Those of you who have been following the travails of the McLaren Honda F1 team for 2017 might be looking to the start of the Indycar Season this weekend for a pick-me-up of sorts. After all, shouldn’t Honda do better this season now that they traded the underachieving A.J. Foyt team for the championship contending Ganassi team? Shouldn’t the addition of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton And the Ganassi engineering team automatically improve Honda’s chances of winning more than the two races it won last season?
If that’s your line of thinking, I have this to say:
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
Don’t get me wrong, bringing Ganassi into the fold is a huge move long-term. Honda has now turned the tables on Chevy. Since the advent of Indycar engine competition in 2012, Honda had only one of the three “super” teams: Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. For 2012 and 2013 it was Ganassi. And for 2014, 2015 and 2016 it was Andretti. In 2017 Honda has two: Ganassi and Andretti.
The question is whether or not that’s enough to overcome Penske. My prediction is that it’s not. At least not this season.
To refresh everyone, from a specification standpoint 2017 Indycar is essentially a year of minimal change from 2016. The engines are pretty much the same as they were in 2016, and the aerokits are identical. (2018 is a different story for a different blog post). Since Honda only won two races in 2016, and not much has changed, the 2017 outlook isn’t all that bright.
When you try to predict whether Honda will win more than 2 races this year, you have to look at where the races are run, and what the strengths of the teams and the cars are.
- The Hondas are generally thought to have more power in race situations. But Chevy seems to be able to dial up the power past race level for qualifying sessions.
- The Honda road/street/short oval aero package is thought to be draggy, especially at lower downforce settings (like qualifying), while the kits are thought to be more so even in higher downforce (race) trim. * The Honda and Chevy aerokits for superspeedways are thought to be more evenly matched. And the Honda engine is thought to be more powerful when run wide open for extended periods of time under low boost conditions, like on a superspeedway.
From a team standpoint, Penske is clearly the team to beat. Mostly for its chassis expertise. It’s remarkable how stable its cars look on slippery, bumpy street courses, compared to everyone else (including Ganassi).
So what does this lead us to believe about the coming season? Let’s look at the schedule:
SuperSpeedways: Indy 500, Texas and Pocono. This is the one area of Honda strength last year. Honda finished 1-2 at both Indy and Texas, and probably should have won Pocono. These races are run at full power for the whole race, and Honda has a power advantage these days (more on this later). The fact that Honda has a higher number of better cars also should help in these situations. So Honda winning less than two of these should be a disappointment.
Natural Road Courses: Barber, GP of Indy, Road America (I feel so great just writing down that name), Mid-Ohio, Sonoma: These are the kinds of places where a draggy aerokit and the Chevy ability to turn up the wick for qualifying come into play.
Let me explain what I mean about the ability to turn up the wick. It’s been clear that Chevy was able to turn it up for qualifying for quite some time. People used to think that it was a matter of being able to run a short session with advanced ignition timing. Reportedly, Honda tried going down that road last season. Now the thinking is that the design spec. of the Ilmor engine is to last, say, 2,300 miles at 95% power, with the ability to run another 200 miles at full power. Meaning that if they ran full power all the time, the engines would not last the mandated 2,500 miles. Honda, so the thinking goes, built its engine to last 2,500 miles at full power. Honda’s “full” power is less that Chevy’s full power, and more than Chevy’s 95% “race” power. Why would Chevy you do that? Because it’s hard to pass on Road and Street courses. If Chevy qualifies its cars in the top six spots, it’s going to be hard for Honda to win. So for most road/street races, Honda is behind the eight ball at the drop of the green flag. So even though Honda is plenty fast on race day, they put themselves in a hole on qualifying day.
What’s likely to happen this year? Ganassi might be able to get the Honda package to run better at lower downforce, which could give you more Hondas in the top six on the grid after qualifying. If that happens they could win a race or two. Which would be better than the 0-fer of last season.
Street Races: St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Detroit (2) and Toronto. This is an area where Ganassi’s development expertise could help. The key to these tracks isn’t so much power or aero as it is mechanical grip (shocks and springs). Penske’s trump card is shocks and springs (Penske manufactures the shocks used by most of the field). It will be hard for anyone else to win any of these mostly because of how much R&D Penske has put into their program. Ganassi has the talent and the development chops to compete with Penske. But I would be surprised if Honda won more than one of these.
Short Ovals: Phoenix, Iowa, Gateway. The question here is whether anyone will be able to pass anyone else. Last year, Phoenix and Iowa were profoundly dull (Gateway is new this season). If cars can pass, then anyone could win. But if it comes down to qualifying, you could be looking at another o-fer for Honda.
So how many races will Honda win this season? I am going with six. I can’t tell you which six, but that’s the number in my head and I am going with it. And I told you Ganassi was moving to Honda last year.
OTHER STORIES TO WATCH:
How will Ganassi do? The argument the last few seasons has been “How much of Honda’s problems are down to Drivers and Teams, and how much is down to the car?” This is the year we find out. If you see Ganassi cars as the fastest Hondas, that will tell you something about the other teams, particularly Andretti.
What Can Takuma Sato do with a top level drive? After spending several seasons with Foyt (and winning a race), Taku joins Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi at Andretti Autosport for the season. And if you are looking for a Japanese to have a chance to win the Indy 500, this is your best shot. Andretti is always good and Indianapolis (1-2 last year), and Sato has had some good runs.
Is Bryan Herta the Driver Whisperer, for real? Marco Andretti will be working with Herta this year. Last year Herta called Rossi’s races. Will Herta’s calming influence finally bring out the best in Marco?
Who’s in the second car at Schmidt? Mikhail Aleshin will start the year as James Hinchcliffe’s partner. But will he finish the year there? Last week Pipo Derani tested Aleshin’s car at Sebring. And Extreme Speed Motorsport’s Ed Brown bought him a brand new custom Honda/Patron firesuit for the occasion. If Aleshin’s Backers have trouble transferring his funding from Russia to the US (as happened in 2015), look for Derani (who won Daytona and Sebring for ESM/Honda in 2016), to get a shot. You’ll know something’s up if you see Derani get an Oval test.
Don’t sleep on Dale Coyne. Over the winter Dale Coyne hired Sebastian Bourdais and made a significant commitment to improve the team with resources and engineering talent. Word is Seabass is happy so far. And when he’s happy, he’s fast. He has won a race each of the last three seasons. And Ed Jones in the other car is no slouch.