Before the season began, we wrote that Honda had a steep hill to climb to re-establish its competitiveness with Chevy in the Indycar series, which Chevy dominated in 2022.
So after races at St. Petersburg, Texas, and Long Beach, how is Honda doing?
Pretty well. Much better than last season at this time when Honda lost the first four races. Let’s look at the critical success factors we outlined in the season preview:
Re-establish street race dominance: Honda won the races on the streets of St. Petersburg (Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson) and Long Beach (Andretti’s Kyle Kirkwood). Additionally, five of the six podium positions in the two street races were occupied by Honda drivers. Mission accomplished.
More strength on ovals: Texas was a bit of a mess for Honda. Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) eventually won the race. He and Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy) utterly dominated long stretches of the race before a late caution made the race seem closer than it was. Whether this was due to the strength of Chevy, or the strength of Penske and McLaren is hard to say. But they destroyed the rest of the field. Alex Palou’s (Ganassi-Honda) third place was kind of incidental. So for Honda, Ovals other than Indy are still a question. I would have liked to see Hondas lead more than 100 laps. That did not happen.
A Honda team other than Ganassi stepping up: Andretti is showing signs of life. Not only did Kirkwood win at Long Beach, but Romain Grosjean likely would have won St. Pete had he not been taken out by Penske’s Scott McLaughlin. At Long Beach, Andretti drivers finished 1-2-4 (Kirkwood, Grosjean, Colton Herta), part of a Honda 1-5 sweep with Ericsson third and Palou fifth.
Where are we after 3 races?
In the manufacturer’s championship, Honda has a 32-point lead over Chevy, which translates to roughly a race and a half lead. And While Honda has not lost any engines, Chevy has lost three: one each for Newgarden, McLaughlin and Conor Daly. The loss of Newgarden’s and McLaughlin’s engines could end up costing Chevy in the manufacturer’s race. Once a driver takes a fourth engine, the driver can’t score manufacturer points. Newgarden and McLaughlin are two of Chevy’s best drivers, and they will almost certainly take a fourth engine with a few races left in the season.
In the driver’s championship, Marcus Ericsson leads by virtue of winning St. Pete, finishing third at Long Beach and managing eighth at Texas. The top 10 after three races:
Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda): 110
Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy): -15
Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda): -19
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy): -21
Kyle Kirkwood (Andretti-Honda): -36
Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda): -38
Romain Grosjean (Andretti-Honda) -39
Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda) -41
Will Power (Penske-Chevy) -42
Scott McLaughlin (Penske-Chevy) -42
Where are Honda and Chevy strong?
After three races, it looks fairly even (which is an improvement for Honda), with one exception: fuel mileage. This showed up at Long Beach in particular with the way that the cautions played out.
The race was scheduled to go 85 laps with most cars making two stops. This would typically divide the race into stints of 28-to-29 laps. Instead, there was a caution for a crash on lap 20 and the race restarted on lap 25. In order to finish the race in two stints, the cars had to run stints of 30 laps each instead of the planned 28-29.
The Chevys could not keep up. There were two Chevys in the top five (Newgarden and McLaughlin) shortly after the restart at lap 25. In order to finish the race, they had to slow their pace more than the Hondas did. Newgarden finished ninth, and McLaughlin finished 10th. Hondas finished 1-through 5, and six of the top eighth.
Could the fuel mileage variance and the loss of two Chevy engines be due to the new “sustainable” fuel? Hard to say with this small sample size. The first two natural terrain courses will give us a better read on that.
The next frontier: Road Courses
If we assume that Honda has an advantage in street races, and that Chevy (or Chevy teams) has an advantage short ovals, then the manufacturer’s title will likely come down to natural terrain road courses. And the next two races at Barber April 30 and the Indy Road Course may 13 will give us a pretty good read on that.
Ganassi notably under-performed on Road Courses in 2022, winning only 1 (Palou at Laguna Seca)—. But the team has improved on street courses for 2023, we’ll see if that carries over to Road Courses. If Honda can win one of the two, then the chances for Honda to take the manufacturer’s will take a step forward going into the Indy 500. Similarly, it looks like Andretti has re-established its street prowess of old. Now we’ll see if the improvements they made on the Indy Road Course last season hold.