The Indy 500 is coming up Sunday, May 26. The field is set and only one short practice remains on Friday. What do we expect for Honda vs. Chevy in this year’s edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?
QUESTION: Chevy got the top four spots in qualifying and six of the top nine. Why was Honda slow after being the engine to have in all the other races this year?
ANSWER: The Indy 500 is a test of how much top end horsepower your engine has, and since competition returned to Indycar in 2012 Chevy has usually had an advantage in top-end horsepower. Honda’s strength is low-end torque, linear responsiveness and fuel mileage, which has led to its domination on road and street courses in 2018 and 2019.
This year, Honda is still down on power, but is MUCH CLOSER to Chevy. Comparing day 1 qualifying places from 2018 to Day 1 qualifying in 2019, the difference is stark:
- In 2018, 7 of the top 19 cars were Hondas. In 2019 11 of the top 19 cars were Hondas.
- In 2018, both of the cars that got bumped from the field were Hondas. In 2019, all of the Hondas made the race. Further, this year, six of the bottom seven were Chevys. The only Honda in the bottom seven belonged to James Hinchcliffe, who was there because he crashed during Saturday qualifying.
While in 2018 and 2019 an average team was better off with a Chevy, in 2019 there is much less of an advantage in qualifying, and the race has yet to be run.
QUESTION: How do we expect the race to shake out?
ANSWER: It’s clearly Honda versus Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing. As I have written since last year, the “brand competition” for most Indycar events since 2017 is really Honda versus the Penske Chevys. But at Indy it is Honda vs. Penske & Carpenter. That is because Ed Carpenter Racing is something of an Indy specialist, and a strong one. Not to be taken lightly, it is no surprise that “little” Ed Carpenter Racing has three cars in the top seven. The team is very strong at Indy, everywhere else they are below all the Honda teams in terms of competitiveness.
After ECR , there is a big drop-off to the rest of the Chevys of teams like Foyt, Dreyer & Reinbold, Carlin, and Juncos.
QUESTION: Does qualifying order predict the result of the race?
ANSWER: No. Since competition returned to the Indy 500 in 2012, Chevy has won five of the seven Pole Positions (another indication of the chronic top-end power issue HPD has been facing since 2012). Honda has won two races when Chevy won the pole, and two races when a Honda won the Pole.
Historically the race winner tends to come from the top 20 starters. By sheer numbers, there are more Hondas in the race with a chance to win than Chevys. Since competition returned in 2012, the lowest starting position for a race winner was Ryan Hunter-Reay from 19th in 2014. If you go down this year’s qualifying list to 19 there are a total of 11 Hondas and eight Chevys. Basically, those cars (plus maybe Hinchcliffe in 32nd) have the best chance to win.
Over the same time period, the average finishing position in the 500 for someone who started on the pole is 12th.
QUESTION: The cars look the same as last year, and last year’s race was dull. Is anything different this year?
ANSWER: Yes, several subtle things, but IMS is a subtle place and everything makes a difference.
- The surface has been treated with a black penetrant. It heats up faster in the sun and it takes longer to rubber up after rain.
- A small protective pylon has been added to all cars in front of the driver. This has created buffeting of the driver helmet that was unanticipated and required development of some fixes by almost every team.
- The teams are allowed to make more aero adjustments than they were previously. And there is slightly more downforce available, especially in the front.
- The tires are different (grippier) to try to make it easier to follow cars more closely and pass. Plus different behavior by the sidewalls may have the unintended consequence of making the cars twitchy.
QUESTION: Who are the Honda drivers with the best chance?
ANSWER: Judging by how the cars looked in practice Monday afternoon, I would say that Rossi, Dixon, Bourdais and Herta looked like they have the best cars in traffic for the race, and that they have the best chance to mix it up with the Penske and Ed Carpenter cars.
If you have a chance to go back and replay it, listen to the first hour of Monday’s practice from the NBCSN broadcast. They talk extensively about what Rossi in particular is doing. In short, what was impressive about him was the ability to follow other cars closely IN THE CORNERS . You need to be able to do this to pass cars at the end of the following straight. More impressive was his ability to do this on tires that were 20-30 laps old. If he (or anyone else) can do this Sunday, watch out.
The drivers I am not sure of are Herta, Ed Jones of Carpenter and Felix Rosenqvist. Herta and Jones looked a little tentative when they got into traffic, and you don’t know how Rosenqvist is going to react after hitting the wall last week.
Longer shots would be Takuma Sato (14th on the grid) and Graham Rahal (17th). That team hired Allen McDonald over the winter, and he may make a big difference in race setup. Literally any Honda car or any Chevy run by Carpenter or Penske could win. Breaks play a big part of it.
QUESTION: How could luck play into Honda’s hands?
ANSWER: Let’s say there caution around lap 150 that results in a re-start on lap 165 (35 laps left). Then it is green the rest of the way. In that case there will be some Hondas that could make it to the end on fuel, while all the Chevys would have to stop one more time.
QUESTION: What would be bad for Honda?
ANSWER: Any scenario where the race turns into an all-out sprint for the last 20 or fewer laps. For example, let’s say in our scenario for a restart on lap 165 there is a crash on lap 175, and the yellow lasts for more than 10 laps. That would make for an all-out sprint for the last 15 laps. Unless something unforeseen happens, I don’t see how Honda wins in that scenario unless all the fast Chevys are crippled beforehand or some Honda driver does something heroic.
QUESTION: What should we watch at the start of the race?
ANSWER: I expect it to be moderately warm (80-ish degrees F) with threat of rain. That could make the start more important than usual. So watch Rossi on the outside of row 3 try to pass his way to the front on the first lap. I will be disappointed if Rossi doesn’t gain a few spots on the first couple laps by running the high side and pinning people down on the grass coming out of turns 2 and 4.
QUESTION: What should we want during the race?
ANSWER: In addition to watching the race on NBC , log into racecontrol.indycar.com (live timing and scoring). Watch how much speeds vary as the green stints go on. If the speeds drop off slowly heading into laps in the 20s, this is a sign that the tires are lasting. Since this is a new surface and a new tire, length of tire runs will be interesting to keep track of. Fuel stops are typically 29-31 laps, and if someone is keeping up good speed throughout a tire run, then their tires are working.
Another thing to keep an eye on is how difficult it is for the leader to get around whoever is running last at the back of the pack. There is always a trade-off between being fast in open air and being fast in traffic. If the leader has trouble with back markers, that’s a real bad sign for the leader.
QUESTION: What happened to McLaren?
ANSWER: Simply, McLaren miscalculated. What they needed was an Indianapolis certified Car Whisperer who had fast cars in the 2018 race. That person should have been someone like Allen McDonald, who joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this season. McDonald was race engineer or technical director for two IndyCar Series championships, two Indy 500 race wins and three Indy 500 poles. In 2018, McDonald was Indy 500 pole-winner Ed Carpenter’s race engineer.
The reason is simple: Changes happen every year at Indianapolis. Experience lessens the chance of going down a rabbit hole.
McLaren also lacked a team leader who could whip the team of mercenaries and journeyman mechanics into fighting shape.
I think that at the beginning Zak Brown made a few bad assumptions:
- He thought that the bad blood between Honda and McLaren from the failed F1 effort would not reach to the USA . It did and it does. So his Plan A or a technical alliance with Andretti was not going to happen if Honda had anything to say about it. And they squashed it quick (see below).
- He thought that one of the good Chevy teams like Penske or Carpenter would enter into a partnership with McLaren. He underestimated how competitive Roger Penske and Ed Carpenter are when it comes to the Brickyard. They we decidedly NOT INTERESTED in helping anyone win. Their intellectual property relating to the Brickyard is decidedly NOT FOR SALE .
- That left them with Carlin. I don’t think either side in that marriage knew what they were getting into.
QUESTION: What is the biggest unreported story so far in Indianapolis?
ANSWER: I really want to know what the status is of the relationship between Honda and Michael Andretti is after Andretti Engineering supplied suspension pieces to McLaren over the qualifying weekend.
When the possible return of Fernando Alonso to the Indy 500 broke cover last summer, I have it on pretty good authority that various elements within Honda made it known early on, in no uncertain terms, that Honda Indycar teams were free to partner with Fernando Alonso. HPD would gladly support the effort.
But Honda would not be supplying an engine to any of its teams to any car that had ANY ASSOCIATION WITH MCLAREN , at all. Period.
Further, according to Marshall Pruett in his Day at Indy podcast for Monday, May 20, there was to be no mingling of personnel between one of Honda’s premiere teams (presumed to be Andretti), and the McLaren team at Indianapolis. Not in the pits, not in the paddock, not in the hospitality tent. Any such personnel violating this edict would be ex-communicated (Pruett’s term). .
Fast forward to Saturday, May 18. According to several reports Andretti Engineering (which is a separate entity from Andretti Autosport) sold Andretti engineering shocks to McLaren’s Indycar team and there was an “Andretti” person on the McLaren timing stand Sunday.
Does this violate the Honda edict? Depends on definitions, I suppose. And what could the consequences be? Is this the end of the road?
It is generally assumed that Alexander Rossi’s contract is up this year. It is also assumed that if there is anyone that Honda would ever sign to something like a factory contract to keep him in the fold, it would be Rossi (No disrespect, Mr. Dixon, who McLaren apparently tried to sign away from Ganassi last year). Originally I heard this idea floated as a way to keep Rossi away from Team Penske or a possible new engine partner, or a possible full-time McLaren Indycar entry. Honda could sign Rossi to a contract with Honda directly and then “place” him with one of their Indycar teams (as well as sportscar teams, etc.). This is commonly done in other series, especially in sports car circles. Especially by Porsche and Ferrari. So it would seem reasonable for Honda to be thinking about this before May.
Which brings us, incredibly, to a question that Mr. Know-It-All does not know the answer to: How pissed-off is Honda about all this? Is this a HRD-Honda Japan thing? Or is it a USA/ HPD thing? Does it matter?
Is Honda mad enough to contemplate getting even? Would Honda do something drastic like fund the acquisition of the Harding Racing team by Brian Herta and George Steinbrenner and bring along Alexander Rossi, Jeremy Milles (Rossi’s engineer), etc.? The result would be long term Honda control of its biggest star and biggest rising star on one team away from Michael Andretti, Roger Penske or anyone else. Might that be a little rash? It would give Honda the closest thing to a factory team, something that Honda has never had but Chevy has had in Penske since 2012.
It should be mentioned that it is assumed by a lot of hangers-on that Honda had more than a little bit to do with Michael Andretti’s acquisition of the CART’s Team Green from Barry Green, the formation of what was then Andretti-Green Racing and the move to the Indy Racing League as effectively Honda’s factory team.
One could say that was a different time and different circumstances. One could say Honda (whatever division) would have to be real PO’ed to do something like that in today’s environment, right?