Takuma Sato (RLLR-Honda) dominated Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama leading 74 of 90 laps and heading a podium sweep for Honda ahead of Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) and Sebastien Bourdais (Coyne/Vasser-Sullivan-Honda. But it was still an exceedingly strange weekend for the teams, drivers, and maybe Firestone.
Strange how? Indycar raced at Barber nine times prior to Sunday. This season’s cars are virtually identical to last season so you would expect the outcomes of practice, qualifying, and the race to be quite predictable. But they weren’t.
Looking at Practice 2 from 2018 versus 2019 is eye popping (I chose those practices because they were the most comparable). In 2018 three of the top four cars were Chevys (Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and Will Power). And the top times were between 1:07.4 and 1:07.8. This year, The top six cars in Practice 2 were all Hondas, and the times ranged from 1:09.0 to 1:09.2. That’s more than 1.5 seconds per lap on a short course known to almost all the drivers and teams. This in a series where tenths of a second can be a lifetime.
The Penskes were lost all weekend. In the same Practice 2 for 2019, Newgarden’s top time was 1:09.8, 2.4 seconds slower than the previous year.
It was not sandbagging. In qualifying the top Penske was
. This was the first time in five years that a Penkse car was not in the Fast Six. The Andretti cars did not fare any better as none of them
were in the Fast Six, either.
What was going on? There are three popular theories:
- The track surface aged a lot over the winter. There is some truth to this as the track will be resurfaced in the next few weeks. Aged track surfaces can lead to tire degradation.
- The tires Firestone brought were more different from last year’s tires than anyone was letting on.
- There were different support series running with Indycar this year, and it could be the rubber they laid down was less friendly to the Firestone tires than the tires the Road-To-Indy uses.
There is one other anomaly with this year’s race that I like (because I thought of it): Because of the lateness of Easter this year, the Barber race was held about three weeks earlier than usual. While the temperatures during the day don’t change much between early April and late April, odds are the ground underneath the track is still pretty damn cold. My theory is that this led to less grip, which led to more tire degradation and slower speeds.
This would make for relatively slippery conditions. Which would explain the Honda domination in qualifying (five of the top six and 10 of the top 12) and the race (only Chevys in the top 10 were third—Newgarden—and ninth—Simon Pagenaud). Honda’s advantage with Drivability rules on tracks with low grip. Even ones that usually have a grippy surface.
What did we learn?
Not a lot from this race specifically. Next year it is going to have a new surface and be back in its normal schedule slot.
What we did learn is that Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing seems to have upped its game over the winter. And with the addition of Alan McDonald to the engineering team, you might want to consider Takuma Sato’s chance at a second Indy 500 win in a different light.
How about the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s standings?
Penske’s Newgarden has a relatively healthy lead in the Driver’s Championship over seven Honda drivers in positions 2 through 8. Dixon is in second 27 points behind and Sato is third 34 points back. Unless something unfortunate happens to Newgarden, he’s likely to be in the lead heading into the Indy 500.
Honda is starting to pull away in the manufacturer race. Honda has 258 points, 48 ahead of Chevy. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but this early in the season given the structural advantages Honda has (more, better cars), it is.
What’s likely to happen at Long Beach?
The newly re-named Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is this weekend. Last year that race was the second street race to be dominated by Honda, specifically Alexander Rossi. One would expect a similar result with similar strengths and weaknesses. Rossi, Hunter-Reay, Sato, Colton Herta, and Will Power famously handle loose cars well and slippery street surfaces favor Honda. Plus Newgarden is pretty good everywhere.
But that is what we were expecting at St. Pete, and it did not happen. So who knows in this series? The only thing you can count on are pretty TV pictures from both the IMSA Race and Indycar. In fact, this will be the first year where the two will be leveraged as a package by NBCSN , which could lead to some new tricks. The IMSA race will follow Indycar qualifying pretty closely. Be interesting to see if it helps the TV audiences of either series.
The NTT IndyCar Series Race will be televised live on the NBC Sports Network, April 14, starting at 4 p.m. EDT . Saturday Indycar qualifying is at 2:45 EDT , followed by the IMSA race at 7 on the same network with a lot of the same announcers.