Kinda snuck up on everyone, but this weekend is the Indy 500. If you missed it, qualifying was last weekend and Marco Andretti is on the pole with Honda locking out the front row and 11 of the top 12 spots on the grid for the August 23rd race.
So far, Honda has been impressive in practice and qualifying. Hondas have been fastest in every full-field practice. Going into the race this weekend, I am cautiously optimistic that Honda will win for the first time since Takuma Sato won in 2017. But not too optimistic.
As is my usual, I will pose a few questions and answer them, as a way to get you up to speed for the event (Sunday, 1 p.m. Eastern Time, NBC ).
Hasn’t Honda had a power deficit to Chevy at Indy the last two years? What changed this year?
A few things, but let me give you two highlights:
New guy at HPD: This is the first Indy 500 where all the development for Honda has been under the watch of Ted Klaus, head of Honda Performance Development, the racing division of American Honda. Don’t underestimate this. In last year’s 500, Alexander Rossi (Andretti-Honda) lost an end-of-the-race duel with Simon Pagenaud (Penske-Chevy). Rossi was clearly down on power, and Klaus told the teams after the race that in 2020 things would be different. That Honda would show up at Indy with more horsepower, without losing driveability or fuel mileage. So far, that seems to be the case.
Going into the race in 2019, it was clear that the only way Honda was going to win was with fuel mileage. In 2020, there are more ways for Honda to win. And Honda powers more cars that can win.
The Honda teams have more aerodynamic options. The addition of the Aeroscreen to Indycar in 2020 has increased the weight of the car and has increased the drag of the car. The engines are generating more heat. In general, Hondas like heat more than Chevys do, and have generally done better in hot conditions. It has been rumored that the Chevy Runners have to divert more air to their cooling systems while the Hondas can block off some openings to their aerodynamic advantage. Because there is less base drag, the Hondas could choose to dial in more downforce to make the cars more stable at speed and be easier on the tires.
What’s up with Team Penske?
For the first time in almost 20 years, there will be no Team Penske car among the first three rows of cars when the Indy 500 starts. How does that happen to the team that won the last two 500s?
The easy answer is that the car changed and Team Penske did not adjust well. The aeroscreen added considerable weight high on the front of the car which forced all teams to change their chassis setup. This was compounded by COVID . In a normal year with a change like this, all the teams would have spent the winter simulating the effect of the change based on last fall’s testing, and designing chassis set-ups to deal with it. Then, they would get the chance to test those changes on the speedway sometime in April at an open test, as well as at a private test.
Because of COVID , no one knew what they had for Indy until last Wednesday, three days before qualifying. And Penske lacked speed, even compared to the other Chevys. If they went the wrong direction with their R&D program, they would not have enough time to turn everything over.
My guess is Team Penske underestimated what its opponents would be able to do. While they hit their performance targets, they were behind the competition. They are left with an impeccably balanced car, that is slower than its competition. And there was no time left to fix the problem. Any quick fixes would likely upset the balance. In a normal year, they would have found out with six weeks or more to fix it.
Though they are starting back in the pack, don’t count them out. It is a long race and, with Cautions and strategy, they could climb back into contention. None of the cars are fast enough to walk away from the others.
What advantages and disadvantages does Honda have?
1) Slight power advantage. In race trim I don’t think it’s much. But Honda is certainly not behind Chevy in this area as it was last year.
2) Fuel mileage. This one item you can pick up from previous races this season. Honda seems to have been able to maintain this edge.
3) Driveability. This shows up at Indy as the car’s ability to get off corners. In order to pass someone going into Turn 1, you have to jump out of turns 2 and 4. Smooth power deliver has been a hallmark of Honda.
1) Honda does not have Team Penske. Generally, Team Penske does not make mistakes. And you can’t argue with its record at Indy. Before he bought the place last fall, Roger Penske still owned it.
2) Some of the Honda teams are stretched a little thin (Andretti has six cars!). The other teams all have at least one extra car. This could show up as glitches on pit lane.
What can we learn from any other races this season?
Best precursor is Texas. Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist walked away from the field after every re-start. Dixon was the only driver who seemed to be able to easily pass anyone and he won the race easily.
The other oval races in Iowa and the road courses really don’t matter.
What should you watch for?
I expect the first several laps to be processional with the three front-row Hondas of Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato leading the group away from the start without much challenge until they start running into back markers around lap 10-to-15. The key to the rest of the race will be how quickly the leader (likely to be one of the first-row starters) gets past the first two or three back markers.
The reason that Scott Dixon dominated the Texas Race was that he was able to pass any other car, anywhere. If the lead Hondas can easily pass the back markers, especially after the halfway point of a tire stint, then the power difference will likely mean something. If the leader can’t pass the tail-enders, it will be a long race for Honda and could come down to strategy and luck rather than pace.
It’s going to be relatively tough to pass. Whoever has a fast car that can pick off cars in traffic is your winner.
Who’s going to win?
Normally, I don’t have a great feeling for this, but this race is looking like a second win for Scott Dixon. Texas was a tour de force. If his car handles that well at Indy, Dixon will walk away with it. This is where the acquisition of Mike Cannon as his engineer would really pay off.
The sports bookies agree. At this writing Fanduel has Dixon at +470 (bet $100 to win $470). The next three favorites are Rossi (+750), Andretti (+850) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (+850).
The two darkhorses to watch are Ed Carpenter’s Rinus Veekay (the only Chevy in the top 9 shootout) and Alex Palou of Dale Coyne Racing-Honda. They are both rookies, which means that they have the have no fear, since neither has smacked the wall yet.
Challenges will come from Sato and Andretti. They have been fast and consistent. Sato’s advantage is he has won the race before, and he has lost the race spectacularly. He was also in the hunt at the end of the race last year despite Honda having a down season at Indy. And his car has been very consistent.
But when it comes down to it, Honda has a better chance to win than Chevy does because EVERY one of the 16 Hondas has the ability to win. There are really only seven Chevys with a shot.