Except for the Indy 500, 2016 has been a year to forget for Honda. Those of us (including me) who thought things could not possibly get worse after the disastrous 2015 season were proven wrong. Honda won three races in 2016 after winning six in 2015.
To get a handle on what 2017 might bring, we have to consider what we are dealing with as 2016 (mercifully) ends. In no particular order:
1) Aerokits, which have cost HPD millions and set the Honda program back to the stone age competitively, will end. Word in the paddock is that new Spec aerokits will be introduced for 2018. And word back in June was that there would be a FREEZE of current aerokits for 2017. That would mean that the Honda teams would be stuck with the deficient aerokit for 2017, with the same results likely. The fact that there has been no announcement and we are past Labor Day makes me think that something other than a freeze of aerokits is afoot.
2) Contracts with teams. Chevy’s contract is up at the end of the calendar year. (Honda has an opt-out at the end of this calendar year, but I don’t think they will use it unless Chevy leaves the series). This means that the contracts with all of the Chevy teams are also up. The fastest way for Honda to catch up would be to sign one of the top teams away from Chevy. Honda’s biggest problem since the beginning of engine competition has been that Chevy has had two top teams (Penske and either Andretti or Ganassi), while Honda has only had one (either Ganassi or Penske). While Honda can’t sign Penske because Penske manages the Chevy program, what about signing Ganassi away from Chevy while keeping Andretti? That would tip the balance in HPD’s favor. Racer.com story here:
Of course this would be great for Honda. A large part of the deficit to Chevy is the knowledge of the teams. Penske and Ganassi are what they are because of things like damper development programs as much as the Chevy connection. But why would Ganassi switch? Look no further that the strum und drang between the Ganassi Ford GT team and the Corvette team over sandbagging at LeMans. Then remember that the people that run the Chevy sports car program are the same people that run the Indycar program. Maybe Chevy is not keen on Ganassi being in bed with GM Racing’s biggest competitor? Also, NTT Data (Tony Kanaan’s main sponsor) is a partner of McLaren-Honda.
After Ganassi moves to Honda, which teams go to Chevy? After all, Honda does not want more than half the field. My guess is that Schmidt and Foyt would end up with Chevy. Schmidt because their main sponsor, Arrow, is a big partner with GM on the assistive technology that allowed Sam Schmidt to drive a couple laps of Indy in a Corvette this past May. Countering that is the fact that James Hinchcliffe has personal sponsorship from Honda Canada, so there would be loose ends to tie up there. Foyt because they are due for a housecleaning anyway. It could just as easily be Coyne that switches.
Why not Andretti in a reversal of the Ganassi-for-Andrett trade of 2014? That’s possible, but I don’t see Chevy wanting Andretti back (they would probably rather have SPM ). And I think Honda wants Andretti for its expertise at Indy.
3) Contracts with Drivers. Many drivers in the paddock are free agents every year. Of course, the main exceptions are people like Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, etc. But there are free-agents. It’s an open secret that Honda tried to arrange to move Josef Newgarden to a Honda team last winter. But Newgarden did not want to sign long-term contract, and signed a one-year contract to stay with Ed Carpenter.
Everyone has assumed that Newgarden is going to Penske to replace Juan Montoya. Until rumors arose this past weekend that Andretti was pursuing Newgarden. Last year Newgarden was on the top of the Honda wish list, so this should not be surprising.
Also over the weekend, Racer.com reported that Sebastian Bourdais was moving to Coyne racing for next year: http://www.racer.com/indycar/item/133868-indycar-bourdais-to-sign-with-coyne-for-17
This looked like a coup for Honda until the Ganassi-to-Honda thing came up and brought the question of whether Coyne would be a Honda team going forward.
There are many other good drivers whose future is uncertain. Will Carlos Munoz be back at Andretti? What of Juan Montoya? Will Mikhail Aleshin be able to run in 2017? How about Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi?
What’s going to happen?
The Cars. While I don’t think “spec” cars will be re-introduced until 2018, I think there will be a major change introduced for 2017 that will require enough changes to the cars so that Indycar will have to balance their performance for one season. This would have to be one of two things: One would be Cockpit protection, to improve safety. Any kind of windshield or Halo device would muck up the aero of the cars to the point where they would have to be “balanced” by Indycar to produce a similar amount of downforce and drag.
The other possible change would be a decrease in downforce produced by the wings and increase in the downforce produced by the underbody, to improve the racing on road and street courses. Again, this would require some “balancing” by Indycar.
Either of these would have the effect of making the Hondas more competitive on road and street courses. Neither of these will help the existing teams with their damper programs.
The Teams. I think something is going to happen here. I am going to go out on a limb and say there is something to the Ganassi-to-Honda rumor. And that the time has come for Honda to have two “super” teams under its tent. I think there is a decent chance that Ganassi and Andretti are both Honda teams for 2017. I will go out on a limb and also say that Schmidt and Foyt become Chevy teams to balance everything out.
The Drivers. If the car and the team changes play out, then there could some significant movement of drivers.
First, I think that Newgarden to Penske makes too much sense not to happen. The only thing holding me back is the fact that it has been a really long time since Penske has employed an American Driver in Indycar. That and the fact that Newgarden would be in for a significantly rough year in his first year at Penske .
Assuming that Bourdais goes to Coyne, you have to assume that Conor Daly is going somewhere else, unless Dale Coyne is going to employ two drivers who don’t bring any money, which has not been his business model in the past. The logical place for Daly to go would be Foyt (which may not be a Honda program).
Assuming that Montoya is out at Penske, where does he land? How about an all-Colombian lineup with Carlos Munoz at KVSH . Jimmy Vasser taught Juan how to drive ovals in the 1990s, after all. And Munoz brings some money and is not the happiest camper with AA right now.
There are a bunch of other moving pieces. But in the spirit of having nothing to do on Labor Day afternoon, let’s go for it and lay out the entire driver lineup, shall we?
Ed Carpenter (ovals only)
Overall outlook: What this should show is how much of an advantage Chevy’s teams have been to Chevy’s success in Indycar. If Honda can keep Andretti and attract Ganassi, Honda would be much more competitive in Indycar for years to come.