Unless you live under a rock, if you are any kind of open wheel racing fan in North America, then you’ve heard by now that Honda driver Colton Herta won the Indycar Classic at Circuit of the Americas March 24, becoming the youngest person ever to win an Indycar race (a distinction previously held by Graham Rahal).
It was just Herta’s third Indycar race (he started the 2018 finale at Sonoma and this year’s race at St. Pete), but this was not totally unexpected. Indycar had its Spring Training session at COTA earlier this spring and Herta was fastest for three of the four sessions. In my mind, Herta winning a race was just a matter of time.
Rather than talking about the play-by-play (if you want that you can go to YouTube and watch their “Fast Forward” package, which is a 30-minute synopsis), let’s clip through some of the topics from the last race and then a few from the next race: The Honda GP of Alabama from Barber Motorsports Park (April 7, 4 p.m. EDT on NBCSN ).
Why didn’t Power and Rossi pit before the caution on lap 44?
To bring everyone who up to speed, Will Power (Penske-Chevy) and Alexander Rossi (Andretti-Andretti-Honda) started the Race 1-2. Power led the entire race through the Green Flag Laps, while either Rossi or Colton Herta (Harding-Steinbrenner-Andretti-Honda) following close behind until there was a full-course caution called when James Hinchcliffe (Arrow-SPM-Honda) collided with Felix Rosenqvist (Ganassi-Honda) on Lap 44 leaving Rosenqvist’s car disabled and blocking the pit entrance. At that point in the race there were 16 laps to go and 16 other cars had made their final stops. Power, Rossi, and Dixon had not. As a result of the caution, Power, and Rossi and Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) would have re-started the race behind the cars that had already stopped, putting them about 14-15-16 at best.
This is the key strategic question: Knowing that they were leaving themselves in a “Danger Zone” vulnerable to a full-course caution, why didn’t Power and Rossi pit at lap 43 or earlier? I have answers to this one!
Why didn’t Rossi stop before Lap 44? Rossi was the only car able to stay with Power. In fact, Rossi’s team thought Rossi was faster than Power, but probably not fast enough to get by him on track. So they decided to use their other advantage: fuel mileage. Rossi’s plan was likely to go one lap further than Power. During that lap, Rossi could used 20 seconds or so of his “push-to-pass” to set a blistering lap on empty fuel tanks and come out of his pit stop ahead of Power. Rossi likely thought that was his best chance to win.
Why didn’t Power stop before lap 44? The information in the above paragraph is no secret. For Power, staying in front of Rossi and running Rossi out of fuel (forcing Rossi to pit on the same lap), was the goal. To Power, no one else in the field mattered (Herta was 11 or 12 seconds behind Rossi at lap 41).
On the two leaders’ timing stands, this was a two-car race. The “Danger Zone” issue was not top of mind. After all, there had been no cautions up to that point, and cautions on natural terrain road courses in Indycar have become relatively rare in recent seasons. So much so that it is not unusual to have a race run entirely without one.
Of course, Power’s driveshaft broke on his pit stop, so he had the best car all day and finished last. Herta, who was going to finish third if the race had continued green, inherited the lead and finished first. Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti-Honda) finished second and third.
The drive of the day: Alexander Rossi
After the Caution, Rossi was 13th on the re-start on lap 50. He immediately dropped back to 14th when he spun the tires and Dixon got past him. But in less than 10 laps, he moved up five places, some of them, like Simon Pagenaud (Penske-Chevy), in spectacular fashion. One of them were relatively easy: Zack Veach (Andretti-Honda) ran into Dixon and fell off the pace. None of the others were. Rossi passed Dixon, Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan (Foyt-Chevy), Spencer Pigot (Carpenter-Chevy), and Jack Harvey (Meyer/Shank-Honda) to end up 9th. I am sure that was a disappointment, but it was fun to watch.
Did we learn anything about Honda’s engine problems?
Another Honda blew-up at COTA: Herta lost an engine in Practice 1. Making it three in two race weekends. HPD indicated that they have narrowed it down to a manufacturing issue. This is racing-speak for a supplier part that is not up to standard, or more specifically, is not up to the stress that a power increase has put on it. The good news is that the next batch of engines (which should be filtering into teams after the GP of Indy in May) should be more reliable with a better part. Until then, I would not be surprised to see one or two grenades every weekend.
Did we learn anything about Indy 500 performance?
Last year, Chevy had a clear advantage in the Indy 500 when it came to top-end performance. If you look at the trap speeds from COTA , there does not appear to be any clear advantage. And if you look at the section times from COTA , you might think that Honda has a very slight advantage. We’ll know more after the Indycar open test on the Indianapolis oval in late April, but not before then.
The manufacturer competition: Honda moves ahead
To refresh everyone, manufacturers score the same number of points as their top two drivers in any race. Plus five points for winning a race and 1 point for winning the pole. Chevy has won one race and won two poles. Honda has won one race. So if it were just that Chevy would be leading by two points. The difference is the second place drivers. At St. Pete Chevy’s top two cars finished 1-3, while the Hondas finished 2-4. At COTA , Honda finished 1-3 while Chevy finished 2-8. This is where Honda realizes the value of having more, better cars. Chevy will be very lucky if any non-Penske’s score a podiums.
So after two races Honda leads by six points. This comes down to the difference between fourth-place points (32) and eighth place points (24), minus the two pole points that Chevy has.
How do things look for the Honda at the Honda GP of Alabama?
Like all the natural terrain road courses, I expect this to come down to a set-up war between the Andretti-affiliated teams (Andretti and Harding/Steinbrenner) vs. Will Power and Josef Newgarden. Those teams and drivers seem to have the balance figured out for these cars on road courses. You might be able to throw Dixon into the mix, but Ganassi seems a little lost just now.
For some reason, the two Frenchmen, Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais, have not been able to come to grips with the fact that these cars have to be set up loose to get any speed out of them.
The advantage Honda has is that there are two strong drivers in the Chevy Camp (Power and Newgarden) while Honda has five strong drivers (Rossi, Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Sato, and now Herta) and several that are nearly as good and better than anything Chevy has.
The other advantage Chevy has is Penske. When they are on their game, they can easily finish 1-2 and leave all the Honda’s fighting for one spot on the podium. Add to that the unreliability factor (Honda has lost three engines, Penske has lost at least one) and it could get pretty interesting. Qualifying means a lot.
Of course, it it rains everything goes out the window.
If you get a chance or live nearby, go. Barber Motorsports Park is a great place to watch a race.