Is Honda’s IndyCar revival for real?

The performance of Honda-powered teams at St. Petersburg was impressive and suggested it may be back on par with Chevrolet at several tracks. But the evidence is by no means conclusive, says David Malsher.

So there we were on Friday at St. Petersburg, watching practice, observing how strong Honda looked, but knowingly muttering, “OK, wait until Chevrolet does what it always does – turns up its engines for qualifying and pulls a small but decisive gap on its opponent.”

Then, there we were on Saturday at St. Pete, watching qualifying, observing how strong Honda looked, and… wondering what the hell just happened. Had our preseason predictions of further Honda struggles been wide of the mark? Where was the same-as-2016 Chevrolet domination?

Sure, Team Penske-Chevrolet’s Will Power strutted his stuff and took pole but that’s just what he does – seven times in the last eight years at St. Pete. But even so, Power’s lap time – 0.15sec ahead of fellow front-row starter Scott Dixon in the Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda, and 0.65 ahead of his nearest teammate, Josef Newgarden – wasn’t all down to sheer pace. It was also about Will nailing his Q1 time in just one flying lap, leaving enough meat on a set of Firestone alternate tires so that he created for himself a grip advantage for Q3. The #12 car’s qualifying session was as perfectly executed as its race was not. Plus, Dixon admitted to a significant error on his final flyer, otherwise maybe we would have seen a Honda in P1.

And the extenuating circumstances didn’t stop there. There was a somewhat jumbled order caused by braking issues among a few of the leading contenders, plus some drivers and crew chiefs were struggling to find their cars’ sweetspots when they discovered a grip deficit (Friday) and grip surfeit (Saturday) caused by the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg track’s resurfacing work. Notable strugglers were two Penske cars, those of Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves.

So there were variables to partially explain the odd-looking grid order in the midfield.

But still… nine Hondas in the top 12. Four of those were Ganassi cars, but however amazing Chip’s team is, it’s worth noting that three different HPD-powered teams – Ganassi, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Andretti Autosport – were represented in the Firestone Fast Six.

Given that the chief areas open to engine development over the winter were pistons, valves and conrods, something wasn’t adding up. Had we been duped by Honda Performance Development personnel telling us that those areas yielded only small power gains? After all, last year the fastest Honda-powered car [Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport machine] had been half a second from pole and Chevy’s Ilmor units had marginally outnumbered HPD cars in the top 12, 7-5.

In fact a substantial part of the explanation for Honda’s turnaround should have been glaringly obvious, as Allen Miller, HPD’s race team principal, explained to

“Remember, we hadn’t used that engine at that track before,” he said. “We didn’t introduce last year’s significant engine upgrade until the Indianapolis 500. At the first few events of last season [St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Long Beach, Barber, GP Indy] our engines were slightly older spec – near 2015 spec.”

In other words, even had no engine development been allowed this past winter, Honda’s 2016 upgrade, as seen from Indy onwards last year, had already provided a performance benefit that simply hadn’t been seen at St. Pete before.

“Right,” agreed Miller. “The changes allowed for this year [pistons, valves, conrods] wasn’t going to bring us that big a jump. It’s a measurable improvement over 2016, but nothing like last year’s upgrade.”

Miller confirmed that, as in seasons past, this year’s improvements have not been focused around the 1.3-bar boost level run on superspeedways, nor the 1.4-bar short-oval, nor 1.5-bar street/roadcourse settings.

“We can’t really work on an engine specifically for a certain type of track,” he said, “we can’t optimize them for specific boost levels, because they have to carry over from event to event. With IndyCar having a wide variety of tracks, any upgrades we make need to work across the board. We test at all boost pressures and develop around the best compromise.”

One other significant part of the explanation for Honda’s revival in St. Pete this year is that its teams have greater knowledge of their aerokits. In the 2015/16 offseason, when IndyCar decided to grant HPD two extra “development boxes” in which to try and bring its road/street/short-oval aero package up to Chevrolet standard, maybe we should have foreseen that those tracks would continue to be the HPD teams’ weak points. Because, whatever its improvements, the teams still had to learn how best to exploit its benefits, learn which avenues to explore… and learn which ones to disregard.

Now, with aerokits frozen for 2017, Honda teams have had the chance to delve further into their kits’ intricacies, and apparently they’ve made substantial progress.

“Yeah, there’s a year on this aerokit in terms of knowledge and how to use it best,” said Miller. “We provide base aero information and then each team has its own program and they can pick and choose which way they want to go. So between a year’s experience – and definitely a lot of looking at what other teams are doing! – I think we can say the teams have made a lot of progress themselves.”

Asked if, in very basic terms, better understanding the aerokit and chassis meant HPD-powered teams can find more mechanical grip and strip away some of the drag – the Honda kit’s chief problem – for the straights, Miller replied in the affirmative… but conceded that short-ovals such as Phoenix, Iowa and new-for-2017 Gateway would probably remain Honda’s weak point.

“That’s gonna be a tough one, I think. We saw that at Phoenix testing a few weeks ago. I think in qualifying we’ll struggle but at racetrim level we’ll be more competitive.”

Still, overall, these small steps add up to one giant leap for Honda-kind, and one can’t help but acknowledge that the breadth and depth of talent at Chip Ganassi Racing has a lot to do with the Japanese manufacturer’s revitalized form and the improved odds of victory. With the best will in the world, you don’t expect to find Max Chilton outqualifying IndyCar champions like Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay, as he comfortably did in St. Petersburg.

“Yep, Ganassi are a great team to work with,” says Miller, “but Andretti Autosport have stepped up too, right up there in the lead battle, and Schmidt Peterson are consistent and strong. The top six [in qualifying] had three different Honda teams represented… and then Dale Coyne [Racing] won the race and they should probably have started in the top six without Bourdais’ problem in qualifying.

“So everyone’s improving this year which is really good.”

The reason Honda can’t get too excited about its 2017 prospects just yet, and the skepticism among those who wish to see Chevy drivers and Honda drivers fight on more equal terms this year, is that engine disparity from this time last year. Consider this: if revised pistons, valves and conrods truly haven’t added up to much of a power advantage, then we’ve effectively already seen the current-spec Honda engine and the current-spec Chevrolet engine in action in all the 2016 races post-Indy 500. And those stats didn’t look good. Given that the aerokits have also been frozen since last year, surely that means we can expect similar performance differences between Chevy and Honda as last season.

Miller follows that logic but points out: “If you look at Sonoma last year [2016 season finale], we didn’t perform like we did at St. Pete and it’s not a huge power increase from Sonoma to now – like I said before, measurable but not huge and not enough to explain what we saw at St. Pete. So my guess is that the continuing aerokit understanding among the teams, and knowing more about how to use it, means they’ll perform better this year at all tracks.”

Until the meat of the packed summer schedule has been sampled, it’s a matter of speculation. But certainly Miller is optimistic.

Right now, our feeling is that we’re competitive again and it’s taken a lot of work from a lot of people working on different parts to get to this level,” he said. “We’re back in the mix, based on what we saw in St. Pete. “We’re not dominating but we’re competitive – we can at least take the fight to [Chevrolet]. That’s our plan now.”