DETROIT - The results of today's Detroit Grand Prix might be subject to a protest by Honda, depending on what transpires during what is expected to be the last Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) race here after a 13-year association with Detroit.
But based on yesterday's pole qualifying results, Honda might want to reconsider its quibble with CART.
Defending Detroit Grand Prix champion Helio Castroneves captured the pole position with a speed of 114.908 miles per hour. Honda drivers took three of the top four starting positions. Castroneves' Marlboro Team Penske teammate, Gil de Ferran, was third-fastest, followed by Dario Franchitti, driving for Team Kool Green.
Toyota driver Bruno Junqueira broke up a Honda sweep of the first three starting positions with a second-quick speed of 114.780 mph.
Honda and CART are the main contestants in a conflict over a new pop-off valve that CART supposedly sprung on teams without warning Friday morning.
Ford sided with Honda in regard to the timing of the mandate on Friday, but has since backed off. The four Honda teams, that include a total of nine drivers, were advised to boycott practice here both Friday morning and afternoon. Ford teams participated in both practice sessions, as did Toyota, the third engine manufacturer in the CART series.
Honda teams took part in the second practice session Friday with Franchitti posting the fastest speed.
“We will run the race,” said Tom Elliott, president of Honda Performance and Development, yesterday “We protested the change yesterday. CART rejected the protest. We will appeal that. We will file an appeal and there might be other legal options out there to us, including protesting the results of the race. That's a possibility.”
The new pop-off valve to restrict turbocharger boost and create less horsepower was tested at both Michigan International Speedway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last week. Honda and Ford were not invited to the Mid-Ohio test for rookies only, according to Elliott.
“I think we're not where we want to be engine-wise,” said de Ferran. “It (the new pop-off valve) made a mess of the whole setup of the engine. The engine was not running right at all. I have to give Honda a lot of credit. They had to react really, really fast and they improved the engine a lot from yesterday to today, but it still wasn't going as good as it was. What you see here today is a great credit to our team.”
Castroneves was in complete agreement with his teammate.
“It's a difficult situation, so we did a good job today,” he added. “Imagine if we had 100 per cent of everything we had yesterday. It's made our job hard. Everyone is working hard. It's a tough situation to come here and all of a sudden they come up with a surprise. Let's see what's going to happen tomorrow.”
Three CART judges heard Honda's protest Friday night. The protest addressed six grievances regarding a 3/4-inch extension on the base of the pop-off valve to reduce the potential influence of airflow upon the operation of the valve.
The judges denied the protest.
“The rule is something that is there to protect against the eventuality that somebody wants to take the opportunity to have more manifold pressure than what the rulebook supplies,” said Kirk Russell, vice president of competition for CART. “It's our responsibility to maintain the valves so they do the best job.”
In layman's terms, the new valve is to discourage cheating, which is what Honda, and possibly Ford, engineers were rumored to be doing in creating a way to circumvent air around the valve. They would call it ingenuity.
Asked if that were the case, Elliott said, “First off, CART controls the valve. They physically control it and physically test it. CART, after every practice and race, randomly looks at boost level to make sure you don't exceed the prescribed 37 inches of boost. CART has every means at their disposal to verify that a manufacturer is in compliance with the 37 inches of boost. We have never run more than 37 inches boost.
“If that's the issue, they should come to us and say they don't think the valve is legal, not just spring this on us. We are not averse to CART making engine changes. We would work with them, but on the morning of the day of the event to make a change we feel is an abuse of CART's engine-rules programs.
“We have to really kind of evaluate this. Is this the kind of a series you want to be in when every time you show up for the race they may be changing the engine rules?”
Russell said when CART introduced the valve at the MIS test last week everyone was aware that it was in stock. The issue is centered around the timing of its release.
Russell admitted, “There's a little bit of debate about that but we were open about the fact that it was our intention, based on the test at Michigan, to move ahead with the new valve everywhere, from there on. We don't see that as an issue. We have a responsibility to the rulebook and we are following our responsibility.”
CART team owner Bobby Rahal, with drivers Kenny Brack, the current CART points leader, and Max Papis, supported CART in its decision, despite campaigning Ford engines.
“The pop-off valve thing is finally CART acting like a sanctioning body instead of throwing everything up for a group vote,” said Rahal, whose primary occupation now is heading up the Jaguar Team on the Formula One circuit. “You're always going to do things that everyone won't be pleased with. This series has always tried to please everybody and that's an impossible thing to achieve, especially when you get manufacturers involved, each with different objectives.
“I know Honda is upset. In Formula One they change rules and you never hear Honda say boo. This series has to control itself and run itself and make decisions. It can't leave decisions up to the majority because you're just going to be mired in indecision.”