An interview with: ART ST. CYR President, Honda Performance Development

An interview with:

President, Honda Performance Development

T.E. McHALE: Welcome to this small but prestigious crowd for the first Honda media briefing of the 2018 IndyCar season. Thanks for joining us this morning.
Our guest by this time needs no introduction, Art St. Cyr, president of HPD. We’re all looking forward to a great event here in St. Pete this weekend and a terrific 2018 season.
Just to get the ball rolling, we’ll start with a few questions for Art. Talk about your personal outlook for 2018 as we head into the start of the season.

ART ST. CYR: Well, I must say this is one of the more anticipated seasons that we’ve had in a while. We had a very busy off season with the new universal aero kit. With that, one of the biggest things that you’ll notice is the intakes are now taken from over the top of the driver to the sidepods. Especially with our engine layout, that has led to some pretty serious package issues that we had to work through. We did work through those with the help of our partner teams.
The engine scope [for updates], if you look at the homologation table, is what I would call a very minor year of development for the engine. But considering all of the package work we had to do, and the minimum or minimal amount of areas that we had to develop, I think our overall package came out really well.
Our off season testing has gone as well as can be expected. Obviously, just like everybody, you find problems and you solve them. That’s what we do. I’m really looking forward to getting out here and racing for the first time this season. This should be fun.
T.E. McHALE: Taking that a step further, we have a pretty stout lineup of competitors this year. Give us your thoughts on the Honda IndyCar lineup for 2018.
ART ST. CYR: That’s another good question, because I’m as bullish on our lineup as we are on the cars themselves. We have three series champions, we have four previous Indy 500 winners in our stable right now, we have some really talented young drivers, which is really good for the future of this series.
We fully expect to have a very successful year this year. Our teams are strong. Our drivers are strong. Things are looking pretty good moving forward.
T.E. McHALE: Even though we aren’t directly involved necessarily in the addition of new teams to the series, they’ve added several teams, more on our competitor’s side. But that speaks well to the overall health of IndyCar. Give us some reaction to that.
ART ST. CYR: Yeah, honestly I haven’t been this bullish in a long time in what we’re doing here in IndyCar. This off season we added four new teams, one of them with us, Michael Shank Racing, who has been trying to break into IndyCar for a while. Obviously he did the 500 with us last year. But we’re very happy to have Mike Shank in our stable.
Not just that, if you look at the whole litany of new sponsors that have joined this series, I mean, Chip Ganassi team got a new title sponsor, Dale Coyne got new title sponsors. Things are looking very, very positive, especially in the environment we have right now if you look at some of the other major racing sports, they’re struggling to gain traction. It seems that we are at the stage right now that we are gaining traction. I think people realize just how good a racing series we have here, how good of racing that happens here, lots of talent, lots of just exciting storylines going into this season.

Like I said, I’m bullish on what we’re going to see here this weekend.
T.E. McHALE: Using your comments about Mike Shank Racing as a launching point, we’re in Florida, it shouldn’t be overlooked that we have Mike competing for us next week as well at the 12 Hours of Sebring, with a pretty stout Acura presence in that particular event. Give us some comments about your thoughts going into the 12 Hours.
ART ST. CYR: Yeah, I mean, race season starts in earnest this weekend. This weekend at St. Petersburg for Honda IndyCars, next weekend at Sebring for the 12 hours and our Acura teams, then the rollercoaster really starts as we move from place to place with the traveling circus that we have here.
Our sports car program is very exciting for us. We have been working towards moving Acura to the pinnacle of sports car racing, which is the DPi program. It’s been step by step. We started with our Acura TLX GT, then we moved to the NSX GT3, which we ran as a factory program last year. This year it’s a customer program. Mike Shank is still running two cars so we’re very happy to keep him in the Honda/Acura family.
We also have a couple of other customers that we’re working with. Our HART team, which is a team of Honda and Acura associates out of Ohio, is running an NSX, and also at Sebring we have C.J. Wilson Racing, a very high profile program, joining us for another NSX GT3 effort. We’ll have four cars running as customer programs at Sebring.
Obviously in DPi, Acura Team Penske is running our prototype program with a very stellar driver lineup. Things are looking pretty bright. If you look at how we did at Daytona, Daytona was looking pretty good. At the 12 hour mark we were 1 2 in prototype and we were leading the GT3 at that point. Unfortunately, it’s a 24 hour race… We had a few problems after that with DPi cars. We did show we were running strong with the DPi. We had our NSX GT3 finish second place in the GTD category.
We think we’ll be okay. It’s going to be an interesting race next weekend. We’re very happy with that program, the program seems to be competitive on all levels. Good driver lineups, good cars, good teams. Really a lot like what we see here in the IndyCar paddock, things are looking pretty bright for the season.

T.E. McHALE: With that, we’ll open it up to questions from the floor.
Q. Your engine package seems to have stepped up. I understand the new engine is another year away before you can make major changes. Can you make minor changes in the engine? Things are looking good.
ART ST. CYR: Yeah, well, I mean, the homologation table says what you can work on. There are things you can work on every year, things like pistons and lubricants, those type of things you can work every year. This year there weren’t a lot of things we can work on.
But we have really looked at the overall efficiency of the engine, to try to make improvements in that area. Obviously, there’s not a lot of hardware changes we can make, but there are software and those types of development items that we can explore in the off season.
I mean, I’m not going to tell you exactly what we worked on, but we had a busy off season. We worked on improving things. We think our engine is going to be strong coming out of the box.
Our engine was pretty strong last year, we believe. I mean, obviously, the Indy 500 and other race results showed pretty well. We’re just building on the previous platform that we had, and continuing to improve. That’s what we do at HPD, is try and give our teams here the best package that we possibly can.

Q. How many engines do you anticipate supplying for the 2018 Indy 500?
ART ST. CYR: When is that race, I’m sorry (laughter)?

Q. May ish.
ART ST. CYR: Well, right now we have I think confirmed 16, 16 cars that have already confirmed. We expect to have a few more announcements in the coming days. I can’t give you a final number. There should be a pretty strong contingent of Honda engines at the 500.

Q. Looks like we’re going to progress beyond 33 cars at the 500, potential bumping. Is that something you guys are okay with, where you might have cars with ‘Honda’ on them that don’t make the race?
ART ST. CYR: I mean, quite frankly we never expect any of our cars to actually get bumped when it comes down to that timeframe. That’s part of the tradition, the 33 car field at the Indy 500. It adds to some of the excitement of qualifying. It’s the biggest race in the world. There should be some stress and some hard work that requires you to actually get into that race.
We would welcome having more than 33 cars so there is some bumping at that race.

Q. With the changes to the intake, putting down [lower in the chassis], you have the problem of heat. How are you going about dealing with that?
ART ST. CYR: Very carefully. It’s a really good question, because that’s where the work went, how to manage the limited amount of air that you have going into the engine. In the side pods, that’s where all your cooling air comes, but also is where your charge air comes from. How do you [separate] that air that’s coming in to make sure it serves all the purposes you need?

Q. Is that open in any way? Are you set by what you do or are there other ways to cool the engine?
ART ST. CYR: The parts that we made are homologated. Once you determine your solution, then you’re not flexible to change that at all.
It’s really about where we get the air from, where the air that goes into the engine is coming from, where the air that goes to the radiators is coming from, the air that cools the electronics. I say ‘bifurcate’. Is ‘trifurcate’ actually a word? You have to split it into three separate components to make sure that each part of the engine has what it needs.
It was a difficult problem. Our guys at HPD worked really hard to solve that. We worked on it a lot. That was a big focus in our off season, to try to make sure we don’t sacrifice anything. How do we optimize it to the finest little detail to make sure we can race and we can be successful.

Q. I know you put a huge emphasis on the Indy 500, have had great success there the last few years. Does that help in the bigger picture, in the manufacturer battle, when you’re able to say, Yeah, we got the Indy 500?
ART ST. CYR: Well, I mean, obviously the Indy 500 being the race that it is, is very important to us. We’ve won four of the last six since manufacturer competition started.
We want to win all of them. It’s never our intention to say, “We’re going to give up the other 16 races to win the Indy 500”.
From a priority list, the specification for the Indy 500 is a little bit different, it’s a superspeedway, you run that at 130 kPa as opposed to the short ovals and road courses, which are run at a little bit different engine power.
Yeah, often there’s some decisions that have to be made about where you I don’t want to say compromise but emphasize is probably better. Anyway, winning the Indy 500 is always in our minds, so we do make some choices occasionally that might favor that particular engine boost. Like I said, we never stop looking at the other boost levels, the other tracks, how we work on it.
If I can win 17 of 17 races, I’d be pretty happy. That’s always our intent going into these races.

Q. With the Indy 500 coming up, more than 33 entries, maybe as many as 36, if that should occur, as an engine manufacturer, would you have any interest and maybe influence on changing the bumping procedures back to the more traditional? The way I recall the current status of qualifying, you basically run two days, then they sort the field. I prefer the drama of seeing someone trying to have more than one opportunity to get back in.
ART ST. CYR: I mean, the rules for the Indy 500, there’s a whole separate set of rules on how the Indy 500 works. We haven’t had that situation where we’ve had extra cars really until what looks like this year to do that stuff. I’m not necessarily a fan of changing the rules just for this year.
If we consistently start having where we want to be, having more cars, obviously if we have more engine manufacturers, that would help in fielding more cars as well. But as far as this year is concerned, I’m not really interested in changing the rules because we make a plan at the beginning of the year and say, These are the rules. If they start changing rules mid season, it makes it really difficult for the engine manufacturers because we have to start building engines pretty soon. We’ll start building our Indy 500 engines soon at HPD, so if they start changing things…
We really want stability. For things that make the show better, I’m all for exploring things that make the show better. As a fan, as a manufacturer, as a friend of a lot of these teams and drivers, those guys are so far on the edge doing qualifying at the 500. I talked to Gil de Ferran, he said that’s the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life. It’s great theater, but it sure is sketchy at times, right?

Q. With the new car for this year, how involved has Honda been in the actual vehicle dynamics, chassis, with your teams to try to find speed now with the universal kit?
ART ST. CYR: That’s an interesting question because as the engine manufacturer, we try to work with the teams to make sure we can give them the base information, things like aero maps, those types of things, so they can spend their resources trying to develop their own secret sauce in doing that.
As far as developing the whole package, yes, we’re involved in quite a bit of it, of helping them out. We go to the wind tunnels with the teams, we kind of consolidate all the data, give them out to the teams.
As far as them trying to get the last little bit of performance, those are kind of team IP level stuff. Although we are involved with them, we let the teams really run those and determine how they want to run the car for their particular drivers, how they want to maximize the performance of their individual car.
Our goal is to have all the Honda cars be at the top of the field, right? But who wins versus another Honda team is really up to their team skill.

Q. For example, would Honda now or in the future be interested in starting their own damper program? Would that be something you would want to get into?
ART ST. CYR: I hadn’t actually thought of that. Right now, that’s not in our plans. That’s the team, what I call the team IP. There’s not a lot of open areas of development. That’s really where the teams have a chance to really separate themselves from other teams. That’s not in our plans, to make a damper program from the manufacturers at this point.

Q. It’s been talked about the last few years of another manufacturer. Jay Frye said it’s looking like a possibility, probably not before 2020. Is Honda interested? Would you like another engine manufacturer?

ART ST. CYR: We have been very consistent, back even when we were sole supply, back in the 2006 to 2011 timeframe, that we would welcome more engine manufacturers into the series.
When Chevy came in, just for the record, we actually showed them how we were doing our engine. We are not only interested in having other manufacturers come in, but we are willing to help them and explain to them what it takes to race in IndyCar and be successful in IndyCar.
So, yes, we do welcome new manufacturers coming into the series.

Q. I understand Honda wants more performance out of the engine, faster speeds. What would you be leaning towards?
ART ST. CYR: What would we be leaning towards in terms of, I assume, specifications for the next engine in 2020 and beyond.
So, we are working with IndyCar. I’m going to say up front I’m not going to give you specifics of what we want because it really depends on what we’re trying to do as a series. Do we want faster cars, slower cars. We’re working with the other manufacturer right now in determining what makes the most sense for the series depending on what the goals are.
Now, I don’t expect huge changes. We’re not going to be 12 cylinder hybrids with energy recovery. We’re not going to have that stuff. I imagine the package will be similar.
Obviously, we want to make enough change that it requires kind of a reset in what we’re doing. With this engine, this is the seventh year. When you come up with a new engine, you have a capability to do some development. Every year you have less and less development available. What we find is, especially on our side, when we started developing this engine, we were sole supply. So, creating a bunch of power was not really in our mindset when we first started developing this engine. Now that we’re making more and more power every year, we’re really on the edge of reliability of these engines as well.
Now that we know there is competition, now that we know competition is here to stay, we assume competition is here to stay, we want a chance to really rethink how we develop the engine from the start. Obviously new blocks, heads, those types of things. How do we prepare for an increasing power era.
As far as specifics, those things still have to be worked out. Really from a philosophical standpoint, it’s a different starting point for us and any manufacturer that wants to join this next era.
Sounded like I was dancing around a little bit, but that’s really the case of the situation.
T.E. McHALE: On that note, we will wrap up. Thank you all for being here with us. Enjoy your weekend. It’s good to be back with all of you.

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