Unless you have spent the last few days under a rock or reading the POTUS tweet stream, you know that Takuma Sato became the first Japanese–born racer to win the Indy 500 Sunday, driving a Honda for Andretti Autosport. It was Honda’s third win in the last four seasons, and four out of six since engine competition returned to Indycar for 2012.
If you read my preview blog a few weeks ago, none of this should be surprising. I examined the question of whether Fernando Alonso could win the race, and it was clear from watching the race that he could have if his engine had not blown up (more on that later). Specifically, Honda was the car to have. Andretti was the team to be with. And as it played out, any of four Andretti-Hondas could have won the race. Ryan Hunter-Reay had the best car, but his blew up around lap 138 (of 200). Alonso had a good car, but his engine blew at lap 180. Also, in the last stint it was clear that he had trouble digging out of the hole he was in. He was 10th late in the race, and was not passing cars as quickly as he was earlier in the race. Probably a symptom of his lack of experience.
Alexander Rossi, the defending race winner was running great early in the race and ran near the front all day until his fuel hose malfunctioned during a late pit stop that put him back in the 20s (he finished seventh).
That left Takuma Sato. His car was as good as anyone’s, but he was pushed back to the high teens in the middle of the race because his crew lost a wheel nut and made a long-ish pit stop. Late in the race, he was well within the top 10 with the car to win, and that was all that mattered. His Andretti-Honda had too much speed and handled too well for anyone to deal with down the stretch. He was faster than Helio Castroneves in his Penske Chevy. His car had better tires than Max Chilton’s Ganassi-Honda (Chilton led the most laps, 50). And Ed Jones’ Coyne-Honda had too many aero problems to put up much of a fight.
Watching the race (and looking at timing and scoring, which is a must for Indycar oval races) it was obvious that once Sato cracked the top four, he was going to win as long as his engine lived.
Now for some notes about the race and strategy.
The Downforce conundrum: Pay me now or pay me later. The difference between the Ganassi-Hondas and the Andretti-Hondas was downforce. Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan (along with Will Power’s Penske-Chevy) pulled away from the field in the very early going, but then fell back as the Andretti-Hondas and the Ed Carpenter Chevys took over. Why? The Ganassis and Power were running light downforce, which benefitted straight-line speed in the early going. The penalty for that is tire degradation, so their speed dropped off late in the stint. The Andretti’s ran a lot of downforce and were a touch slow in the beginning of stints, but their tires lasted much longer and they could pass with ease in traffic. Unfortunately for Dixon, his tires went seriously off and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Jay Howard hit the wall.
Just showing off, or not. Much has been made over the last several seasons of the Andretti team’s Pack running during practice for the 500. All the Andretti’s get out and run together and the cars at the back of the pack get a tow resulting in big speeds that get headlines during practice. You may ask: “Aren’t they just showing off and getting their names in the paper and online?” Well yes, that’s part of it. But another part of it is simulating race situations. Like lap 195 of the race. Castroneves passed Chilton for the lead. And Sato was behind Chilton and significantly behind Castroneves. But by the end of lap 196 Sato had sling-shotted past Chilton who was losing his tires because he did not have enough downforce (see note above) and drafted up behind and around Castroneves. It was like the Andretti cars had practiced it 100 times. Which they had.
Rookie of the year. There was some significant amount of consternation about Fernando Alonso winning the Rookie of the Year award instead of Ed Jones, who was the highest finishing rookie in third place. The award is voted on by the press corps covering the race. My thoughts on the matter: Of course, Alonso is the rookie of the year! If they were going to give it to the highest finishing rookie, why would you even have a vote? The main reason Ed Jones is NOT the rookie of the year? He did not have hundreds of thousands of people watching him practice, did he?
Coyne of the realm. The performance of this team was perhaps the most impressive thing about Indy this season. Sebastian Bourdais would have been one of the favorites to win the race had he not crashed, and his teammate Ed Jones finished third. Talk about leaps and bounds!
Experience counts. Now, you might think I am referring to the fact that Sato and Castroneves are two of the more senior drivers in the series. Both are over 40, but that’s not it. For the first time since the return of competition in 2012, Honda teams (with the addition of Ganassi) have significantly more engineering and driving experience than Chevy teams. This is an advantage that will play out over the rest of the year and into next season.
Ticking time bombs. For Honda, the story of the month was their powerful engines that had this tiny problem: an annoying tendency to blow up without warning. Apparently HPD brass made the decision that they would shift the performance/reliability balance toward performance and increase their tolerance for “failure”. And that has shown in all the races this season, where engine power has been significantly improved at the expense of some smoke, coolant and oil spilling on pavement.
For the 500, the math was simple: Honda had 18 cars. 12 had a good chance to win. 'Certainly we’re not going to lose all of them?’ In the end, Honda lost three engines during the race: Hunter-Reay (Andretti), Alonso (Andretti) and Charlie Kimball (Ganassi). Additionally, Honda lost Dixon, Howard, James Hinchcliffe, Oriol Servia and James Davison to crashes. That left Sato, Chilton, Kanaan and Jones against the lone Chevy of Helio Castroneves.
The rest of the season. Six races in, Honda has won Three and Chevy has won three. How will the rest of the season go?
- Detroit Doubleheader— Honda did well in the other two street races, and should do well in Detroit. Let’s put these two in the H column.
- Texas— This was a Honda track last season, and should be the same this season. Another H.
- Road America— This is one of those tracks where Honda’s Draggy aerokit is going to hurt a ton on the long straights and the sweeping curves. Plus this track has a reputation for eating engines, and the Hondas are not going to be any more reliable. Can’t see Honda even on the podium here. Could be Penske 1-2-3-4.
- Iowa— Short oval, huge problem. Chevy could lock out the top 6 or 7. More if Foyt gets its act together.
- Toronto— Another street race where Honda has a great chance.
- Mid-Ohio— This one could go either way (along with Sonoma). Let’s give all the Ohio Associates a win at what is a Honda Company Picnic.
- Pocono— Big superspeedway should be a Honda playground.
- Gateway— This one is tough to figure. Is it going to race like Texas (a Honda Track) or Phoenix (a Chevy track)? I am going to assume this is going to be surprisingly fast and that Honda’s depth will carry the day.
- Watkins Glen— This is another tough one. With its sweeping curves, it should be a Chevy track. But Scott Dixon OWNS this place. So let’s put it into the Honda column.
- Sonoma— Penske track. End of story.
So at the end of the day, I optimistically see Eight Honda wins compared to three for Chevy.
For the Driver’s championship, there are four Honda Drivers in the top six. If the season plays out the way I see it for Honda, Scott Dixon is a real good bet for the championship.
Which means that Honda should win the Manufacturer’s championship, right? Not so fast. I don’t see Honda engines getting any more reliable anytime soon. And every one of those Grenades counts as much as winning a race. So there’s no way Honda wins the Manufacturer’s championship.
But the Indy 500 and the Driver’s title would more than make up for that.