Is This Finally Honda’s Year?

Last week after the season-opening race at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, I got a text from my brother asking me why Team Penske showed so poorly. I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to explain that their results weren’t really that bad. Josef Newgarden finished seventh, Will Power was tenth and Simon Pagenaud finished thirteenth. But when your team is used to competing for wins and championships, I guess those results were a little disappointing.

But since I was in a hurry, my response to him contained only two words – Chevy engine.

Chevy only placed two cars in the Top-Ten – the cars of Newgarden and Power. The first six cars to take the checkered flag were all Hondas, as were eight of the Top-ten.

But is it really that simple? Is Chevy doomed this season now that the aero kit playing field has been leveled with the unified body? Maybe. Maybe not.

A look at last year’s opening race at St. Petersburg shows that the results were similar to this year. Sébastien Bourdais won both races in a Honda-powered car. This year, Honda had eight of the Top-Ten, last year it was seven.

After a couple of years when Honda had almost become a punchline due to their lack of results, winning the opening race of the season caused everyone to throw their hands up in celebration because they just assumed that Honda was back.

Honda won the next race at Long Beach with James Hinchcliffe, and Bourdais finished a strong second; but Chevy had six of the Top-Ten and you had a feeling they weren’t going away that easily. At Barber, Chevy won their first race of the season when Josef Newgarden took over the lead from Will Power when Power had a tire puncture late in the race. Team Penske Chevys finished first, third and fourth. But the next Chevy found on the score sheet was the wounded car of Will Power, all the way down in fourteenth. Though Chevy dominated the podium, Honda had most of the top cars in the race. One could go nuts trying to decipher who had the upper hand.

Things got even crazier at Phoenix. Not only did Chevy win with Simon Pagenaud claiming the honors, but the bow-tie manufacturer swept the podium, had the top four cars and seven of the Top-Ten. The highest placing Honda was that of Scott Dixon, who was fifth, one lap down and never really a factor.

Heading into the Month of May, it was hard to get a handle on which manufacturer had the upper hand. But one thing was becoming apparent – Honda was having engine failures, while Chevy wasn’t. It was widely suspected that Honda was turning up the wick and risking reliability for horsepower. If that was the case, things could literally blow up in their face in the Indianapolis 500.

As expected, there were multiple engine failures at Indianapolis – in practice and during the race – and they were almost all Hondas. But Honda had more of the top teams and the odds won with Takuma Sato winning in a Honda-powered car, their third win in four races in the “500”. Honda won three of the next four races, but Chevy went on a tear in the latter part of the season, allowing Honda to win only once more after Road America in June – and that was the penultimate race at Watkins Glen in September. Chevy swept the months of July and August and took the championship with Josef Newgarden. The final tally for the 2017 season was ten wins for Chevy, and seven for Honda.

Once again we are starting the season with Honda looking strong after one race and lots of people have already buried Chevy, now that all teams have the same car. It looks like the math is on Hondas side. Honda has the better teams and more of them. Honda has Ganassi, Andretti, Schmidt, Rahal and Coyne. The only premier team that Chevy has is Team Penske. AJ Foyt and Ed Carpenter might argue about that, but clearly – Chevys hopes are pinned to Team Penske. If Penske struggles this season, you can bet that Chevy will too.

So are the prognosticators right after one race? Should Chevy be considered dead and buried? Did the Honda aero kit hamper Honda’s efforts that much the last three seasons? Time will tell. I think that Chevy will win its share of races this season. I think there are some tracks like Phoenix that favors the Chevy engine more than Honda. I am not a gearhead, so I can’t tell you why that is – but those smarter than I am say it is.

But whether or not Chevy can rattle off enough wins to win Team Penske (or Foyt or Carpenter) a championship remains to be seen. Can Honda finally win its first Verizon IndyCar Series championship since 2013? Stay tuned.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Is This Finally Honda’s Year?”

  1. BrandonW77 Says:

    I’m sure Penske will resume their usual form in short order and win their share of races. But the odds are certainly stacked in Honda’s favor this year and I kinda think an Andretti car or Graham Rahal might sneak off with the title this season. Or, the Hondas spend so much time fighting amongst themselves that Penske quietly sneaks up on them and snatches it at the last minute. Either way, should be an interesting season!

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Last night on our local NBC TV channel in Milwaukee, our sports guy Lance Allan did a feature on up and coming Mazda Road To Indy driver Aaron Telitz. Lance did an interview with Aaron and also showed some racing footage. Aaron is from Lance’s hometown of Birchwood, Wisconsin so there is that, but I can’t help but wonder if this was the kind of thing we now expect to see on NBC network channels now that NBC will be doing IndyCar races with expanded ancillary coverage. The future for IndyCar looks much brighter today. Looks like Mark Miles hit a home run.

    • I believe I might be adding an Aaron Telitz hat to my Aaron Telitz T-shirt (slyly and excellently done in the style of the label of a bottle of Leinenkugel’s), in order to help keep our cheesehead brother on the Lights grid through the end of 2018.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Thanks for the reminder to get some of Aaron’s stuff. I can wear it to Road America, walk around with a bottle of Leinies, and be a babe magnet.

  3. If I remember the previous round at St. Pete correctly, Chevy-powered Foyt driver Matheus Leist ran in the Top 5 until he hit non-engine related trouble. So it’s not a Chevy problem as such which had the Chevy cars finish down the order at that race. I guess as the season goes on, Team Penske will regain their strong form. It remains to be seen if this happens before, at or after the Indianapolis 500.

    Either way, it looks like it will be a year when the championship goes to a Honda driver because usually, in this series, the first race is very important for the championship.

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