After Alexander Rossi’s dominant and second straight victory in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, the race for the driver’s championship is taking on a familiar look. It’s shaping up to be a three-driver race between Honda’s Scott Dixon, Rossi and Penske’s Josef Newgarden. He was so impressive that apparently Team Penske is after him.
In the driver’s championship, Newgarden has not had a bad finish in the first four races, while both Dixon and Rossi have stumbled once (Rossi was 9th and Dixon was 13th at Texas after getting caught out by the lone Caution of the race). Newgarden’s current championship lead is largely due to him benefiting from the caution at COTA that caught out Dixon and Rossi.
The result at Long Beach confirmed that while Team Penske has improved its standing on street courses (largely by switching from their custom-made shocks to off-the-shelf Ohlins), the team still has some way to go to match the best of the Hondas. Chevy managed just one car in the top five, and three in the top 10 (all Penskes).
In the manufacturer’s championship, Honda has opened up 71-point lead after winning the three of the first four races, 349-278. That doesn’t look like much until you understand how the manufacturer points are calculated and the structural advantage Honda has.
Without going too deep into this, the first two “eligible cars” for each manufacturer (more on that in a minute) score points for the manufacturer equivalent to the driver points. The most a manufacturer can score is 96: 5 points for winning, 5 points for Pole and 40 for second. So, Honda got 95 points in Alabama. While Honda’s third place in Alabama does not help its score, it keeps 36 points out of the hands of Chevy. In Alabama, Chevy’s best finishers were Newgarden in 4th and Pagenaud in 9th. That totaled 54. So, Honda gained 41 points. In Long Beach, Honda scored 91 for 1-3, and Chevy scored 69 for Penske’s 2-6. Honda gained 25.
But it’s hard for Chevy to ever gain that many, because there are only three decent Chevy’s in the field for Road and Street Courses (the Penskes). The best Chevy can do is a 1-2-3 lockout for 96 points. But the worst Honda is likely to do in that case is 4-5, for 62, which loses Honda 34. And that is the worst case scenario for Honda currently. Honda gets 62 points no matter what, while we’ve already seen Chevy do worse than that. Once Honda gets a lead, it is very hard for Chevy to catch up.
And it is going to get harder. Once a driver takes a fifth engine during the season, that driver can no longer score championship points. Chevy’s Problem is that Penske’s Will Power is already on his third engine. And he will get a fourth at Indy. So sometime in June or July, one of Chevy’s biggest weapons will be out of the manufacturer’s championship.
To be fair, the same fate will likely befall Honda’s Colton Herta, who is also on his third engine. And might befall Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, and Felix Rosenqvist, who are all on their second engine of the season.
But even in event that those drivers fall out of the manufacturer’s race late in the season, Honda will have a bunch of cars capable of scoring manufacturer points, while Chevy will be down to two much sooner.
The driver’s championship going forward
Newgarden leads with 166, followed by Rossi with 138 and Dixon with 133. We’ll concentrate on those because Takuma Sato in fourth is 50 points behind Newgarden, which is practically a full race worth of points. I am not saying he can’t do it, just that it is unlikely.
So what’s going to decide this championship? Looking at how things worked out last year and extrapolating onto this season, the most interesting things to watch will be:
- Cartoon anvils falling from the sky (engine failures, crashes, bad yellow flags)
Looking at last year, Rossi did not win because he had two major unforced errors. In the second Detroit race, he tried way too hard to stay in front of Ryan Hunter-Reay instead of taking a sure second place and finished 12th. That cost 18 points. Similarly, he had a third or fourth-place car at Road America, but got involved in a bit too much contact after a pit stop and ended up 16th with a broken suspension piece.
If either of those unforced errors does not happen, then Rossi has a much better chance at the final round race in Sonoma (this year at Laguna Seca).
Similarly, Newgarden had the worst May and June imaginable after getting off to a fast start.
The driver who maximized his chances was Dixon, who won the title.
Who’s going to win this year?
Given that the cars and engines are primarily the same this season as last, I extrapolated the points race based on last year’s results (with the exception of the Indy 500, which I will get to below).
The results: Unless something unexpected happens to Dixon (unforced errors, engine failures, crashes), he’s likely going to beat Rossi again. Even if Rossi has no unforced errors, etc.
The driver most likely to improve from last year is Newgarden. He had six very bad results last season. He has most to gain.
The wild card is the Indy 500. That is slightly more than double points, and if one of Newgarden, Rossi or Dixon wins the race, it could pave the way to the championship. Over the last three Indy 500s, Rossi has been the most successful and the most consistent.
One way or the other, we will know a lot more after Detroit.
Dark Clouds for Honda on the Horizon?
It seems the Alexander Rossi war has begun in earnest with reports that Rossi is talking to Penske as well as Honda and Andretti. Supposedly, Rossi’s contract with Andretti is up at the end of the year, as is Andretti’s contract with Honda.
There may be something novel on the Andretti-Honda side of things. That would be a potential contract as something akin to a Honda factory driver loaned to Andretti. This would free up considerable money for Andretti and offer Rossi perks beyond driving for a great team. Possibly even some F1 testing.
My advice would be to take heed of the experiences of the last two drivers to jump to Penske: Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden. Although Pagenaud won the driver’s championship for Penske in 2016 (leading a Penske 1-2-3), we are now a couple of years down the road from that and his Penske seat is clearly in jeopardy. Newgarden has done extremely well on the track (winning the driver’s title in 2017), but he has kind of disappeared from a media standpoint.
Another factor is that Honda is clearly the engine to have right now. And there is practical engine freeze through the 2020 season (and possibly through 2021).
I would advise Rossi that it is better for his career to be the number 1 Honda driver in the Indycar paddock than the number two or three Penske driver. If a Honda driver wants to do TV, he’ll do TV. If a Honda driver wants to run the Baja 1000, Daytona, Sebring, or anything else Honda participates in, that’s no problem. Honda will even send a video crew.
With Penske, not so much. The organization is more controlling.
I would also say that he would have more input with Andretti regarding staff moves, etc., than he ever would have at Penske. There is a definite Penske-way about the place. And there are few accommodations made for the wishes of employees. Ask Simon. He is definitely having issues with learning how to drive the current Indycar and Penske’s way of setting it up. And it doesn’t look like they are making a lot of effort to help him.
The month of May begins on April 24th
The first chance to see what Chevy and Honda have for the Indianapolis 500 will be the open test April 24th. Almost the entire field will be represented. Last year, the open test was when the Honda teams figured out that at least some of the Honda advantage in 2017 and 2016 was due to the speedway Aerokit in the years when each manufacturer did their own aero. In 2018 with the new universal kits, the Chevy engine was definitely faster from day one. Not a lot. But enough to make a difference.
Since May 2018, Honda Performance Development has been working to improve their engine for Indy, and April 24th is the first pop quiz. Speeds and video will be streamed live for free on Indycar.com. Pay attention.
The next race on the calendar is May 11th for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS road course. This will be interesting to watch to see the trap speeds on the front straight and try to translate that to Indy 500 performance.
Qualifying for the Indy 500 is May 18-19 and the race is May 26th.