The Indycar seasons starts this weekend (March 13) with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Honda fans have to be expecting some kind of improvement over 2015, after all, what else can go wrong? The short answer: Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. Read on.
For those of you who missed 2015, it was the first year of manufacturer-specific aerodynamic body kits, aerokits, and to say that Honda’s aerokit was inferior would be an understatement. So what should we expect from Honda in Indycar? Let’s divide this into three areas to look for improvement.
- Quality of Drivers
- Improved Aerokit
- Improved engine (but not right away)
The Driver lineup for Honda is demonstrably better this year, though still probably not as good as Chevy’s. The main improvement is at Dale Coyne Racing, where Conor Daly and Luca Filippi appear set for the full season, replacing a revolving door of drivers last year.
A second area of change involves Bryan Herta Autosport merging with Andretti Autosport to form a full season four-car team. In the process, Alexander Rossi replaces Gabby Chaves. While Chaves is not chopped liver by any means, Rossi’s pedigree includes several Formula 1 Races and years of accomplishment in the Formula 1 ladder series of GP3 and GP2. He could do some damage if he finds his feet quickly.
Finally, Mikhail Aleshin will be running full time for Schmidt-Perterson Motorsports as a teammate of James Hinchcliffe. He missed last year due to some issues with his Russian sponsors. But he is all set for a full season this year, and he is not to be taken lightly. He replaces James Jakes.
Added to last year’s returning roster, this gives Honda a driver lineup with no obvious weak links. A considerable improvement on last year.
After last year’s fiasco where Honda’s Aerokit was considerably more draggy and much less stable than Chevy’s, Indycar gave Honda special dispensation from rules intended to limit costs in order to modify things that were not supposed to be open to modification this year. The most obvious change is the sidepods and the wheel ramps (as well as the area where the side pods meet the engine cover), which look a lot like the Chevy versions.
Whereas last year’s car was done by Wirth Engineering (HPD’s long time partner on sportscar aero), this year’s changes were done internally in various divisions of Honda, including people from Japan who had worked on the Honda F1 program in the past.
This article includes a detailed discussion on Indycar Aerokits from Racer.com’s Marshall Pruett: 2016 Indycar Aerokits Compared
Drivers report the car seems less draggy and more stable than last year’s car. This should help make the Hondas more competitive, if the HPD engine is close to the strength of the Chevys.
In my mind, the engine situation is the thing to watch in Indycar this year. Last year the engines were carry-overs from 2014. It was conventional wisdom in the paddock that the Honda engine was a little more powerful than the Chevy at the end of the 2015 season and had more torque. Just not enough to overcome the deficiencies of the aerokit.
This year, lots of engine components are open for development which have not been open since the 2.2-liter turbo V6s were introduced in 2012. Essentially, everything after the throttle and before the exhaust headers is open (without changing the cylinder head casting). This includes:
- Passages from the throttle to the intake ports
- Shape of the intake ports
- Fuel injectors (direct and otherwise)
- Shape of the combustion chamber
- Shape of the exhaust ports
- Camshaft lobe lift and duration, intake and exhaust
These are significant areas that can be developed for 2016 and will not be able to be changed for several seasons after.
Of course, both Honda and Chevy have known about these open areas for years, and have been working on designs. So they should be ready and we should have a good idea of who’s ahead based on the “Spring Training” test at Phoenix last week, right?
Not so fast. Honda wasn’t running its 2016 engine at the Phoenix test and it won’t be for the first race of the season, at least, and perhaps not until the Indy 500.
Instead, Honda is running the same engine raced at the end of 2015 (called the “Sonoma Spec”) with some reliability upgrades, but no performance upgrades.
What’s going on? I don’t know for sure and I have not had time to ask. Plus, it’s more fun to speculate.
The reported reason for this is “reliability” of the new 2016 engine. And that’s probably true as far as it goes. But HPD has known about these changes for a couple years, and it’s hard to believe that they weren’t running a 2016 design on a dyno for most of 2015. So shouldn’t the reliability issues sorted by now?
Let’s look at some tea leaves. In December, David Salters was hired by HPD as “technical director” for the engine program. Prior to joining HPD , Salters was head of F1 Engine development at Ferrari. Joining HPD in December, Salters would not have had a lot of time to impact the Indycar design and have the engines ready for the season.
What do I think happened? I can see two scenarios.
Scenario 1: Salters saw the performance numbers of the new Indycar engine and decided to implement some additional performance-enhancing changes.
Rather than rush this 2016 version 2 engine through reliability testing, HPD enhanced the reliability of the 2015 engine with the idea of starting the season with the “2015+” engine and introducing the 2016 v2 engine when it was reliable.
This is the rosy scenario.
Scenario 2: This assumes that the original 2016 engine was not reliable, even after months of work. And that Salters is holding it back purely for reliability reasons.
This scenario is considerably less rosy for Honda fans.
What would this all mean for Honda? In all likelihood, Honda teams will be in a world of hurt for the first few races of the season. As far as we know, Chevy has implemented all the performance enhancing improvements we talked about above. Honda has not. I’ve heard that the enhancements are good for 50-ish horsepower.
So Honda is using last year’s engine at St. Pete against a Chevy engine with ~50 more HP than it did at the end of the season.
It could get real ugly, real fast.
With the new-vs.-old scenario, I expect it to be nearly impossible for Honda to qualify in the top six or score a podium finish. Unless Chevy is having problems of its own. At some races it may be tough to get a Honda in the top seven or eight without rain or well-timed caution periods. When you look at the tracks in the first part of the season, it’s not pretty:
St. Petersburg: If the Chevys have 30-50HP on the Hondas, the Hondas will be sitting ducks at the end of the airport straight with no way to fight back. This could quickly turn into a 2-class race with all the Chevys in front and all the Hondas in back.
Barber: Barber does not have a dragstrip. But one has to assume that Chevy will lock Honda out of the top six in qualifying, and maybe the top 10. This on a track where it’s tough to pass under the best of circumstances, let alone with a horsepower deficit.
Long Beach: Shoreline Drive will be the dragstrip where the Chevys pass all the Hondas.
Phoenix: Honda might have a chance here, as tire degradation may be more important than all-out horsepower, and Indycar dials back the engines on ovals.
The GP of Indy: This one could be particularly ugly, as it has not one, but two dragstrips.
That’s a rough stretch to go with an under-powered engine. Of course, there is nothing to say that Honda won’t replace the engines will the 2016 versions somewhere along that stretch. But usually the first engine goes as far as Indy 500 Qualifying before being replaced.
Of course, if the 2016 Honda is faster and more reliable whenever it is introduced, from then on things look considerably better.
It should be interesting, though the beginning of the season might be a tough watch.