Badging may be the only way
This Champ Car website article examines the benefits and pitfalls of introducing engine manufacturer competition back into the Champ Car World Series, and like so many before him, the author is unable to draw a conclusion as to which is better, a spec engine or engine competition.
The key points of the article:
Certainly, the addition of a Honda to the Champ Car World Series fold would raise the series' prestige and garner a bevy of attention, not least of which would be media stories on the series' Phoenix-like rise from the fetid ashes of CART. And if the past is any barometer, it would generate a host of "collateral" marketing support from the competing manufacturers in the form of television and newspaper ads (and in the way of the 21st century world of journalism, more air time and column inches).
What's more, the return of a Honda might well see the return of business-to-business sponsorship programs from Motorola, Panasonic, Pioneer and the like. And that would mean a strengthening of some existing programs and, possibly, more cars if not more teams.
Arrayed against that is the real potential for major downsides. Assuming for the moment that some means could be devised to avoid a repetition of the engine manufacturer "subsidies" that proved so ruinous to CART and the IRL (and make no mistake, the wiser heads within Champ Car have given those "means" quite a lot of thought), the re-introduction of engine manufacturer competition will inevitably result in increased costs. Honda doesn't race to lose; nor does Ford or Cosworth. And they will do whatever it takes to win. Not least of which is spending cubic dollars and/or yen.
Again, almost inevitably, engine manufacturer competition will result in a less level playing field than which now exists in Champ Car World Series. Unless Champ Car goes the "managed competition" route so effectively applied in NASCAR but which has proven unworkable elsewhere, a caste system is bound to result; if not permanently, then from season to season as one manufacturer gains an edge on the other.
And, again, unless the wise heads at Champ Car concoct a system to prevent it (assigning engines via lottery, for example), there are bound to be intramural suspicions that Team A is getting better Brand X engines than Team B.
Also, with manufacturers spending money competing against one another, Ford -- for one -- will have to devote a considerable portion of its Champ Car budget to making their engines more powerful/reliable than the competition. That means less money to spend on selling product and, if nothing else, increased vulnerability to the corporate bean counters.
The conclusion we reached years ago:
There is no way to control costs and have competition. There is nothing to stop a manufacturer like Honda from spending cubic dollars on the least little thing to gain an advantage.
The only solution we can think of that would work is a spec engine with multiple badging. Honda's HPD would do the rebuilds on the engines with Honda badging, and Cosworth the rebuilds on the Ford badged engines. Both would use standard parts, subject to spot inspections at any time.
Perhaps one small part of the spec engine could be left open for development, but electronics should not be one of them.
Honda has said this scenario doesn't interest them, but if they go to NASCAR they'll find similar restrictions. They don't call NASCAR engines spec, but they are darn near spec. Manufacturers spend cubic dollars to gain 10 HP.
The badging model would work if we can get the Hondas of the world to view racing more as a marketing platform and less as an R&D platform. If money were no object open competition is great, but except for F1, what open wheel racing series has a large enough popularity (i.e. return on investment for the manufacturer) to warrant spending such cubic dollars on R&D needed for a head-to-head engine war?
To Robert Clarke of Honda we say, accept the badging concept for three years, help a merged series of Champ Car and IRL grow stronger under an equal performance/marketing focused model, and then if the series grows popular enough to justify the cost of open competition, stay on to reap the fruits.
We think Honda as a passenger car company will get more out of a marketing driven series than an engineering driven series given the health of the sport right now. If Honda wants to outspend Ford on the marketing front so be it, but what gets spent by Ford and Honda on the race track should be equal and the engines should make equal HP so each side wins their fair share of races.
And doing this while merging open wheel back together again has to be a very positive in the long run.