HONDA TEAMS PANIC, THEN EXHALE...TO A DEGREE
Racing teams and drivers love to fret. Finding a Honda-powered team that wasn't concerned about their pace, especially through the first four days of practice for the 97th Indianapolis 500, was nearly impossible.
Engine rival Chevy had posted fastest laps on Saturday Sunday and Monday, and in the heat of Tuesday, the disparity between the two brands was particularly obvious with the Bowtie claiming 17 of the fastest 18 times registered. The question of whether Honda could rebound carried into Wednesday as the primary topic of interest, and despite Dario Franchitti posting the fastest lap — the first for Honda in five days of running — the jury is still out on whether the Honda Performance Development team has caught and passed Chevy.
Getting to the bottom of why the Hondas were so slow came with help from HPD technical director Roger Griffiths, who tells RACER everything that took place through Tuesday was thoroughly expected.
“Yesterday for us was… it's kind of a situation we've all created for ourselves through the regulations in that everybody was mileaging out engines yesterday,” says Griffiths. "And the paranoia about getting the engines to 2,000 miles and not having a failure, which results in the grid penalty in Detroit, just kind of took over.
“You saw it for both us and for Chevy. For example, (Chevy-powered driver) E.J. Viso went out and ran quick in the morning and then spent the last two hours of the day running under 205. And [James] Hinchcliffe was doing something similar as well. So it's the first time we've all got engines up to 2,000 miles and everybody's freaking out about just getting to 2000 miles and not breaking them. So everyone's running conservatively. And then last night both us and GM were changing engine so now we're both getting up to speed today.”
Franchitti lost an engine just as he was closing in on the 2000-mile mark on Tuesday, which should come with a 10-spot penalty at Detroit, but put his fresh powerplant to good use.
Getting a read on which teams, drivers and engine suppliers have the upper hand has been nearly impossible, thanks to ever-changing weather and tired motors being used in most cars through Tuesday. Wednesday could have revealed whether Chevy or Honda — with their qualifying motors installed — had a noticeable advantage, but with temperatures over 90 degrees and heavy winds, the extra speed was not going to be revealed.
“With very few exceptions, most people were carrying in their engines from Brazil and the folks, up until 2,000 miles, were running reasonably quickly, and then afterward everybody just got conservative," said Griffiths. "But we should see a good reset on speeds if the conditions improve, and also when teams move to their qualifying setup work.”
Although both marques introduced some upgrades with their new-spec qualifying engines, Griffiths clarified that the engines we'll see used through Sunday are not one-off specials.
“Well, we have to be careful with the term ‘qualifying engines' because these engines still have to last 2,000 miles. They're not traditional 300-mile ticking time bombs," he noted. "They have to be good to last to run at various boost levels: 1300, 1400, 1500 millibar. They have to still be good to run to 2,000 miles just like the race engine. So they're not qualifying engines per se; they just have to be in the car for qualifying.
“And given the proximity of qualifying and the race to each other, it doesn't give you an extra week of development time, really. Or an extra couple of weeks' development time. Because you've got to fix your hardware specs quite early. So there's an opportunity to make some small changes, but it would be quite difficult to do wholesale changes unless your decision is, 'Well, we're just going to qualify the same spec that we took out and we'll do a big upgrade for the race, but then we'll run a compromised engine later in the year.' It wears your brain out, as far as that's concerned!”
NEWS AND NOTES
• Jay Howard is flying throughout the country to try and find the sponsorship necessary to drive Sam Schmidt's third entry. The team has said it could bring the car out before Saturday to log some laps and ensure it's ready to go if needed. SPEED's Robin Miller revealed Wednesday that Buddy Rice, who had been tipped for the seat, had opted not to take up the option.
• The amazing Alex Zanardi will be a guest of Target during race weekend.
• Conor Daly ran the most laps on Wednesday, spending Happy Hour in a constant tow. He climbed from the car looking like he'd been given an hour to memorize and recite the Bible.
“It's a lot to take in, he said while trying to talk and process the whirlwind of activity that just took place. “There's so much going on, so many cars moving around and the tow and clean air to look for…it's really intense.”
• One reader asked why teams have been filling their cars with E85 ethanol from the right side (ABOVE) — the far side of the car — rather than the left side, closest to the pit wall.
“Almost everybody has their buckeyes installed on the left so they can do pit stop practice,” Team Penske's Billy Vincent told RACER. “So we put the [fueling] quick disconnects on the right. It's looks weird, I guess, but that's the reason.”