ECHOES OF INDY
I went to bed late Saturday night in Pocono thinking Anderson Silva's shocking knockout loss to Chris Weidman at UFC 162 would be the biggest surprise of the weekend. By the time I woke up Monday morning, thoughts of Silva's dethroning had been replaced with the “Where-the-hell-did-that-come-from?” performance Honda uncorked on Chevrolet during the Sunoco 400.
And as much as it was a surprise, the story arc resembled that of the 2012 Indy 500, when Chevy dominated practice and qualifying, locking out the first two rows and leaving the Honda teams incensed at the lack of power that had been made available. But when HPD team rolled out their new-spec Indy 500 race motors, a large-scale emotional transference took place. Smiles and cheers quickly left the Chevy camp, replaced by the same worried look their Honda counterparts had worn all month. Ganassi's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon went on to finish 1-2 after using a significant power and fuel economy boost to their full advantage.
Revenge was exacted two months ago at Indy as Honda had no answer for the latest and greatest Bowtie spec, and in the continual tug-of-war between the two brands, Honda went to work on finding answers which came in the form of the race day motor for Pocono. Coming into last weekend's race, the majority of Honda runners were using up the mileage left on the Indy 500 practice and qualifying engines…which hadn't found many fans in the paddock during the month of May.
Chevy teams swept the first two three-by-three rows in qualifying, the best Honda was seventh (Dixon, with a new-spec motor), and with an engine change already planned for after the 400-miler, most Honda teams decided to ask for early access to the latest powerplant and happily accepted the 10-spot grid penalty that came with it. But neither HPD nor its teams knew what they had when the green flag waved. They knew the engine was good, but weren't sure how it would fare on outright lap speed or fuel mileage.
The first signs something unexpected was about to unfold came when race leader Marco Andretti pitted on lap 30. Eventual winner Dixon would go a full 10 miles longer before making his initial stop, and for those paying attention on pit lane, major alarm bells should have been ringing. As Dixon shared after the race, there was an element of disbelief inside the cockpit as he watched the Chevy-powered cars peel off into the pits much earlier than his strategist Mike Hull had planned for the No. 9 Target entry.
“Sometimes on the radio, your team will play with that a little bit,” said the Kiwi, “you know, just because the other teams are always scanning you. So when I started to see some of the other teams pit, and Mike is going, ‘Yeah, another seven laps,' I'm thinking, ‘Yeah, he's just winding up the other teams a little bit. But then I looked down at my actual tank number and I'm like, ‘Wow, yeah, we can go another seven laps!'”
That dynamic played out on each subsequent stop, and by the time the final round of pit stops had been completed, the top Hondas needed less fuel – and less time on pit lane – while the best Chevys were throttling down just to keep from running out of fuel before crossing the finish line. It wasn't pretty.
IF YOU AIN'T FIRST, YOU'RE FIRST
If you're racing an Indy car at Pocono, you can forget the Talladega Nights adage of, “If you ain't first, you're last.” Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti was a beast on Sunday, leading from pole and commanding large portions of the race. Unfortunately, and as his fuel mileage should have indicated, the costs of being first in line to punch a hole through the air at 225mph was too high.
It was also unfortunate that his team, which can usually be counted on to make the right strategy calls, didn't catch the significant mileage advantage being shown by the leading Hondas. By the time the AA folks did figure it out, it was too late to recover, leaving Marco nearly inconsolable in front of his home crowd.
"Oh man, I mean we knew early (about our fuel mileage), but not early enough,” he said after finishing 10th. “I think we should have responded quicker, but it's so hard to be reserved right now. I'm so frustrated for RC Cola and everybody; we were just so dominant and I'm just absolutely gutted."
In retrospect, had Andretti settled into running second or third throughout the two-hour race to minimize the fuel mileage deficit, a top-5 finish would have been on the cards and his gap to Helio Castroneves in the championship standings would have decreased. Instead, he ended up two spots behind HCN, lost ground and left the track feeling frustrated because there was no need for it to happen.
I'd heard the Honda engine that recently ran at Mid-Ohio during a manufacturer test day was going to be a formidable challenger when it was pressed into service later in the championship. With that timeline in mind, HPD arrived at Pocono with some of the new-spec engines, but as technical director Roger Griffiths told me in Victory Lane, they hadn't planned to outfit the entire fleet when the post-qualifying requests started to come in.
“We'd planned to introduce this spec a little later in the season,” he said. “We really didn't build it as a superspeedway engine, but it seems to work here. Everything went to plan at Mid-Ohio and we had positive driver comments after the test, so here we are today. Honestly, I'm taken aback by how well we did!”
Every Honda team should have its new engine for Toronto this weekend and, in an interesting counterpoint, several Chevy runners will also be making the switch to Ilmor's latest unit, which a few cars (Andretti and Penske's Castroneves and Will Power are believed to be three of them) ran at Pocono. The Chevys clearly had plenty of power at Pocono, if not Honda-matching fuel efficiency.
“I think we were beating the majority of them,” said Scott Dixon. “I think Will was probably the closest Chevy to us on mileage. We saw that pretty early on, probably after the second stint.”
Mileage won't be nearly as much of a factor as IndyCar runs on road and street courses from Toronto to Houston in early October, but it will certainly play a role. And by the time the series gets to Mid-Ohio, both manufacturers will be fighting with every team using the latest spec engines.