The first Indycar race of the 2019 season found Josef Newgarden winning comfortably ahead of a fleet of Hondas interspersed with the Penskes of Will Power (third) and Simon Pagenaud (seventh). The other 11 cars in the top 14, starting with Scott Dixon in second, were Hondas.
Newgarden winning was unexpected (at least to me) as Honda has had a significant advantage over Chevy on street courses for the last two seasons. What does this mean for the rest of the season, including COTA?
Is Honda behind Chevy in some engine-related way? I doubt it. The results and the split times from qualifying basically tell me that Team Penske found something that was hindering its Street Course performance for the last two seasons. Remember that Penske makes their own shocks, so no one has access to what they use.
If anything, the split times from the second round of qualifying on Saturday Indycate that Honda may have found some engine performance. Hondas were tops in both the speed traps, and they were the fastest in all the splits that involve straights. The Penskes were making their time on the curve sections. And the rest of the Chevy’s were nowhere. The first non-Penske Chevy was Tony Kanaan in 15th.
What’s with the retirements? This is definitely something to keep an eye on. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engine failed in spectacular fashion along the front straight. Sebastien Bourdais, Marcus Ericcson and Takuma Sato all left the race early. But from what I have heard and read, only RHR’s issue was actually a blown engine.
But it is possible that there is a problem there. According to retiring
head Art St. Cyr,
spent considerable time and effort since the 2018 Indy 500 (where Chevy had the upper hand) working on improving the engine performance in this year’s Indy 500. Those improvements are in the current Honda Indycar engines. Might that have introduced unreliability? Sure. But it’s probably too early to tell.
How did Newgarden get such a big lead? The simple answer is that Newgarden had an extra set of the faster red tires. This is because he never got to use his Red Tires in the first qualifying session Saturday because of a lengthy red flag. So, he had two sets of New Red tires to use in the race, where virtually everyone else had just one set of new Red tires to go with one set of used Red tires. He used those new Reds in the second stint and ran laps more than half a second faster than any other car at that point. It would have been a different race if there were no red flags in qualifying Saturday. And it would have been different if there were a caution period during his second stint. In the end, it was the right way to make the most of the advantage he had, and he took it.
Felix Rosenqvist is the real deal. If you wondered whether Rosenqvist’s skill in Formula E would translate to Indycar, wonder no more. The much hyped Ganassi rookie can sure drive. On the restart on Lap 24, Rosenqvist blew by Will Power for the lead, out braked him on the painted surface and managed to not flat spot his tires in the process. He led 31 laps (second only to Newgarden’s 61) and ended up fourth, by far the best rookie (Colton Herta was eighth). This also shows that the Hondas were able to pass most of the Chevy’s.
Alexander’s “Bad day”. Alexander Rossi had an uneventful day. He started sixth and ended up fifth. If that’s one of his Bad performances, he should be fine.
On to COTA
The Indycar series moves to Circuit of the Americas for its first race there March 24th. I will be watching this one with interest because it should foretell a number of things for the 2019 season.
Which engine has an advantage? The splits from qualifying should tell us a lot about the power battle between Chevy and Honda. First off, it will tell us who has an advantage on the Power Tracks in Indycar: Road America, the GP of Indy, and possibly Long Beach.
It may also tell us how well the engines are setup for the Indy 500, depending on which sections of the track Indycar chooses to measure. I am hoping they put a speed trap at the end of the LONG straight from Turn 11 to Turn 12. This is among the longest straights in the series and the cars should be running on the rev limiter in top gear for almost half that distance. The Indy 500 is all about power at the rev limit, and this split and/or trap speed should tell us something about where we are going to be come May.
Will Honda or Chevy have an advantage? If this were 2018, I would have said that COTA should be a Chevy track, since Chevy had a definite power advantage all season. After looking at the split times from St. Petersburg and reading what Art St. Cyr said about HPD’s off-season development plans, Honda might have a top-end advantage.
The results from the COTA open test were eye-opening. Honda’s led all four sessions and the results from the final session on the second day could be troubling for Chevy. The top six cars were Hondas (led by Rossi and Herta) and there were nine Hondas in the top 12. More troubling, the fastest Chevy (Simon Pagenaud in seventh) was 0.7 seconds off the lead Honda. In Indycar seven tenths of a second is an eternity. In qualifying, the differences among the top cars are typically measured in hundredths of a second. Being seven tenths back might put you 10th on the grid. And at COTA , you won’t want to be starting further back than second or third.
But practice is practice and we won’t know anything until the second round of qualifying, where everyone will be running all-out.
As far as winning the race, that may depend on who gets past lap 1, Turn 1 in one piece. This makes qualifying near the front even more important than it normally is.
Another factor at COTA is weather. When it rains, it rains A LOT . That would make the race a test of survival skills. Currently there is an 80% chance of rain on Saturday and a 20% chance on Sunday.
Tune in to NBCSN on Saturday at 3:00PM EST for qualifying and 1:00PM EST on Sunday for the race!