PRUETT: Inside Honda's breakthrough at Fontana

PRUETT: Inside Honda's breakthrough at Fontana

IndyCar

PRUETT: Inside Honda's breakthrough at Fontana

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Honda’s win at the unforgettable MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway was the Japanese auto manufacturer’s third trip to Victory Lane in 2015, but the first it earned with outright speed.

Its wins in the rain-shortened NOLA monsoon and the rain-influenced opening round at Detroit were attributed to excellent driving and race strategy, but minus the adverse conditions, it’s safe to assume Chevy’s superior pace would have resulted in a clean sweep heading into Fontana.

It makes the surprising competitiveness demonstrated by almost every Honda team at Fontana a notable change in this season’s narrative, and with the race taking place within an hour of the brand’s North American base, the timing oftheir return to form was close to perfect.

The reasons behind Honda’s resurgence are hard to pinpoint in every area, but one key factor–downforce–appears to have brought both manufacturers into the same performance window.

IndyCar set aero specifications for the event that required a higher minimum downforce level than expected, and with that decision, Honda was given a fighting chance.

Race-day downforce figures were up somewhere between 600-700 pounds over 2014, and thanks to that notable increase, Chevy’s season-long ability to trim downforce while maintaining aero efficiency was compromised. For once, Honda’s baseline aero package, which isn’t quite as efficient, became an asset instead of a liability as higher downforce and dirtier air came into play.

Honda teams have struggled all year when they’ve needed to shed the last bits of downforce on road courses like the GP of Indy where being slippery on the long straights offers big lap time improvements, and also at the Indy 500, where they couldn’t match Chevy’s missile-like aero package. When trimming out has been beneficial to their cause, Honda teams have been hindered by a higher minimum aero kit downforce level than Chevy’s aero kit offers. And in that disparity, we’ve previously seen the Bowtie teams separate themselves from most of the Honda runners.

At Fontana, with the series moving the minimum downforce range up to a level that took Chevy out of its advantage zone – and into a range that erased Honda’s modest deficiency, we finally had something close to parity.

“The rules package put it in a place where everything was matched, and the downforce was high enough where the Honda drivers could run flat through the corners and if there was a downforce penalty we had, it was taken away by running in the pack and being towed along down the straights,” said Andretti Autosport’s Rob Edwards, who serves as the Honda-powered team’s director of race operations and engineering. “It didn’t work as well for the Honda guys who fell away from the pack, but if you were running anywhere near the front and had a tow, the Hondas were really good in turbulent air.”

Honda Performance Development vice president Steve Eriksen agreed with Edwards’ assessment.

“I definitely feel like the aero configuration that this race was run in helped bring the two kits into closer alignment,” he said. “As soon as that happened, look what happened. It was a night and day difference. It was the best competitiveness we’ve shown on a speed standpoint all season.”

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ driver Ryan Briscoe looked like he had the best car in traffic throughout the 500-mile race, and says that running in packs definitely helped balance the field.

“Comparing myself to the Chevys, they were way faster than me on the straights, but we were way better in the corners, leading me to think we had more downforce and they had less, and maybe they would have been stronger if they ran more,” he said.

In Briscoe’s case, the Aussie used one downforce-adding item that few Honda teams ran, and it clearly helped in traffic. Most Honda teams used the mid-sidepod diveplane on the right side, but Briscoe’s SPM team also added one on his left sidepod, which generated another 40ish pounds of downforce. Looking at how his No. 5 ARROW car would fly into Turn 1 and then slingshot past the field using any lane that was available, it revealed how the Chevy and Honda aero kits differed in race trim.

Even with slightly less downforce, all of the Andretti Autosport drivers, race winner Graham Rahal, and Takuma Sato were able to make the same slingshot runs out of the corners, and while the leading Chevys often caught up by the end of the straights, it gave the Hondas a fighting chance in the drag race to the start/finish line positioned halfway down the front straight.

Some have suggested the Chevy teams were less aggressive in their engine mapping due to the high ambient temperatures, and therefore raced with less peak power at their disposal. Whether it was one brand dialing back or the other dialing things up, Eriksen says Rahal and race leader Takuma Sato expressed their belief that Honda brought serious horsepower to bear last weekend.

“That was the feedback we got from Graham and Takuma,” he noted. “They thought the power was right where it needed to be and the fuel economy was there as well. And both of them felt like the aero configuration turned that race into the most fun they’ve had on an oval in a long time. We don’t know what the series will do for its aero specifications for Pocono, but we’re obviously in favor of following something similar to what we had last weekend.”

Elevated downforce figures also meant Firestone’s tires were firmly pressed against the scorching track surface, and even with track temperatures north of 140F, degradation wasn’t a major issue for drivers with proper handling cars. Tire longevity, coupled with the added downforce, allowed most drivers to run hard during every stint, and with minimal drop off in performance, a significant cluster of cars circulated the 2-mile oval together between pit stops.

IndyCar has a lot of soul searching to do before its next superspeedway race on August 23 – the penultimate event in the championship. The technical formula at Fontana delivered a spectacle for the fans that was unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years, but some drivers felt it was too dangerous and have been vocal about the need to reduce downforce and create more separation between cars.

With less downforce, Chevy’s speedway advantage returns and tire degradation concerns enter the fray – you could have the snoozefest at Texas all over again. If IndyCar wants to gain more followers, it knows which direction to take, and if it listens to the pleas from its veteran drivers, they know the other path to consider. Which way should IndyCar head? It all depends where you’re sitting.

(Click on the thumbnails for larger images. Story continues on next page.)

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KILL YOURSELF OR DIE TRYING

As an engineer friend said after the MAVTV 500, it felt like some drivers were playing a game of “kill yourself or die trying” during the 250-lap contest. The drivers in question – from recent champions to rookies to the race winner – freely channeled their inner kamikaze pilot at times on Saturday.

Far too many drove as if they were by themselves on an empty mile-wide track, and the volume of abrupt course changes – many while cars occupied the space a driver wanted to claim–was alarming. It spoke to a massive lack of respect, or self-preservation, or possibly a combination of the two.

It quickly became impossible to document the number of near hits as the swirling pack of turbos juked and weaved their way around the big oval each lap. Rather than drive with a light touch on the steering wheel, the most aggressive members of the group forgot how much influence they had on sending their fellow drivers into the catch fencing at frightening speeds.

“The fact that we haven’t had pack racing since 2011 made it look like everyone forgot how to do it, and then you have some drivers who’ve never been in a pack race or upside down on an oval,” said 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. “The racing in the corners was great, but on the straights, people were driving crazy. All the accidents were on the straights where we were bunched up. Obviously there were some dodgy moves in the corners depending on the lane you were in, but it was the straights where we had the problems.”

RHR was livid as he spoke, and wondered if his fellow drivers would deem their collective actions at Fontana worthy of corrective behavior ahead of Pocono.

“It was a major wake-up call how little some guys respected others,” he continued. “There’s something called ‘lane integrity’ with what we do, and you have to trust the guys next to you are going to respect where you have your car on track. The dodging and weaving on the straights has no place in open-wheel racing. And even some of the guys complaining the loudest were the ones driving with the least amount of care. The worst part of the race came from what was in the drivers’ hands. We dodged a bullet.”

The series can look at its options to adjust the aero rules to reduce pack racing for Pocono – and at any other speedway in the future – but they can’t prevent their drivers from playing another round of “kill yourself or die trying.”

Juan Montoya described Fontana as “IndyCar restrictor plate racing” and it might be worthwhile for his contemporaries to call for more care and etiquette throughout the field. IndyCar has its work to do on the technical side, but as Fontana demonstrated, the greatest dangers came from the drivers who treated every lap like the checkered flag was in sight.

AN INFRACTION ON INFRACTIONS

Graham Rahal pitted on lap 188 for tires and fuel, and managed to leave with four new Firestones and the refueling probe attached to the No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda.

As the NBCSN commentary crew (and many fans) noted, Rahal’s infraction was a clear violation. He ran afoul of Rule 7.10.1.2 that lists “Attempting to leave the assigned pit with air hoses, fuel hoses, tools or other equipment attached to or hanging from the Car” as a penalty in the “Pit Safety Violations” section of IndyCar’s rulebook.

What that section doesn’t contain is the wording to make an infraction like ripping the fuel probe from the fuel hose and spilling ethanol onto the sidepod and tack an automatic penalty. 

The series’ uses the lovely get-out-of-jail-free wording in Rule 7.10.1 that says “Any of the following matters and any others which may be determined by INDYCAR may be cause for a Car to be penalized.” By pointing to the word “may,” IndyCar gives itself the freedom to trade an in-race penalty for a silly midweek fine.

IndyCar competition boss Derrick Walker provided a stupendous quote during the broadcast when the NBCSN team asked why Rahal’s (admittedly unintended) actions did not warrant a drive-through penalty.

“The stewards looked at that and they considered it was a post-race penalty,” he said. “It certainly looked pretty scary there, but it will be reviewed and there will be a penalty coming, I can assure you. They just didn’t levy a penalty that affected the competition on track.”

And there you have it. Forget jeopardizing the safety of the dozens of pit crew members in close proximity to Rahal’s car – IndyCar was more worried about the quality of race than any message it might send to those in attendance or watching at home.

It was a clear foul – no one questioned whether it was a penalty, but the series went on national television and admitted fair and balanced officiating, in that instance, took a backseat to the show. It wasn’t a case of the referees missing a call or getting it wrong; they acknowledged the infraction and felt taking action didn’t fit their immediate needs.

They swallowed the whistle once more, yet didn’t need to look the other way. Had Rahal been penalized, there was more than enough time–and upcoming yellows–to suggest he could have gotten his lap back and possibly challenged for the win. By failing to penalize Rahal, the rest of the paddock was left wondering if they should have been the ones pulling into Victory Lane.

For every fan expecting to see a professional motor race officiated with the same vigor as an NFL game, IndyCar tipped its hand and gave fans a reason to believe it currently leans more toward the WWE rulebook than its own. When fuel probes are ripped away and crew members are sent to the hospital, there’s no “may be cause for a Car to be penalized” involved. It demands immediate action.

Right now, the message from Race Control says entertainment trumps integrity, and it’s embarrassing.

MISCELLANEOUS

• Chevy added a smaller version of Honda’s stabilizing fin to its engine cover for the first time at Fontana. The extension provides increased yaw stability – in a significant sideways event – at the back of the car. Among the oddities with the appearance of the fin, Chevy teams were not required to add the chassis centerline wicker to their cars. Those wickers were removed per IndyCar after Helio Castroneves’ flight at Indy, and the reasoning, as it was explained to Honda, was that Chevy’s aero kit did not have an engine cover fin. No fin=no centerline wicker. Honda’s aero has always used the fin, and was therefore mandated to keep the centerline wicker. Fin=wicker. With the aero spec IndyCar approved for Chevy and its revised engine cover, we now have fin=no wicker on one brand and fin=wicker on the other…

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