Chevrolet and its engine technical partner Ilmor Engineering, Inc. are working overtime to correct several recent component failures, which have taken drivers either out of contention or out of Verizon IndyCar Series races entirely in the last couple months.
There have not been a ton of outright DNFs – did not finishes – overall in the full field this year, which speaks to the overall high level of reliability.
There were only 2 each at St. Petersburg (mechanical) and Phoenix (accidents), 0 at both Long Beach and Barber, then in succession starting with the month of May at Indianapolis: 2, 8 (Indianapolis 500, a season-high), 4, 4, 2 and 3 through Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300.
However, notable component failures have struck Simon Pagenaud’s No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet car twice (Indianapolis 500, Road America), Scott Dixon’s then-yellow No. 9 Clorox Chevrolet (Road America) and Juan Pablo Montoya’s No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet (Iowa).
Of those four instances, only Dixon and Montoya failed to finish the race, while in both cases, Pagenaud pressed on to the finish in 19th and 13th place, respectively – securing potentially pivotal points in the championship race later this year.
To clarify the overall situation, we caught up with Paul Ray, President of Ilmor Engineering, Inc., for a wide-ranging conversation at Iowa Speedway not just about these instances but also how much Ilmor – one of North America’s most successful and diverse companies having also partnered with Honda and Mercedes in the past – continues to progress on the engine development front.
“So there’s a rumor going around that there are all sorts of engine failures. Which that’s not accurate,” Ray said.
“We had component failures. The problem is… these things are super-sophisticated beasts. When something goes wrong, sometimes there is a negative effect.
“Because of one of the component failures, we found an exhaust failure on Dixon’s car, which then set fire to the floor of the car, which set fire to parts of the engine.
“We had no choice but to swap the engine out because of the damage. It didn’t fail. That engine will be straight back in a car at some point. I wanted to make sure the record was set straight.”
Having a bad batch of parts issued from a vendor is what has contributed to the issues.
“This year we’ve had our challenges with components, as you do when you’re trying to push the limits as hard as you can,” Ray explained. “Sometimes you get caught out by quality of components that are batch-related. We’ve definitely had our struggles with that. Every year, we have a part or two where you don’t have the opportunity to try. No way of qualifying these pieces when they arrive in batches.”
Related to Pagenaud, specifically, Ray said it was the “same problem, with a different outcome.”
“It’s all related to the same issue – ignition system. Ultimately an ignition part caused an exhaust system failure which resulted in a car fire. We burned the wiring in the engine. The engine will be repaired,” Ray said.
It’s become harder to push now, Ray explained, because unlike in the past where there were three engines per weekend – a practice, qualifying and race engine – now each engine is a stressed member of the chassis and must run 2,500 miles before mileaging out.
Whereas in the past, a qualifying engine could last “at least the hour of qualifying,” as Ray said to a bit of laughter, now, that goal to make it to 2,500 means efficiency is more important than ever.
“We’re a big supporter of 2,500 miles,” Ray said. “We weren’t originally because every racer wants to have the ability to change everything all the time.
“But the reality is, you just can’t afford to do that. The money you’d spend would be ridiculous. CART days, it was three engines per weekend! Practice, qualifying and race engine… and it was! I was in charge of the budgets then too… a lot different back then than now.”
Ray explained the the mutual development path undertaken by Ilmor (engine side to the 2.2-liter V6 twin-turbocharged engine) and Pratt & Miller (aerodynamic side, for the Chevrolet aero kit).
“We don’t stop developing the engine because we have a good aero package,” he said. “Then Pratt & Miller don’t stop developing the aero because we have power.
“You need that extra quarter of a percent, one-eighth of a percent. There’s no 5 percent jump now. You’re looking for literally an eighth or quarter of a percent.
“The only way to get more performance now, fuel economy, horsepower or whatever, is efficiency. These engines are unbelievably, ridiculously efficient for the amount of weight, horsepower, size, fuel.”
As the development continues for the rest of the year, Chevrolet will be looking to ensure a reduction if not outright elimination of component failures to ensure it can win its fifth consecutive Manufacturer’s Championship.
Heading into Toronto this weekend, Chevrolet holds a 99-point lead over Honda, 1022-923.
At two races this year, Detroit race two (-160) and Road America (-120), Chevrolet has taken over 100 penalty points assessed, which makes Chevrolet’s otherwise dominant season on the scoreboard not look as great in teams of points in this Manufacturer’s Championship.
Chevrolet has won all but one of the 10 completed races so far. As Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports after Road America, the ongoing work to fix the situation while also maintaining performance remains the goal for the rest of the season.
“We had an issue there (with Dixon) and a couple other issues,” Campbell said after Road America.
“That’s racing. We have to dig in and fix it. We need to work to support our teams to win races the rest of the way.”