Simply put, Chevrolet has dominated Honda during the aero kit era of the Verizon IndyCar Series. In the 32 races contested since aero kits were first introduced, Honda teams have only amassed eight victories, and won only twice during the 2016 season.
However, one of those victories came at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and Honda appeared to have the superior super speedway package at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Texas. With that in mind, it may not be a complete surprise that Chip Ganassi Racing rejoined Honda after racing under the Chevrolet banner since 2014.
And while Chevrolet may have held an edge in aerodynamics, Chip Ganassi driver Max Chilton indicated that Honda may have an edge with its powerplant.
“I think with the Honda, I’ve only driven it once, but the lower end, bottom-end torque is definitely a lot stronger than what I was used to last year,” he said of Honda’s IndyCar engine. “And I think that on a street course, that’s important. So, that should help us.”
Still, one cannot ignore the fact that, outside of the three big ovals, Chevrolet has had Honda covered. What’s more, strict testing rules have placed limitations on the amount of development teams can do at the track.
Outside of four series-wide open tests, teams are allowed one additional test between April 11th and September 17th. Running a rookie or an Indy Lights driver will allow for extra test days, but the testing limitations have the potential to hamstring development efforts as the Ganassi organization adjusts to the Honda platform.
As past champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon detailed, this goes beyond the nuts and bolts of the engine and aero kit.
“Chevrolet was more of a turn-key operation and they offered quite a bit of support,” Dixon explained. “Honda’s a little more raw, but can be tailored quite a lot. So, I think that’s definitely a big change from what we’ve had for the last three years.”
However, Dixon also described that changing manufacturers can be a motivating factor (Dario Franchitti thought so), particularly after a down 2016 season. Most organizations would look at Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2016 season and call it a success. Dixon won twice (at Phoenix and Watkins Glen) and the organization placed three drivers in the top ten in the championship (Dixon was sixth, Tony Kanaan seventh, and Charlie Kimball ninth). However, Dixon’s sixth was his worst championship finish since 2006, when he finished fourth, and he was the only Chip Ganassi IndyCar driver to win during the season.
With that in mind, Dixon described the change in manufacturers as a chance to hit the reset button. “With such a bad season for us (in 2016), it was definitely a good year for us to sit down, look back, and understand a lot of areas where we were not as efficient, making a lot more mistakes than we should as a team. So, I think the two of those factor into a lot more focus and hopefully getting back to the basics and doing them better.”
Despite Honda’s struggles, some of its teams ran well and challenged for race wins and podiums on a consistent basis, chiefly in the hands of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Given that they both begin their third years with Honda’s aero package and engine, Dixon understands he and the Ganassi team have some catching up to do, made all the more difficult by the aforementioned testing restrictions.
“It’s going to be a steep learning curve (for Chip Ganassi Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing, who also switched manufacturers), and now with how the rules are right now with the limited track testing, it makes it even more difficult,” said the four-time champion. “I think we get four off-season days, which is not much when you get six months of the year off.”
However, while there are technical differences between the packages, Dixon asserted that the baseline setups may not be all that different. “You always think you know a bit about the competition, but when reality strikes, there’s always areas where maybe you didn’t understand as well. But, there’s things we know through the years through using other manufacturers that may help the current program we’re on now. So you can’t throw anything out.”
Undoubtedly, because of the variables in play, the changeover to Honda presents a unique set of challenges to Dixon and the entire Chip Ganassi Racing team. However, they are not running from them, and Dixon is confident that engineering staff will get their heads around it. “Our engineering group and the advanced engineering group: it’s definitely a solid package. I think for them it’s probably quite exciting that they have something new and different to work on.”
And, while Dixon expects things to be difficult, he is not afraid of the challenge. “It’s going to be challenging, there’s no question about it. But, challenges are fun…hopefully!”