As you certainly must know by now, Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indy 500 Sunday, driving a Meyer-Shank (with Andretti) Honda. He passed Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) for the lead on lap 199 of 200 and held on. Palou finished second.
But make no mistake, this was nothing like last year for Honda, which captured eight of the top 10 places in 2020. The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate (Google it) at Indy was harsh to most of the leading Honda runners.
So, how did Honda avoid the embarrassment of a Chevy victory? Honda won the race for two reasons:
- Honda had a performance advantage
- Honda had the law of large numbers working to its advantage.
So let’s review the events by answering some more or less obvious questions about how things played out.
What characteristic of the race determined the outcome?
Teams could set ups their cars one of two ways: either to run fast up front (lower downforce/drag) or to run well and pass cars in the pack (higher downforce/drag). If you set up your car to run in front, it was very difficult to pass unless your tires were new or you were one of the two front cars in a pack. It got more difficult to pass as the tires degraded over the course of a stint, or as you fell back further in the pack. Once the tires had about 10 laps on them, there were very few passes near the front.
Cars set up with higher downforce could make passes in the pack, but were not fast enough to pass any of the pack leaders. Among the players at the end of the race, only Simon Pagenaud (Penske-Chevy), was set up to run in the pack.
This played out at the end of the race after the three leaders — Castroneves, Palou, and Pato O’Ward (Arrow/McLaren-Chevy) made their last pit stops on lap 172 and 173. They came back out in a pack of three with Castroneves in front of Palou and O’Ward behind. O’Ward tried to pass Palou soon after, and was cut off. After that, as the third car in line, he had no chance to pass either Palou or Castroneves.
No matter how your car was set up, it was hard to pass on older tires. Overall, track position was paramount. Where you were in a pack determined what you could and could not do. It influenced everything else.
This is important to keep in mind for the below discussion. You have been warned!
What were Honda’s Performance Advantages?
There were three Honda advantages:
- The most significant turned out to be Honda’s performance advantage in qualifying. That put eight Hondas in the first 10 for the start of the race. When most of those cars dropped out of contention (see below) there were other good cars that started out with good track position remaining in contention, particularly Castroneves and Palou.
- Honda still has better fuel mileage, particularly under full throttle. Pato O’Ward mentioned after the race that even though he had a full tank of fuel on board for his last stint, he had to conserve fuel through part of the stint, while the two Hondas of Palou and Castroneves could run full rich.
- Top end speed. Especially on the closing stages, the two Hondas at the front (Castroneves and Palou)had plenty of power to fight off O’Ward when they needed to. O’Ward thought he drover a perfect race and did not win simple because his car was not fast enough to keep up with the two Hondas at the front.
As I mentioned above, these advantages were overcome by the controlling characteristics of the race. If your car was set up to run in the front, it did not matter which engine you had once you were deeper than 3rd in a given pack. And if you found yourself buried in the pack (as Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon were), nothing would help you.
What single event was most important to determining the outcome?
When considering whether Castroneves or Palou would win, look no farther than the Arrow/Mclaren-Chevy of Felix Rosenqvist. Rosenqvist came out of the pits on lap 195 ahead of Palou just after Palou passed Castroneves for the lead. Had things stayed that way, with Palou drafting up behind the faster car of Rosenqvist (he had brand new tires) it was Palou’s race. Because Castroneves was now the third car in the pack (behind Rosenqvist and Palou), it would have been much more difficult to pass Palou.
But Rosenqvist was quickly called back to pit lane with a drive-through penalty for speeding, and the rest is history. Palou was a sitting duck for Castroneves, who had the controlling second position heading into turn one of lap 199.
Of course, the move that should be keeping Palou awake nights is his decision to pass Castroneves before Lap 198 or 199 at all. Passing Castroneves (as Palou did on lap 195, put Helio in the drivers’ seat, from a tactical standpoint. If Palou would have waited until lap 199, he’d have won his first Indy 500.
How did Rossi and Dixon get buried?
Stefan Wilson’s Crash in the pits on lap 34 had the largest domino effect I can remember in the 500, and I have seen every one since 1966. This is the running order on lap 30, before there were any significant pit stops, followed by that driver’s place at the restart on lap 46:
1) VeeKay (2)
2) Herta (1)
3) Dixon (32, one lap down)
4) Carpenter (18)
5) Castroneves (5)
6) Hunter-Reay (4)
7) Kanaan (28)
8) Palou (6)
9) Ericcson (27)
10) Rossi (31, one lap down)
The first yellow of the race fell on lap 34 when Stefan Wilson crashed in the pits, closing the pits. Anyone who pitted before then benefited. That includes Herta, Hunter-Reay, Carpenter, and VeeKay.
If your fuel lasted until lap 38, when the Pits re-opened, you also benefited. This includes the eventual top two finishers (Castroneves and Palou) and the the fourth place car (O’Ward).
If you came into the closed pits between laps 35 and 37 and your car was still running, you ended up OK. This included Pagenaud, Kanaan (who finished 10th) and Rahal-Honda’s Santino Ferrucci (who finished 6th). They all took an emergency splash of fuel and came back in for full service on lap 38. They all re-started on lap 46 in the 20s, and ended up in the top 10.
The people that the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate (have you Googled it yet?) reserved its harshest treatment for were Dixon and Rossi. They coasted into their pit stalls, and their cars would not re-start. Their fuel systems needed to be primed. They ended up in the back of the pack a lap down. Their races were effectively over. Their crime? They got “good enough” fuel mileage and had “good enough” tire wear to stay out past lap 33. But they did not get good enough fuel mileage to last to lap 38. In retrospect, it would have been much better for them to come in on lap 35 and take the closed pit penalty. But they rolled the dice that the pits would open on lap 36. And they lost.
The biggest beneficiaries of the chaos were:
Conor Daly (18-to-3)
Takuma Sato (14-to-8
Graham Rahal (17-to-9)
Daly stopped on lap 33, while Rahal and Sato stopped on 38.
Where does Honda stand in its quest for a second Indycar Triple Crown?
You’ll remember that 2020 was the first year that Honda won the Indy 500 (Sato), Driver’s title (Dixon), and manufacturer title in the same season since 2005.
Of course, the 2021 Indycar victory accomplishes one task (and the most important one). The others are still very close.
Alex Palou takes over the lead in the driver standings with a healthy 36-point lead over teammate Scott Dixon. But the next Honda runners are Colton Herta in 7th, 94 points adrift, and Graham Rahal in 8th, 100 points back. Alexander Rossi is all but out of it after a 29th place finish in the 500. He needs to win about four races in a row to climb back into contention. As a matter of math, he has fewer points for six races than Helio Castroneves has for one race.
The leading Chevy driver is Pato O’Ward is one point behind Dixon, followed closely by Simon Pagenaud (who finished third in the 500) and Rinus VeeKay, who finished 8th.
Honda leads Chevy by nine points the the manufacturer race, even though Honda has won four of the six races. To open up some breathing room, Honda really needs a podium sweep in one of the Detroit races or Road America.
How many of Helio’s 500 wins were with Honda?
Helio won his first two Indy 500s in 2001 and 2002. Those two cars were powered by an Oldsmobile and a Chevy. Then he won his third in 2009, when the whole field was powered by Honda.
The easy way to look at it is that 2021 was the second Castroneves win powered by Honda. But maybe we should look more closely at 2001. That season, the Indy 500 was a one-off effort for Team Penske, which competed in the CART season that year: as a Honda team. So Helio was driving for a Honda team when he won the 2001 Indy 500?
Is that three of two? You be the judge.
Of course, Castroneves has been driving factory Acura DPi cars in IMSA since 2018, winning one IMSA team title with Ricky Taylor. This year, he was part of the Wayne Taylor Acura team that won the 24 hours of Daytona. The IMSA Acura and Indycar Honda programs are both run by Honda Performance Development.
How is Honda doing vs. Chevy at the Indy 500?
Since the start of the current era of manufacturer competition, Honda now leads Chevy 6-4. Honda won in 2012 (Dario Franchitti), 2014 (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 2016 (Alexander Rossi), 2017 (Takuma Sato), 2020 (Sato again), and 2021 (Castroneves).
When are the Indycar Races in June?
Indycar is taking this weekend off, and is back in action with the Detroit Doubleheader June 12 and 13. Road America (I will be there) is June 20.