When 33 cars line up for the start of the Indy 500 Sunday, the field will have a familiar look: Nine of the first 11 cars will be Hondas. And Scott Dixon will be up front and the odds-on favorite to win the race. And as you all likely recall, last year Honda started with 10 of the top 11 cars and finished with eight of the top 10 in the race, led by winner Takuma Sato.
But this year there are differences, and there is no guarantee that past is prologue. So let’s tackle a few questions ahead of the race:
Can anyone beat the Ganassi-Hondas?
Up until this point, the Ganassi cars have been dominant in nearly every session. The Ganassi cars have finished in the the top three of every practice save 2, and have never looked out of sorts. The four Ganassi Drivers (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou) all finished in the top 9 of qualifications, with Dixon earning pole position. As a final warning to the others, those four cars all finished in the top five of the Sunday evening practice after qualifying.
Barring bad breaks that take them all out of the running, it is hard to see how one of the Ganassi entries isn’t in the top two or three at the end of the race. I would go so far as to say Ganassi has a 50% chance of winning the race, which is incredible in a 33-car field.
Who could beat them? On pure pace, the only Chevys that seem to be able to compete are the Ed Carpenter cars with drivers Carpenter (who qualified fourth), Rinus VeeKay (third) and Conor Daly (19th). You might be able to add Arrow-McLaren’s Pato O’Ward (12th) into the mix. But all the other Chevys will be buried in the pack more than halfway back from the pole position. This includes all the Team Penske cars and affiliates Simona De Silvestro.
On the Honda side, there are a lot of cars that can compete, including Andretti’s Colton Herta (qualified second to Dixon), Ryan Hunter-Reay (eigth) and Alexander Rossi (10th). Meyer-Shank driver Helio Castroneves (6th) has won the race three other times and can’t be overlooked. Neither can RLLR’s Graham Rahal (18th) and 2-time winner Takuma Sato (15th).
What are Honda’s advantages?
Qualifying is done with higher horsepower through extra boost (which clearly favors Honda) and with cars that are trimmed out for least downforce and drag. So that kind of Honda domination is not in the cards. You have to look at what happens in race trim. And under those conditions the differences are smaller. Honda’s advantages generally have been:
Fuel Mileage: On a 30-ish lap run at Indy, the Chevys have to slow down more to make the distance than the Hondas do.
Driveability: Hondas generally are smoother on throttle pick-up and have a wider power band than the peaky Chevys. This can be seen in the section times from the midpoint between turns 3 and 4 to the beginning of the front straight. Honda consistently has all the best times here. Also, there is a speed trap at the end of turn four. The trap speed leaders are all Hondas, and the difference is significant. The fastest Hondas are more than 1 mph faster at the head of the front stretch. And six of the top seven speeds were Hondas. This also could indicate that the Hondas are running with slightly more downforce, which was the case in 2020.
With those two advantages, it should be easier for the Hondas to closes up distance and complete passes going into turns 1 and 3.
The winning scenario for Honda is that the top seven or eight Hondas use their fuel window to drop the ECR Chevys cars as the race moves on, leaving the Chevys to rely on breaks.
But even with good breaks for Chevy, the sheer number of fast Hondas gives Honda much more margin for error, or margin for bad luck. If you consider the winner is much more likely to come from the front half of the field, 12 of the first 16 (75%) are Hondas. It’s tough probability math for Chevy.
How could Honda lose?
First, if any of the three Carpenter cars (Ed Carpenter, Rinus VeeKay and Conor Daly) are in the top 7 after lap 160 (nearing the final stint) then there is a chance Chevy could win. There is also the unlikely consideration of a surprise. Such as Chevy finding some more speed than they have shown, or better fuel mileage than I think they have.
Other than that, you would need horrendous bad luck. Like a Chevy car running out of fuel in first place on lap 190, and getting a caution on lap 195. Or rain in a similar situation.
Or the situation that led to Simon Pagenaud’s victory in the 2019. Pagenaud was in fuel trouble and either Alexander Rossi or Takuma Sato seemed destined to win. When Graham Rahal and Sebastian Bourdais crashed on lap 176, that solved Pagenaud’s fuel issue and he beat Rossi and Sato to the finish line.
That exact situation is unlikely to happen this year, because Honda was down on power in 2019. That situation that has since been remedied.
What should I be paying attention to during the race?
- Early in the race, 10-20 laps in, the lead cars will catch the back of the pack. Watch to see how easy it is for Dixon, Herta and the other lead cars to pass them. If the leaders can get by the back markers, that is likely a good thing for Honda.
- If the first pit stops are under green flag conditions, pay attention to who goes how far. In the last couple of years, the Hondas, in general, have been able to go a lap or two longer than the Chevys. Pay attention to see if some cars from either manufacturer are able to go further.
- Watch to see how much speeds fall off as the first stint goes on. If the Chevys fall back from the Hondas, it means that the Hondas still have a mileage advantage. This is more important than how long the stints last.
- You might see the Ganassi cars borrow a strategy from bike racing, with the four of them trading the lead back and forth to try to pull away from the pack.
- Every 10 laps or so, check to see how many Chevys are in the top 10 or so. Honda will start the race with eight of the top 10. See if that number grows or shrinks. This will give you an idea of the strength of each manufacturer on race day.
Who’s going to win?
I don’t claim to know who’s going to win, but I can tell you a few things:
- Probability is on the side of Honda and the Ganassi team.
- IMS will go nuts if Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, or Helio Castroneves wins. Carpenter because he is family at the Speedway. Kanaan because he is a sentimental favorite of most Indycar fans. Helio because it would be his fourth Indy 500 win.
- If Dixon wins, it would be his second and validate his position as the best Indycar driver of his generation.
- If either Herta, Palou, VeeKay or Pato O’Ward win, it will be regaled as a changing of the guard.
That said, how would I rate the odds?
Dixon. Period. He’s been flawless and he feels like he should have won last year.
Tier two: Herta, Palou, Rossi, Castroneves, VeeKay.
Tier three: Sato, Ericsson, Ed Jones, Carpenter, O’Ward.
Longshots: Graham Rahal and Scott McLaughlin.
But Indy is one of those events that are unpredictable. If you think you know how it’s going to play out, you are misguided. If things go to form, Honda, Ganassi and Dixon are odds-on favorites. But it never goes to form. You have been warned.