Chip Ganassi brought five cars capable of winning the race to the Indy 500, and after Alex Palou and Scott Dixon fell from contention, Marcus Ericsson picked up the pieces and brought home the orchid wreath, milk, the winner’s check, and Honda’s third Indy 500 win in a row. Since the return of engine competition in 2012, Honda now leads Chevy 7-4.
The fourth Ganassi Bullet (Tony Kanaan) was there in case something happened to Ericsson and finished third. Jimmie Johnson, the fifth bullet and the one least likely to be in a position to win the race, crashed late in the race causing Ericsson plenty of anxiety when that crash led to a two-lap dash for the victory with Ericsson holding off Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy) going into turn one on the last lap.
Let’s pose a few questions on the race and Ganassi’s strategy and how it played out:
What was the Ganassi strategy?
The strategy was to bring 5 great cars capable of winning the race, on the assumption that if anything happened to up to four of them, there would still be cars left in a position to win. The threat to that strategy were the Chevy-powered cars of Ed Carpenter Racing and McLaren.
What were the roles of the Ganassi cars?
Alex Palou and Scott Dixon were assigned to control the race from the front, trading the lead back and fourth so that they did not burn too much fuel. They did this for the first 68 laps until Palou was forced to take fuel while the pits were closed, and was sent to the back of the pack.
Ericsson and Kanaan were to save fuel but remain in the lead pack of top 5 or six cars. That way they would cover off any chance of either the McLaren or ECR cars gaining a strategic advantage through fuel saving. Also, they were to keep their noses clean so they would be with the lead pack if something happened to Palou and/or Dixon.
Jimmy Johnson ended up being the weak link as he could not keep up with the lead pack.
Why this strategy?
To understand this it is helpful to look at a bit of Ganassi Indy 500 History. First, Ganassi had not won the 500 since 2012 with Dario Franchitti. That is a long dry spell for Chip. And Chip Ganassi has had the consensus best car in the race (Scott Dixon) in 2020 and 2021 and still not won.
The answer seems clear: more cars capable of winning. Instead of bringing two or three great cars, why not 5? Stuff happens in the 500, but the more great cars you have, the more likely one of them will win.
Where does Ericsson fit in?
Ganassi already had two drivers capable of winning: Dixon, who had won the race before, and Palou who finished second in the 2021 500 and won the driver’s title in 2021. To that they added Tony Kanaan (a 500 winner) for another year, and Jimmy Johnson, who skipped the 500 in his first season in Indycar.
That left Marcus Ericsson. Though he won two races in 2021, his oval form needed improvement. He also finished 11th in the 2021 50, but was never a factor. The opportunity for Ganassi was in raising Ericsson’s oval game.
To do that, engineer Brad Goldberg had meetings with Ericsson every week during the off season to review races and point out areas where Ericsson could improve. Dario Franchitti was also involved as an oval mentor.
First evidence of Ericsson’s oval improvement was third place at Texas this year, ahead of teammates Dixon (5th) and Palou (7th). The next evidence was in qualifying for the Indy 500 where Ericsson finished fifth.
How did Ganassi’s strategy play out?
All Five cars remained in position through through Lap 73. At that point the track was under caution and the pits were closed. Palou had to make an emergency stop for fuel and was penalized by being sent to the back of the pack, which was 31st at that point. He eventually finished 9th, but was never in contention.
Then at lap 175 Dixon locked his brakes entering the pitlane and was given a drive-through penalty that dropped him back to 26th. He ended up finishing 21st.
That left things up to Ericsson and Kanaan. Before the final pit stop cycle started Ericsson was behind Dixon, O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist (McLaren-Chevy) and Conor Daly (ECR-Chevy). Kanaan was behind Ericsson.
Ericsson and O’Ward pitted on lap 177. Ericsson passed O’Ward on Lap 180 and Rosenqvist on 183. He then pulled out a three-second lead as O’Ward and Rosenqvist struggled to get by lapped traffic that Ericsson had no trouble with. Ericsson maintained the lead and the race looked like it was over until Jimmy Johnson crashed on lap 195 and Indycar red-flagged the race on Lap 196 so that the race would not end under yellow. At that point Ericsson was first and Kanaan was third. Two manic Laps followed after the restart. Ericsson had the faster car and held off O’Ward to win the race.
So Ganassi wins the race and finishes third with what were the team’s 3rd and 4th cars.
Is there a Scott Dixon curse?
That’s silly. People point to the last three years when Dixon had the best car but did not win. In 2020, Takuma Sato just beat him. In 2021, you can make a case for bad luck. But in 2022 that speeding penalty was purely and solely driver error. Of course, if I were Dixon I would be talking to PNC Bank about a special red livery for the 500 next season, because Chip Ganassi has only won the 500 with red cars.
Did Honda have an advantage on Chevy?
Pato O’Ward implied that his McLaren could not keep up with the Ganassi’s because of some deficiency of the Chevy engine, but I am not sure. You can say that the Ganassi car with the Honda engine was the car to have. Clearly a lot of that is the Ganassi chassis setup, because the only Hondas that gave the Ganassi’s any problem were the Dale Coyne cars.
Neither the Andretti nor the Rahal Hondas were factors (although Alexander Rossi of Andretti finished fifth). The Meyer-Shank Hondas of Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves also finished in the top 10 but they were not really factors, either.
Looking at the race stats, clearly the Hondas have better torque and in general this allowed the Hondas to carry more downforce. But I wonder if the Ganassi cars would be dominant if they had Chevys in the back. My answer: Probably.
What does Ganassi have that they are not talking about?
Ganassi’s current dominance in the Indycar series dates back to the first few races of 2020. Ganassi dominated those races and Dixon ended up winning the championship. What else happened in 2020? The Aeroscreen was introduced to Indycar. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think the Ganassi team has most thorough understanding of the effect of the aeroscreen in all conditions.
I have a more specific theory about what Ganassi has, but I’ll save that for later. Remember, the one area of Indycar construction that is wide open for development is Springs and dampers. Ganassi makes its own dampers.
Where does this put the manufacturer race?
Chevy is still ahead by approximately two races. But that is better for Honda than being behind by four. Honda introduced a modified engine for the Indy 500 race. Word is the main update is that there is the option to increase torque a bit at the cost of using more fuel. If that is the case we would see it at the Detroit Grand Prix this weekend and possibly at Road America the weekend after that. Specifically in qualifying.
But Chevy has gained a significant advantage in the overall improvement of McLaren. It is not Penske vs. Honda anymore. With the degradation of performance at Rahal and Andretti, the game may now be Chevy vs. Ganassi.
Where does the Driver’s Race stand?
Double-points in the Indy 500 has effectively set the top four drivers off from the rest of the pack. Those top 4 are:
- Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda): 226
- Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy): -13
- Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda): -14
- Will Power (Penske-Chevy): -20
Below the top 4 there is a 28-point drop to Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy). Scott Dixon is in 6th, but he is 60 points back. At this point it’s still anyone’s game, but Honda’s best hopes are clearly in the Ganassi camp.
When is the next race?
The Detroit Grand Prix, June 5, 3 p.m Eastern. For the first time in several years this race will NOT be a double header. Also, this is the last race at Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River. Next season the race is scheduled to move into the City of Detroit proper.