HIGH FIVES IN THE HEARTLAND
I spent most of the Fast 9 qualifying session with Jim Campbell, GM's VP of performance vehicles and motorsports, on pit lane where the cars are lined up to exit the bullpen, and marveled at the deep, heartfelt impression that qualifying made on him. Locking Honda out of the Fast 9 was an achievement – if only temporary – that he and the rest of his colleagues won't soon forget.
“It's qualifying for the Indianapolis 500…the history and significance of Pole Day is just incredible,” he told RACER. “And it's really a product of our ‘key partner' relationships and all of the GM Powertrain and chassis and aerodynamics integration that goes into our IndyCar Series program.
“Every one of those departments makes such a meaningful contribution to our overall success, and as we've seen in IndyCar, you have to have each one working at its absolute maximum to produce something like what we've achieved today.”
Campbell, like his teams, will celebrate what they did on Saturday, but won't bask in the glow of owning the first three rows for very long.
“This is tremendous for the Chevy brand and it represents so much hard work that has gone into the program, but it is still only qualifying; there's no guarantee what can happen in the race, so we have to temper our joy from qualifying, with the knowledge that we have to do something much harder on the day of the race.”
HONDA GETS HAMMERED BY CHEVY IN INDY QUALIFYING…AGAIN
The vast majority of conversations with Chevy and Honda teams during the past week fell into a familiar pattern. The Chevy-powered entrants and drivers were brimming with confidence that they not only had the power to win the race, but also to put on another dominant display in qualifying.
Honda entrants expressed a lot of hope and optimism things would improve, but more than one person said it looked like Chevy had responded with great authority to their 2012 Indy 500 loss at the hand of Honda.
The 2012 Indy 500 featured eight Chevys in the Fast 9, giving rise to the belief that Honda would return to the race with more ponies for Pole Day, but the whispers on pit lane and in Gasoline Alley that the qualifying-spec Hondas seemed to be down on Chevy's qualifying engines were proven over and over again on Saturday.
Rain showers pushed back qualifying by nearly 90 minutes, but once time trials got underway at 1:28 p.m. ET, Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon was the first car to make a qualifying attempt.
Dixon's Honda-powered car looked like it might have a shot at the front row after running above 227mph on his own during morning practice in the soupy air, but the 2008 Indy 500 winner was surprisingly slow – based on the high expectations held for the Target team – when he averaged just 226.158mph.
“The car was sliding around a bit,” he said. “It wasn't too bad to drive. It's just that we scrubbed a lot of speed. The first two laps were pretty decent, and then we played it a little bit safe.”
The Kiwi's modest speed would foreshadow what was ahead for the Ganassi team's other three entries and for the Honda camp as a whole.
AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato was up next and ranked as another strong contender for Honda, but went even slower, averaging 225.892. Honda-powered Graham Rahal was third to qualify and could only muster a 225.139. He'd eventually get bumped out of the top 24 spots reserved for Saturday's best speeds.
And from there, the rout was on. Team Penske rookie A.J. Allmendinger went fourth and wound up the first Chevy-powered car to an average of 227.761, turned a fast lap of 227.942 to Dixon's best of 226.405.
Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe posted a 227.493 with his Chevy, Conor Daly's Honda broke a header and then lost a cylinder – it was the same engine that was in the car when he hit the wall on Thursday – and once the track was done being inspected, Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson went out and ran faster than Honda stablemate Dixon, recording a 226.370.
Not only was Honda struggling, but the hand-to-mouth Coyne team outgunning Ganassi's first qualifier also suggested the defending race winners were in for more humbling qualifying attempts. RLL's James Jakes went faster than teammate Graham Rahal, turning a 225.397 average, but failed post-qualifying technical inspection when his car was found to be slightly underweight. He'd requalify at 225.153.
Bryan Herta's Barracuda Racing team would prove to be Honda's strongest performer, with 2011 polesitter Alex Tagliani hitting 227.907 on his first lap and finishing with a 227.386 average. Was it a false read – a fluke by one Honda runner – or did the brand have more speed than some of its featured teams could muster?
Team Penske's Will Power, who followed Tagliani in the qualifying line, answered that question immediately with his twin-turbo Chevy. The Aussie's first lap, a staggering 229.422, was well clear of the stunning first lap Tagliani produced, and at the end of his four-lap run, Power was fastest – something he'd hold onto heading into the Fast 9 session – with a 228.844 average.
Ryan Briscoe, last year's polesitter with Team Penske, was well shy of the 226.4 mph average that claimed pole in 2012, turning a 225.043 for the Ganassi/Honda program. He'd get bumped out of the top 24 and needed two more attempts to get back in. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden was the only Honda runner to make the Fast 9 in 2012 but didn't make the top 24 cut this year. Honda's last real hope making the Fast 9 fell to Ganassi's Dario Franchitti, and the 2012 Indy 500 winner would settle for 17th with a 226.067.
When qualifying for the top 24 was done at 6 p.m., Honda's top car was the No. 98 of Tagliani in 11th. From there, the marque's cars held P14, P16-21 and P23.
"Obviously, we came here shooting for the pole, but came up short,” said Honda Performance Development's Roger Griffiths. “We're all racers at Honda, and today's results are very disappointing. But we've got a pretty good record of winning here, and hopefully we'll be drinking milk again next weekend. We have to knuckle down and keep fighting. That's what we did in 2012, and that's what we plan to do again this year.”
“I would agree that it was a bit of surprise being shut out of the top nine," Griffiths continued, "and we do have a step up planned for our race engines, but I don't think it will be anything like as dramatic as last year, as both Honda and Chevrolet are further up the ‘knowledge learning curve' this year.”
“I was quite surprised by how much we caught Chevy off guard in 2012. I very much doubt we will be able to do that again. I'm sure that they all sat down and looked long and hard at what happened last year. They're going to be anticipating we're going to be working as hard as we did last time down and I'm sure they are. So I don't think we're going to have that luxury again.”
It's worth pausing the narrative here to mention that, just like last year's Pole Day, Chevy clearly has an advantage at the higher qualifying boost settings and Chevy isn't bashful about it. At the lower boost setting we'll see on Carb Day and during the race, the Hondas are far more competitive. Exactly how competitive is hard to tell until on-track activity resumes on Friday.
So does that mean Honda will pull another sneak attack on Chevy and storm away with the May 26 race? As Griffiths mentioned, it's doubtful. Closer to Chevy? Yes. Leaving them in the dust? No.
Last year's monster engine upgrade which surprised Chevy was the byproduct of an exceptional number of circumstances preventing Honda from implementing a number of improvements prior to the 500. Engine reliability issues kept Honda from keeping pace with Chevy in the early races – and definitely during Indy qualifying – in 2012, but once it got its durability under control, the Honda Performance Development team was able to combine a long list of updates into its Indy race motors.
So Pole Day 2013 was yet another bad experience for Honda, but there's every reason to believe it will have at least a few cars running in the lead pack in the 500. Whether they can stay there for all 200 laps is the biggest question of all.
GREAT DAY FOR BADASS
Dale Coyne Racing driver Justin Wilson more than lived up to his nickname of “Badass” on Saturday, willing his low-buck DCR entry to 14th on the grid – two spots ahead of the best Ganassi driver – and also second best among the nine Honda-powered drivers to qualify inside the top 24.
I spoke with Wilson Saturday evening and jokingly asked, “So, when you woke up this morning, you expected to put all four Ganassi cars behind you, right?” and expected him to say no.
“I definitely had that thought,” he said, politely correcting me. “I wasn't sure it was realistic… we wanted to be right up there. We wanted to show that Texas, Indy, Milwaukee and our other oval races last year weren't a fluke.”
The road racing ace has blossomed as an oval driver, winning Texas last year, and credited Coyne's small, tight-knit team for making a lot of wealthy teams look rather ordinary on Pole Day.
“We've just got some really good people,” he explained. “Dale does things differently, but at the end of the day he gives us the opportunity to go out there and do it. We don't have support engineers looking after all kinds of stuff for us. Bill Pappas (Wilson's engineer) and John Dick (teammate Ana Beatriz's engineer) do everything. Whether it's ordering stickers to painting the cars, they do it all – and then engineer the cars!
“The two of them focus on what's important and that's what we work on – control what we can. And the job that the crew guys did and put in – it's the same car I raced last year and this year and only had a body fit in February of last year, so they've spent so much extra time in the evenings to make it perfect. There's so much dedication from them that needs to be mentioned. They've left no stone unturned.”
I asked Wilson if the driver of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America car deserved any credit for the qualifying result.
“He's a bit of a lanky dips**t but…I knew what I needed to do,” the 6-foot-3 Wilson laughed. “I still feel like I left some on the table, but today it was enough to be the second Honda and I'm pretty pleased with it.”
WHERE IN THE WORLD WAS GANASSI?
“No one here is satisfied right now,” Ganassi Racing team manager Mike Hull told RACER as he watched the Fast 9 qualifying session alone on Scott Dixon's timing stand. I had envisioned both of the red machines to at least transfer into the final time trials session.
“We did, too,” said a rather candid Hull. “Qualifying isn't the most important thing here; it helps you to have a more preferable pit space selection, which plays a factor in the race, but we felt we did enough work on our qualifying setups to be fast enough to go through – and expected the same from Honda. If you look at how the day played out, obviously we didn't.”
They'll have to come from the bottom half of the field to do it, but Hull is confident the Ganassi cars will have a better showing in the race.
“We've done a lot of solid running on our race package and believe we'll have a more representative performance when it really counts,” he added.
Scott Dixon starts 16th ahead of teammates Dario Franchitti in 17th, Charlie Kimball in 19th and Ryan Briscoe in 23rd.
But remember, Franchitti won the 2012 Indy 500 from 16th…even after he got spun to the back of the field in a pit lane incident.