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Engines could play role in title fight

INDIANAPOLIS -- Engine competition returned to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012. Inevitably, engine reliability re-emerged as a critical factor in a driver's championship hopes.

That reliability could determine whether Will Power or Ryan Hunter-Reay emerges from the 500-mile season finale at Auto Club Speedway as the series champion.

INDYCAR introduced a new turbocharged V-6 engine formula for 2012, along with strict guidelines designed to constrain costs for participating manufacturers. Engines are required to run 1,850 miles, and each entrant is allocated five engines for the season. Failure to reach the engine mileage or use of more than five engines results a 10-place grid penalty for the next race.

Thanks to the competitiveness of the racing this year with the new Dallara DW12 chassis, the 10-place grid penalty is not insurmountable -- as Power demonstrated by winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach from 12th on the grid after qualifying second.

But there is still the fear that an engine problem down the stretch -- especially in the first 500-mile Indy car race outside the Indianapolis 500 in 10 years -- could put the kibosh on either contender's title run.

There has been a lot of grumbling about the five-engine rule, because it appears that drivers -- and to a lesser extent, their teams -- are the ones being penalized for engine problems rather than the engine manufacturers themselves. Folks are also unhappy because test days are included in the engine rules, so if an engine lets go in a test session between races, the driver's starting position will be set back 10 places for the next event.

Power and Hunter-Reay each have two test sessions scheduled at Auto Club Speedway prior to the race weekend, and both are already using their fifth allocated engine. Those motors were installed before the Grand Prix of Sonoma, so they already have two full race weekends (about 700 miles) of service. A 10-place grid penalty is not as difficult to overcome in a 500-mile race on a wide oval such as Fontana than it would be on a tight street course, so it's likely that both will opt to start mid-pack with fresh engines as a precautionary measure.

"We're looking at that," said Andretti Autosport owner and Hunter-Reay race strategist Michael Andretti. "We have a couple tests, and we are going to see how many miles we get on the engines at the tests. There's a chance that we might have to take a penalty, but we don't know yet for sure."

Even though Chevrolet has dominated the action, with 11 wins in 14 races, the return of engine manufacturer competition was one of the most important storylines of the IndyCar season -- even if meant the reintroduction of reliability as a wild card.

There have been more engine failures so far in 2012 than there were during the entire six-year period from 2006-11 when Honda supplied the entire IndyCar Series field with identical powerplants.

According to figures supplied by Honda Performance Development, Honda suffered a total of 11 engine failures in almost 1.2 million miles of competition from 2006 to 2011. In that time, there were just six in-race failures in 491,000 miles of action, and four of those came in 2006, Honda's first year as sole supplier.

There have generally been two to four grid penalties at most events in 2012, and some of the engine failures have been spectacular. On the Honda side, who can forget Justin Wilson's smoky blow-up at Milwaukee or Dario Franchitti's pole-winning powerplant letting go on the parade lap at Iowa?

Then there was Chevrolet's decision to change all its engines at Long Beach, allowing its drivers to race with an uprated specification while taking that dreaded 10-position grid penalty.

"As these manufacturers come out with each iteration of engine, the engine becomes stronger and possibly has a better performance," Power said. "If you happen to be on the wrong side of the mileage where you're not in the latest iteration for quite a few races, you're in trouble.

"And if you get a 10 grid-spot penalty at the wrong track, you're in trouble."

Why are engines suddenly blowing up again? Simple -- manufacturer competition means engines have to be developed for performance as well as reliability, yet cost caps are tighter than ever.

Despite lower costs to the competitors, if not necessarily for the manufacturers, engine reliability in 2012 is the best it has ever been during an era of manufacturer competition.

The 500-mile Indy car races have always been endurance contests, and it's fascinating to reflect on how much stronger and more reliable the cars and engines have become over the years -- all while the racing is safer, closer and more competitive.

From the 1970s until the early 1990s, 500-mile Indy car races at Indianapolis, Michigan and Ontario were marked by terrible attrition and often featured fewer than 10 cars running at the finish. This year's Indianapolis 500 saw 22 out of 33 entries finish, with 16 on the lead lap.

There were six engine-related retirements from this year's Indy 500, fewer than half of what you would have expected 20 or 30 years ago. Although a portion of the fan base clamors for a return to the shade-tree mechanic days of the 1970s, when private builders massaged off-the-shelf engines, it must be said that the manufacturer-controlled lease plans that originated with Ilmor/Chevrolet in the mid-'80s are the main reason Indy car engines are much more reliable than they used to be.

It should also be noted that the costs to competitors for those engine leases are considerably lower than they were in the not-so-distant past.

At the height of the CART era in the late 1990s, teams were asked to pay upward of $3 million per car for season-long engine leases that included rebuilds every 350 miles. When given a single-supply contract from 2003-07, Cosworth reworked its engine, focusing on reliability and parity, and charged $1.25 million a year for engines that went 1,250 miles between rebuilds.

In addition to 1,850 miles between rebuilds, the 2012 INDYCAR engine lease price is capped at $690,000. Yet the failure rate is still less than 5 percent. That's pretty impressive. If this year's engine reliability figures pale in comparison to the recent single-supply era, they certainly look better than what took place in the distant past. The competition between manufacturers and teams is also much closer than it used to be.

"I'm very proud of our first year with this new car," said INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard. "Honda and Chevy have come out and dominated and shown such great racing. We have seen better speeds than last year, and I think that's very important. I think the fact that we've seen 26 percent more lead changes on road and street courses, and 50 percent more on ovals, is fantastic too.

"The new car and the engines has just been a great story."