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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

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IndyCar Season Preview: Ryan Briscoe

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#2 Izod Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: September 24, 1981

Home: Sydney, Australia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After spending much of 2010 unsponsored and worrying in the offseason about his job security, Briscoe became the new face of the Izod brand in IndyCar. He led 35 of 85 laps at Long Beach to finish second and scored four podium finishes. He finished a respectable sixth in points.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: For the first time in four years as a Penske driver, Briscoe failed to win a race, and that sixth place points finish was actually his worst with the team. His month of May was also disastrous, as he only qualified 26th at Indianapolis and crashed out to finish 27th.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Once again, Briscoe went into the offseason unsure of his return to Penske (especially since he spent seven races with Penske Trucking backing his car), but his contract was eventually picked up for a fifth season. He will, however, be working with a new engineer, the only one of three Penske drivers who will be at that disadvantage to start the season. The good news is that aforementioned engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, has been with Penske since 2005 and worked on Briscoe’s team last year.

Briscoe still has plenty of potential, though, and anybody who drives for Roger Penske will always have a shot at a title. While testing the Dallara DW12 at Fontana in late November, Briscoe was decidedly more optimistic about the new car than Honda counterpart Scott Dixon. If that becomes a setup advantage that foreshadows the 2012 season, Briscoe could make up for his end of season choke in 2009.