All 11 cars and drivers fielding Chevrolet engines in the IZOD IndyCar Series will have a ten-place grid penalty for this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, after the engine manufacturer issued urgent instructions to its partner teams to immediately replace the units they are currently running in their cars.
“Through our testing in Sonoma, as indicated by an engine issue, we uncovered a problem that we believe could affect all engines," said Chris Berube, Chevrolet Racing IZOD IndyCar Series Program Manager. "As a result, we feel it is prudent to change all engines prior to the start of the on-track activities this weekend."
Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe's #27 GoDaddy.com car was hit by an engine problem early on Monday during a planned test session at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. He was unable to take part in the planned test activities the team had planned for the day which Chevy engineers investigated the issue. It was subsequently confirmed that after examination, the Chevy engine in the #27 had been replaced and Hinchcliffe would therefore incur a ten-spot grid penalty for Sunday's race as a result of replacing an engine ahead of its scheduled 1850-mile lifespan.
But the problem uncovered by Hinchliffe's engine failure clearly runs much deeper than just one failure in one unit, and has led to today's decision by the manufacturer to mandate that all teams running its engines replace them going into this weekend's street race in Long Beach, California.
The company said in a press release that: "The decision was made following the tear-down and inspection of an engine that experienced an issue during an IndyCar-sanctioned test earlier this week at Infineon Raceway."
The manufacturer also confirmed in the press release that under current IndyCar rules 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52, the engine change would indeed mean that all 11 drivers - which includes the previously-announced Hinchcliffe - will take ten-place grid penalties as a result.
"This is certainly a decision that was not made lightly,” stressed Berube. "We intently discussed the situation with our partners and our teams prior to determining that this was the best course of action to preserve the integrity of the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series."
The drivers affected include the rest of the Andretti Autosport line-up (Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti), all three Penske drivers (Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Will Power), all three KV Racing technology cars (Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello and EJ Viso) and solo entries Ed Carpenter (Ed Carpenter Racing) and JR Hildebrand (Panther Racing).
"This is obviously disappointing, but it is the same for all the Chevy teams and these things happen when you are in development programs," said Andretti Autosports CEO Michael Andretti, noting that it was lucky the problem had been found now and not in the middle of a race.
"There's a positive in everything," concurred Barrichello. "It is what it is."
It's the first blot on the Chevy copybook, after the engine manufacturer dominated qualifying at the first race in St Petersburg and won both of the first two races of the 2012 season with Penske's Castroneves and Power.
But the mass penalty hands a huge advantage to the Honda-powered teams at Long Beach. So far, Honda have suffered just one engine-related problem, with Simon Pagenaud getting a ten-place penalty at St Petersburg.
Lotus have had two engine changes in the first two races of the season with Alex Taliani and Oriol Servia, and it was earlier confirmed that Sébastien Bourdais would have to change his engine going into Long Beach and will also have a grid penalty to serve.
The en masse
Chevy engine switch is likely to increase disquiet in the sport about the teams and drivers being hit by penalties for something that is wholly out of their control, as they have normally no internal access to the sealed units.
Even before the news about the Chevy engine change broke, new IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield had said that he shared fans' pain over the teams being penalised in this way and planned to hold a meeting with everyone concerned at the earliest opportunity. [See separate story
Barfield was particularly concerned that the current rules can discourage teams from testing the new Dallara chassis and new-specification V6 turbo-charged engines that the series has just introduced at the start of the season.
"Inadvertently putting a regulation out there that disincentivises testing, that is absolutely not what we want," he said on Wednesday.
The irony is that Hinchliffe's engine failure in testing is exactly what highlighted the issue that has now led to Chevrolet's decision to replace all of its engines for Long Beach. If teams weren't participating in the test sessions to catch such developmental issues, then there would have been the risk of an embarrassing and damaging widespread failure during the Sunday afternoon race itself.