Can Honda Flip The Switch?

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Now that the starting field has been set for the 97th Running of the Indianapolis 500, it’s kind of interesting to scan through the field to see the distribution of power through the field. The Top-Ten cars on the grid are all powered by Chevrolet. You have to go all the way back to Alex Tagliani’s Barracuda Racing machine to find the first Honda-powered entry in the eleventh starting spot. Then there are a couple of more Chevy’s before you see Justin Wilson’s Boy Scout entry in the fourteenth spot. After that, it’s Row Six before you find more Hondas. That’s where you find the normally favored cars of Target Chip Ganassi and the points leading ABC Supply car of Takuma Sato. From that point on to the rear of the field, it’s mostly Hondas with a smattering of Chevys.

To quote Sherriff Taggart – What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here? I’m not a gear-head by any stretch, but it was my understanding that the reason Honda opted to go with the single turbocharger because it was more suited for the long straightaways found at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Chevy engine was expected to be superior on road courses with slow corners, but the Honda was predicted to excel on tracks similar to IMS.

It was a similar situation at this point in last year’s 500. Josef Newgarden was the lone Honda representative in the Fast Nine Shootout in 2012. However, it was a different story on Carb Day and Race Day. Honda won the race and took second place, as well. In the end, Honda took five of the Top-Ten spots while Chevy took the other five. The two Lotus-powered cars were parked by Lap Ten.

This year, Honda was completely shut-out of the Fast Nine. Taglianai’s four-lap average of 227.386 mph is almost a mile and a half per hour slower than Ed Carpenter’s pole-winning speed of 228.762. Since we returned home, I’ve watched some of the DVR replay of the weekend’s proceedings. I saw an interview with Graham Rahal that took place before any qualifying runs. He was already citing last year when “Honda flipped the switch” for Carb Day and the race.

Is that really what the Honda teams are counting on? That sounds more like sheer desperation than logic. Look – I’m a Honda fan. I drive a Honda and I feel a debt of gratitude to the Japanese automaker for sticking with the series after Chevrolet and Toyota bailed on the series following the 2005 season. Had they not agreed to become the sole engine supplier to the series, I’m not sure what Plan B was. But it’s painfully clear that Honda has been passed by.

Keep in mind, this is not the same Honda engine that systematically drove Chevy and Toyota out of the series by completely dominating them in 2004 and 2005. That engine and all subsequent Honda engines through 2011, were built by Ilmor Engineering. When the new engine specs for 2012 were announced along with the announcement that Chevrolet would return to the IZOD IndyCar Series, Honda Performance Development (HPD) took over design, development and manufacturing of the new Honda turbocharged engine. The new Chevy engine would be developed and built by – you guessed it, Ilmor Engineering.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised that Honda has allowed this to happen. Last year, Chevy won the first four races heading into the Indianapolis 500. After they won the 500, Honda won the next two races at Belle Isle and Texas. The score at that point was Chevrolet’s four wins compared to Honda’s three – with Honda suddenly having momentum. It didn’t last. Honda would win only one more race for the rest of the season.

Things weren’t much better this season, although Honda did win at Long Beach and came in second at São Paulo. But the wheels have come off at The Speedway, so far. Honda got its proverbial head handed to them this past weekend. Honda should be embarrassed and their teams should be furious. If their collective teams are counting on some imaginary switch to come on this Friday and Sunday, I think they are going to be sorely disappointed.

My opinion is worth about as much as it costs you to read this site – nothing. But for whatever it is worth – I think that Sunday is going to be a continued embarrassment for Honda. Based on what I saw this past weekend, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that the winning car in this year’s race will have a gold bow-tie on the cowling. The cars from Ed Carpenter Racing, Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, KV Racing Technology and even Panther and Dreyer & Reinbold have a decided advantage strictly due to the power-plant in the rear of the car.

On Trackside last night, they were doing their best to spin it to where Honda still has a strong chance to win the race. I don’t buy it. Chip Ganassi fired a shot across the bow to Honda during the Long Beach weekend. When Takuma Sato won in a Honda, the furor over the power issues seemed to die down. I would imagine things are heated between Honda and its teams this week.

So…can Honda flip the switch again this weekend? I’d be surprised.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “Can Honda Flip The Switch?”

  1. the american mutt Says:

    I seem to recall that Honda improved last year on carb day because they got the Honda mark 2 engine, which was decidedly faster. I may be mistaken, bu tthey’ve already gotten the mark 2 engine for this year on fast friday.

  2. Steve K Says:

    The race last year ran like a NASCAR plate race. If that remains the case Honda will be fine. If it does not, Honda better hope all the Chevy’s blow up.

  3. I’m not ready to count Honda as “dead” just yet. If this, (as last year) becomes a race of fuel mileage, then I suspect Honda will be just fine, thank you. I was watching the DVR of last year’s race last night, and I made note of Marco’s frustration as to how much better fuel mileage the Hondas were making. Sounded almost like the boy was in full blown panic mode. I suspect that if the race runs long on green flag time, things between the two engines will balance out.

    • That’s the thing we have yet to see, and which we won’t see until lap-40 or 50 of the race (I think Curt Cavin referred to same on Trackside a couple nights ago): if the Honda’s can go 5% further on a tank of fuel (that’d be 2 laps over a 40 lap run, which I think is in the ballpark of what they did last year over the Chevys), then it matters a whole lot less that they’re 1-2% slower. Really, the relative volumetric efficiency of a large, single turbo over two smaller turbos makes it just as likely that Honda decided to tune for fuel mileage rather than squeeze the last possible 10 HP out of the engine. The extra fuel economy makes it easier to catch an advantageous yellow, which then allows you to leapfrog all who were ahead of you yet stopped under green. Once that happens, especially if it’s late in the race, all bets are off.

      Also, it’s entirely possible that the Hondas didn’t bother to trim out to quite the extent that the Chevys did for qualifying. Could be that in traffic, the Hondas will be just as strong, which would make for a great race. Not saying that any of this stuff is a dead-solid lock, just that it won’t be until sometime mid-Sunday before we know the actual truth. I know I’ll be watching…

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I’ll bet that the engines will look a lot closer than they did in qualifying once the race begins, but a Honda victory would surprise me. Not only is the engine down on power to Chevrolet, the Honda teams simply have fewer drivers that I would bet on in the race.

    Dixon, Franchitti, and Sato (mostly because of last year) seem to be Honda’s best shots, compared to probably 9-10 Chevy drivers who I could see winning. Guys like Tagliani, Briscoe, Rahal, Kimball, Pageneud, and Newgarden probably have the talent to win, but are saddled with small teams, struggling teams, or a rough history at the Brickyard, in addition to running Honda motors.

  5. Yes, Honda won last year, but the Chevy guys like RHR and Hinchcliff seemed to have been working more on race set ups instead of winning the pole (not that they would have beat Ed). I think that the Chevy teams are going to hand it to the Honda teams. I expect Dinger to come out fast and this very well could be Ed’s race. Ed has won 2 of the last 6 oval races the series has run and he has the goods.

    • I mean that the Chevy giys were seemed to have been working on their race set ups “this year.”

  6. Carburetor Says:

    I agree with your concerns about the Honda engine; I figured Bobby Rahal was giving the Honda folks his feelings about the powerplant to the Honda folks last Saturday night as well. I’m curious–I thought I read last week where Honda was re-entering the F1 circuit with a new engine after being absent for awhile. Makes you wonder why, since they clearly have not mastered this formula as yet…

  7. James T Suel Says:

    I dont think they can pull it off this year. No gift in power from the powers that govern.

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