Despite the frustration, and occasional humiliation, of its 1994 Indy programme, Honda is continuing in America's premier series with a new team, and a fresh sense of purpose...
The news that Honda has found a new dancing partner for its Indy V8 engine programme should come as a relief to everyone connected with IndyCar racing. After all, while it may have given US racing's collective psyche a boost last year to see another automotive titan struggle in what some still regard as a second-rate series, the loss of Honda would have been a blow to the series's increasingly high profile in the worldwide automotive industry.
All the better that Honda's new mate is Tasman Motorsports, whose Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of TrueSports Racing's ill-fated "Made in America" chassis programme resulted in a pair of dominating runs to the Firestone Indy Lights Championship in 1993 and 1994. The timing couldn't be better for Tasman – or for Honda.
Though Honda's 1994 racing season oscillated between disappointment and humiliation, what with Rahal/Hogan switching to Ilmor power at Indianapolis and, ultimately, severing ties with Honda before the season was out, the weeks following the Laguna Seca finale were perhaps the worst of all. Spurned by Rahal/Hogan, Honda had a difficult time finding anyone interested in doing business with them in 1995. Chip Ganassi and Rick Galles had perhaps the most serious exploratory talks with Honda and stayed with Ford and Ilmor, respectively.
Then Jim Hayhoe, whose team limped through the final half of the season after going great guns in March, April and May, took an interest in the Honda Indy V8. That too fizzled and for a time it appeared Honda's only option was to pin its 1995 hopes on Comptech Racing, the three-time IMSA Camel Light champions who found the going a bit tougher in what was admittedly a reconnaissance season of IndyCar racing in 1994.
Behind the scenes, however, serious negotiations were underway between Honda and Tasman's Steve Home, the ex-team manager/president of TrueSports. Prior to the "Made in America" project, TrueSports had worked closely with John Judd in an effort to make the Honda-based Judd V8 a competitive proposition in IndyCar racing. Although Bobby Rahal did win the 1988 Pocono 500 in a Judd-powered car, it was the only win for the Judd during a period when the all-powerful Ilmor Chevrolet swept to 61 wins in 63 races (Porsche won the other one).
The Judd's Indy V8 is now long gone, but Home's pre-existing relationship with Honda served as a starting point for negotiations regarding 1995. The talks initially went nowhere, thanks to the fact that as a "new" team Tasman did nothing to satisfy CART's mandate that engine manufacturers must offer to supply their products to three franchise teams and six cars in their second year of competition. But after offering to do business with virtually all of the franchise teams and getting no takers, Honda found Tasman an attractive option.
For openers, despite the failures of the Judd and "Made in America" efforts, Horne has a proven track record, first as chief mechanic with the VDS CanAm team, then as chief mechanic, team manager and, ultimately, president of TrueSports during its IndyCar salad days in the 1980s. And Tasman's record in the FILC has been little short of awesome, with 20 wins in 24 races in 1993/94, first and second in the championship both seasons; ditto rookie of the year honours, first with Steve Robertson and, last year, with Andre Ribeiro who won three of the final five races and who will pilot Tasman's IndyCar in 1995.
"Steve is no stranger to us," says Robert Clarke, general manager of Honda Performance Development. "Plus we liked what we heard from him in terms of Tasman's technical approach for 1995 and beyond; integrating the whole driver/chassis/engine package. We know Steve's experience and ability to manage a top flight race team. It's a very capable group he's assembled, much along the same lines as Forsythe/Green last year. The more we think about it, the more we like it."
A racer through and through, Horne knows well from his days at TrueSports that the only way to get ahead in IndyCar racing for more than a fortuitous season or so is to eschew the kit car formula of running some combination of what everybody (except Roger Penske) has. Though he can be gruff and intimidating, Home's polished his act since the early TrueSports days and has grown as comfortable (and adept) at working with sponsors and the media as he was with nuts and bolts in his days as a mechanic.
Like all truly successful businessmen, Steve's word is good as gold. And he values loyalty. A look at the Tasman roster reveals that many of the people who took the blame for the failure of the "Made in America" project hold key spots. For example, Don Halliday, chief designer of the "Made in America" chassis, is Tasman's top engineer, while Jeff Eischen, director of R&D on the "Made in America" project, has been Tasman's team manager from Day One. Horne knows the problems with the "Made in America" chassis stemmed principally from financial, not intellectual, shortcomings.
So it is a fortuitous marriage of convenience that has brought Tasman and Honda together. Licking its wounds after such a high profile failure in its "rookie" season, Honda can regroup for 1995 knowing that Tasman and Ribeiro will put forth a professional effort, but also that in their first season they are not expected to win races. They very well may, but if they don't the finger of blame will not point so unwitheringly at the Honda Indy V8 as it did in 1994.
Likewise, Tasman will use 1995 as a building year. Again, this is not to say they will leave any stone unturned in their effort to win a race or two, but a win is not essential to a successful first season of IndyCar racing.
"Unlike most teams, we're in a position to look a little further into the future than Miami (the first race of 1995)," says Home. "The only pressure will be what we and Honda create for ourselves, which is quite a bit different from the way (Rahal/Hogan sponsor) Miller Genuine Draft looks at things and rightly so. Maybe we have the right mentality for Honda: I think we can both grow quietly together. We have a lot to learn, but I don't expect to be last."
Having said all that, the signs suggest Honda is moving forward. Clarke has been talking quietly of making gains with the existing Indy V8 in the post-season, even as work continues on an all new aluminium block engine scheduled to debut at Nazareth as a precursor to the all important month of May.
"The all new engine went on the dyno before Christmas," he said, "and we'll continue to co-develop that engine with our existing engine. There's still a lot we can learn from the existing engine, and it will provide good baseline data which we can apply to the all new engine. At the same time, we made some significant gains on the existing engine lately and, frankly, I'm pretty excited about taking it into the first few races in 1995. I don't think it will be uncompetitive."
That Clarke isn't just whistling Dixie is apparent from Comptech's recent test at Phoenix International Raceway where Parker Johnstone who still hasn't raced on an oval toured the track in 20.5s in a Honda-powered Reyna rd 951. Not just once, and not just on gumball tires with a light tanks.
Johnstone and Comptech had a rough time of it last year, coming in as kings of Camel Lights and trying to be competitive with '93 Lolas powered by Hondas that were at least a version or two away from those resting in the back of Bobby Rahal's car. But the team added veteran IndyCar engineer Bernie Marcus to the roster during the course of the season and Comptech figures to be more competitive this year, although the lack of a sponsor will likely keep them out of the line-up until Indianapolis.
Taken together though, an improved Comptech, combined with Tasman's mix of professionalism, ambition and realism not to mention a year's experience on the part of HPD have the makings for a good sophomore IndyCar season for Honda.