The results of the Indycar race at St. Petersburg surprised even (especially?) me. I am on record predicting doom and gloom, particularly at street races this season. Most of that was based on the pathetic performance of last season vs. Chevy (2-15) and the fact that the aerokits were frozen for this year, and that there was very little development for the engines compared to 2016 season.
I am glad to be wrong. So wrong.
For those of you who missed the St. Pete Weekend, Honda dominated the practices, qualifying and the race. Sebastien Bourdais won the race coming from last place with the help of a well-timed caution. Scott Dixon finished Third, Ryan Hunter-Reay was Fourth and Takuma Sato was Fifth. The only Chevy in the top five was Simon Pagenaud.
Many commentators and bloggers hypothesized that Honda found some horsepower somewhere (more on that below).
But If I am Chevrolet I am much more worried about another statistic: fuel mileage. It seems that not only is Honda possibly up on power and speed, but up on mileage as well.
The power advantage Honda had is obvious from the sector and lap times in practice, qualifying and the race. But none of that tells the full mileage story.
Exhibit A is how the podium finishers ran the last 30 laps of the race. Scott Dixon was the first to pit on Lap 80. Sebastien Bourdais, running first at the time, stopped on Lap 82. Simon Pagenaud stopped on Lap 83. So you would figure that Pagenaud had the most fuel and would be in a position to chase down Bourdais, who would have to save fuel some fuel. And you would expect Dixon to limp home if he was going to make it without stopping.
That’s certainly how the Chevy guys had it figured. They thought that certainly Dixon, and perhaps Bourdais, would have to stop before the end of the race at lap 110. And there was radio traffic to that effect. But they were wrong. Not only were the Hondas faster but they could run faster longer than the Chevys.
(DISCLAIMER: These statistics were pulled off the Indycar.com website by hand. So they might be wrong. Or a touch inaccurate. But I think the trend is right.)
From Lap 85 through Lap 110, Pagenaud averaged 63.9 seconds per lap. Bourdais, who had slightly less fuel than Pagenaud, averaged 63.4 seconds per lap on the same laps. Bourdais gained 6.9 seconds on Pagenaud over those last 25 laps. Not good evidence of fuel saving.
The scary numbers for Chevy are Dixon’s: he had THREE LAPS less fuel than Pagenaud and averaged 63.2 seconds per lap. He gained a whopping 14.7 seconds on Pagenaud over the last 25 laps. That is more than half a second per lap. When you look at the lap-by-lap times, things look worse for Chevy. Dixon was faster than Pagenaud on 21 of the 25 laps. WITH THREE LAPS LESS FUEL .
If this is what it appears to be, then Chevy could be in big trouble in any race that turns on fuel mileage. And most Indycar races have at least some element of fuel mileage strategy. It means that the Hondas will have wider pit windows, which could translate into significant advantages.
So, where did the speed and fuel mileage advantage come from? Especially when there were no changes to the aerokit. And when Honda’s aerokit is considered to be draggy when compared to the Chevy.
I think it goes back to 2016. Before that season, as we wrote about here, the intake and exhaust tracks, including the cylinder heads, were open for development for the first time since the introduction of the 2.2 liter V6 formula in 2012.
At the beginning of the 2016 season, rumors swept the paddock that the engines Honda was using were the 2015 engines, without the improvements. Why? Because HPD could not get the new engines to run reliably.
For the Indy 500, Honda switched to the 2016 design, and it was effective in the Indy 500 and other large ovals. Power was up significantly. But this did not transfer to short ovals and road courses, where Chevy still dominated. Both in speed and in fuel mileage
Fast forward to St. Pete, where Honda shows up with something like 60 more horsepower by some estimates, and better fuel mileage to boot. What happened?
My theory is that the 2016 design was intended to perform like the St. Pete engine. It was designed to produce more power and run leaner (better fuel efficiency) But HPD dialed it back because of reliability concerns. Which may have meant running it richer to keep it from burning cylinders or some such disastrous occurrence.
So maybe HPD did not do anything more than figure out how to make that improved design run as intended reliably. Among other things, pistons are always open for development. As is software settings for things like injectors, etc.
We’ll see how this works out in Long Beach where the performance characteristics are similar to St. Pete.