Steve Eriksen Interview Transcript

April 17, 2015

An interview with:  STEVE ERIKSEN

THE MODERATOR: Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining us for the second in a series of motor coach briefings for the 2015 IndyCar season.

Our guest today is Steve Eriksen, vice president and chief operating officer of Honda Performance Development.

Steve, thanks for making the time to be with us today.

Going to open with just a general observation which sounded when we talked about it inside that it’s news to both of us. Between the operations of the IndyCar Series, the Tudor Sports Car Championship and the Pirelli World Series Challenge here this weekend, HPD has 55 engineers on site.

Talk a little bit about that.

STEVE ERIKSEN: Yeah, that’s an impressive number. Because it’s one of our home tracks, we tend to bring more folks out because it’s convenient, it doesn’t cost us an arm and a leg. But it’s not that far off from what we had at the opening race at St. Pete. In fact, that race I counted a high of 44 folks. So we’re about, you know, 10 or 11 more than that.

But because we’re supporting three different series and we want to support it in a quality manner, we’ve made some improvements in our trackside support staff, quality and quantity. In fact, I’ve gotten some feedback from our teams that they really appreciate that and are quite pleased with what they’re experiencing this year.

THE MODERATOR: So can you just amplify that a little bit by talking about how the division of labor is set up amongst the group of 55.

STEVE ERIKSEN: Sure. We did a number of things. One is we have a variety of different roles at the track. The most common one is the engine engineer. We assign engine engineers for each driver, each team. What we’ve done this year is added another layer of more senior folks so that the guys that are doing the day to day stuff of running a car have kind of an overseer who is looking at the bigger picture, looking across the cars, able to look at things that in the hectic day to day of trying to make sure that the car has got the right calibrations in there, that you’ve got the right gear ratios in there, et cetera, you don’t have time to do all the analysis you’d like.

So we’ve added another layer of very experienced guys who are kind of the key point for the team to talk to and to look at the bigger picture.

For instance, if you look at Andretti, when they run four cars, by having kind of a senior guy over those four cars, that senior guy can be making sure that improvements that are found on one car are being applied across the other cars.

So it’s a way to provide more consistency across the cars, more analysis of things that you might not have time to do when you’re running the car. So that’s added a layer and additional folks at the track.

The other thing that we’ve added is a whole series of chassis related folks to help teams get the most out of the aero kit. If you look across the teams, you’ll see we’ve got some very, very experienced guys that are positioned in with each of the teams to help them get the most out of the aero kit. So that’s another layer.

Then you’ve also got a layer of folks that are dealing with the mechanical aspects of the engine. So if there’s a trumpet change that needs to be made because of changing atmospheric conditions, if you’ve got 12 cars, you’ve only got one guy, for instance, to do that change, you got quite a queue of cars to get that change done. We’ve added more resources in that regard as well to make sure that we get good service out to the customers.

So those are kind of the things that have caused us to add even more folks at the track. I think it’s having a really good effect.

THE MODERATOR: You mentioned aero kits. We’ll segue into that discussion. Had obvious issues at St. Petersburg in the season opener with the way parts littered the racetrack in certain circumstances. HPD was proactive after that race in taking steps to ensure that that kind of thing would happen a lot less frequently.

Give us your evaluation of how that looked in New Orleans and what the course forward might be with regard to stabilizing and strengthening aero kit parts for the coming road and street course races.

STEVE ERIKSEN: Sure. We applied very quickly some strengtheners, kind of like an additional layer of carbon in a couple of spots to further strengthen the parts. Those made their debut at NOLA. I was very, very pleased to see how that turned out. We had a number of instances of car to car contact during that race. In fact, we’ve got photographs of endplates with giant tire marks on them where contact had happened, and we did not have a single instance of parts coming off the car. So that fix definitely worked well, and IndyCar was very, very pleased with what they saw from that race.

So we’re going to give it another race here to get another data point to see how things go at Long Beach. Assuming that it goes as well here as it did at NOLA, then our plan is to essentially take that strength as a benchmark, if you will, and then go back and make the same original shape but to that new strength level as a replacement part. So that way you retain the original homologated shape, the original aerodynamic intent, and you get the added strength.

THE MODERATOR: We’re inside a month now from the opening of practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 500. Give us kind of an overview, if you would, of what you expect in terms of how many cars will be supplied by Honda engines.

STEVE ERIKSEN: Our plan from the very beginning has always been for 17 cars at Indy. We always planned to support more than half the field. At 17 cars, that’s a good number for us from a resource standpoint.

Based on what I’m hearing from each of our teams, I fully expect we’ll be at 17 cars for the month of May.

I’ve also heard Chevy’s at 17. So if that’s true, that gives us at least one car for Bump Day.

THE MODERATOR: We’ll open it up to questions for Steve Eriksen.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: Your question is based on what we saw at NOLA, what’s our reflection of where we’re at?

I was really quite pleased. Obviously with the chaos of the rain and wet and stuff, it’s a crapshoot to know exactly where you’re at. But I think if we had gone green again at the end of the race, we would have seen James Jakes pass Castroneves. He was right there until another yellow came along. So he looked very competitive.

I talked to James Hinchcliffe. He was very happy with the car, very pleased with its competitiveness. And what a performance from Simona. I mean, that was just phenomenal. Sure like to see her get back in the car again. Obviously she’ll be here for Indy when we go to the Indy 500.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: Rahal looked real racy as well. He’s actually been very strong from the get go with the aero kit. His team got what you need to think about for getting the most out of it. They’ve made great progress through the races that they’ve been at so far.

So, yeah, I’m really quite pleased with the progress. Every session, teams are learning more and more about the aero kit. If you look at last year’s car, last year’s car made a lot of its performance with the under wing. Yes, you have wings, but the under wing made a lot of the performance.

IndyCar took away a ton of the performance the under wing. That was part of the regulation change. So by necessity the cars now make more performance out of the wings than out of the under wing. So that changes inherently how a car has to be set up. So we’re pleased they’re coming to grips with that.

Q. Do we have to address the structural aspects of the speedway kit, which will be making its debut at Indianapolis based on what we learned about the road, street course kit?

STEVE ERIKSEN: We had a chance to have IndyCar come out and see the full Speedway kit in totality. So they got to come out to one of the teams, see it installed, have a look over the car.

They were completely happy with what they saw. We’ve made some further suggestions to them, which they are considering. One of the things that we proposed, if you looked at Ryan Hunter Reay’s wreck at NOLA, what you saw when he wrecked, and that was a big old wreck, the rear wheel guards and the beam that joins them came off as a whole. That’s entirely expected based on the regulations and the way that they require us to segregate the boxes.

But our suggestion to them, and they’re looking at it, is why not tie in the rear wheel guards to the main plane? Why not connect those together? You’re going to form a box that’s much more solid.

So they’re considering that. We’ll see if they agree to that. If so, then we’ll look at doing that in the future. You can look at the footage and go, Hey, that whole thing comes off as an assembly. Why not tie it in so it stays together?

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: We have tested the Speedway kit. In fact, if you looked at our video when we released the road course image, there were some images there of a car looking very Speedway like. So yes, we have.

Q. How much weight was added as a result of the structural changes to the road and street aero kits?

STEVE ERIKSEN: It’s very, very minor. Basically if you looked at the front wing endplate, the place that we reinforced was the base, the outer edge, the base of the outer edge of the front endplate. What we did, it’s a very thin sheet the carbon molded perfectly to the shape that goes on the outside, one that goes on the inside, one goes on the bottom. It kind of sandwiches the base.

But they’re very, very thin. Apart from the adhesive and the rivets that hold it in place, it’s pretty small. If you look at the rear wheel guard, it’s two strips. I mean, they’re probably about that wide. Very thin strips that go on the inside of the rear wheel guard. So it’s very, very minor.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: It’s a little hard to get a read on that. I certainly was impressed with the fuel economy that James Hinchcliffe was able to do on NOLA. He did it in one stop. I talked to him after the race. He said he had enough fuel to do two laps of green after the race in addition to what he was able to complete. So he was quite pleased with the fuel economy.

We haven’t really had enough full green segments yet in the series to assess truly where we’re at on fuel economy. But that’s traditionally been a strong suit for us, so I expect that we’ll be quite competitive there.

From a performance standpoint, like I said, everybody’s getting their heads around the fact that this is a different car and you have to set it up differently to extract the most out of the aero kit.

I mean, if you looked at some of the qualifying performances, you’ll see some folks jumping up the list that might be a little bit surprising, but it’s because they got their heads around what was needed to get the performance out of the kit, and they were able to do quite well.

I don’t think you’ve seen all of the performance that’s possible from the kit. I’m pretty confident in that.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: Again, it’s hard to assess. But everything that we’ve gotten as feedback from our teams said we made a huge step forward over the off season. We can see it in the power curves. But they can feel it in the car.

We’ve made such an increase that drivers are having trouble keeping that power to the ground. That’s one of the things they’re dealing with. This is so much power that I’ve got to rework the car to try to deal with the extra power.

Q. Are the changes that we felt necessary just related to construction?

STEVE ERIKSEN: Yeah, at this point that’s where it’s at. I mean, you know, it’s interesting watching the in car video and the video that you see from the broadcast, just how much that Dallara main plane is being deformed. That’s happening because we’re putting a ton of force on it. We’re making power out of that wing. The main plane, which last year didn’t have to deal with much of that power, is now really getting a workout.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: We have a whole series of tests that the aero kit had to pass to be homologated. We passed all those with flying colors on the first test.

What you don’t have is there’s no spec for how hard are the drivers going to run into each other. It’s a little bit of learning as you go along. We responded very quickly once we saw that there was improvement that made sense to do. So far it’s panned out really well.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: It did seem at NOLA that the yellows dragged on so long that the tires cooled down, and then you get into this cycle of, Oh, geeze, now another guy’s gone off. It takes so long to get it cleaned up. Your tires cool down.

I was actually talking to Gil about this during the race. He reminded us it used to be the case, it creates its own problem, they used to take the pace car off early and allow everybody to do a lap on their own to get tires back up to temp before they did the lap that says go green.

The problem was, of course, people would accordion out, can’t get a good start because people are spread out differently.

But it would give drivers a bit more time to get the tires up to temp to prevent an immediate problem again.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: It’s been a big exercise because nothing exists in isolation. So when we had an opportunity to design an aero kit, we also had the opportunity to change everything about how the engine    essentially all the engine integration parts of the installation. So, you know, it was a chance for our engine guys and our chassis guys to really work together to extract the most out of this engine installation kit for this season.

We did a great job. We reduced weight. We improved power. The whole kit has better (indiscernible). They did a wonderful job. That can only be done when you have that kind of close working relationship between the chassis side and the engine side. It’s been a great exercise engineering wise.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: It is a challenge. Ultimately qualifying and race are two very different configurations. Qualifying, it’s take every bit of drag off the car and make it as low drag as you can without pitching the driver off into the wall. Then the race, it’s different. You obviously put more downforce on for the race.

So we’ve focused the biggest part of our efforts on making the very, very best racecar first and foremost. So the target, of course, is an Indy 500 win. The kit is designed to be the very, very best racecar we can put in place.

You’ll see some very interesting little elements as you look around the car. It’s going to be a lot cleaner looking because you don’t have all those drag inducing high downforce elements. But there are subtle little pieces around the car that have some very interesting aerodynamic effects.

So we’re in the process of finalizing our plan for introducing that aero kit along with IndyCar probably just post Barber we’re looking at.

Q. (No microphone.)

STEVE ERIKSEN: Number one goal of our company is winning the Indy 500. It is the most important thing for us to do. So that was the design ethos behind the aero kit, was start with the Indy 500 and then everything else cascades on after that.

So there’s certain parts of the aero kit that are fixed. You can’t change them between superspeedway and road course. Those parts had to first and foremost be the best Indy 500 winning parts we could make, then everything else had to add on from there.

That’s an easy one. That’s been the case from day one, so… That’s very, very important.

THE MODERATOR: With that, we will wrap it up. Thanks for making the time for this today. Steve, thanks for joining us. Have a good race weekend.

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