The first IndyCar race of the year has come and gone, with Sebastian Bourdais leading the boys from Dale Coyne Racing back to victory lane. Many writers and commentators have already talked about just how impressive it is that a virtual micro team like Coyne can still be competitive. But their isn’t the victory I’m most interested in. It’s actually the victory of Honda.
For the near entirety of last year, IndyCar was the Chevrolet show, with the boys from Detroit pummeling Honda at every turn. Yes, there were a few exceptions, Rossi’s win at Indy and the incredible Hinchcliffe/Rahal duel at Texas, but for the most part, Chevy was the class of the field last year. This year, however, it may be a little different. Honda finally looks competitive, taking 4 of the top 5 spots at St. Pete, and throughly dominating for the entirety of the weekend.
So perhaps the tables have turned. Maybe this year, we can finally see evenly matched cars go head to head in the spirit of the semi-spec series IndyCar now is. However great that may sound, don’t get your hopes up.
Honda is running, as of now, their 2016 spec engines, the same engine they ran at every race post the Indy 500. Well, that sounds great, doesn’t it? That means they have more room to grow. Not really… Because here’s the problem. Chevy too is running their 2016 spec engines. So we are effectively seeing the same engines go head to head as we did last year. And with the aerokit freeze, we are seeing the same amounts of downforce and drag that we saw at the end of last season as well.
So then why was Honda so far ahead in St. Pete? Simply put, it’s a street course. You don’t need a massive amount of speed on a street course. At the end of last season, Honda targeted an increase in their mechanical grip on all their cars, and in that endeavor, they’ve succeeded. That mechanical grip is, in part, what led them to such an impressive victory at St. Pete. And it could very well lead them to another similar victory when the series comes to Long Beach. But what happens when IndyCar gets back to its roots on ovals, tri-ovals, and short tracks? The future doesn’t exactly look bright.
Chevy still has more overall power, as proven by the end of last season. Texas being the exception, all of the tracks in the second half of last season are relatively power hungry circuits and as a result Chevy enjoyed overwhelming success. This year should be no different as Chevy will thrive when the cars begin to go flat out over the course of race. Phoenix will be the true telling point when it comes to this battle.
Phoenix is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to ovals. The series elects to run the street course aero package on the lopsided tri-oval, but it without a question, still an oval. And ovals bring with them a necessity for more power. That requirement will favor Chevy. Honda may be able to negate their minimal power levels on street courses with their increased mechanic grip, but when it comes to tracks with higher power requirements and high speed corners, their flaws may begin to show.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Honda has another impressive showing in Long Beach, but that may be their last strong showing for a while as, after Long Beach, the series heads to Barber, where the fast, sweeping corners that make up the Birmingham track will tend to favor those with higher downforce levels, AKA Chevy.
It will be fascinating to see how the constructors battle evolves over the course of the season, as we do not know now when Chevy and Honda will roll out their updated 2017 engines. But in the meantime, we will have to wait and watch and hope that Honda can keep up their charge. The series is a lot more interesting when anyone can win, not just cars with the Chevrolet brand slapped on the side of the car.
File Under: IndyCar, Engine, Honda, Chevy