One of the big selling points for IndyCar going into the 2012 season surrounded the return of engine competition to the series.
The idea was simple: Having three manufacturers would spice things up, and each motor supplier would push hard all year long trying to keep a step ahead of its rivals.
Both Chevrolet and Honda followed the recipe exactly, bringing powerful and reasonably reliable 2.2-litre, turbocharged V-6 engines to the track to meet the series’ new specifications. Although Chevy seemed to have the advantage in the early going, Honda clawed back and now the two fight tooth and nail for wins on almost every weekend.
And then there’s Lotus, whose Judd-produced engines have been a bit less successful.
Things were so bad with the Lotus engine that its teams began looking to Chevy and Honda for help after seeing the huge gap in performance between Lotus and the two other motors in the first couple of races. Three of its four teams, including Canadian Alex Tagliani’s Bryan Herta outfit, swapped their Lotus engine for other makes by May’s Indianapolis 500.
With a new controlling shareholder in its parent company and the poor results on track, the engine maker continues to make noise about ending its five-year deal to supply IndyCar teams with engines four years early. Few in the paddock believe Lotus will be around for the 2013 season.
The one-car HVM Racing operation with Simona De Silvestro remains the only team in the series left using the Lotus powerplant. And her numbers paint a pretty dismal picture.
The No. 78 driver has completed only 754 of a possible 1,561 laps, or 48.3 per cent, so far in 2012. In 12 starts, she has finished inside the top-20 only twice, with her best result being a pair of 14ths in Detroit and Iowa.
In her first two years in IndyCar, De Silvestro has been a middle-of-the-pack runner in a poorly funded team who occasionally broke into the top-10.
The June race in Texas pretty much sums up the kind of season it’s been for De Silvestro and Lotus. The Swiss driver arrived at the Fort Worth oval coming off her best finish of the year in Detroit, where she finally got to the chequered flag and delivered a good result.
Updates to the Lotus engine’s exhaust system in Texas were supposed to make her car more competitive, giving her hope that she could build on the Detroit success. That all went out the window when the car wouldn’t start for the race due to a fuel pressure problem and she didn’t even turn a lap.
In all, the 23-year-old has failed to finish seven out of 12 races in 2012, with only two of those retirements being due to accidents.
The lowest point of the year was easily the Indianapolis 500, where De Silvestro paired with Formula One veteran Jean Alesi as the only two Lotus-powered cars in the field. The race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway was nothing short of a disaster.
The two Lotus cars were so underpowered that it was dangerous to have them on the track with the other competitors. In practice, it quickly became apparent that Alesi and De Silvestro were hugely off the pace, running 25 kilometres per hour slower than the Chevy- and Honda-powered cars.
In the biggest race of the season, Brickyard officials allowed the two Lotus cars to stay on track until the rest of the 33-car field approached to lap them for the first time. The officials waved the black flag to order De Silvestro to retire from the race after just nine of 200 laps. Mercifully, the No. 78 car was listed on the official boxscore as retiring due to handling problems.
“It was really tough.” she said. “For sure I would have liked to do the race, and doing just nine laps was pretty annoying.”
“But on the other side, maybe it was a help for me because we had a really smooth month. I was pretty anxious to go back there, so maybe it gave me the opportunity to take things slow and learn a lot and make the car comfortable.”
Although the Lotus has been an unreliable, weak sister to Chevy and Honda, things finally seem to be looking up for De Silvestro. Her engine made it all the way to the end in the past two races, although she was two laps down at the finish in both.
On the other hand, the more reliable Lotus engine of late also offers the unenviable combination of guzzling fuel while not matching the Chevys or Hondas in horsepower.
“We have low fuel mileage and we’re down on power, so we’re not competitive right now,” De Silvestro said after the last race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
“The team is doing their best, but we’re just not in a good situation.”
Indeed, De Silvestro has used seven engines this season, two more than the allotted maximum under the new rules for 2012. Any need for another powerplant will instantly result in a 10-place penalty for De Silvestro.
And the reward for all her frustration? She lies dead last in points for IndyCar regulars with 147, good enough for only 25th place.
Is that an engine in your pocket?
On the other end of the points table, the only driver in the top five with one engine remaining is Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who may be able to use the Chevy motor in reserve to stave off a hard-charging Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports for fifth in the standings.
Hinchcliffe has excelled in his sophomore year with his new Andretti Autosport Team, taking five top-five finishes. The 2011 IndyCar rookie of the year is only five points ahead of Pagenaud going into this weekend’s road course race at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Drivers get 50 points for a win.
With third- and fourth-place drivers Hélio Castroneves and Scott Dixon 37 and 35 points ahead respectively, Hinchcliffe still has a shot at a top three overall finish, but he will likely need some serious luck to pull it off.
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