While Honda powering the Red Bull and Toro Rosso teams in F1 has sucked the oxygen out of the excitement balloon in the Temple of VTEC world, I want to take the opportunity to point out that another series is also kicking off its season, and expectations in the Honda camp should be high!
As you may recall, Honda won its first manufacturer’s championship in Indycar last season since the return of engine manufacturer competition in 2012. Honda’s teams and drivers dominated in every possible way, save winning the Indy 500 (won by Chevy’s Will Power).
Right up at the top I am going to say that Honda should dominate again this season, because not much has changed from last season. And the stuff that has changed should benefit the HPD division of Honda that runs the program.
Rather than go over everything, let me give you a few highlights from 2018.
- Scott Dixon won the Driver’s Championship for Ganassi.
- The only driver close at the end was Andretti’s Alexander Rossi (who I picked for last year’s championship)
- Honda won 11 of the 17 races and had several 1-2-3 podium lockouts along the way
So, let’s look at what’s changed ahead of the first race of the 2019 season at St. Petersburg on March 10th.
Indycar is introducing a new slightly larger twin-turbo V6 with about 100 more horsepower for the 2021 season, and in view of that not many changes are allowed in the existing engines. The specs are not exactly frozen, but updates are very limited. This should have the effect of enshrining Honda’s low-end torque advantage that allowed it to obliterate Chevy on street circuits in 2017 and 2018. Same for Honda’s fuel mileage advantage. Chevy should maintain its top-end edge, which comes into play at places like Indy (oval and road course), Pocono, and Road America.
Last season, Chevy was also significantly less reliable than Honda. And there have been reports already this season of a couple blown Chevys in testing. We would be fools to think that Ilmor and Chevy have done nothing, however. ADVANTAGE HONDA (though Chevy could catch up a bit)
Like every other year, we won’t know anything for sure until qualifying at St. Pete.
Honda’s main advantage is that this will be the third year it has two of the three best teams in Indycar, Ganassi and Andretti. Chevy’s advantage is that it has the BEST team, Penske.
But after that Chevy’s roster falls off fast. Honda, on the other hand, has an armada of strength on its “bench”. When you compare Arrow- SPM , Coyne and Rahal-Letterman-Lannigan to Chevy’s Carpenter, Juncos and Carlin, you can see that on any given week the contest is Honda vs. Penske. This showed last year in that EVERY full-time Honda team won at least one race. Also, Andretti has effectively expanded this year through it’s technical partnership with the re-named Harding-Steinbrenner team. Last year’s lowly Harding-Chevy team is now a strong Honda team with technical support from Andretti in order to run Rookie Colton Herta. More about rookies later. ADVANTAGE HONDA
The rookie class of full season drivers is stunning. Colton Herta (Harding-Steinbrenner) has been at the top of the speed charts in several of the tests. And he’s the least experienced newcomer. Two major additions to watch are Felix Rosenqvist (Ganassi) and Marcus Ericsson (Arrow- SPM ). Rosenqvist most recently raced in Formula E, but prior to that it’s easier to list the series he has not competed in than the ones he has. Ericsson has spent the last five years in Formula 1 with Sauber. He replaces last year’s early season rookie phenomenon, Robert Wickens, who is rehabilitating after a bad crash at Pocono left him with limited use of his legs.
The other Formula 1 refugee in the Indycar Paddock full time is American Santino Ferrucci. He’s back with the Dale Coyne team for the full season after running four races in 2018. He had been in GP2 and had been a reserve-test driver for Haas F1. Rosenqvist will be a significant upgrade over Ed Jones at Ganassi and Ferrucci should be a significant upgrade at Coyne. Which only makes Honda’s driver lineup look stronger. ADVANTAGE HONDA
HOW WILL THIS PLAY OUT?
Except for Penske, which is a tremendous organization, I do not expect a lot out of the Chevy teams. Ed Carpenter Racing and AJ Foyt racing are the only other experienced teams. Juncos and Carlin are still new. I do expect Carlin to be better, especially if they can tie up with Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward for a few races this season. Carpenter seems short of funding after they lost backing of Fuzzy’s Vodka. Foyt should be a little more stable after last season’s major reorganization, but not what you would call a week-in/week-out threat.
Overall, this is still Penske vs. the Honda world. Andretti and Ganassi solidified themselves as the top Honda teams last season, and there is no reason to think that’s changing anytime soon. But the rest of the lineup is still pretty good. And ANY Honda car could win any race any weekend. There are no dogs running the “H” branding.
My pick for manufacturer champion is Honda, obviously. My pick for driver champion is Rossi. He’s special and if you get to a race in person (highly recommended), watch him during practice especially into and out of corners. Last season, Rossi was better than Dixon, but Dixon still found a way to win, and he might this year as well.
Personally, I am rooting for Sebastien Bourdais. I am always rooting for Bourdais.