractive from a cost standpoint, for CART to agree to become a 'spec' series is a high risk.  At the same time you lock out all other engine manufacturers from participation, now and in the future.  Is that healthy for CART?  Is that what CART's all about?  I think not.

Given that Honda wants a high-tech solution and given Ford and others want to cut costs, there appears to be only one viable solution - #3.  CART should keep the existing formula for the foreseeable future, but impose one new requirement - an engine must run for a minimum of 1,000 miles between rebuilds, or penalties are imposed. This proposal significantly cuts annual CART engine rebuild cost to around 33% of existing (estimated to drop from a current $1.8 million per engine annually, to $600,000, a $1.2 million savings per car).

What I am proposing here is a different way of controlling speeds and reducing cost.  The IRL uses a rev limiter. Some manufacturers find that too restrictive.   NASCAR uses restrictor plates (a sort of sonic orifice), but that requires special engines just for the big tracks, an additional cost.  My proposal is to control runaway speeds by inching up the mileage requirement between rebuilds over a period of time, each time forcing the manufacturers to detune their engines to offset recent HP gains.  Other than that, my proposal provides engine designers the same freedom they enjoy today to push the envelope, only now they must think about making an engine last, what's equivalent in some respects, to a 6 or 8 hour endurance race.......which should be right up Audi's alley.

This has a few key connotations.  1) Instantly it's more affordable for teams to race in CART, especially in hard economic times, and 2) CART becomes more attractive to new engine manufacturers because they usually subsidize a certain percentage of the rebuild costs, 3) CART retains itís 20+ year 2.65 liter turbo heritage for as much as 10 more years, keeps a stable engine platform, controls speeds, controls costs, and makes fans happy......all with one fell swoop.

In fact, this is not a completely new idea.  There is something similar operating in the BTCC.  In the 2000 season it wasn't uncommon for top teams (especially Ford) to build a new engine for every race.  However now there is a rule that you can only break the seal on or replace an engine 5 times during the season. Otherwise you lose points.  Additionally if you change an engine during the race weekend you go to the back of the grid. Overall it has resulted in significantly reduced engine costs to teams, meaning independents can compete with the works teams.

How It might work in CART
By requiring that an engine last 1,000 miles between rebuilds I am essentially proposing that an engine be good for two full race weekends. Today a given car/driver uses an average of 1.5 engines per weekend, or 3 engines over two race weekends. That's 1 rebuild instead of 3 rebuilds, or 33% of todayís cost. Effectively we would cut engine rebuild costs, a major cost component, by some two-thirds. It also reduces the workload of the race crews on race weekends. No longer would they have to change engines unless one broke.

It's sort of like building a 24 hours of LeMans engine, but it's really a cross between today's 300 to 400 mile time bombs and 6 or 8 hour endurance engines.

The majority of races are between 150 and 300 miles.  Typically a team will put a fresh engine in for a race, and then continue to use that engine for practice, and perhaps even qualifying, the next race weekend....until it reaches about 400 miles.  Then the engine is pulled and sent back to the factory to be rebuilt, at a cost of around $50,000 to $65,000 per rebuild.  

With the proposed system, an engine would be installed at the beginning of race weekend #1 and remain in the car through that weekend and through race weekend #2.  Then CART would allow fresh engines to be installed at the beginning of race weekend #3 that would be used through race weekend #4.  The cycle would repeat 10 times for the 20-race season (10 x 2 = 20).

Currently a typical 1-car team uses a pool of nine engines that are rotated throughout the year, and that 1-car team will get 40 rebuilt engines per year (including pre-season testing).  With my proposal, the pool of engines per car can be reduced down from 9 to 3, and the number of rebuilds from 40 to 14.

500-mile races present a unique situation.  Currently a fresh engine is installed just before the race that is good for about 550 miles.  Obviously, more miles are run during a 500 mile race weekend than a 'typical' race weekend, probably in the order of 800 miles instead of 400 to 500.  Therefore, for 500-mile race weekend, CART would allow a fresh engine at the start of the weekend that must remain in the car throughout the weekend.  An 800 mile engine instead of a 1,000 mile engine.  Because Superspeedways are so hard on engines, they are at 100% throttle almost the entire lap, I feel being a bit more lenient with the mileage requirements will help the engine reliability a bit.

Penalty System
In order for this proposal to work, there would have to be stiff penalties to the engine manufacturer and driver if their engine broke in practice or qualifying before 1,000 miles was reached. We must make it painful enough that manufacturers truly strive to meet the 1,000-mile limits. If an engine must be replaced or opened up to repair a problem (plenum, heads, bottom end), that constitutes an engine failure and penalties kick in. If an engine is damaged due to an accident, and must be changed, that would not impose any penalties.

Proposed penalty system: 1) Manufacturers points are lost for the weekend that the engine breaks; 2) the driver automatically starts at the back of the grid. If the engine breaks during the race, the driver starts last next race, 3) engine manufacturer is fined $25,000 for each engine failure and money goes to a charitable organization, or an end-of-year prize fund.

Driver may move to his backup car at any time. However, either the engine in the primary car must move with him, or if time limitations prevent an engine change, then driver starts at the back of the grid. If backup car is required due to an accident in practice or qualifying, then driver may move to backup car without penalty if primary car canít be repaired in time. CART will appoint a 3-person committee to review extent of damage and rule whether time permits a repair. Safety will be given primary consideration.

How to police it
First, CART would tag and seal all engines with wire ties and a CART stamped seal with serial number.  A similar method was used to seal pop-off valves to the plenums in the past.  Now they must seal the plenum, intake, heads, and oil pan.  CART would continually monitor those seals over the two-weekend engine stint to make sure nothing was tampered with.

CART's timing and scoring system would be used to track how many miles an engine has run by marrying the CART transponder number to the engine serial number.  CART inspectors would be responsible to assure the transponder and engine numbers stayed together.  This would simply be a way of tracking the number of miles on a given engine, and ensuring all engines are used for 2 straight race weekends in case one got out of the normal 2-week cycle because it blew up.

CART Engines
CART's next engine should be?
3.5L N/A IRL
Cosworth Spec Turbo Engine
1,000 Mile 2.65L Turbo

Results | Previous Poles

Conclusions

The sky is not falling.  In fact CART is looking quite bullish. My sources say not only are two of the three existing manufacturers (Ford and Honda) committed to CART; others are very interested in stepping in. Some favor a turbo formula and others a normally aspirated one, but they all like what they see with CARTís direction.  However, no one is going to commit to stay or come into CART until CART announces it's new engine formula.  Hopefully this article helps the thought process.

While there's probably a few details I failed to consider, I feel my proposal lays the foundation upon which CART's new engine specifications can be based.  And that engine foundation is CART's tried and true 2.65 liter platform, detuned to last 1,000 miles (two full race weekends) with perhaps a jump in turbo boost back to 40 inches.  As they say, why mess with success?  Why do a major overhaul on the most competitive engine platform in all of racing, when all that's required is a cost saving, HP reducing tune-up?

You decide.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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