What to make of Honda’s 2015 Indycar Season?
First, you have to say that everything about the 2015 season is trivial compared to the tragic death of Justin Wilson at Pocono and the near death of James Hinchcliffe at Indianapolis. Having personally met Justin Wilson a few times, it took me a while to finish this look back at the season because it has seemed so unimportant.
But the racing world moves on and the 2015 Indycar season cries out for analysis. And Honda’s performance was remarkable in the extent of the disappointment on all fronts. This was the worst Honda season since about 1995.
The myth and the reality
The myth is that Honda started out bad, and got better as the season went on. “Look at all the races Honda won at the end of the season! They must have a handle on things.” And you could point to the fact that Honda teams won four of the last six races to support that myth.
The reality is that Honda had help in all of those race wins and podiums. On road course, it was good old fashioned luck. On ovals, the invisible hand of Indycar (intentional or not) slowed down the Chevys.
Let’s look at the season on Road/Street courses first:
You could look at the numbers and see that out of 30 possible podiums in 10 races, Honda drivers only got nine. But that does not come close in my mind to describing Honda’s futility, because only one podium finish (Ryan Hunter-Reay’s second place at Sonoma at the end of the season) was based on competitive merit. Every other road/street podium for Honda resulted from nothing but good fortune.
Does that seem harsh? Let’s look at the record.
- New Orleans — Hinchcliffe 1st, Jakes 3rd. Reason: Rain and crashes and a race cut short by time.
- Barber Motorsports Park — Rahal 2nd. Reason: Chancy pit strategy and mind numbing, idiotic crash where Power takes out Sato and moves Rahal from eighth to third.
- Grand Prix of Indianapolis — Rahal 2nd. Reason: Opening lap crash moves Rahal from 17th to 6th. Without that he’s not in a position to compete. Next Best Honda is 9th (Sato).
- Detroit Race 1 — Munoz 1st, Andretti 2nd. Reason: Rain, tire strategy.
- Detroit Race 2 — Sato 2nd, Rahal 3rd. Reason: Rain. Montoya had the car to beat.
- Mid-Ohio — Rahal 1st, Wilson 2nd. Reason: off-sequence pit strategy rewarded when an early yellow moved Rahal from 12th to 3rd, Wilson to 5th. Later Sage Karam spin moved Rahal and Wilson to 1-2. Otherwise Montoya wins in a walk and is season champion.
And what about Sonoma? Wasn’t Hunter-Reay in the thick of qualifying and the race? Well, yes he was. But let’s dig a little deeper. The big change at Sonoma was that Firestone used new tire formulations that dropped off of maximum grip very quickly. My hypothesis is that the Hondas were better on tires for most of the season. That did not matter for qualifying until Sonoma, where the tires dropped off so quickly it mattered in a short session. So it’s possible that the Honda performance was down to making the tires last longer. We won’t know until we see those tires again.
But wasn’t Honda better on Ovals? You could make that case just looking at the results. Honda drivers won three of the six oval races. But you need to look at how Honda won those as well.
On the first two Ovals, the Indy 500 and Texas, Honda was not a factor. On later ovals, Honda was much more racy. Competitively, the ovals over the last two months were the highlight of the season.
That would lead you to believe that Honda got their act together as the season went on. I don’t think that was the case. There were at least two other factors at play:
- For every oval other than Indy, Indycar mandates minimum wing angels and settings for other aero pieces. At Texas, where Honda was lost, the wing angles were less aggressive. The cars ran with less downforce. But at Fontana and Pocono, the angles were more aggressive, adding drag. I believe the mandated wing angles added more drag to the Chevys than they did to the Hondas, bringing the two cars closer together.
- Under the radar, the series either allowed or mandated (depending on whom you believe) Chevy to add an Engine Cover Fin similar to the fin that Honda used from the beginning of the season. Rumor is that this was to address the stability issues the Chevys had at Indy. Well, it could be that the fin slowed down the Chevys in a way (which has been explained to me by a Chevy team guy) that I don’t completely understand.
Interestingly, these changes also benefited the non-Penske/non-Ganassi Chevy teams as well, particularly Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden. They were nowhere until Fontana, when suddenly they were in contention.
Overall, it was the worst performance by Honda for a season since they first won a race in CART in 1995.
So, will Honda be more competitive in 2016, or will it be a competitive rerun?
To answer that, you have to look at why Honda is behind:
- The aerokit was overly complex and under-performed. The main problem is that it is aerodynamically inefficient. Specifically, in low drag configurations, it does not produce enough downforce.
- The Drivers are not as talented and experienced as the Chevy Drivers.
- Andretti, Honda’s flagship team, went through a lot of turmoil and vastly under-performed
So, what can be improved?
- Aerokit: By Indycar’s rules, the part of the aerokit that’s draggy (the sidepods) are not supposed to be changed for 2016. Honda has asked for special dispensation and has designed and tested new sidepods already. Indycar is testing both aerokits in a wind tunnel now and will rule on Honda’s request shortly. Chevy is fighting Honda’s request: this is likely to get messy. Will Honda’s 2016 Aerokit be better than 2015? It almost has to be. Will it be as good as Chevy’s? Probably not.
- Drivers: The one chance Honda had to poach a driver was to nab Josef Newgarden. But he’s staying with Chevy and CFH . Honda’s lineup will get better by adding Hinchcliffe for full season. But the main opportunity for improvement is at Coyne Racing. The team was a rent-a-car revolving door this season. But Tristan Vautier was testing for Coyne at Road America last week. If he’s a permanent fixture Honda’s lineup is a little better. If Coyne can find money for Conor Daly, it would be even better. And if Honda can find a full time home for Ryan Briscoe, great. Will Honda’s lineup match Chevy’s? Maybe in 2017, when Montoya, Kanaan, and Castroneves will likely retire. But not in 2016.
- Andretti: The team was hampered by the internal strife of the Racing Division splitting with the promotional division. Now that it’s done, maybe there will be more concentration on track performance.
So where does it leave Honda in 2016? Probably closer to Chevy, but still behind.