IndyCar: Honda get a helping hand but at what cost?

MotorSportNotes looks at IndyCar’s decision to give Honda extra development concessions for 2016 and examines whether the results in 2015 really merit the decision.

IndyCar’s decision to give Honda a performance-levelling break during pre-season for 2016 feels like we are back in first half of 2015. By the end of May Honda were on the ropes and knees were buckling: steamrollered by Chevy’s leading teams and only winning when mother nature intervened. Aside from the surprising form of Graham Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda’s gamble to build an aero kit for the Indy 500 first and foremost had spectacularly backfired. But we are of course at the end of the 2015 season that, borrowing a well-used British soccer cliché, was a ‘game of two halves’.

Stuck on May 24 2015?

Honda were comprehensively beaten at Indianapolis by Chevrolet teams. Ever since it has been a very different story which saw Graham Rahal become a realistic championship contender right until the final race of the season. In the races after Indy, Honda scored some seriously good results:

– a 1-2 for Munoz and Andretti in race 1 at Detroit

– a 2-3 for Rahal and Sato in race 2 at Detroit

– Fontana win for Hunter-Reay

– podium finish for Rahal at Milwaukee

– Iowa win for Hunter-Reay

– Mid-Ohio win for Rahal

– Pocono win for Hunter-Reay

– Sonoma 2nd for Hunter-Reay (and that was behind Scott Dixon in majestic form which really counts as a win)

Which begs the question: why do they need performance enhancement now?

Two seasons in one

We have no particular manufacturer preference but it does seem distinctly unfair to Chevrolet. Were this to be happening in the aftermath of Indianapolis earlier in the year, it would be understandable: we all suspected the rest of the season was just going to be a predictable countdown to a Chevrolet driver winning the title (and to see how long Rahal Jnrs luck could hold out). The reality was quite different.

It feels like the polarisation of Honda’s performances amongst their teams in 2015 is being used as the justification for the decision. RLL got to grips with the Honda package way before anyone else and then Hunter-Reay and Andretti got their act together in the second half of the season. Outside of RLL and Andretti, the rest of Honda’s teams were still propping up the grid in the second part of the season, as they had done in the first. That to us is not justification enough to give all Honda teams a leg-up.

5 wins + 5 podiums = under achieving

By the end of this season there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Honda package and nor could it be considered noticeably slower. Furthermore this was the case across three different types of oval, a street circuit and multiple road courses. The fact teams like AJ Foyt Racing, Schmidt Peterson and Dale Coyne  could not replicate what RLL and Andretti managed is not good enough reason to artificially level the playing field. In the days of the spec Dallara-Honda combination for all IndyCar teams, the series was not in the habit of boosting the performances of the many teams that could not break the stranglehold of Ganassi, Penske and Andretti.

If 2015 had finished in the same manner as it started – Chevrolet beating Honda at every round – this course of action would have been completely warranted. Instead IndyCar has created a precedent that could very well come back to bite it, and hard.

What happens next?

IndyCar cannot control how effectively Honda use these development concessions. There is no mechanism to shut the taps off once they are considered to have reached parity with Chevy which creates the possibility (or probability) of Honda starting 2016 on top. And so could begin an endless pendulum effect of back and forth between the series’ two technical and manufacturing partners. Doing that ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500 – the undisputed ‘big one’ for Honda and Chevy – is a really risky move for the series. Manufacturers have left IndyCar (and other major motor racing categories) over far more trivial issues in the past and the series should always have one eye on its long term sustainability and growth.

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