There have been a lot of changes for the 2015 Indycar season. While the first race is Sunday March 29, the proceedings on Friday and Saturday should give a preliminary indication of what kind of season Honda is in for. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you see results for the practice and qualifying sessions ahead of the race. And a couple of things to keep an eye on during the race:
Will the performance of the Honda cars be enough to overcome the talent advantage of the Chevy teams?
This is the number one question leading into the season. Chevy has two of the top three teams (Penske and Ganassi) as well as three of the top four Drivers (Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon). That leaves the Andretti Autosport team and Ryan Hunter-Reay as the Honda standard bearers, with possible help from James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt-Peterson) and a rejuvenated Graham Rahal ( RLLR ) and Takuma Sato (Foyt).
The only way that Honda ends up on top of Chevy over the course of the season is if the combination of the updated HPD engine and the new Aerokit has a SIGNIFICANT advantage over the Chevys. If the Honda equipment is merely “competitive”, then Honda will get swamped by the Chevy talent advantage. If the Chevy has a clear advantage, it’s going to be a long season. The first indications to look for are:
What do the sector times and trap speeds from practice look like?
This is more important than the overall practice times. Particularly the trap speeds. This will be the first clear indication of which car is more “draggy”. If the Honda has the faster trap speeds, then it should race well and be able to pass on track, which can make up for a lot of deficiencies. And if the Hondas are within a couple of tenths of the Chevys on the twisty sections and faster in the traps and straightaways, this would be a very good sign.
Were the Barber Test results predictive of how the season will go?
All we know from Barber is that the Chevy cars were overall a bit faster and had the top four speeds and seven of the top 10. We don’t know why, but there is at least one obvious reason for that: While the Penske and Ganassi cars had experience with the full Chevy Road-Street kit, none of the Honda teams did. During the development period, HPD only tested pieces, not the whole Road-Street kit. So it would be natural to see the Penske cars in particular fast out of the box, which they were.
If there are Hondas higher up in the order at the St. Pete practices, that could indicate that the Honda teams are beginning to unlock the potential of the cars (see next question). If there are two Hondas in the top five, that would be good. Three would be great. Especially if one of those is an Andretti car. Andretti was clearly lost at Barber, which is strange given that they did all the testing for HPD .
How are Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato doing?
In a RACER video, HPD’s Steve Erikson said that HPD tried to use the aerokit to change a fundamental characteristic of the car. (view here, starting at 7:24:
HPD Aerokit interview ). He did not say what characteristic. But my guess (and this is a pure guess)is that Honda might have tried to use the kit (and the packaging of the engine) to change the understeering nature of the DW12 car while keeping the rear of the car secure, to make it more “pointy” without being “loose”. This could explain the improved performance we have seen from Graham Rahal, and to a lesser extent, Takuma Sato.
During the Race, how long can the Hondas go on red (softer) tires?
This goes back to the characteristics of the car. In Indycar, usually the red tires are a second a lap quicker than the black tires. But the black tires don’t drop off as fast. Most Indycar Road-Street races are done in three stints, two on reds and one on blacks (all cars are required to use both). If Honda can make the red tires last five laps longer per stint than the Chevys can, that is a potential 10-second per race advantage.
Who makes the last stop first?
Contrary to popular opinion, how long you can go on the first stint is not indicative of how good your fuel mileage is. Instead, watch for when the cars make their last stop. If the Hondas are consistently running their last stints for more laps on red tires, that would be a significant advantage.
This relates back to two characteristics of the car: How far you can go on a tank of fuel, and how long you can make the red tires perform. An early indication of that would be how long people are running on black tires (normally the middle stint of the race). Generally, the teams that are doing well on the red tires and on fuel will choose to cut the black stints short. A long run on black tires is not necessarily a good thing. And it’s something you can see in race timing and scoring.
The 2015 Indycar Grand Prix of St. Pete can be seen on Sunday March 29th at 3:00PM EST on ABC . We’ll have a follow-up after the race and in the meantime leave a comment and let us know what you think!