Honda unlikely to power the IndyCar champion

The Iowa test times (below), along with data from Detroit, Texas and Road America, suggest Honda can add wins to its Indy 500 triumph, but won't prevent a Chevrolet driver from taking the title. David Malsher explains.

Honda unlikely to power the IndyCar champion
Podium: race winner Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, second place Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, third place Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda
Start: Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda leads the field to green
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda

The top four Honda drivers in the championship at the moment – Carlos Munoz, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay – lie between seventh and eleventh, covered by just six points. And the best of these, Munoz, is 113 off championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

Thanks to the Texas race’s postponement until the end of August, there are 400 points on offer still (excluding each event’s one point for leading a lap, two points for leading the most laps, and one point for pole position). However, with a 22-car field, the 22nd place driver still picks up eight points, so the most the winner can gain on the biggest loser is reduced.

So can these HPD drivers reel in the championship leader? Math says yes; logic and reality suggest not.

On the driving side, Munoz, Rahal, Rossi and Hunter-Reay have the chops to compete for the title. 2012 champion Hunter-Reay has proven it already, of course, and for the same reason, you’ve got to have faith in Andretti Autosport, that runs three of these drivers. So a team like Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing which has often outpaced the Andretti team must also be able to contend for the crown.

The question mark is Honda, because in order to regain lost ground, you can’t merely match your rival but need instead to be superior. Honda’s late but major engine progress was the talk of Gasoline Alley in May, and when Munoz backed up James Hinchcliffe’s Indy pole with another P1 effort for the as-yet-unresolved Texas race, HPD’s leap forward was confirmed.

However, the boost level used on superspeedways (1.3-bar) and the engine characteristics required for these flat-out blasts don’t necessarily have much bearing on how the engines will perform at 1.5-bar boost and on tracks that comprise the majority of the Verizon IndyCar Series, namely, road and street courses.

Following Rossi’s triumph at Indianapolis, Honda-powered cars may well complete a superspeedway sweep in August, and power the winners at Pocono and Texas Motor Speedway. But how about the mean streets of Toronto or the undulating sweeps of Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen and Sonoma?

What we’ve seen since Indy suggests Chevrolet has a small but decisive edge. For Detroit’s Race 2, Ryan Hunter-Reay started on the front row by being fastest in Group 2 in that unique qualifying session. But his top time was 0.7sec off Will Power’s best, and RHR ain’t three-quarters of a second slower than anybody, so he was losing something in the equipment. Part of that gap will be AA’s struggles with street course setups this year (memories of Long Beach can still reduce Andretti personnel to tears) and Penske’s excellence on these temporary tracks for the past couple of seasons. Maybe powerplants made little difference on that occasion.

But skip ahead to Road America last weekend and there were more folk saying there was a definite disparity between Chevy and Honda. Where that came from depended who you asked.

Andretti Autosport team manager Rob Edwards, for example, believes the HPD’s engine’s leap forward in performance at Indy is applicable at all boost levels. He told Motorsport.com: “Given that we’ve got a pretty good idea from Indy and Texas where the engines are at, I think the [performance disparity] is more an efficiency thing with the aero kit.

“This is a low-drag type of track and I think Chevy can produce more downforce on a lower drag level than we can. [In qualifying] we feel we trimmed all our cars as much as we could to the point where we were starting to give up in the corners.”

Graham Rahal, as fastest Honda driver was clearly still thinking in terms of a power deficit.

After qualifying he commented: “Every time I’ve followed one of the [Chevrolet] competitors, they seem to pull a little harder through the mid-range and here with the long straights, that loses you time. If you look at GP of Indy, our top speeds were down considerably on our competition so maybe that hurts us a little bit.”

The following day, he commented that in qualifying he had been “three tenths off and every single tenth was on the straightaways,” and describing his raceday battle with the Ganassi-Chevrolet of Tony Kanaan, he said, “I got next to him and when I pulled out, he left us.”

Yet a few days later, Rahal too would agree with Edwards’ opinion that Honda has an aero kit disadvantage.

Honda, it seems is in the ballpark engine-wise but superior it is not. As can be seen in these unofficial times, Rahal was fast in Wednesday’s Iowa Speedway test, producing his qualifying simulation run in the heat of the day, when qualifying proper will take place in eight days’ time. But the Iowa track is unique and the races there are as much about a car’s ability to deal with bumps and its driver’s ability to deal with traffic. It’s no indicator of performance at any other type of circuit.

That being the case, it looks unlikely that the 2016 IndyCar champion will be Honda powered. More race wins are entirely feasible HPD is close enough to Ilmor’s Chevrolet that it’s not unthinkable that Honda could win all the remaining races.

But the odds of luck falling that way for just one of the runners, which is what it would take to overhaul Penske-Chevrolet’s Pagenaud, are surely too long.

Iowa Speedway test, June 29

Unofficial times

 Morning session

  1. Simon Pagenaud, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.51sec
  2. Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.56sec
  3. Helio Castroneves, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.60sec
  4. Graham Rahal, Rahal-Honda - 17.62sec
  5. Ed Carpenter, Carpenter-Chevrolet - 17.64sec
  6. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti-Honda - 17.70sec
  7. Will Power, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.70sec
  8. Sebastien Bourdais, KVSH-Chevrolet - 17.73sec
  9. Alexander Rossi, Andretti-Honda - 17.74sec
  10. JR Hildebrand, Carpenter-Chevrolet - 17.75sec
  11. James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt-Honda - 17.77sec
  12. Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt-Honda - 17.90sec
  13. Carlos Munoz, Andretti-Honda - 17.92sec
  14. Takuma Sato, Foyt-Honda - 17.94sec
  15. Tony Kanaan, Ganassi-Chevrolet - 17.95sec
  16. Jack Hawksworth, Foyt-Honda - 18.05sec
  17. Marco Andretti, Andretti-Honda - 18.07sec
  18. Conor Daly, Coyne-Honda - 18.25sec  

Afternoon session

  1. Simon Pagenaud, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.38sec
  2. JR Hildebrand, Carpenter-Chevrolet - 17.42sec
  3. Graham RahalRahal-Honda - 17.46sec
  4. Will Power, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.47sec
  5. Helio Castroneves, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.47sec
  6. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti-Honda - 17.52sec
  7. Juan-Pablo Montoya, Penske-Chevrolet - 17.56sec
  8. Carlos Munoz, Andretti-Honda - 17.60sec
  9. Max Chilton, Ganassi-Chevrolet - 17.64sec
  10. Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt-Honda - 17.65sec
  11. Sebastien Bourdais, KVSH-Chevrolet - 17.72sec
  12. Marco Andretti, Andretti-Honda - 17.73sec
  13. James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt-Honda - 17.78sec
  14. Ed Carpenter, Carpenter-Chevy - 17.85sec
  15. Jack Hawksworth, Foyt-Honda - 17.87sec
  16. Takuma Sato, Foyt-Honda - 17.91sec
  17. Alexander Rossi, Andretti-Honda - 17.99sec
  18. Conor Daly, Coyne-Honda - 18.32sec
shares
comments
Bourdais says Iowa “trickier than ever”

Previous article

Bourdais says Iowa “trickier than ever”

Next article

IndyCar set to change brake supplier in 2017

IndyCar set to change brake supplier in 2017
Load comments
Remembering Dan Wheldon and his last and most amazing win Prime

Remembering Dan Wheldon and his last and most amazing win

Saturday, Oct. 16th, marks the 10th anniversary Dan Wheldon’s death. David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute, then asks Wheldon’s race engineer from 2011, Todd Malloy, to recall that magical second victory at the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar
Oct 16, 2021
Have Harvey and RLL formed IndyCar’s next winning match-up? Prime

Have Harvey and RLL formed IndyCar’s next winning match-up?

Jack Harvey’s move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing sparked plenty of debate, but their combined strength could prove golden, says David Malsher-Lopez.

IndyCar
Oct 15, 2021
Why Kyle Kirkwood is America's new IndyCar ace-in-waiting Prime

Why Kyle Kirkwood is America's new IndyCar ace-in-waiting

Kyle Kirkwood, the record-setting junior formula driver, sealed the Indy Lights championship last weekend. But despite an absurdly strong résumé and scholarship money, his next move is far from clear. By David Malsher-Lopez.

IndyCar
Oct 6, 2021
2021 IndyCar title is just the start for Ganassi's newest star Prime

2021 IndyCar title is just the start for Ganassi's newest star

Alex Palou has captured Chip Ganassi Racing's 14th IndyCar drivers' championship, and in truly stellar manner. David Malsher-Lopez explains what made the Palou-Ganassi combo so potent so soon.

IndyCar
Sep 28, 2021
Why Grosjean's oval commitment shows he's serious about IndyCar Prime

Why Grosjean's oval commitment shows he's serious about IndyCar

One of motorsport’s worst-kept secrets now out in the open, and Romain Grosjean has been confirmed as an Andretti Autosport IndyCar driver in 2022. It marks a remarkable turnaround after the abrupt end to his Formula 1 career, and is a firm indication of his commitment to challenge for the IndyCar Series title  

IndyCar
Sep 24, 2021
IndyCar’s longest silly-season is still at fever pitch Prime

IndyCar’s longest silly-season is still at fever pitch

The 2021 IndyCar silly season is one of the silliest of all, but it’s satisfying to see so many talented drivers in play – including Callum Ilott. David Malsher-Lopez reports.

IndyCar
Sep 11, 2021
IndyCar young guns are great, but the elders aren’t done yet Prime

IndyCar young guns are great, but the elders aren’t done yet

The ace 20-somethings in IndyCar have risen to become title contenders, but the best of the series veterans are digging deep and responding – and will continue to do so over the next couple of years, says David Malsher-Lopez.

IndyCar
Aug 20, 2021
The F1 champion who became an Indy king in his second career Prime

The F1 champion who became an Indy king in his second career

Emerson Fittipaldi’s decision to go racing with his brother led to him falling out of F1, but he bloomed again on the IndyCar scene. NIGEL ROEBUCK considers a career of two halves

Formula 1
Jul 31, 2021