It’s Fourth of July week and as good a time as any to take stock of what has happened in Indycar this season. For Honda fans, including me, it has been a great surprise.
Before the season started, I predicted that Honda would have won two races by now: Indianapolis and Texas. Of course, what has happened is that Honda has won 6 races to Chevy’s 4.
- St. Petersburg (Sebastian Bourdais)
- Long Beach (James Hinchcliffe)
- The Indy 500 (Takuma Sato)
- Detroit 1 (Graham Rahal)
- Detroit 2 (Graham Rahal)
- Road America (Scott Dixon)
As we sit, Scott Dixon is leading in Driver Points by about one race (34 points) and leads Chevy in Manufacturer points by 46 (820 to 774). For Driver points, the difference between winning and a DNF is about 42 points, give or take bonus points.
Before I go any further, I need to fall on my sword for an inaccuracy in a previous blog. I said in the last blog that manufacturer points included deductions for engine failures (and HPD has had a lot of those). That was true up until THIS SEASON . There have been significant changes to the Manufacturer points for this season and one of those was eliminating most (but not all) of the penalties for engine failures.
This season the manufactures get credit for the points earned by the top two full-season entrants. So, for Road America, Honda would have gotten 83 points (5 for winning the race, 50 for first and 28 for sixth) while Chevy would have gotten 76 (40 for second, 35 for third and 1 for the pole).
There are bonus points for the Indy 500 engines reaching their 2,500-mile limit later in the season that are too complex to be considered without pain medication, and there are other vagaries (like no double manufacturer points for Sonoma), but that’s basically the system.
The point is, Honda has a decent chance of winning and it will be close. This represents a vast improvement over every season since 2012, the first year of competition between Honda and Chevy in Indycar. Chevy has won every season and it has not ever been close.
Where and How is Honda winning?
Honda has several advantages this season compared to Chevy.
- More low-end torque and driveability. This exhibits itself primarily on Street courses where the straights are short and where the streets are relatively slippery because there is little rubber built up on the track compared to a permanent road course. So far this year, Honda is 4-0 on street courses with one more to go (Toronto).
- Better fuel Mileage—More on that later when we discuss Road America.
- Better speed and control on superspeedways. Honda is 1-1 in those with one to go (Pocono).
Honda also has a prominent Achilles’ Heel compared to Chevy:
- The Honda aerokit for short ovals and road-street courses is draggy and does not produce as much downforce as the Chevy aerokit at high speed. This shows up in short ovals and at tracks with high speed corners. This was apparent at Barber, Phoenix, the GP of Indy and in qualifying for Road America (see below). If Chevy is going to win the manufacturer’s title and/or the driver’s title, this is where it will happen. There are two more tracks where Chevy should have a clear advantage: Iowa and Gateway. There are another three which could be good for Chevy: Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, and Sonoma (double points).
How is the rest of the season going to play out?
Tracks where Honda should have an advantage: Toronto and Pocono. Tracks where Chevy should have an advantage: Iowa and Gateway.
The rest of the races (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen and Sonoma) are toss-ups. To see how they might play out we need to look back at Road America.
Road America: The season in microcosm.
Full Disclosure: Road America is one of my favorite places to spend a weekend. If there is a race going on, so much the better. I know it like the back of my hand and can point out many of the places where I fell asleep and got horribly sunburned in High School and College.
The Indycar race can offer insight as to how the rest of the Natural Terrain road course races will play out (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen and Sonoma). If you paid attention to any of the practice and qualifying, it was clear that the Penske-Chevys had a huge advantage on the rest of the field at Road America. In qualifying, they finished 1-2-3-4 and by a lot. This is where the Chevy advantage on high-speed corners like the Carousel played out. The Penskes were taking that full throttle without lifting. No one could touch them. So we may see the same thing play out at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, which have their share of high-speed corners (Watkins Glen a bit more than Mid-Ohio).
Then how come Scott Dixon won the Road America race? Simple: The Honda fuel-mileage advantage. The race was lengthened from 50 laps in 2016 to 55 for 2017 (That’s 20 more miles for those of you keeping score at home). The Penskes could not run full power for 55 laps. That presented Dixon with the chance he needed.
The point: If the race were 50 laps, the Penskes could have run full power for most of the race and probably would have finished 1-2-3-4.
As to how that affects the future, it’s simple. If the Penskes can run full power for the whole race at places like Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen and Sonoma, they’ll win. If the race distances force them to conserve fuel during the race, they might not, because the Hondas use less fuel at full power.
The Driver’s Championship
Scott Dixon has an excellent chance to win. He effectively has a one-race lead now. If he can get past Iowa and Gateway with top-10 showings, he will be in excellent shape. Toronto and Pocono should be good tracks for Honda. Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen are excellent tracks for Dixon personally. In fact, Dixon has won 15 Indycar races at the tracks left on the schedule:
Watkins Glen: 4
Overall, if he can string together a group of top-5 finishes at Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Watkins Glen, and survive Iowa and Gateway, he won’t need Sonoma (a Penske track) and its double points.