The weekend at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear is usually a celebration of all-things “Bow tie.”
But it was Honda and Acura that utterly dominated the weekend on General Motors’ home soil, with GM’s corporate headquarters in the background.
In total, Honda won both Verizon IndyCar Series races and the new Acura NSX GT3 won its first race in its fifth start in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. For good measure, the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Honda Civic Coupe also got on the podium in Thompson, Conn. this weekend in Red Bull Global Rallycross competition.
Honda’s aero kit struggles since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits in the 2015 IndyCar season have been well-documented, but it wasn’t until you did some digging into the stats to see how rare what the California-based Honda Performance Development effort accomplished was this weekend, and in the last week.
RAHAL BREAKS HONDA’S ROAD AND STREET POLE DROUGHT
When Graham Rahal took the pole for Saturday’s first race of the weekend, it immediately triggered the stats that this ended droughts for both Rahal, the driver, and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team dating to 2009 and 2007 that they’d won poles.
What it also revealed was that Honda hadn’t won a pole on a road or street course in that time of aero kits. All of Honda’s poles since 2015 had come on ovals, courtesy of James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin last year in Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, and this year via Scott Dixon at Indianapolis. The last time Honda won a pole on a road or street course came with the base Dallara DW12 chassis at Houston race one in 2014, achieved by Simon Pagenaud, in a bizarre rain-affected race won by Carlos Huertas.
So, that pole was the first of three big moments for Honda and sister brand Acura on Saturday in Detroit.
ACURA, SHANK, LALLY AND LEGGE WIN GTD
The second came a few hours later when after a storming lap to get up to second in qualifying, Katherine Legge then did the best she could in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race in her No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 despite being balked by a slower Prototype Challenge car.
Legge kept the car within shouting distance of the lead though and on the pit stop, the Shank team – which had been flat out for a month anyway with its Indianapolis 500 entry in partnership with Andretti Autosport – nailed its pit stop taking only two left side Continental tires and moving to the lead.
From there, co-driver Andy Lally controlled the pace from there, delivering the first win for the NSX GT3 in only its fifth race in the series. A gamble to not take any tires backfired slightly for Jeff Segal and Ozz Negri in the sister, and rebuilt, No. 86 car; after vaulting from 12th up to sixth, which later became third, Segal got tapped by another car at Turn 7 in the final five minutes and dropped to fifth.
“I’m just so grateful that our team gets the win for the Acura brand today. You could almost feel it around this place, everyone was really, really calm before the race, it was almost too quiet!” Shank said.
“We are really making advancements on the car and I am just so thrilled for the team. Everyone from the drivers, to the crew guys, to the engineers, everyone did what they needed to today.”
For Legge, the victory was a culmination of a lot of hard work and persistence to enter into the Honda and Acura family over the last five years.
“Today was the longest hour of my life watching Andy drive. I was telepathically talking to him. It was harder to watch than actually drive!” she said, after her first win in the U.S. since a Formula Atlantic race in 2005 at San Jose.
“Thank you to everyone who has given us a chance to put together this car and this ride. In 2013, I drove with HPD in the Indy 500 and it started the relationship, and I wanted to be in their program. And I kept nagging to do the ‘500 with Mike, and I kept nagging him. And when they wanted to do Le Mans, I pushed him to drive the LMP there. And then we became a good team, and I became good friends with Andy. So it’s been really special working everything out.”
Lally, who’s achieved a ton in sports car racing on his own, paid all credit to Legge, Shank and HPD for this win.
“Everyone from HPD have been full tilt on this program. Shank and the crew made a fantastic pit stop,” he said. “We’ve had quite an up and down year. We’ve had some things go wrong at bad times, but today, everything went right. I’m so happy for these guys. Kat did an amazing job. She helped me get faster this weekend. I was junk, and I found some things she was doing and applied it to what I was doing. I did not think we were going to be here at the beginning of the weekend!”
RAHAL DOMINATION LEADS HONDA PODIUM SWEEP
The wins for Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe at St. Petersburg and Long Beach this year kicked off Honda’s success on the street courses and what followed Saturday afternoon served as a continuation of that form.
Rahal’s first win saw him lead 55 of 70 laps in a period of utter domination, easily his most authoritative win yet of five he’d achieved in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
With Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe on the podium behind him, Dixon rallying through pain while Hinchcliffe atoned from a first lap spin with two laps of extra fuel in what was still a two-stop strategy, Honda had its first podium sweep on a road or street course also since that Houston 2014 weekend. In race two, Pagenaud beat teammate Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth in what was both of those drivers’ first career IndyCar podiums.
DOUBLING UP ON SUNDAY
Chevrolet finally fought back a bit with Josef Newgarden and Will Power scoring podiums behind Rahal, but after another Honda pole from Takuma Sato in the morning and Rahal banking his second straight win, it was another authoritative day here.
As the Acuras did on Saturday, it was quick pit work from the RLL Racing crew that netted Rahal the lead. Sato led the opening 22 laps, while Rahal led 41 of the remaining 48 laps after the first pit stop sequence, only losing the lead again through stops. Sato was fourth and perhaps unlucky to end that way.
BIG PICTURE? BIG GAINS FOR HONDA IN 2017
The problem Chevrolet faces this year is in its strength of depth among teams. On the short ovals, Penske and Chevrolet still clearly have the advantage but elsewhere, the Honda teams have stepped up.
It’s somewhat intriguing that Honda has five teams – Ganassi, Andretti, RLL, Coyne and Schmidt Peterson – and all but Ganassi have won a race this year.
Honda has five wins in eight races this year, which comes after a year when Chevrolet won 14 races to Honda’s two in 2016, and 11-5 in 2015. It’s a perfect four-for-four on street courses with only Toronto on July 16 to come.
And having won the Indianapolis 500, Honda now has three IndyCar wins in eight days, with Sato’s win at Indianapolis hugely important for both Honda of Japan and America. A loss there would have been a bitter pill to swallow, and Sato’s win defeating Helio Castroneves’ Chevrolet was big from a big-picture standpoint, especially as Honda endured a month of reliability issues and had three more failures in the race.
Honda also led the manufacturer’s championship, 480 to 471, going into Detroit and that lead should increase leaving it. Chevrolet has won each of the five manufacturer’s championships in the last five seasons, 2012 to 2016, but appears to be under threat in search of the six-pack this year.
President of Honda Performance Development Art St. Cyr and a number of other key Honda officials were on site in Detroit this weekend and hailed the overall weekend performance.
“This series is so competitive, it is extremely rare when a driver and team combine to dominate a weekend as Graham [Rahal] did here in Detroit,” he said.
“Combined with our win at last week’s Indianapolis 500, yesterday’s historic first victory for the Acura NSX GT3 in sports car racing, and our 1-2- 3 IndyCar sweep on Saturday, it’s been a very memorable eight days for everyone at Honda Performance Development. Congratulations to Graham, to Scott [Dixon] for a gritty effort in both races, and to Takuma for coming off a hectic Indy 500 ‘Champion’s Tour’ to perform very well this weekend.”