The Honda cars showed some life at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, and it was great fun for Honda fans to watch. Not as much as it would have been had Graham Rahal gotten around a couple of cars a bit quicker on his run to second place. But it was nice to see Hondas competing with Chevys on a Dry Road Course.
If you told me last week that Honda would have the second place car, two in the top five and five of the top 10, I would have said, “I’ll take it!” I’m sure HPD would as well.
And if you want want more good news, look no further than the fastest Race Laps. Hondas have the top four fastest laps during the race: Hunter-Reay, Rahal, Hinchliffe and Andretti.
But don’t start singing “Happy Days are Here Again” and assume Honda has turned some kind of corner in Indycar (pardon the pun). That’s not happening. Honda needed a perfect storm of three separate factors to get this kind of result:
- Will Power took out Takuma Sato at just the perfect moment to benefit the Hondas that ended up in the top 10.
- Sunday’s weather conditions showed that there are circumstances that the Chevys don’t particularly like and don’t negatively affect the Hondas. And the Chevy guys were surprised by it.
- Hondas still get superior fuel mileage.
If you want doom and gloom, look no farther than the qualifying results. There were no Hondas in the top six, and there were only TWO in the top 12. Another way of looking at that is there were only two Chevys in the bottom 11. For Qualifying, it was still a two-class system. And that may not change much going forward on Road-Street courses.
So What Happened, Mr. Know-it-All?
First you have to look at the way the Yellows fell, especially the first one. The Hondas all played for a full-course yellow early in the race. Beginning with Hunter-Reay on lap 12, they all stopped relatively “early” hoping for a yellow flag before the leading Chevys pitted. They got their wish when Will Power pitted and then promptly took out Takuma Sato at pit out on Lap 19. The Indycar version of Russian Roulette: Caution Roulette.
If you are unfamiliar with this, the game is simple. A caution comes out before all the leaders have made their first pit stop. The winners are the cars that pit before the yellow. The losers are the ones that have not. In Sunday’s game of Caution Roulette the big loser Simon Pagenaud, who went from first to 12th and was a non-factor the rest of the day. Other losers were Sebastien Bourdais, Luca Filippi, Charlie Kimball and Jack Hawksworth. The winners were Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Rahal, Dixon, Andretti and Hunter-Reay who either remained at the top of the charts or jumped into the top 10 because they pitted before lap 20.
A funny thing happened once all the Hondas were interspersed with the Chevys in the top 10—The Hondas were able to run with the Chevys and were able to pass a good many of them. This is where we learned something new about the Chevy Aerokits—it is possible to have too much downforce, especially in the rear of the car.
If you listened to the NBCSN broadcast, the commentators were relaying that the Chevy drivers were complaining that their rear tires were “going away” remarkably swiftly. This affected the softer Red tires more than the harder Black tires, but it was true for both. The Hondas were immune to this, probably because they lack rear downforce in general.
What seemed to be happening is that the combination of high downforce, high ambient temperatures (it was in the 80s for most of the race) and sunshine was a bad mix for the tires. And the Chevy’s were leaving huge clumps of rubber everywhere, giving new meaning to the term “blowing chunks”. So for the Chevys, conserving the tires became the order of the day. The Hondas did not have that problem, and since this is a relatively smooth race track, they did not have their “pitchy” issues, either. This explains the on-track race pace.
That also explains how Graham Rahal could cut something like 18 seconds off Newgarden’s lead in the closing laps of the race. Rahal’s Red tires were effective the entire last stint. The Chevy Reds were done after 5-8 laps. On track, Rahal was doing laps in the 1:10 range, while Newgarden and Dixon were struggling to do 1:12s. You could say that if Hunter-Reay or Dracone had let Rahal by, instead of fight with him for a few laps, Rahal could have won the race.
So what we’ve learned is that DURING A RACE , there are conditions under which the Chevy advantage over Honda is reduced, if not eliminated. But it’s important to remember where the Chevy’s still have a big edge:
- Street Courses (where the Hondas are “pitchy”)
- Road Courses in Mild weather
So, if nothing else changes, the Hondas might be able to compete with the Chevys at the GP of Indy (if it’s as warm as it was last year), Mid-Ohio, Sonoma and maybe Milwaukee (which uses the Road Course wing setup).
Of course, the Pratt & Miller engineers who designed the Chevy Aerokit will not be sleeping on this and may figure out how to counter it in short order.
And then there is Qualifying. None of this helps the Dismal Honda performance in Qualifying. Because the tires only have to last for a few laps, if you’re willing to destroy a set of Red tires.
So there’s still a lot of work to do. The first order of business is to fix the “pitchyness” of the Honda on Street Courses. The second is to find qualifying speed in all cases.
But in the short term, the big day is this Sunday. That’s when the teams will publicly run the speedway aerokits for the first time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The fun begins at 1 local time. There is an incredible amount of pride at stake in this. There are no excuses for HPD on this one. They have one of the best Indy 500 teams of this century (Andretti), and they spent most of their development time working on the oval kit. Rumor is that it Might be asymmetrical and that it is wicked fast in the corners. IF it is, people will forget about Honda’s Road and Street course travails.