One way or the other, Honda’s dominance of the Indycar Dual in Detroit races Saturday looks pretty damned impressive. Honda won both races, finished with the top six Saturday, and five of the top six Sunday.
The lingering question is: “Was it enough?”
Although Chevy had only one car in the top six on Saturday, I guarantee that they are thrilled getting a podium in Sunday’s race. Before the weekend started, some of the Chevy folks were thinking at top six or seven Honda lockouts for both days. That’s the kind of Honda dominance the Chevy people were expecting. Getting a car in second place was significant damage limitation.
What’s behind the Honda dominance at Road and Street circuits? It’s a combination of smooth, strong low- RPM torque delivery with a wide, flat torque curve. The Chevy Achilles’ Heel is that its engine is still peaky, and the torque curve is choppy. This makes it hard for Chevys to accelerate out of slow corners. One of the consequences apparently is that the Chevy drivers have to shift more times per lap than the Honda drivers.
The problem for Honda is that Chevy’s Will Power, who had the best Chevy all weekend, snuck into the third spot qualifying in the rain Sunday morning. He looked like he was going to end up third in the race, behind Andretti’s Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay. When Rossi unexpectedly ran into the run-off toward the end of the race ( WHAT HAPPENED TO ROSSI? See below), he also lost the lead in Driver’s Championship to Power. So instead of Honda drivers first and second (Rossi and Dixon) with Power third, Power leads followed by Dixon and Rossi.
But is this really a big deal? Honda has won four races (St. Pete, Long Beach, Detroit 1 and Detroit 2), and Chevy has also won four (Phoenix, Barber, the Indy Grand Prix and the Indy 500). And Honda leads the manufacturer race by more than 100 points.
The way I look at it, Honda should be ahead by 120+ points. Honda scored 48 points more than Chevy in the Saturday Race, but only 25 points more in the Sunday race, effectively leaving 23 points on the table
The problem is that Honda won the all the four street races, while Chevy has won the Short Oval (Phoenix), the two Road Course races (Barber and the Grand Prix of Indy) and the super speedway. Going forward, there is only one street course left (Toronto), which Honda should dominate. Possibly another top six lockout. But there are two super speedways (Texas and Pocono), two short ovals (Iowa and Gateway) and four natural road courses (Road America, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Sonoma).
So How does the rest of the season look, Honda vs. Chevy? Honda has a torque and acceleration advantage. Chevy clearly has a top-end horsepower advantage. This is how that plays out the rest of the season:
Texas—Chevy advantage. This could be really ugly for Honda.
Road America—Chevy advantage, as this is a high-speed course, although Dixon won this one last season last season on a fuel/tire strategy.
Iowa—Toss-up. The Phoenix race was won by Newgarden on a tire strategy gamble.
Toronto—The remaining opportunity for Honda Domination in the Dominion.
Mid-Ohio—This is usually Scott Dixon’s and Will Power’s personal playground. Given the short straights, and tight corners, this has the potential to be a bright spot for Honda. Overall, I give a slight advantage to Honda.
Pocono—Big advantage to Chevy. Could get very ugly.
Gateway—Toss-up. Driveability matters here; no way to tell how much.
Portland—This is a road course, but it is more similar to a street course than any other natural track. I would rate this as a Honda advantage track.
Sonoma—This has been Penske’s team playground for the last several years, and it’s double points. If any of the championships (driver or manufacturer) are close, it’s bad for Honda.
Honda goes into this stretch with a 103-point advantage in manufacturer points, and they have seven of the top nine drivers. I expect the lead in the manufacturer’s race to drift down until Toronto, jump back up and then drift down for the rest of the season.
Can Honda hold on and win its first manufacturer’s title since Chevy came into the series in 2012? I’d feel better if the lead were 126. But looking this over, I think Honda can hold on unless we see all-Chevy podiums at Texas and Road America (then I reserve the right to change my mind).
As far as drivers, I think it’s going to come down to Power, Rossi and Dixon. Those three have separated themselves from Ryan Hunter-Reay in fourth and Josef Newgarden in fifth. Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Power have the hot hands right now. But Rossi is so damned good.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ROSSI SUNDAY?
Those of you who watched the race on Sunday saw Alexander Rossi dominate the first two thirds of the race, only to be be caught by his teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and then succumb to tire issues that left him with a flat tire, finishing the race out of the top 10.
So how did Hunter-Reay, who started 10th, move up to catch Rossi? The key is the number of pit stops. Cars could choose either to run the race on two pit stops or three. Rossi chose two (as did Power, Dixon and Jones), while Hunter-Reay and most of the others chose 3 stops.
What happened to Rossi was that he ran out of tire life. Indycars, like most race cars, are fastest when they have the most grip. By stopping three times, RHR had better tires most of the time than his 2-stop competitors.
On the last stint, Hunter-Reay stopped six laps later than Rossi. And six fewer laps on your tires makes a heck of a difference. When Hunter-Reay caught Rossi, he forced Rossi to push his tires more than he should, which led to lock up and eventually to a flat tire. Rossi’s pit crew was telling him to keep the big picture in mind: a second place finish would have left him in the Driver Points lead.
Now you may be wondering why Hunter-Reay’s strategy worked worked better Sunday than it did when he finished second to Scott Dixon Saturday? The answer is likely the weather. Saturday night and Sunday morning it rained in Detroit which washed rubber off the track. On a concrete track, this makes tires wear faster. So having fresh tires was more of an advantage Sunday than it was Saturday.