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INDYCAR: Honda Fails To Capitalize On Advantage At Long Beach

When Chevrolet changed engines in all 11 of its IndyCar entries before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it opened up an opportunity for Honda to score its first win of the season. But as US Race Report’s Chris Leone explains, tough luck befell the top Honda teams one by one until their final shot at a win finally drifted away.

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Chevrolet Power, Economy Embarrasses Honda In Long Beach

Photo credit: Ned Leone

After accruing 10-spot grid penalties for each of its teams by virtue of voluntary engine changes, Chevrolet left the door wide open for Honda to avenge losses in the first two races of the season at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Hondas would fill the first nine spots of the grid, giving them a prime opportunity to re-establish themselves as the sport’s top dog.

Consider it an opportunity missed.

Will Power won his second consecutive race at Long Beach, holding off the Honda of Simon Pagenaud after a frantic charge in the last few laps. Worse, seven of the top 10 spots in the field were occupied by Chevys, and a sure podium for Takuma Sato was swept away after he was spun on the last lap by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Pagenaud, Sato (who fell to eighth), and tenth-place Justin Wilson (promoted after a penalty to Helio Castroneves for avoidable contact) were the only Honda-powered drivers to crack the top 10.

In the end, Honda drivers led 61 of 85 laps, and for the third race in a row, a Honda led the most laps (Pagenaud was the top driver this time with 26). But Hondas suffered a series of issues during the race, especially in the Chip Ganassi Racing camp: Dario Franchitti had a lack of power on most restarts, eventually sinking to 15th place in the running order, while Scott Dixon had a mechanical issue with 27 laps in that ended his race. Meanwhile, Mike Conway had an issue with fourth gear that ended his day, and early incidents ended the days of Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

But Chevrolets posted five of the top six qualifying times, including Ryan Briscoe’s pole time, before falling to the middle of the grid, and they worked their way up through the field in the first third of the race. The first Chevrolet to lead was Hunter-Reay’s under caution on lap 28, but he pitted to hand the lead to Briscoe. Hondas would lead most of the rest of the way, but when Power took the lead for the first time on lap 71, he wouldn’t relinquish it.

It was then that the Ilmor-built, 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 would showcase its superior fuel economy. Power had pushed by Sato despite his Penske Racing Chevrolet having less fuel than the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, and when Pagenaud pit, he opened up a significant lead. While Power saved fuel in the closing laps, Pagenaud pushed as hard as he could to catch last year’s road course champion, and even had the advantage of Power running into lapped traffic in the final few laps.

But with two laps to go, Power strategist Tim Cindric told his driver that their fuel situation was under control, and with permission to push the car as hard as possible, the Chevrolet had more than enough power to retain the lead. The result was, once again, a Chevrolet victory with a Honda bridesmaid, and a serious moral blow to the folks at HPD.

Changes may be on the way for the Honda engine, as the manufacturer looks to change its turbocharger configuration for the Brazil race and beyond. Meanwhile, Chevrolet can look back and gloat about stealing Sunday’s victory despite spotting Honda ten starting spots. With the bowtie engine clearly established as the best in the sport right now, Honda will have to go back to the drawing board to add a touch of horsepower and a dash of better fuel economy. Until then, the top step of the podium may remain just out of reach for the series’ longest-tenured engine manufacturer.

– Chris Leone

In The Spotlight: 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series, Edition 1

It’s only been two races, but already, the front-runners and backmarkers of this IZOD IndyCar Series season have started to reveal themselves. With the majority of the season taking place on road and street courses, the drivers who normally excel outside of the ovals, as well as those who adapt well to the new Dallara DW12 and 2.2-liter turbocharged V6 engines, will likely dominate this year’s championship.

With that in mind, we’ll periodically visit the biggest names in IndyCar with these pieces, establishing who’s on top, who’s overachieving, and who’s disappointing over the course of the season. Through the first two races, held on back-to-back weekends on the streets of St. Petersburg and at Barber Motorsports Park, here are some of the drivers to watch:

Photo credit: Ned Leone

STAR: Helio Castroneves. After failing to win a race in 2011, Castroneves opened this season with a win at St. Petersburg and a third place finish at Barber after winning the pole. A hard-fought battle with Graham Rahal at the end of the race ensured his second podium finish in a row and a two-point lead on Scott Dixon going into the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race that Castroneves won in 2001.

DARK HORSE: Sebastien Bourdais. There’s a reason why Honda was courting the four-time Champ Car champion heavily in the offseason: he can drive the wheels off a car. Bourdais set some of the fastest sector times at St. Petersburg before having a motor issue, and sliced his way to a ninth place finish at Barber with a series of impressive moves. Bourdais is only 14th in points, but has shown plenty of why he has 31 career victories (all in Champ Car), and if the Lotus engine ever catches up to Honda and Chevrolet, he’ll win at least one more.

UNDERRATED: Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has yet to attempt any oval runs, with his first test coming at Texas next week, but his road course prowess should give Schmidt/Hamilton racing reason to smile most of the year. Despite a 10-place grid penalty dropping him to P16 at the start at St. Petersburg, he finished sixth; he followed it up at Barber with a fifth place run. Bourdais’ performances may be stealing the attention from his countryman, which is who so few will notice that he currently ranks fifth in points.

IMPROVING: Rubens Barrichello. The 19-year Formula 1 vet is still petitioning IndyCar to restore his rookie status for 2012, but a respectable run at Barber showed that he may lose that battle. Barrichello took eighth place late in the race after starting 14th, thanks to an impressive late race pass of Marco Andretti. He’s now 10th in points – not tearing up the series like Nigel Mansell in 1993, but as the top KV Racing Technology driver in the standings, not failing to make the transition well by any means.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

ALBATROSS: Dario Franchitti. It seems clear that the DW12 doesn’t entirely suit Franchitti’s driving style, which is drastically different from teammate Scott Dixon’s. While Dixon has managed two second place finishes in two races, Franchitti could only manage a 13th place finish at St. Petersburg and barely squeaked into the top 10 at Barber. He’s now 11th in points. While things aren’t as bad yet as Dixon’s title-defending 2004 season, where the Kiwi followed up a strong 2003 with an absolute stinker due to a weak Toyota engine, Franchitti still has some serious work to do.

– Chris Leone

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 5

Photo credit: Ned Leone

All week we’ve been counting down some of the most important storylines in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series. Today, we address the top five. These stories will likely influence the entire complexion of the season, so keep them in mind as the sport puts on its most important championship in years. (If you need to catch up, here are the first, second, third, and fourth parts of the series.)

5. The rumored driver boycott of Texas will be a serious problem for the series.

FICTION: Besides the fact that plenty of drivers have dismissed the notion, a boycott stands fully against common sense. In the series’ many years of racing at Texas, the worst wreck took place in 2003, effectively shortening Kenny Brack’s driving career but not quite ending it. With the new rear wheel covers meant to prevent liftoff in rear-ending situations, the new Dallara DW12s are safer (and reportedly slower on ovals), and clearly the sanctioning body will take every precaution to make sure that this year’s Texas event is as clean as any IndyCar race in history.

4. Rubens Barrichello will be one of the series’ top drivers in 2012.

FACT: The only worry for Rubens will be ovals, which he has never run before, but the stars are aligned for a strong season. Barrichello will drive for KV Racing Technology, perhaps the third-best team in the sport behind Ganassi and Penske, and will have good friend Tony Kanaan’s brain to pick over the nuances of American open-wheel racing. He’s been fast in testing, and with road and street courses comprising the bulk of this year’s schedule, he won’t be too far out of his element after nearly two decades in Formula 1. Expect at least one win.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

3. IndyCar will miss Danica Patrick greatly, for both diversity and marketing reasons.

FICTION: For every reason that the sport may miss her, the rest of the paddock can probably rattle off four others why they won’t. Diversity isn’t an issue, with plenty of female drivers still in the series. And while the marketing end now lacks an international superstar, this will allow both the sport and the networks to focus on other (perhaps more successful) drivers.

2. Dan Wheldon’s passing will lead to major safety changes in IndyCar the way that Dale Earnhardt’s did in NASCAR.

FACT: The safety changes were already somewhat in place before Wheldon’s accident at Las Vegas, with a brand new cockpit and new rear wheel guards on the new Dallara chassis that will now bear his name. But in an age where racing has become much safer than ever before, any fatal accident has significant sway over the public’s perception of the sport. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was the long-developed response to Earnhardt’s accident; IndyCar will have no choice but to go further in the wake of Wheldon’s.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

1. Dario Franchitti will win his fourth consecutive IndyCar title.

FICTION: Dario’s going to make me look stupid for saying this, but it just seems like it’s time that a new champion is crowned. Dario’s won each of the past four titles he’s chased (remember, he skipped 2008 for an ill-fated NASCAR adventure), as has Chip Ganassi (Scott Dixon took that title). As Jimmie Johnson showed in NASCAR last season, any streak that lasts longer than a presidential term isn’t much longer for this world, because bad luck has a way of catching up eventually. He’ll challenge, but this might just be somebody else’s year. My money is on Will Power.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Dario Franchitti

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#10 Target Dallara-Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing

Born: May 19, 1973

Home: Edinburgh, Scotland

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Franchitti won his third consecutive championship (his fourth in four tries since 2007, since he didn’t compete in 2008) on the strength of four victories, nine podiums, and a 4.8 average finish. He led laps in 11 of 17 races, including the most laps in six of those events.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: After winning the season opener at St. Petersburg, Franchitti failed to lead laps in the next three races and only finished 12th at Indianapolis. He also crashed out at Loudon after restarting next to Takuma Sato, and while he claimed Sato was at fault, consensus opinion stated otherwise. This allowed main title rival Will Power back into the championship race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Franchitti is clearly the gold standard for IndyCar drivers after winning three of the last four titles, and driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, he has many advantages besides his driving talent. Ganassi has the lucrative Target sponsorship (which pits Franchitti in many alternate liveries over the course of the season), all of his key personnel returning, and the flagship Honda contract.

That combination means that Franchitti has both the skills and equipment to win on any course on the IndyCar schedule. Last year, he took two street course victories (St. Petersburg and Toronto), one flat oval win (Milwaukee), and one high-speed oval win (half of the Texas doubleheader). With only three finishes worse than fifth all of last season, there’s not much to question with this team.

– Chris Leone