For Honda, the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the Best of Times and the Worst of Times. Let’s start with the good news:
- Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) stomped the rest of the field in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course race May 13
- Palou also won the battle for Pole Position in the Big Race, The Indy 500, the third Indy 500 pole in a row for Ganassi and Honda
- Subjectively, the Ganassi cars have dominated practice, and the Andretti cars look better than they did last season
That’s where the good news ends. Because it appears that Chevy has caught up to Honda on pure performance at the Indy 500, especially in qualifying. This is where to bad news starts:
- In 2022, Honda had 7 of the top 12 qualifiers. In 2023 that is down to 4 out of 12.
- At the other end of the lineup, the BOTTOM FIVE cars in qualifying were all Hondas
- In the last row shoot out Sunday, Graham Rahal and his #15 Honda were eliminated from the field
- Then in Monday’s practice, Katherine Legge (RLLR-Honda) crashed into the Chevy of Stefan Wilson. Back Injuries to Wilson eliminated him from the field, and Tuesday he was replaced by Graham Rahal with the consent of Honda and Chevy.
- And just to rub a little more salt in the wound, Honda lost three nearly new engines during the run up to qualifying. Plus one more at the GP of Indy the week before when Helio Castroneves (Meyers Shank-Honda) lost a brand new engine at the start of practice.
Why the change of Honda fortune?
When we discuss qualifying, we need to keep in mind that the boost on the 2.2 liter twin turbo v6 engines is higher for qualifying than for the race. Over the last few seasons, the Hondas have always run better that the Chevys in the higher boost mode. This season, the Chevys caught up and are much more competitive.
Given the fact that Honda had an early warning about engine fragility, it is possible that they did not turn everyone’s engine all the way up for qualifying. Interestingly, Honda Performance Development changed the engines for Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) and Alex Palou before qualifying after seeing anomalies in the data Friday evening. No matter, those two cars were by far the fastest Hondas in Round 1 qualifying Saturday. Perhaps the new engines had something to do with that, especially if HPD had time to react to any problems it saw in the Castroneves engine from the GP of Indy.
NOTE: Wednesday, Racer.com’s Marshall Pruett reported that ALL of the Honda engines to be used in the Indy 500 race have been updated and do not have the vendor-supplied part that caused the problems.
Whatever the reason, the two manufacturers were much more competitive in qualifying. The Honda times were not slower than the 2022 times. It’s just that the Chevys were faster than they had been.
What to look for in the race
Things are not all doom and gloom. In fact, I would rate Honda’s chances at least 50-50. Maybe a bit higher. Here are some facts and things to look for:
Ambient temperature on Race Day: The higher the better for Honda. The Hondas seem to be able to tolerate heat better than the Chevys. Cool temperatures (high 70s or lower) would even the playing field.
Race day skies: Hondas, and particularly the Ganassi team cars, seem to do better with “greasy” conditions brought about by high track temperatures than the Chevys do. Cloud cover would even the playing field.
Caution flag roulette: What we are looking for here is the length of the last stint of the race for the leaders. Bear with me, there is going to be some math here.
In the recent past, fuel stints have been 40 laps or so; however, this year there is new “Sustainable” fuel and new tires for the 500. In most Indycar races, how long the tires last is more important than how long the fuel lasts. At Indy, the length of the stint has been more often based on fuel. Also, leaders burn more fuel. Keep an eye on who stops when for the first Green Flag stops (as opposed to stops under caution). If the Hondas are going a little bit longer on fuel-tires, that is a good thing.
What the Honda runners want is to see the top Chevys being forced to make their last stop about lap 155. In all cases before 160. If the top cars make a final stop before 160, that should benefit Honda. In the other races this year, the Hondas have been able to run full-rich longer than the Chevys. If the Chevys have to conserve to the end of the race, a Honda should win.
If the last stop is 170 or later, that is bad for Honda, as all the cars would be able to run full rich to the end. In such a case, I would expect the Chevys to be a little faster than the Hondas.
Fearless Indy 500 prediction
In other posts I have picked the Ganassi cars against the field. Nothing has swayed me from that. Those are the best cars in all conditions. The fact that all the Ganassi cars have been at the top or near the top of the speed charts in every practice means something. Their four bullets are better than anyone else’s.
Among the Ganassis, I would pick Alex Palou and Takuma Sato as the most likely winners. Palou because he has the best car and is currently the best driver on the team, perhaps in the series. Sato because he knows how to hang around and be in a position to win the 500.
My dark horse Honda pick would be Kyle Kirkwood (Andretti-Honda). His car has been the best non-Ganassi Honda. I am not sure if any of the other non-Ganassi Hondas has what it takes to win.
Chevy drivers most-likely to win: Josef Newgarden, mostly because of their strategy magic. It’s never worked out in the 500, though.
The points races:
By winning the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS Road Course and taking the Indy 500 pole, Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) took the overall lead in the drivers championship. This is where things stand going into the 500:
Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda): 186
Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy): -10
Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda): -28
Romain Grosjean (Andretti-Honda): -52
Scott Dixon(Ganassi-Honda): -52
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy): -55
Will Power (Penske-Chevy): -63
Note: Unlike previous years, the Indy 500 is not double points.
In the manufacturer’s race, Honda has won three of five races and five of six poles including the Indy 500. Honda leads Chevy by 27 points, which is a little more than a race.
The Indy 500 will be carried on NBC and Peacock starting at noon Eastern Time. The race starts at 12:30 p.m.