IndyCar’s president for competition said grid spot penalties for blowing engines during tests are “unintended consequences” of a rule aimed at containing engine costs.
At issue is a 10-grid-spot penalty Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe will incur at Long Beach for having to change engines after blowing one during a test earlier this week at Sonoma. The IndyCar rulebook says “Any Unapproved Engine Change Out, except those caused by Engine failure in a Race, will result in a 10-place grid penalty.”
Engines can only be replaced without grid penalty when they reach 1850 miles or if they blow during a race, according to the rule book. Therefore if an engine blows at, for example, 900 miles during practice or qualifying on a race weekend or during a test held any time, the change will be “unapproved” and incur the penalty.
IndyCar President of Competition Beaux Barfield said Wednesday the intent of the rule is to discourage engine makers from building short-lived engines in an effort to gain a competitive edge. Theoretically, if an engine only had to last, say, 1000 miles, the reduced need for durability could allow a design that generates a bit more power.
“It was basically a self-imposed penalty that (engine makers) decided would be appropriate to keep them from basically trying to outspend each other in this era of ultimately price caps processes,” said Barfield. “In order to try and keep the engine leases and the engine programs at a reasonable price for a team, they decided this would be an appropriate way to try and move forwards to try and control that.
“I share the fans pain in that it sort of lacks sensibility in penalizing a team and driver rather than penalizing the engine manufacture itself (for faulty or experimental engines)."
When teams pay an engine lease, they essentially get engine warranties that say the maker will replace the engine if it fails or reaches 1,850 miles — whichever comes first — at no extra charge, assuming the teams didn’t make any unauthorized changes to the engine to cause its failure. In the era of sealed engines in IndyCar, unauthorized tweaks to the engine’s internal components are exceedingly rare.
For now, the rule stands and the penalty will be imposed on Hinchcliffe, Barfield said. The rulebook also says:
An Engine that has experienced a problem deemed sufficient to require Change-Out as mutually agreed by INDYCAR and Engine Manufacturer that is beyond the reasonable control of either the Entrant or Engine Manufacturer (such as faulty fuel, accident, damage to the Engines caused by act of God, etc.) may be replaced with an Engine from the pool without penalty.
If teams believe the engine change was caused by reasons beyond their reasonable control under the rule above, they can make their case to IndyCar vice president of technology Will Phillips, Barfield said.
Further complicating the picture is the IndyCar rule that teams can only change engines up to five times in one season. Every engine change beyond the fifth will also result in a 10-grid-spot penalty.
“If they (teams) have engine issues within the 1850 miles and they are putting in new engines now, by the end of the year they may be on their sixth or seventh engine or so, and going over five (limit) also incurs the same penalty, which could show its ugly face later in the year for some teams who are having these early problems,” Barfield said.
Barfield agreed that the prospect of a grid penalty for an engine blown during testing could discourage testing. As it stands now, teams will have to determine if the benefit of testing is worth the risk of a penalty for blowing an engine.
“Ultimately, at this stage, trying to get the car developed and get as many miles on it and such as possible, it’s in everybody’s best interest — the engine manufactures, teams, Dallara, IndyCar — for these cars to just be doing miles,” he said. “So for us sort of inadvertently putting a regulation out there that disincentivizes testing, that is absolutely not what we want.”
Barfield said engine makers won't be likely to allow teams to keep engines with more than 1850 miles on them to use for tests (which, if they blow, would not incur penalty due to the mileage). Engine makers take "mileaged out" engines to rebuild and put them back into the engine pool. A "catastrophic failure" would likely mean the engine could not be used again.
Barfield said he has some ideas for changing the rule so as to not penalize testing, but the issue with changing the rule at this point is maintaining fairness to teams who have already been penalized for changing engines during race weekends at St. Petersburg and Barber.
Barfield said he would soon “bring everybody in and share some opinions to see how we feel about where the rule has gotten us and how everybody feels about the possibility of changing it, obviously taking into consideration how the teams that have already been penalized this year might look at that precedent, and if it’s something the manufacturers would be interested in considering.” Barfield said the group that considered a change would be four or five people, of which he will only have one vote.
“In terms of what my perceived role is (in altering the engine rule), it’s relatively insignificant on the technical side of things,” said Barfield, who added that Phillips leads the technical rule-making efforts. “I certain have something to say and a good bit of influence, but to walk into those guys and saying ‘I think is how we should do it and this is what is going to be done’ would not be inappropriate.”