The pros and cons of new IndyCar engine partners

IndyCar officials are confident the switch to a universal aero kit in 2018 will attract new engine suppliers.

In a recent article by Bruce Martin of Autoweek, IndyCar officials spoke of their confidence in attracting potentially 2 new manufacturers. In a fairly unprecedented move the series then used it’s social media platforms to actively tout for new suppliers. Whether this counts as innovative or desperate is for another time and another post.

With the series rumoured to be courting multiple suppliers it is worth looking at the pros (and cons) of a third manufacturer joining Chevrolet and Honda.

Pro – new engine suppliers usually mean more cars on the grid

Though not inevitable the addition of a third engine supplier would lead to the arrival of new teams or at worst the expansion of existing teams.

A brand like Ford could partner with an existing team – Ganassi for example given their partnership in sportscars – to enter the series. The trickle down effect would leave existing engine suppliers with units available to new teams or to expanded single-car outfits.

Related article: IndyCar 2017 preview – part 1

Conversely, a new manufacturer may enter with established partners from others forms of motor sport. For example Joe Gibbs and Toyota given their NASCAR partnership. The net result being an increase in cars irrespective of whether existing IndyCar teams switch to a new supplier or not.

Teams  might be wary of a new supplier after the debacle that was Lotus’ entry to IndyCar.  A new manufacturer of proven pedigree however would likely overcome most concerns. Plus the addition of various ‘enhancements’ offered to partner teams would certainly swell the grid in future seasons. Major brands like Ford or Toyota will not just roll up with engines and nothing else on offer.

Pro – more engine suppliers equals more competition

Competition is one of the main reasons any auto manufacturer goes racing. Race on Sunday, sell on Monday the adage goes and beating your rivals is the best way to boost those sales.

The last time Chevy and Toyota battled in IndyCar

The arrival of a Ford or Toyota to IndyCar would certainly appeal to existing suppliers Chevrolet and Honda. Competing against and beating 2-3 rival manufacturers as opposed to just one is all the sweeter.

At the moment Chevy and Honda are not particularly enthusiastic about promoting their IndyCar wins to the masses. The arrival of 1 or 2 new competitors – particularly rivals in their core markets – would certainly invigorate those efforts.

From a neutral perspective, more manufacturers tends to mean more competition on the race track. And more competition on track tends to mean more exciting racing and more spice to the already thrilling IndyCar product.

Pro – increased exposure for the championship

The ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra  proves that motor sport is at its a core a marketing tool. There is an element of technology development of course but selling cars is the key to Honda and Chevrolet running IndyCar.

It is not rocket science to see that the advertising, social media, online content and dealer promotions of Chevy and Honda around IndyCar would increase with the arrival of new competitors. Greater competition would give each manufacturer greater scope to trumpet their successes. Beating one rival does not carry the same kudos as beating three.

New suppliers would of course add their own marketing content and promotions to the mix upon arrival. Aggregated across the whole series the exposure for IndyCar would undoubtedly increase significantly. More exposure = more interest = more fans = more sponsors = healthy IndyCar. It is an over simplified scenario but the logic is sound.

Cons – someone has got to lose

Thus far racing in IndyCar has kept the current engine manufacturers happy. Honda’s Indy 500 wins have counter-balanced Chevy’s championship dominance. Introduce a third brand and their chances of victory drops.

Previous engine suppliers need not reapply

Assuming a third supplier does not ‘do a Lotus’ and enter embarrassingly under prepared and ill-equipped, someone is going to lose. In the short term that has advantages: the third place supplier doubles their efforts, competition increases, the racing improves and the fans go home happy. Longer term things start to look shaky.

Toyota came in to F1 and spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful attempt to win. Both as a works team and engine supplier they never looked like getting close to the front of the grid and pulled the plug. Ditto Honda with their unsuccessful return to F1 in the form of the British American Racing Honda team that ruined Jacques Villeneuve’s (and nearly Jenson Button’s) career.

With a spec chassis and aero IndyCar is in a better position than it has been in previous iterations. But make no mistake, at some point a board of directors somewhere is going to start asking why they are spending millions of dollars on IndyCar and have not won the 500 or the championship yet. The series has to be able to weather that kind of storm.

Cons – manufacturers come and manufacturers go

Auto manufacturers have a bad habit of dropping motor sport operations like a hot potato.

As the scale of the Volkswagen Audi Group’s emissions scandal came to light last year, the axe came down on their World Rally and World Endurance activities. When Honda and Toyota got sick of losing in F1 they dropped it just as quickly.

audi-wecPursuing more manufacturer involvement is not a bad course for IndyCar to plot. But it has to be built around a foundation that can survive the departure of one or maybe more suppliers.

I can hear people already shouting at their screen that Honda or Chevy could  ditch IndyCar tomorrow. That is completely accurate so it is logical to pursue additional engine suppliers aggressively. But at the moment there is a good chance both Chevy and Honda will finish each IndyCar season with something to show for their efforts. Adding a third or fourth supplier diminishes that chance considerably.

Cons – getting hooked on manufacturer money

There is no doubt that a racing series benefits from the direct involvement of auto manufacturers. Money, technical expertise, marketing budgets and kick-ass motor homes arrive and everything steps up several notches. But this tends to be precursor to a boom and bust cycle.

In 2002 F1 boasted the direct involvement of 7 leading auto manufacturers. By 2010 that had dropped to only 3 and in the subsequent 6 years that has only increased by one.

Formula 1 can survive (just about) those kinds of swings in and out of favour with manufacturers. IndyCar for the foreseeable future cannot.

Were new manufacturers to join IndyCar, the series will need to be careful that it does not become addicted to manufacturer involvement. Undoubtedly a third or fourth partner for IndyCar would be a bonus and a positive for the series. But it must guard against falling under the spell of the auto manufacturers.

IndyCar needs to be able to survive whether the big boys come to play or not.

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