A lot of stuff happened over the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park: Race started Sunday, race stopped, race started again, long red flag before the decision to quit for the night amid controversy about how to handle fuel and tires.
Frankly, I am tired of all the sturm und drang about these things. It was a long 24 hours and not much really happened. Overall, it Was Josef Newgarden’s weekend. Sebastien Boudais might have won the race without the late rain Monday, but Newgarden had the car to beat all weekend.
What did we learn?
First Road Course. This was the first natural terrain road course and the Penske Chevy’s (particularly Newgarden) appeared to have an edge on the Hondas in the twisty sections, while the Hondas had a definite edge on the straights and through the traps. One way to interpret this is that this was a case of the Penske magic damper program out-doing a Honda power advantage. We will confirm this one way or the other at the Grand Prix of Indy. If Honda does have a power advantage, it will show up on the two long straights there. If Honda does have a power advantage, places like the Indy Road Course, Road America and Portland will be tough for Chevy and may be decisive in the Manufacturer’s race, since it is clear that Honda has an advantage on Street Courses and should be a heavy favorite in the two Detroit races and at Toronto. Having a power advantage at Barber and Mid-Ohio isn’t as big a deal because there aren’t any straights to speak of.
Honda mileage advantage: As I mentioned above, Sebastien Bourdais might have won the race if he did not have to come in for rain tires near the end of the race. Up to that point, he made one less stop than Newgarden did. What this shows is how a fuel mileage advantage can play out on a day when you don’t have the fastest car. As it played out, Newgarden got lucky. He refueled and changed to rain tires on his last stop. If he had come in a few laps earlier (or if the heavy rain that forced Bourdais to pit late held off), Bourdais also might have won with one less stop.
Penske vs. the Honda world. It’s looking bleak for the Bowtie group. Other than Newgarden, the Chevy performance has been dismal. Next time we write about this it might be “Newgarden against the Honda world”. Newgarden is leading the points race over Alexander (who had a Terrible, Horrible No Good Very Bad Day Monday and finished 11th) Rossi and Bourdais. The next Chevy in the driver standings is Will Power in 10th. You have to wonder what will mean to Penske’s usual “have at it boys” attitude. Penske does not normally play favorites with his drivers. But this might be the year that Will Power and Simon Pagenaud become “domestiques”, to use the bicycle racing term. You might start seeing teammates giving up positions to Newgarden, which would be a white flag for Chevy and reflect a sad state of affairs at Penske.
This week is the much anticipated three-day test on the Indianapolis Road Course. This is where we find out where the engine power is and isn’t. We’ll also find out if the Andretti Mastery of Indy 500 setup carries over to the era of the universal aero kit; we’ll find out how much of that team’s dominance is owing to Honda power, and how much was the Honda Speedway aero package.
After that, it’s the GP of Indy, featuring one of the two most power-hungry road courses on the calendar. If Honda has a power advantage, it will be a long day for Chevy.