Is Honda Worried Or Sandbagging?

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Spring Training for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now officially in the books. Rational people will say that it’s way too early to draw any conclusions on anything that went on at Barber Motorsports Park over the last two days; but we fans are not always that rational. We peer over speed charts for any indication on who may have an edge next weekend when things get serious at St. Petersburg.

I’ve seen the word “sandbagging” used a lot over the past couple of days. That term is used a lot in racing to indicate that a driver, team or manufacturer is holding back to not show all of their cards – giving the perception that they are not as strong, so that when the race starts – opponents are underestimating their true strength. I looked up how that term got started in this context and never really came up with anything. But I’ve heard the term regularly ever since I started following this sport in the sixties.

If you look at the speed charts from Barber, it would be easy to conclude that the Chevy teams were faster than the Hondas. On Monday, Chevy occupied four of the top five positions in the morning session. The afternoon session saw all of the top five spots occupied by cars powered by the bow-tie, and seven of the top-ten. The fastest Honda on Monday afternoon was Ryan Hunter-Reay in the sixth spot.

It was pretty much the same yesterday. I saw several comments on social media predicting doom and gloom for Honda – saying they were in trouble, they missed the mark, etc. Others said that Honda was playing it cagy and sandbagging. They reasoned that Honda’s time to shine would come when points were at stake – not bragging rights. It really wasn’t that bad, since almost all cars were practically within a second of each other yesterday.

We may not know the answer to the sandbagging question even after the opening race at St. Petersburg. It is a completely different type track than the permanent road course at Barber. If Honda dominates the fourth race of the season at Barber, then we’ll know they were holding back these last two days.

But by then, we’ll probably have a good indication as to which aero kit is more effective after a race at St. Petersburg, NOLA and Long Beach. By the time the series returns to Barber in late April, we’ll have a pretty good idea which manufacturer has hit the mark and which one is scratching their heads. In a perfect world, leaving Barber and heading into the month of May – the manufacturers will be tied at two wins apiece, with plenty of diversity across the podium at each race.

But that’s in a perfect world. The fear on everyone’s mind is that the parity and close racing that the series has enjoyed for the past three years will be wiped away with the introduction of the aero kit. Some say that the worst thing that could happen would be for one aero kit to be completely dominant over the other. Personally, that doesn’t bother me. That’s what comes with innovation. You learn from your mistakes and you strive to improve. At some point in the season, tweaks will be allowed. If one team is lagging, it’s up to them to do their homework and fix it.

Looking at the times from the past two days, some would say that Chevy hit the nail on the head. Well, that may be true but it doesn’t necessarily mean because of the aero kits. Chevy actually hit the nail on the head a few years ago when it struck up relationships with Team Penske, Ed Carpenter and KV Racing. It scored another direct hit at the end of the 2013 season, when it added Chip Ganassi Racing to the fold in exchange for Andretti Autosport. It’s not a stretch to say that the Chevy teams were already stronger than the Honda teams, horsepower and aero kits notwithstanding.

The best Honda team is Andretti Autosport. After that, it’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Then you’ve got a hodge-podge of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Dale Coyne Racing and AJ Foyt Enterprises. Out of those last three teams, came one victory last season. Every single Chevy team won a race last season.

I don’t pretend to know if the Chevy aero kit is superior to Honda’s, or if the Chevy engine has more power. Nor do I have any idea if there is any gamesmanship going on involving sandbagging. But you do wonder if the Honda teams, especially Andretti Autosport, were not just a little uneasy as the transporters pulled out and headed back to their respective shops and individual testing at various locations before reconvening next weekend for real at St. Petersburg.

One thing I do know is that I was wrong about one thing – the looks of the cars. When the Honda aero kit was unveiled last week, I said that it looked sleeker and faster than the Chevy. I don’t necessarily like the taste of crow, but when I’m wrong – I’ll admit it. Now that we’ve seen both cars in full livery and on track; I have to say that the Chevy is the better looking of the two. (Photo used with permission from Marshall Pruett).

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While credit should be given to Honda for more creative thinking and coming up with a more radical looking concept – the Chevy is more pleasing to the eye. The Honda just looks way too bulky from the cockpit back. The oversized airbox and dorsal fin just don’t do it for me. Plus, I’m finding myself not crazy about the multi-layered front wing. I don’t like Chevy’s winglets added in seemingly random spots, but it has a better on-track look than the Honda.

So now, the teams have headed back to go over all of the data they accumulated. In all honesty, that was the real reason for Spring Training – not the bragging rights. For most of yesterday morning, Helio Castroneves was hanging around the twentieth spot in speed, even though he had completed more laps than all but three other drivers. Were we to assume that Helio is no longer fast? No, the team chose to gather data in a lot of areas other than how fast he could go. That’s the way it was with most teams. We fans were more interested in speed the past couple of days. The smart teams and drivers were more interested in data on these new cars.

Sandbagging? I have no idea. Is Honda worried? Maybe. Maybe not. The teams probably have a little bit better idea in what they are dealing with heading into the season, but we fans do not. But these things I do know – the Chevy looks better and it was great knowing that all the teams were on track. I’m also stoked to know that we are about to head into our very last weekend of this very long offseason. St. Petersburg can’t get here soon enough.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Is Honda Worried Or Sandbagging?”

  1. Doug Gardner Says:

    I don’t think they are sandbagging. I think they are behind due to the complexity of their kit. I think the barber test was more about organized testing for the Honda teams. I would not be surprised looking at the new kit that the Honda teams have significant more downforce. However that usually comes with significant more drag. I believe they were testing to see how they can tune the cars to reduce drag and not suffer significant handling issues. Plus, Honda lost three of its four quickest drivers from last season to Chevy or exit. Those being Pagenaud, Newgarden, Wilson. Honda has stated that they have concentrated on the Indy formula. And in reality that will mean more to them then a season championship. Chevy really dominated last year anyway. Better Teams, deeper teams, better drivers are on the Chevy side. But, if Honda is close in speed at Indy, they will get 1-2 more laps a fuel stop and thus a win.

  2. We won’t really know what’s going on until everyone gets a handle on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the packages. If Honda is behind you to look no further than McLaren F1. With the massive problems they’re having there and the much higher visibility of F1 you can be sure that all of Honda’s R&D is concentrated on getting McLaren straightened out before they will focus effort on the IndyCar program.

  3. Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

    I think this is what we were hoping for. A move away from strictly spec racing to make the cars a little different in performance. Too early though to know exactly how well each manufacturer has done.

  4. After seeing the cars in person at Barber, my vote was for Honda winning the beauty contest. They are just more radical and different. I like that. But none of that matters. Speed is what matters. The Chevy’s were going through turn 1 at Barber almost flat out. Keep in mind too this (these) is/are the road course configuration(s). Chevy and Honda have their speedway bodykits to try as well and no one has any idea who is going to have the edge at IMS. It sure is a lot more exciting and interesting though. One thing I will say with Honda, they have so many different combinations of bits, (more than Chevy does) they will figure out how to go faster as the season goes on and it is way too soon to count anyone out yet. Way too early.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    I usually hear the term “sandbagging” in terms of golf – it is when a golfer intentionally posts some bad rounds to keep his handicap higher than it should be. It pays off for the guys who like to bet.

    I think Honda should be worried because they didn’t roll out as good as Chevy. That means that their computer models may mot have been as good so they have ground to make up using the data from testing. They also have fewer elite teams and drivers to do that development. Hopefully they will hit on something that brings them even.

    I’m more concerned based on the fact that last night Curt Cavin said that he was surprised that Honda was so close – he was expecting Chevy to flat out dominate. He obviously got some information from somewhere to lead him to that conclusion.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    At 200 mph plus all the widgets and winglets will just be a blur. I imagine that the increased downforce will make the cars harder to drive physically on twistys. Someday I would like to see a car with enough juice and lack of downforce that would require lifting a bit heading into the turns at Indy.

  7. I think the fact that Graham Rahal was the fastest HPD driver shows the focus was on data for most teams, not on ultimate performance…considering that he qualified P18 and P21 the last couple of years at Barber.

    • I second that observation, no matter how much I wish that the new aero makes the car better suited to Rahal’s driving style.

      Yet, the complexity of Honda’s new kit may well be the reason they were seemingly behind a bit. After Scott Speed tweeted that photo of himself getting a seat fitting in an Andretti IndyCar, saying this was just for testing, and Marco Andretti cancelled his appearance at the Miami E Prix of Formula E due to “other commitments”, I suspected this could only mean Honda would need more track time for aero kit testing. I guess now may well be the time they are going to get in the additional testing. After that, I guess they should be fine.

      As George has already said, it’s also noteworthy that the Honda kit provides more downforce at the expense of more drag when compared to the Chevy kit. This might indicate an advantage for Honda on street circuits and for Chevy on road circuits where downforce is taken out of the car. Barber is a road course, so the resulting times should not be a surprise.

      Both manufacturers are going to be even faster when they return next month for the GP of Alabama because they will have learnt a lot about their new equipment by then.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I remember in 2000 the Ford-Cosworths owned preseason testing. They won the 7 races and the manufacturer’s title that year but the season was plenty competitive (Honda won 8 races, Toyota 5, and the Mercedes-Benz finished a couple times).

    I would not worry for Honda unless/until they are being shut out of the fast six at St. Petersburg. Right now everyone is learning the new equipment and not necessarily attacking the track for pure qualifying speed.

  9. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I don’t recall where I read it now, so I’m not sure whom to credit, but I did read an interview after Day One in which the it was stated that the Hondas were a bit off of predicted results from the CFD/simulations, leaving those teams scrambling to see if setup or baselines were off. The Honda drivers also noted the car felt out of balance and crews also struggled just to get a balanced setup.

    Likewise, Chevy drivers noted that the car was well-balanced out of the box and the baselines met the simulations predicted.

    If so, I’d say Round One – Bikini Competition went to Honda,
    Round Two – The Talent Portion has gone to Chevy.

  10. If Honda is behind, they better make up for it at Indy, Fontana, and Pocono. Honda IndyCar teams should be happy they aren’t McLaren-Honda.

  11. Chris Lukens Says:

    Has any one done a comparison of the sector times. If Honda was off by a comparable time in all sectors then they may be in trouble, if times were close in some but off in others then they may be sandbagging.

    My Grandfather, who passed away in 1960, was a huge fan of the trotting horses. He talked about “sandbagging” quite a bit, where jockeys would literally wear sand bags in their pants to slow the horses down whenever other trainers or owners were around.

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