Every time I sit down to try to assess the coming Indycar season from a Honda perspective, I find lots of things that are working against Honda teams and drivers, and lots of reasons to think that Chevy will dominate the field as it has since 2012 when engine competition returned to the Indycar series. But this year I am uncomfortably optimistic about Honda’s chances to win the manufacturers’ title and the chances of a Honda driver to win the driver’s title. The matter of the Indy 500 we can deal with separately, when the time comes. Of course, that has been the one area where Honda has shined in recent seasons.
So let’s go through things item by item, to see where things stand heading into the season opening race at St. Petersburg on March 11th.
The new universal aerokit. The manufacturer-specific body kits for the cars have been scrapped in favor of a new common aerokit that every team will use. Chevy’s Road Course and Short Oval aero kit was MUCH better than Honda’s. Since 2015, when the aerokits were introduced, Honda has won only 15 races compared to Chevy’s 34. The main issue with Honda’s road/street and short-oval aero kit was that it had way too much drag for the amount of downforce it produced. And the Chevys were capable of producing much more total downforce.
The new common aerokit produces significantly less downforce than either the Chevy or the Honda aerokits. Looking at testing results, the Honda’s are now on even footing. At the recent open test at the Phoenix short oval, Hondas were at the top of the speed charts for all four sessions in the persons of either Graham Rahal or Takuma Sato. In 2017, the time sheets were dominated by Chevys as the brand had the top five cars. This year, the top six were evenly split between Chevy and Honda and the speeds were very close. So on short ovals like Phoenix, Iowa, and St. Louis, the Honda cars should have a chance.
Engine development. Indycar engine development is regulated by the series to keep costs down. Since the start of the current 2.2-liter turbo V6 formula in 2012, every other season has opened a relatively “major” area for development. These were the off-seasons leading to an even number year. For instance, in the lead up to the 2016 season, the entire intake-exhaust flow was open. This was everything after the air inlet through to and including the exhaust headers. This included the passage inside the heads. Then in the odd numbered years, there was nothing major open for development.
2018 was supposed to be a “major” development year, but Chevy, Honda and Indycar recognized that major improvements would be insanely expensive and decided to put their engineering effort toward developing the next engine formula, which is due in 2020 or 2021.
While this is not entirely a development “freeze” (there are some things that are always open for development), it should favor Honda because it is assumed around the paddock that Honda was more driveable, had more low end torque, and made better fuel mileage than Chevy last season. This is best seen in the fact that Honda won a few road course races last season, despite pulling around a parachute of an aerokit.
We would be fools to think that Ilmor and Chevy have done nothing, however. The most likely thing they have done is to improve the durability of the engine. Why would that matter? Well, it is assumed the Chevy’s have had a special “qualifying mode” for several seasons. That they can turn up the wick for qualifying and then turn it back down for the race. Why weren’t they running the engines at full speed during the races? The speculation here is they would not last if you ran them in qualifying mode for the whole race. The other theory is that they would use too much fuel if they were run that hard for a race distance.
So if Chevy can improve durability in qualifying mode, they might catch up to Honda in the area of power. And they have openly said they’ve been working on driveability.
If you look at practice times from recent tests on road courses, particularly Sebring, then you would see the Hondas regularly dominating the Chevys. But there is a caveat to that: The engines that the teams are using for testing since January 1 are considered their first engine of the season. They are only allowed four, so perhaps either or both brands are dialing things back somewhat. We won’t know anything for sure until qualifying at St. Pete.
Advantage: Cautiously Honda.
New driver lineups/new teams. Honda’s team lineup is similar to last season but with a couple of changes:
- Ganassi going from four cars to two, and losing Tony Kanaan in favor of Ed Jones.
- Coyne gaining financial support from Jimmy Vasser’s Group and replacing Jones in the second car with Pietro Fittipaldi and Zachary Claman DeMelo.
- Rahal Letterman Lannigan adding a second car for Takuma Sato
- Schmidt Petersen adding a second car for Robert Wickens
- Andretti replacing Sato with Zach Veach
- Michael Shank running a new entry for Jack Harvey for part of the season
Honda Performance Development also engineered something of a two-fer with the Acura-Penske sportscar program. HPD get Helio Castroneves to be one of its lead drivers in that program, which took him out of Penske’s Indycar program.
Chevy, on the other hand, lost one Penske car for the season, and gained three rookie teams:
While AJ Foyt’s Program acquired Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist, Honda’s teams made more of an improvement over the off-season.
HOW WILL THIS PLAY OUT?
Except for Penske, which is a tremendous organization, I do not expect a lot out of the Chevy teams. Ed Carpenter Racing and AJ Foyt racing are the only other experienced teams. Carpenter seems short of funding and Foyt is going through its fourth major re-organization in as many seasons. The other three teams are new and history tells us that new teams in a series like Indycar take a little while to find their feet. So this is essentially Penske vs. the Honda world.
For Honda, you would expect Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, and Takuma Sato to be in the mix every race no matter which track. The wild cards in the Honda camp are Sebastian Bourdais and Marco Andretti. The issue with both of them is that the rear end of the new car wants to dance around more than the old car. Marco Andretti likes that and has been fast in testing; Bourdais not so much. If Bourdais finds his feet, watch out. The Schmidt cars have been on the back foot in testing. We’ll have to see where they shake out. If Honda really does have a power/driveability advantage, then this might be the year for the resurgence of one of the Andretti drivers.
So on a race-to-race basis, I would expect to see the three Penske drivers (Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden) duking it out with Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Rahal, Sato, and maybe Bourdais or Andretti.
My pick for manufacturer champion is Honda. My pick for driver champion is Rossi. But I am rooting for Bourdais.
The cars look great. Let’s get the season started.