The strategy for the Honda runners in the Indy 500 was simple: fuel mileage over pure horsepower. Through Lap 172 of the 200-lap race, the strategy played out almost perfectly and all the strong Hondas (Alexander Rossi, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal, Conor Daly, Takuma Sato and, maybe even Santino Ferrucci) were set to go to the end of the race running full rich. The leading Chevys were faster running full rich, but none of them were in a position to run that way to the end of the race under green flag conditions.
Scott Dixon had run more than 10 laps further than any of the Chevys through the first five stops. Simon Pagenaud, Ed Carpenter, Josef Newgarden and Spencer Pigot had all struggled to put more than 20 strong laps into a 30-lap stint. In short, the Hondas were capable of running faster for longer.
The top four cars were likely going to be the Hondas of Rossi, Sato, Rahal, Daly, Bourdais and Rahal in some combination. The Chevys were all going to have to check up, and a couple of them might not make it even then. Simon Pagenaud, who had by far the best car and dominated the race, had run 32 green laps once, between laps 32 and 64. But to make that distance he had to back off. When he made his last stop stopped at lap 168, no one thought he could run the rest of the race full rich. When Rossi and Dixon stopped on 169, Everyone knew they could make it. Dixon has done a 35-lap full-green stint early on, producing the fastest lap of the race at the end.
When Rahal and Bourdais crashed because neither one would back off going into turn 3 on lap 178, it was all over for Honda. Rossi was running first and was showing signs of pulling away from Pagenaud (who had to save fuel). But with nine laps of yellow Pagenaud would be able to run full rich and despite a heroic effort from Rossi, there was nothing he could do about the top-end power disparity (which was less than less year but still significant). Pagenaud finished first to sweep the entire month of May (Indy GP, Indy 500 Pole and winning the Indy 500) and solidified his future with Penske Racing (more on that below).
All that is left for Honda runners is to pick up the pieces and look at the rest of the schedule.
The Manufacturer’s Battle
By winning everything that they reasonably could during the month of May at Indy, Chevy has narrowed the gap to Honda, but still trails by a significant amount, 491-457. As I have said a couple of times the last year, it is going to be hard for Chevy to win the manufacturer’s points standings this year, mainly due to the fact that Honda has more good teams than Chevy has. And Honda still has a significant driveability/low-end torque edge. That should come to the fore this weekend at Detroit with its two street races. The Penske cars did better at St. Pete and Long Beach after ditching their in-house dampers for Ohlins on street courses. However, both of those venues have a long straight that plays into Chevy’s power advantage. No such straights exist at Detroit.
The other issue that will rear its head is the number of blown engines. Once a driver pulls a fifth engine for the season, that driver can no longer score points for the manufacturer. That means that drivers like Honda’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastian Bourdais, Takuma Sato, and Colton Herta, and Chevy’s Will Power and Simon Pagenaud will likely not be able to score engine manufacturer points come August and September. That could leave Rossi, Dixon, Rahal, Ferrucci and Hinchcliffe fighting Josef Newgarden. The numbers would not look good for Chevy.
After his dominant month of May, Pagenaud is leading Newgarden by 1 point, and Rossi by 22. Next are Sato and Dixon, tied 47 points behind the leader. At this point I would say that those five are the top contenders. Power is 6th, but he is 76 points back, which will be tough to make up unless he’s on fire at Detroit. I would expect Rossi and Dixon (possibly Sato as well) to tighten things up at Detroit based on Long Beach and St. Pete.
Pagenaud isn’t as good as Newgarden, Rossi, or Dixon on a race-in/race-out basis. But if a rainy spring turns into a rainy summer in the upper Midwest, Pagenaud could clean up based on his dominance in the rain at the Indy GP. Otherwise I would expect the Driver’s Champion to be Newgarden, Dixon, or Rossi. Sato and Pagenaud would have an outside chance.
Wait Until Next Year for the 500
I am sure HPD is even now working on the top-end full-rich power disparity. And I am sure Ilmor is working on keeping it. But the engine specification is nine years old and there are very limited things that can be done within the rules to make more horsepower. Importantly, the design of the cylinder heads is fixed, as is the block. What is not fixed is the cylinder/piston stack.
The other item that gets thrown into the hopper for the 2020 Indy 500 is the Aeroscreen designed by Red Bull Technologies. Like anything else, whenever something new is thrown into the mix, it creates opportunity. This is what happened in 2016 whenIndycar added underbody pieces to reduce the chance of the car flipping when it was turned sideways. It is said that Honda found a way to run the cars very slightly lower than Chevy could without bottoming the car and that this overcame Honda’s power deficit.
The new Aeroscreen is going change the aerodynamics of the car. For example, the windscreen could change the center of pressure of the car, and the series may be force to change to shape of the car to compensate. If so, this could open up some things in the engine packaging, which could be an opportunity to make a difference. It’s a chance for someone to be creative.
Alexander Rossi’s Future
Now that the Indy 500 is done, this should be any Indycar fan’s top consideration. It is rumored that Alexander Rossi is a free agent at the end of this season. Some of us have been fretting that, like what happened to Honda favorite Pagenaud in 2015, Penske Racing would throw a pile of money at him to get him to switch teams and engines in Indycar. The most likely scenario seemed to be that Penske would sign Rossi and farm out Pagenaud to their sportscar program. The talk about demoting Pagenaud ended Sunday. He’s staying with Penske’s Indycar team. Josef Newgarden isn’t going anywhere, either. So if Rossi were to move to Penske, he would be either a fourth driver or would have to replace Will Power.
Pagenaud became a fourth Penske Driver when he joined Penske in 2015. After three seasons with four cars, Penske dropped to three cars for 2018. I don’t think Team Penske would outbid Andretti AND Honda for a fourth entry, something that would likely cost at least $10 million a season, possibly $15 million (for the new team and Rossi).
It’s more likely that Will Power (who will be 39 when the 2020 season starts) would retire to open a seat for Rossi. Or Will Power could drive for the Penske Australian Supercars team and run the 500 as a one-off (as Helio Castroneves has done). Still, Penske would likely have to pay Rossi twice what Newgarden and Pagenaud make. And there is the question of the cultural differences between Penske and everyone else in the paddock. Then there is the question of Rossi’s engineer at Andretti, Jeremy Milless, who has a bad history vis-à-vis Penske. If Rossi moves to Penske, it would likely mean changing engineers, as well.
Overall, I still expect Penske to make a run at Rossi. And I expect Honda to lead the charge to keep him. Possibly by making him a pseudo-factor driver, the same way that Posche has factory sports car drivers that it “places” with teams. This would free Rossi to compete in other areas with Honda, including the Baja 1000, IMSA , and other opportunities as they arise. Then Honda would place him with Andretti, or another Honda team of Rossi’s Choice. If he had an interest in testing a formula 1, or driving at LeMans, I am sure something could be arranged.
Finally, Rossi’s driving style works in Honda’s and Andretti’s favor. I have watched Rossi in person and his driving style on road and street courses is “unique”. Would Penske let him explore the areas that Andretti does? In 2015, Pagenaud has an awful time learning the “Penske way” of set-up and development. Then after winning the driver’s championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud was lost again with the introduction of the new standard aero package in 2018.
In both cases, the team view on how the cars should be developed differed from Pagenaud’s. He could not drive the cars that Newgarden and Power could. So the team development path hindered Pagenaud.
Should the same thing happen to Rossi, who likes cars that some drivers would consider dangerously loose?
After Long Beach, I would have said Honda’s chance for keeping him was no better than 50/50. Now I would put it at 70/30. But if you hear noises about Power retiring or racing in Australia….