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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

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

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 4

Photo credit: Ned Leone

We’ve finally broken into the top ten stories of our IZOD IndyCar Series season preview with today’s post. After going through some of the stuff that’s under the radar in the past three days (see part one, part two, and part three), today we begin to address some of the biggest stories coming into the season.

10. Engine shortages will be a serious problem in 2012, and may even impact the Indianapolis 500.

FICTION: Lotus’ production struggles aside, Chevrolet and Honda have stepped up to fill the void at the start of the season, and we should see 26 cars on the grid at St. Petersburg. That means we only need seven more cars to fill out the Indy field. Andretti Autosport, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises should all be good for at least one more car, while Michael Shank Racing hopes to be up and running by the 500. If guaranteed rides for Jean Alesi (with Lotus money) and Bryan Clauson (through the Road to Indy scholarship) don’t come with any of those teams, that’s 33 cars right there. And if the money is there, the engines will be there.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

9. Will Power’s team will learn to stop beating itself this year.

FACT: With an owner like Roger Penske, this team no longer has a choice but to get it together. Two great seasons have ended in disappointment because of late-season chokes, both by Power and his pit crew; you can’t imagine that Penske will tolerate that much longer, as he hasn’t won a championship since Sam Hornish Jr. took home the title in 2006. As long as Power doesn’t check his reflexes after the Las Vegas incident – though, keep in mind, he’s injured his back before – he’ll have everything he needs to win at his disposal.

8. Because oval races are outnumbered more than 2-1 on this year’s schedule, most of the top 10 in points will be skilled road racers.

FACT: Assume that the Penske and primary Ganassi teams will all take top 10 spots. That leaves five spots open for drivers like Rubens Barrichello, Mike Conway, and Justin Wilson, all of whom spent much of their early careers racing junior formulae in Europe. Add Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan, two well-rounded IndyCar veterans, to the mix, and you have your probable top 10.

7. The winners of this year’s races at Long Beach and Indianapolis will once again be surprises.

FICTION: Just because flukey winners were the norm in most major American races last year, doesn’t mean they’ll happen again this year. Last year, Mike Conway took his first win at Long Beach, while Dan Wheldon led only the most important lap in what had been his only planned start of the season. But more often than not, the drivers who have won those races have been serious championship contenders; since 2003, the Long Beach winner has taken the Champ Car or IndyCar title five times, while the Indianapolis 500 winner has also taken the title five times since 2005. Besides that, from 2003 to 2010, no Indy 500 winner had finished worse than fourth in points in the season in which they won the race. Last year’s victories, while popular, scream “outlier.”

6. The Dallara DW12 will be significantly faster on ovals than the old car by the time the series makes it to Indianapolis in May.

FICTION: With a smaller engine that’s due to produce less horsepower (at least for the moment), don’t expect any new track records to be set at Indianapolis this year. The new car could only reach 215.6 miles per hour in testing in November, while aerodynamic testing in January showed that the body work is limited to a top speed of 218.4 miles per hour. The lap that IndyCar’s aerodynamic team used as a baseline for Indianapolis was a lap of 227.3 miles per hour from last year’s qualifying. If the new cars are more challenging to drive and produce more entertaining racing, this may not matter as much, but the lack of new track records at Indianapolis since “The Split” of 1996 have seriously held the sport back.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Will Power

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#12 Verizon Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: March 1, 1981

Home: Toowoomba, Australia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Power led the series with six wins, finally conquering an oval after winning half of the Texas doubleheader. He led in 13 of 17 races and led the points for about half the season, including after the 16th round at Motegi. He also took eight poles to post an average start of 3.6.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Power crashed in consecutive races at Iowa and Toronto to lose the championship lead for much of the second half of the season. After crashing in the aborted rain restart at Loudon, he also flipped off race control for putting the drivers in danger. Power’s car also launched in the air at Las Vegas, injuring his back for the second time in three years and leading him to briefly question his IndyCar career.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Power has been Dario Franchitti’s top championship challenger for the past two seasons, and that won’t change as long as the Champ Car alumnus outclasses everybody on the road and street courses. He’s also got Roger Penske’s team behind him, although their pit crew left a lot to be desired last season.

The new Chevrolet engine shouldn’t be much of a problem, since Ilmor (a company partially owned by Penske) helped produce the Honda engines of the past half-decade or so. With Power, the only concerns are mental. Can he finally get past the roadblock that is Franchitti’s dominance? Can he pick up his performance on the ovals, or will his serious crash at Vegas hinder some of his driving instincts? And, after two straight years of chokes at the very end of the season, can he stop beating himself?