Q&A with HPD President Art St. Cyr, post-Indy open test

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The issue of the domed skid plates coming onto INDYCAR’s underbody, in the sanctioning body’s quest for further safety, has been a thorny one with some Honda drivers noting a stability issue in handling in testing.

Nonetheless, INDYCAR put out a ruling following the April 6 open test at Indianapolis 500 that the domed skids would remain intact and in place for the 100th running of the race, and underbody strakes – which would increase underbody downforce rather than top side downforce as is made by the aero appendages on the aero kits – would not be added for the race.

NBC Sports caught up with Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr post-that ruling, but pre-the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, for thoughts on the ruling, the reaction, and how Honda intends to move forward into next week’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, then the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

MST: I’m sure you’re sick by now of talking about domed skids…

Art St. Cyr: “I really just want to put it behind us, and get back to racing. Originally we weren’t talking about it, because you want to handle rule changes internally. You don’t want jury by the press!”

MST: Alas, now the official ruling is out from INDYCAR. So how does Honda move forward following the ruling?

St. Cyr: “That’s basically it. We have to back up a bit, on the whole ruling. After last year’s qualifying issues we had, we’d been working cooperatively with INDYCAR. Honda is for safety. We’re not going to say we’re opposed to anything that can make it safer, in an inherently risky sport. So it was, ‘What are some ideas we can do to improve safety, including the domed skid?’ The domed skid in itself started getting some life in late summer of last year (and was announced in November -Ed.).

“The last time we talked about it before the rule came out, I have to clarify, Honda’s understanding is that we would replace any underfloor downforce levels with underfloor downforce. The floor is a spec part, the skid is a spec part, it should be spec goes on, and it should be same for both sides. That was our understanding. And then the rule came out and it did not reflect that, so it caught us out a bit. We had fixed our design around the time, before the rule came out.

“In the (Rule) 9.2 boxes, the standard 3 boxes, in those 9.2 boxes, the sidepod and the floor – anything around that – is not open for development. There is no way to account for it using your 9.2 boxes. Since the rule came out, we’ve talked with INDYCAR, in saying, ‘Hey this isn’t what was promised. This is supposed to be aerodynamically neutral.’ Also in the discussion was that we’d test and adjust as necessary.

“The reason I am willing to talk now, the rule came out, a rule is a rule, and we’re going to go racing. We want to put it behind us. It seemed there was this perception that Honda was asking for concessions or anything else… we weren’t. I want to clarify that. We weren’t looking for a concession. We’re looking to have a spec part which theoretically would affect both. It wasn’t, ‘Not just Honda gets these parts’  It should be available for both. It’s a spec part. Everything is spec. Let’s make sure we do this, as we get the car raised 10 mm. Physics is physics. That’s such a big adjustment. That’s not a Honda or competition thing, that’s physics. I assume that part is going to affect both sides.

“Our stance was, ‘Why would we not put the downforce back we lost?’ We want a strong, ruling sanctioning body to make rules. We discussed. Unfortunately it got discussed in the media, which is not our way of doing it. We take a bit of exception that ‘we’re whining to get concessions,’ because we’re not. I want that to be completely clear.”

MST: You’ve been involved since the 1990s… you want to win with a better car, not because of the sanctioning body?

St. Cyr: “That’s exactly it. We knew we were behind last year. It was obvious at the Indianapolis 500. The competition was faster than us. We knew we had the gap to make up. We embraced it, we owned it. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make it up.

“From a Honda viewpoint, other people have different perceptions of what’s written down, is that any downforce loss would be replaced without us having to worry about it. So we didn’t take that into consideration, intentionally so.”

MST: There have been some competitors who’ve said, well, Honda made progress at the last two big ovals in Fontana and Pocono and won both. Were those improvements relevant to now, or not?

St. Cyr: “That’s a little bit different story, last year. This’ll be a longer explanation. Last year, our aero kit had decent performance, but there was really only one way to run it to get the maximum performance. Best example is Graham Rahal and his group found the peak performance.

“What we found with the kit, is every team has a different philosophy of how to set up the car. So if you’re not in the peak, somewhere else, it makes it really hard to operate. That’s what a lot of our teams had at the beginning of the year, where they tried to apply their philosophy to this kit, and it wasn’t working. Towards the end of the year they figured it out. It was a bit of a natural.

“Part of our offseason development, on road course and short oval stuff, was to widen the operating window. When we thought about how we designed our kit originally, we went back and rethought, that we need to make sure teams want to run the car the way they want to run the car. Some want stiff, some want soft, some go high, some go low.

“How do we expand the operating window to not disadvantage one philosophy or another? That was the focus of what we’re doing this year. It’s taking what it was last year where everyone worked toward this. Now it’s to allow their setup to make the most out of the kit.

MST: James Hinchcliffe said he felt better about race pace… is that the general feedback you’ve received?

St. Cyr: “Absolutely. I hear terms like, when they make a change to the car, now it reacts the way they expect it to change. Last year when they made the change, it didn’t do what they thought it would do. Just sensitivity in general. We’re trying to calm down some of the sensitivities, to apply a lot more setup philosophies.

MST: You’re still looking at 17 cars and leases for this year’s Indianapolis 500?

St. Cyr: “Yes to 17. That’s what we’re staffed up to do. Given the right situation we could extend to an 18th, but that hasn’t changed compared to St. Pete. It’s getting pretty close to when anyone would pull that trigger.”