We are going to start with the end, then we are going to spend most of the blog talking about WHY Honda had the the top SEVEN finishers. We’ll ask and answer a few questions:
How did the race end up?
You’d be excused for not staying until the end. Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) won his second race of the year, ahead of teammate Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe (Andretti-Honda). Honda finished with the top seven drivers. The most dominant performance of the season for Honda.
What led to Honda’s domination in Nashville? Simulation?
If you are an Indycar fan and watch the action on track, you observe that there is not a lot of difference between Honda and Chevy performance which leads to about an even chance of one or the other winning any given race. Even if you scour the session reports, there is not a lot to find. Common wisdom is that Honda is more driveable and has more grunt out of slow corners, while Chevy is more peaky with better top end power (except at Indy, which has defied all attempts at explanation). And you can’t argue about Honda getting better fuel mileage.
But there are two-to-three events every year where Honda seems to have an unfair advantage. That’s enough to lead Honda to three manufacturer’s titles in a row with this season looking all but locked up for a fourth.
The question in my mind has been over what leads to that advantage and could it be that we have been looking in the wrong place for Honda’s advantage? That the MAJOR advantage of the Honda teams lies not on the track, but in the simulations of what happens on track? And that the Nashville weekend shines a bright light on a factor that we have not noticed before? Simulation.
How can simulation make any difference?
Let’s look at Nashville. None of the teams spent any time at the track before this weekend. Honda and Chevy were allowed time to take laser measurements at the track and build characterizations in their Indy facilities for their teams to use. And the data was available for the engineers. Clearly the Honda teams came away with an unquestionable advantage over the Chevy teams. The results are inarguable:
Practice 1 —
Top six times on the track that no one had really driven were Hondas. Not only that, but they were six Hondas from three different teams.
Practice 2 — Top four times were Hondas.
Qualifying — Five of the top six were Hondas.
Race — Top seven were Hondas. And that’s after the best Honda (Herta) crashed out and the second-best Honda (Rossi) was taken out by Pato O’Ward. It could easily have been a top nine lockout.
This was not coincidence. It’s clear to me the Honda teams had a better set-up direction from the start than the Chevy teams, in general. The Penske teams made a point that each car went in a separate direction in P1. That’s not something you do if you are confident in the pre-race information.
So Is Nashville the only time this has happened?
Nashville was the first time this concept occurred to me. Something of an epiphany. So, I started Back-testing, looking for times that it might have happened previously. And I found several instances.
First eight races of 2020: Think back to the beginning of the 2020 season. These were the first Indycar race with the Aeroscreen. It changed the balance of the car and added mass. Honda won six of the first eight races. Looking back on it now, I am wondering if Honda’s simulator had a better handle on the set-up direction required for the cars with the new Aeroscreen, and that it took the Chevy teams half a season to catch up?
Indy 500 2020:
Common wisdom of the time was that Honda made some mad power gain that led to the relegation of Chevy to “also-ran” status. Some of us argued that it was set-up, and now I believe that even more strongly. The
simulator likely had a better handle on the true effect of the aeroscreen for the 500, and that led to a more effective set-up direction to those teams that adhered closely to HPD’s guidance.
The fact that the Honda advantage was less pronounced for the 2021 Indy 500, only proves the point about 2020.
What about the addition of Chip Ganassi Racing to the Honda stable?
You might try to explain the Honda dominance of the last few years by pointing out that this period coincides with the addition of the Ganassi team to the Honda stable in 2017. And there is undoubtedly some advantage that Ganassi brings to the table.
But let’s look at it in the other direction: Imagine that working with HPD has made Ganassi better. I have heard rumblings that while HPD shares the information it generates equally with all teams, that Ganassi has a better handle on what to do with that information from HPD than the other teams do. Certainly better than Andretti. It’s one thing to have good data. It is another to understand what it really means. And it is yet a third to take full advantage of it. So Ganassi’s astounding success over 2020 and 2021 tells me this:
Honda is giving them great tools to work with, including great simulator data. Ganassi is ahead of its peers in the art of interpretation and in gaining mastery of what to do with it.
Why is that? Why would Ganassi work better with HPD than the teams that have more experience with HPD? Let’s go back to 2017, the last season of manufacturer aerokits. Ganassi switches from Chevy to Honda. All Ganassi has to go on is HPD data aero data, because the other teams are not sharing. So, in order to get up to speed as quickly as possible, Ganassi had to learn to understand what Honda was giving them quickly in order to learn to deploy it. Their Chevy experience was less than useless.
The other Honda teams that lived through the aerokit years, learned to disbelieve what Honda was saying, even after HPD fixed its correlation problems. The other teams were more self-sufficient than Ganassi.
Against all predictions, Ganassi won a race in 2017 with the aforementioned aerokit and Scott Dixon was the highest finishing Honda driver in the driver’s championship (3rd). In 2018, Ganassi won a handful of races, Dixon won the Driver’s title and Honda won it’s first manufacturer title. Why? Maybe because Honda’s data about the new universal aerokit was better than Chevy’s? And Ganassi trusted it? Hmm?
How much will simulation matter going forward?
Nashville was the case where manufacturer simulation mattered most. A perfect storm. Looking forward, such things won’t matter at all at the next race at the Indy Road Course. The teams have raced there five times in the last two years. Same with Gateway.
The season ends with swings to Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach. In each case, this will be the first Indycar race at those facilities with aero screens. And while some of the teams have tested at Portland and Laguna, no one has driven an Indycar with an aero screen at Long Beach. So Long Beach will be the place where simulation data matters most. It will matter less at Laguna Seca and Portland.
Back to the race, what happened to Colton Herta?
Colton Herta had the best car all weekend, but it had one flaw: He set his car up for ultimate lap speed. And to get ultimate lap speed, he had more downforce in order to get through the slow sections fast. This is wise if you intend to start in front and pull away from the field. But not so good if you need to pass someone on the end of one of the two long straights over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Marcus Ericsson started mid-pack and his car was set-up to pass on the straights, so he had less downforce. When Herta found himself behind Ericsson, he could not get past, because he could not pass on the tight portions, where he was faster.
In desperation, Herta was taking all kinds of chances toward the end of the race into turn 4, and crashed when his brakes locked up and he crashed with four laps to go.
Where does the driver’s title race stand?
Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) still holds the lead, despite getting a six-place grid penalty for an unapproved engine change (he blew an engine in the Portland test last week). Palou started ninth and finished seventh. Even with that lackluster result, his lead grew from 39 points over Pato O’Ward to 42 points over Scott Dixon who finished second in the race. O’ward Finished 13 and fell to third place in the championship. The standings after Nashville are:
Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) 410
Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) -42
Pato O’Ward (Arrow-McLaren-Chevy) -48
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) -75
Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) -79
Everyone else is more than 100 points behind and would have to make up more than 20 points per race on Palou. A tall order.
In the end, Palou’s position solidified. For either Scott Dixon or Pato O’Ward, they would have to gain more than 10 points on Palo in each event. That requires winning multiple races.
Using Nashville as an example, Dixon finished second and Palou finished seventh, a significant difference. But Dixon only gained 14 points. Ericsson won the race and gained 25 points on Palou. So for anyone to catch Palou, they have to win multiple races, and finish in the top 5-to-8 in the other races. I am not sure anyone can win multiple races in the five we have left.
Where does the manufacturer’s title race stand?
With Honda cars finishing first through seventh at Nashville, Honda put the manufacturer’s race almost out of reach. Honda gained 46 points (which is huge), building its lead out to 119 points. That works out to be almost a five-race lead with five races to go. Typically, the winning manufacturer in a race gains about 25 points on the loser. It will be a while for Honda to mathematically eliminate Chevy, but at this point it would take a miracle for Chevy to make up that much ground in five races. Something on the order of every Honda blowing up in a race or two.
When is the next race?
Saturday at the Indy Road Course, as part of the second Indycar- NASCAR double header.