It’s hard to know what to say about the Indy 500 from a Honda standpoint, other than it was a complete domination of practice, qualifying, and the race. With an exciting finish to boot, giving Takuma Sato his second Indy 500 win. Honda finished with the top 4 cars (Sato, Dixon, Graham Rahal, and Santino Ferrucci) and 8 of the top 10. No Chevy was ever a factor. Josef Newgarden was the best Chevy in fifth.
Scott Dixon dominated the race, but Takuma Sato took a chance on lap 172, darting past Dixon and holding on until Spencer Pigot’s crash ended the race five laps early.
In our usual manner, we will pose some questions about the 500 and the rest of the Indycar season. Then we’ll answer them.
How does Scott Dixon lead so many laps race and then lose?
The snarky answer to that would be “practice”. Meaning it has happened before in the Indy 500. More than once:
- 2015: Dixon led 84 laps and finished 4th. Juan Montoya won.
- 2012: Dixon led 54 laps and finished 2nd to Dario Franchitti.
- 2011: Dixon led 73 laps before finishing 5th. Dan Wheldon won.
- 2009: Dixon led 73 laps before finishing 6th. Helio Castroneves won.
Dixon won the race in 2008, leading 115 laps.
The 2020 race ended up being a game of chicken between Sato and Dixon.
Coming out of their last pit stops, Dixon and Sato were 3-4 (eventually to become 1-2 when Zach Veach and Charlie Kimball pitted) on lap 171. Dixon was saving fuel to run hard at the end of the race. Sato was close behind and had two choices:
- Follow the leader and save fuel and wait until the end of the race to try to pass Dixon.
- Pass Dixon NOW , and worry about fuel later. No attack, no chance!
Sato turned up the fuel setting on lap 172 and blew past Dixon. He was taking a chance that either he would be able to save enough fuel and stay in front, or there would be a yellow flag.
This left Dixon with a choice: Follow Sato and save fuel until he could run him down under full power later in the race, or pass him back. Because Sato had one lap less fuel, Dixon assumed Sato would have to conserve a lot toward the end of the race and Dixon would be able to blow past Sato. But Sato was masterful at saving fuel and keeping ahead, constantly switching between the full rich and full lean settings. And we know how this ended.
Dixon’s mistake was that he put too much faith in his car’s performance later on in the race and failed to take into account how likely a caution was. In hindsight it is clear he should have passed Sato back right away. When I saw that pass, I was listening to Dixon’s radio and I thought the choice to follow was a huge mistake.
I think the choice to let Sato run in front was fueled by the fact that they had ignored the threat Sato posed for the entire race. Sato was lurking just off the pace while Dixon and Rossi were dueling for the lead, and I think they did not consider that he might have a better car than Dixon.
Was there an element of subterfuge in Sato’s run?
My answer is “yes!” I may be giving Sato and the RLLR Brain trust too much credit here, but I am a big fan of Machiavelli and this kind of stuff comes to me naturally, so bear with me. Besides, it is classic bicycle racing strategy and Sato was a champion cyclist as a youth (look it up).
The first time Sato showed up on anyone’s radar screen was at lap 157, when he passed Dixon for the lead. Dixon caught back up to Sato right away and had several chances to easily pass him back. Dixon ran very closely behind Sato for several laps, likely to save fuel in Sato’s draft. Basically, Sato passed Dixon and then slowed down. This could have been the set-up.
When Sato passed Dixon for good at 172, the Ganassi camp probably expected the same thing: that Sato would immediately slow down to save fuel. Instead, like a bicycle road racer trying to win a stage race with a break from the peloton, he took off and did not slow down. He made Dixon work to catch up. And when Dixon caught up, Sato made Dixon use up his tires trying to get around him (a trick he might have learned from watching Simon Pagenaud do the same things to Alexander Rossi in the 2019 500).
So while we all thought that Dixon had the best car in the field, it might have been that Sato had the best car, but did not show it until the end.
Whatever it was, all credit to team Sato. They won the race. Dixon did not lose it.
Often it is these kinds of gambles that define winning and losing at Indy. Rossi’s victory in 2016 was totally dependent on making a tank of fuel run longer than anyone thought it could. And Will Power lost to Juan Montoya gambling that it would be easier to get by Montoya on the last lap than it would be to hold him off.
Should the race have been red-flagged at lap 196?
Yes, the cars should have been pulled into the pit lane and stopped at the end of lap 196, but not to give fans a green flag finish. It should have been stopped because there was an injured driver (Spencer Pigot) laying on the pavement. To say the optics of running cars past the prone body of one of their comrades were bad is an understatement.
As far as re-starting the race under green, that was not going to happen. The attenuator that Pigot slammed into was destroyed doing its job of protecting Pigot. It was going to take at least an hour to repair. By that point the sun would be much lower in the sky and much more of a problem for the drivers. The most green-flag laps you would get would be two, more likely one.
So it would have made no sense to wait at least an hour, lose your TV audience and put your drivers at risk for a one or two-lap shootout. The general guideline for Indycar is that they don’t red-flag races with less than 7 laps remaining. This is why ending under yellow was the natural way to end.
Should Rossi have been sent to the back of the lead lap for hitting Sato in the pits?
In my opinion, this is the true miscarriage of justice Sunday. I say that as a veteran official of several sports. And one of the unwritten considerations in officiating is fairness: “Does the punishment fit the crime?”
The background to this is that Rossi was a couple pits ahead of Sato. They both pitted (along with most of the rest of the field), on lap 124. There were lots of cars crowding the pit lane. Sato left his pit a split second before Rossi, and Rossi hit Sato. This was so close that it is extremely hard to tell who left their pit first even in slow motion. For that, Rossi was sent to the back of the lead lap (21st). His race was ruined. In fact, his slim chances of competing for the Driver’s Championship were also ruined. Because his car was set up to run in front, he lost control a few laps later and crashed. Ironically, he finished 27th.
I’ll let you in on a little officiating secret: Sometimes we change our minds about what we call and don’t call based on whether there was any damage, physical or otherwise. In soccer, if a defender tackles the ball away from another player and catches the back of his leg with his cleats, it’s a foul. But is it a card? Red? Yellow? I may initially be reaching in my front pocket (where I keep my yellow yard) as I walk up. Then I will look at the player who was tackled and see if there are cleat marks, blood, bruising, etc. If there is no sign of any of that, no matter how bad the foul looked, I may not give a card. If a foul did not look bad initially but drew a significant amount of blood, then there may be a move to the back pocket for the red card. It all goes back to the punishment fitting the crime.
In the case of Rossi and Sato, there was no damage to either car. And no one in pit lane was threatened. It was a slow speed bump. And the officials have lots of leeway in this case. It would have been more appropriate to push Rossi back behind Sato, and maybe a couple of other cars, but not out of the top 10. That combined with a significant fine would have sent the message. Instead, he got the same punishment that someone would have gotten for taking someone else out of the race in pit lane. Fair? Appropriate? I think not.
In the end, fans were denied a classic three-way duel to the end of the race, and Rossi’s season was ruined. For what? This was an absolute misuse of discretion, which is the most powerful tool sports officials have.
Where did Honda’s speed come from?
This was the subject of much discussion in several places on the internet. And my answer is the speed difference was not entirely from the engine. The extent of the performance difference between Chevys and Hondas was striking when you consider that the respective development teams have been refining the engines for almost 10 years under a very limiting set of rules. There is no place to pick up that kind of performance difference in one season after 10 years of development. Combine that with the fact that the cars are spec, and I think you can look to three things:
- Engine Power: It is generally accepted in the Indycar paddock that the Honda engine has a wider powerband than the Chevy-Ilmor engine. What I witnessed and heard at Road America would indicate that the powerband has gotten a little wider.
- Fuel Mileage: It is also generally accepted that the Honda engine gets better fuel mileage. But it’s hard to tell how much better except at places like Indy when several cars are on the same fuel stints. In particular, the last stint at Indy where everyone does basically the same thing: They stop as soon as they think they can make it to the end on fuel. Just after making their final stops, Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy), Graham Rahal (Rahal-Honda) and Santino Ferrucci (Coyne-Honda) were running in that order on lap 171. Newgarden was clearly the best Chevy all afternoon, although he was never really a factor. He went into severe fuel-save mode almost immediately, allowing Rahal and Ferrucci to glide past him easily. This was the case of the best Chevy not being able to keep up with two Hondas when all of them had new tires and full fuel tanks. It was solely because Newgarden had to conserve fuel while the Hondas did not.
- Chassis set-up ( COVID ): The chief factor, in my opinion, for the Honda superiority was the ability of Honda Performance Development to properly map the characteristics of the car with the Aeroscreen (new this season) into their simulator in Indianapolis. Last fall, Honda and Chevy separately ran tests of the cars with the new Aeroscreen. It was up to them to pass along the information gleaned to their teams so that they could work on setting up the cars over the winter, before they got the cars with the aeroscreens in the spring. Then the teams would be able to test the cars.
Because of COVID , the teams did not get to do much testing. And none at Indy which meant they were reliant on the information from their manufacturer as well as what they could learn from the manufacturer’s simulator. The simulations Honda developed turned out to be much more accurate than Chevy’s. On the first day of practice, some Chevy people noticed that the way the Hondas set up their front wings was totally out of the box, something that was not even on the map of the Chevy teams. Of course, those wing settings came with unseen spring and damper settings. So just adopting the wing settings would not help the Chevy teams.
In practice and the race, the Hondas were able to “suck up” very close to the car in front without losing front grip. Much better than the Chevy’s. This played out over and over during the race. Similarly, the Honda’s were fast and stable in qualifying trim. The Chevys were more of a handful.
Another knock-on from COVID was the tires. The fall tests with the aeroscreen were done with last year’s Indy 500 tires. Firestone’s plan was to develop new tires for the Aeroscreen cars for this season’s 500. So it’s possible that Chevy did not spend a lot of time characterizing how the car ran with the 2019 tires. Because of COVID , the planned 2020 tires never materialized and the 2020 race was run with the 2019 tires, which Honda was ready for.
In a normal year, teams like Penske would have done enough testing in April and May to deal with this. As it was, they were lost. Only Josef Newgarden’s team managed to improve enough to be competitive. Rinus Veekay’s set-up worked in qualifying, but not so much in the race. The other Chevys were also-rans.
Where do we go from Here?
The next event is August 29-30 at Gateway in St. Louis. An oval shaped almost exactly like the oval at Motegi.
Honda has a commanding 78-point lead in the manufacturer’s race after winning five of the seven races. That’s about a three-race lead.
Scott Dixon has a more commanding 84-point lead in the driver’s championship. That is also effectively a three-race lead with five scheduled races to go, and at most seven (if the Mid-Ohio double-header finds a home the promoters can live with in September).
After dominating Indy, it is already a very good year for Honda. Winning Indy is HPD’s top priority. The manufacturer’s and driver’s championships are still out there. Honda has not won all three in Indycar since the last year of manufacturer competition in the old IRL: 2005.