The Indycar “Dual in Detroit” races over the weekend reinforced my notion that Honda is the powerplant to have on street courses. The only two Chevys that could play with the Hondas all weekend were those of Josef Newgarden (won rain-shortened Race 1 and crashed out of Race 2) and Will Power (finished third in Race 2). They are the only two drivers who have managed to drive around the peakiness and fuel usage of the Chevy engine in a way that none of the other Chevy runners have figured out, including their Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.
It was a bad weekend for Indy GP and Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, who came into the weekend leading the race for the Driver’s Championship. He finished 6th Saturday and 17th Sunday, dropping from to third in the Driver’s standings. These kinds of weekends are what lead me to believe that as much as I like Simon, he is definitely third in the Penske driver pecking order. However, Penske confirmed that Pagenaud will be back with the team in 2020. The only Penske Indycar driver who’s future is in question is Will Power.
Although Josef Newgarden won the rain-shortened first race of the weekend on Saturday, Seven of the top 10 positions were Honda drivers (the third Chevy Saturday was Spencer Pigot in 10th). On Sunday, Power in third place was the only Chevy in the top 10. The second Chevy was Pato O’Ward in 11th.
At the end of the weekend Alexander Rossi (second Saturday and Fifth Sunday) closed the gap to the lead to just 15 points behind Newgarden, who crashed with Rossi and Hinchcliffe and finished 19th. Honda widened its lead in the Manufacturer’s race to 66 points after Detroit, up from 34 points after the Indy 500.
The start of Saturday’s race was delayed by weather, and the track was wet for most of the race. Newgarden managed to catch a couple of breaks on cautions and pitstops to get out ahead of Rossi, who started on pole and led from the start in the wet. Once in the lead, Newgarden stayed there. At the end of the race all the cars were on slicks, and Rossi was clearly faster. There was only a one-car dry path on the track, and passing would require the passing car to venture onto the wet sections. Newgarden finished first, ahead of Rossi in second and Takuma Sato in third.
Sunday’s race was dry and much more interesting. There were a lot of strategies in play, all revolving around use of the faster Red tires, which behaved oddly. Scott Dixon started out the race in sixth position on the Reds, and stayed out as one car after another in front of him pitted to get off those tires. The Red tires were clearly fast, but once they started degrading, the got worse even faster. Dixon was more than four seconds slower on his last lap on Reds than he was on his second-to-last lap. Many drivers thought something was broken on with their cars, the change was so abrupt.
The good news for Dixon was that he made the race on two more pit stops (three total), and that turned out to be the winning formula. Marcus Ericsson earned his first Podium in Indycar in second and Will Power finished third in an otherwise Honda top-10 sweep.
Interesting notes from the races
- Scott Dixon crashed out of Saturday’s race all by himself. No other cars were involved. According to Robin Miller, the last time that happened was 2014. All his other DNFs since then were the result of failures or multi-car incidents.
- Dixon went on to win Saturday’s race. That makes the 15th Indycar season in a row where Dixon has won a race.
- Ericsson’s podium finish was his first podium finish in any race since the Abu Dhabi GP2 Race 1 in 2013. Ericcson finished third in that race. On the Podium with him was Alexander Rossi, who won the race.
The Alexander Rossi sweepstakes
One of the reasons why Alexander Rossi might at least think about switching to Penske is because of the mechanical issues his Andretti team has encountered. The issues with the fuel fills at Indy have garnered a lot of attention.
The theory here is that switching to Penske would give Rossi a team that performs closer to his level. But is that grass really greener on the other side of the pit wall? Perhaps we should examine the season that Will Power is having, since if Rossi moves to Penske, the most likely scenario is that Rossi would replace him and inherit his car and staff. Will Power has had his share of team errors this season.
- In the race at Circuit of the Americas, Rossi chased Power the whole race at the front of the field until the last round of pit stops. At that point, Power’s driveshaft failed as he pulled out of the pits, ending his race. Driveshafts in Indycar don’t usually just fail. And it could have been something that the team did that contributed. Power finished 24th in the COTA race. Rossi finished ninth due to getting caught behind the yellow flag after everyone else had stopped. The strategy between the two teams was the same.
- In the run-up to the race and in the first weeks of the season, Power lost two engines. While you can’t usually blame the team for things like this, I have noticed that some teams lost more engines than others. On the Honda side, Colton Herta’s new Harding Steinbrenner team has also lost two. Over the last two seasons, Chevy has blown quite a few more engines than Honda. Something for Rossi to consider in a move to Penske.
- In the Detroit Race Saturday, Power left the pits during his first (and what should have been his only) pit stop. But the left front tire changer did not get the front tire tightened, and it fell off as Power exited the pits. This one is definitely on the team.
- In the Race Sunday, Power had transmission problems, and only finished on the podium with help from fortuitous yellow. Transmission issues are almost always team issues.
So a switch to Penske would not necessarily help Rossi with car reliability.
More possibilities to add into the Rossi mix: Highly-regarded Ganassi rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who has shown flashes of brilliance this season, is racking up bills for crash damage, possibly totaling $1 million or more this season. Ganassi had gotten rid of drivers due to crash damage in the past. And the rumor is Ganassi is at least checking to see how much it would take to grab Rossi and most of his support team from Andretti. Remember that Rossi’s engineer Jeremy Milless would likely not move with him to Penske.
And let’s throw in one more: Arrow. But not necessarily Arrow Schmidt Peterson. How? Arrow is the naming partner for SPM , and has long-term visions of building a superteam in Indycar. What better building block would there be than to snag one of the series top 3 drivers? Remember also that Arrow is a major partner of McLaren, which wants to move into Indycar eventually, and wants a strong presence for the 500. McLaren made a strong run at Scott Dixon last season before losing out to Ganassi. If they would have gotten Dixon, that would have been a McLaren-Andretti car similar to the this season’s Harding-Steinbrenner/Andretti car.
So what if Arrow- SPM is chasing after Rossi’s team for a car that would be branded as Arrow-McLaren? Possibly with Honda.
Handicapping the Rossi Stakes: Where is this going to shake out? Going back to my horse racing roots (the first words I learned from my father were “Exacta Box”) this is my morning line:
Arrow by itself or with some combination of SPM , McLaren, Honda: 10-1
The field (every other possibility): 15-1
My analysis at this point is that Honda will either be a large portion of the money behind one of its teams, or will be the lead partner in a significant way. Honda wants Rossi’s future in the Honda program secure for the foreseeable future. Any deal with any Honda team would be guaranteed money long-term. This is extremely unusual in racing series other than NASCAR and Formula 1. Most drivers are on year-to-year agreements. Even “multi-year” agreements are a series of one-year contracts that the team (and sometimes the driver) can opt-out of at the end of any season.
I think Rossi is so valuable (particularly to Honda) that he could break that mold and be offered an honest-to-god actual long-term contract to stay with Honda for five years or more, guaranteed. Not only does Honda not want to lose Rossi to Chevy, but they don’t want to lose him to a possible third manufacturer like Porsche or Alfa-Romeo. They also want him for other things.
I am not sure that Rossi is as valuable to Penske. And I know he’s not as valuable to GM. No one could be. It’s not the way they think.
That’s why I think Rossi is more likely than not to drive a Honda in Indycar next year. Whether he drives for Andretti or not likely depends on whether Andretti stays with Honda.
Andretti’s contract was up in 2017. My understanding is that Andretti stayed with Honda because Rossi’s people made it clear that Rossi would leave if Andretti chose Chevy. So Andretti chose Rossi over Chevy. I think there is also sentiment in the Andretti, Ganassi and SPM camps that you can’t beat Penske with Penske’s powerplant. You have to run something different. This is part of why Ganassi switched back to Honda.
When will we know? Most Indycar driver and engine contracts require the parties to notify one another they are intending to make a change by August 1. So if Rossi were to leave Andretti, he would have to notify Andretti of the possibility by August 1. After that notification Rossi would be free to sign with someone else, and Andretti would be free to sign another driver to replace Rossi. They could continue negotiating with each other, as well.
Same thing for engine manufacturers. If Andretti were to leave Honda, they would have to notify Honda of the “possibility” by August 1, at which point Honda could sign other teams and Andretti could sign with Chevy. Though they could still end up with each other after further negotiations.
In 2017, Andretti notified Honda that it might change on August 1, and then Sato notified Andretti of the same thing. Sato signed with Rahal before Andretti re-signed with Honda.
In my mind, that is the most-likely way that Rossi ends up with another Honda team, such as Ganassi. By the way, Ganassi and Coyne are the least likely Honda teams to switch to Chevy. And Carlin is said to be looking for some way to tie up with Honda.
It could be an interesting summer. Watch this space.