There are a couple of ways to look at the results of the Indycar season-opening race at St. Petersburg.
- It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Given the engine performance deficit, I would have been happy with a couple cars in the top 10. So a podium from Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay (including passing a Penske car near the end to get it) was way beyond my expectations.
- Hunter-Reay’s finish was still a “best-in-class” situation. It’s not just best of the Hondas. It is the best non-Penske, as the Penske cars were clearly in a different league from even the rest of the Chevys.
- The Hondas are now competitive with the non-Penske Chevy cars. But that would ignore the fact that the Penskes are there, and need to be dealt with.
First, the results:
- Juan Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finished 1-2 for Penske. It was Montoya’s second victory in a row at St. Pete.
- Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third, passing Helio Castroneves (who finished fourth) in the closing laps.
- Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson) and Takuma Sato (Foyt) finished fifth and sixth.
- Conor Daly (Coyne) looked good in his first full-time race. Clever strategy got him to the front, but he stayed there among the leading Penskes for quite some time before knocking off his front wing after his final pit stop.
Interesting trends and notes on the race:
The Penske Class: The Penske cars were in a class of their own all weekend. Look no farther than the Fast Six in qualifying for evidence. The only car that could touch them during qualifying was Scott Dixon’s Chevy.
It’s my opinion that this is a Penske thing rather than a “Chevy vs. Honda” thing. Because none of the other Chevys had anything much for the Penske cars, either.
What’s the advantage? Again, this is only my opinion, but I would point at the dampers. After all, Penske Shocks provides the dampers for most, if not all, of the Indycar paddock. And when it became known that the City of St. Petersburg plans on repaving large portions of the track before next season’s race, the only drivers unhappy about that were employed by one Mr. Penske.
Sector times: To make a broad over-generalization, the Chevys have a top speed advantage and the Hondas seem to be faster in tight quarters. The best place to see this is the trap speeds at the end of the start-finish runway. In the second round of qualifying, where there were seven Chevys and five Hondas, ALL of the Chevy’s had higher trap speeds than ALL of the Hondas. In other areas of the track with more curves, the Hondas were much more competitive. This would tend to indicate that the Hondas are competitive on downforce, but are lacking top-end speed in qualifying trim. This could be horsepower or it could be drag. My opinion is this is more horsepower than drag; but that’s just me.
Ganassi’s problems: All of the Ganassi Chevys had problems with overheating. They all made long pit stops mid race making a considerable effort to clean out their cooling tunnels. Perhaps they attempted to reduce drag by cutting flow of cooling air in an effort to keep up with the Penskes?
Aeromapping: It was reported in several places that Chevy made more complete aero-mapping information available to its teams sooner than HPD made the same information available to its teams. Further, the bulk of the new aeromapping information was delivered to the Honda teams last week, leaving the teams little time to analyze it before the St. Pete event testing and practice.
If this is the case, we should expect improvement at the next road/street course race at Long Beach. Expecting any of the Honda teams to break the Penske/Ganassi dominance there is a big ask. For a short street course, Shoreline Drive is all about top speed. And Honda is clearly down on top speed, whether that is horsepower or drag.
The way forward for Honda: Art St. Cyr gave a news conference at St. Pete that Honda Indycar fans should take a look at:
In it he explains that the Honda re-design of the aerokit was intended to make the cars easier to drive and to make the operating window larger, as well as to make adjustments simpler.
About engines, he said that the engines the teams have now are considered “2016 Spec 1”. And he implied that at least some performance enhancements were included in the initial spec, and that changes through the year will be “incremental”.
There has been some discussion (including on this site and vtec.net) that the engines the teams have now are the 2015 spec with added reliability enhancements only.
So, what could all this mean? One possibility is that the current engines represent the entirety, or the majority, of the performance increase Honda is going to get this season. And that any improvements over the course of the season would be small.
Another possibility is that there are performance enhancements in the current engines that Honda has not implemented yet, perhaps because they do not want to blow engines up left and right like they did last summer when HPD was pushing the engines in order to make up for the “draggy” body.
Another possibility is that one person’s “incremental improvement” is another person’s “nuclear weapon”.
No matter what the situation is, St. Cyr did imply that the next Spec or Step would be delivered in the normal manner, when the present engines mileage out. That would mean that we should not count on seeing much before the Grand Prix of Indy, at the earliest.