In my Indycar preview, I was uncharacteristically optimistic about Honda’s Chances in the 2018 Indycar season. But who would have expected the beat down Honda gave Chevy Sunday at St. Petersburg, with Sebastian Bourdais winning the race for the second straight season and Honda taking the top six spots?
Most of the people who watched the race will be buzzing about the last lap, where Alexander Rossi in second took out leader Robert Wickens in turn one after the race was restarted. Wickens drove a hackuva race, especially considering this was his first Indycar race, leading most of it. The crash made room for Bourdais to snatch the victory in his adopted home town with Graham Rahal finishing second and Rossi hanging onto third.
But we’re going to talk about the overall Honda vs. Chevy battle for a minute. And then discuss where we go from here.
- Do the results mean that Honda has a power advantage?
- What does this mean for the rest of the season?
Does Honda have a power advantage? Answer: I don’t think so.
Looking at the final results, Honda dominated the race with positions 1-through-6 and eight of the top 10. Worse for Chevy, the bowtie brigade led a total Five laps out of 110, all by Jordan King of Ed Carpenter Racing, three of those under Yellow.
Then if you look at the section times, you see further domination as Honda had the six fastest laps of the race. You look a little further and you look at the 25 section times that Indycar kept track of. And you find that Chevy only was on top in THREE .
That COULD be the result of a power advantage, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. First off, if you look at those split times, the ones where Chevy was fastest were the straightest ones. The Hondas were faster on every section with a turn in it ( BIG CLUE ).
Finally, if you look at qualifying, Chevy is at least competitive, and perhaps faster, for one lap. While Wickens was on the pole, the rest of the lineup was pretty evenly spread out. If there was a legit power advantage, we’d see it in qualifying. When Honda was behind, that’s where the power deficit showed up. You saw Chevy lock out the top six in those dark days.
Based on qualifying, I was expecting an evenly distributed top 10 in the race. Instead you had Bourdais winning from 14th; Rahal second from 24th; and Rossi 3rd from 12th. And the best Chevy being Newgarden, who was never really a factor.
The big anomaly was Will Power. He qualified second, but his race was pretty much ruined with contact with Wickens on Lap 1. I thought it was pretty clear he had the best Chevy. So it’s possible that he could have won the race or finished on the podium had he managed to stay on the track. The other top Chevy qualifiers were rookies and made rookie mistakes.
So what’s going on?
The key is the new universal aerokit. And how Chevy and Honda dealt with it. The big difference (and why so many rookies did well in qualifying) is that the car now has 4,000 pounds of downforce instead of about 6,200 last season. Last year, when a driver accelerated out of a curve, there was so much downforce that the back end of the car remained planted, no matter what. Not so this season. It’s a challenge to keep from spinning the wheels. A key point here: Indycars do not have traction control. Step on the throttle hard this season and you spin the wheels, which will slow you down AND shorten the useful life of the tires.
Watching Wickens pull away from anyone he passed was a revelation. In order to be fast this year, at least on an Indycar street course, you have to be smooth. And Wickens is smooth. On camera, he doesn’t look fast but the times don’t lie.
So what advantaged did Honda have? My verdict is that the Honda is easier to drive smoothly, at least on a slippery street course. And with this new aero configuration smooth is fast. Although I have not done any analysis, it also seems that the Hondas were easier on tires. Which would be a side-effect of driveability. Bourdais, Rahal had Jones did stints of 35 laps and 33 laps on their last two stints. The only Chevy to do that was Newgarden.
The only other Possible explanation is that the Hondas have more power, and were able to run more downforce. I don’t think that’s the case based on qualifying. Because if they did have more power, they could have trimmed out and qualifying would have looked like the race. But that did not happen. I suppose it’s possible that Chevy has a qualifying setting that Honda does not have, but I think Honda is in the ballpark on qualifying more than it used to be.
What does this mean for the rest of the season?
The vision that will keep the Chevy guys up at night for a while is that of Wickens and Rossi skipping away from the field (they were running 1-2 for long stretches of the race), they were able to pull out seconds a lap. Which does not make any sense given qualifying.
This likely means that Chevy is in trouble again on street courses, which were Honda’s strength last season. That would include Long Beach, two races at Detroit, and Toronto. And I would expect Portland to race like a street course.
Road courses are a bit tougher to peg. Conservatively, I would expect Chevy and Honda to be closer to even on road courses. This is because they usually have more grip. Remember that Chevy did well at Barber, The GP of Indy, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. How much of that was the aerokit? A lot. So maybe those races should be more even this year? Or maybe that lack of grip will play into Honda’s hands? We’ll know more when we see test times from Barber.
Same with the short ovals: Phoenix, Iowa, St. Louis. Those should be more competitive.
The big ovals are usually a crap shoot.
So after one race, Honda has put its stamp on slippery circuits. The hard part is waiting until Phoenix in three weeks.