IndyCar: Hunter-Reay sees Honda improvement – Indianapolis Star
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It’s not fixed, but it’s better. And that’s encouraging enough for Ryan Hunter-Reay after the Verizon IndyCar Series season-opener Sunday.
And although it’s natural and understandable for Chevrolet to reject competitor Honda’s reach for relief this season — even to refute the notion that it was necessary — balance and competitiveness through a field of 20-something cars is crucial for a series still trying to capture its portion of mainstream interest despite an entertaining product.
Chevrolets still claimed the first two spots in the running order — with repeat winner Juan Pablo Montoya and Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud — in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but with Andretti Autosport’s Hunter-Reay third, Honda Performance Development engines comprised half of the top six and four of the top 10.
Granted, that was only one more Honda in the top 10 than last year at St. Petersburg, when it became apparent that its intricate and nebulous new aero kits were inferior or much more difficult to hone than that of Chevrolet. Continued Team Penske dominance of St. Petersburg allowed Chevrolet to claim the top six spots in the 2015 running order.
Hunter-Reay on Sunday led only three of 110 laps — albeit, during a pit sequence — but still, he said, this felt better.
“Just to be on the podium with the Penske boys today is a big accomplishment because they’ve been the class of the field here for many years,’’ he said. “We really learned something about the race setup, which is very, very, very good for us. We came out of here last year having no idea where to go. Today was a very good lesson for us. We learned a lot about the new package today. Hopefully that sets us on a course for better results in the future.’’
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As will, Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal said, receiving 2016 engines with requisite upgrades.
“Once we get an updated spec, which is a few races away I’m sure, that should help us close the gap even further,’’ Rahal said “(I) look forward to that.’’
Improvement at St. Petersburg brings no assurance elsewhere. The diversity of the venues on the schedule prevents that even though HPD used an IndyCar rule this offseason to garner extra improvement opportunities for the aero kit used on street/road courses and short ovals. The 1-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway presents the next challenge on April 2.
The evolutionary nature of racing suggests that Honda could spurt far ahead somewhere, at short ovals like Phoenix or Iowa (July 10), or perhaps natural road courses like Barber Motorsports Park (April 24). Chevrolet’s ability to work from the baseline of a successful product in engines and aerodynamics might blunt that possibility, but at least Honda drivers feel they are in the game.
A year after the debut of the body kits the theory of using them to differentiate Honda and Chevrolet visually has faded for the sake of performance, a notion owners like Roger Penske found specious, anyway. Open wheel Hondas and Chevrolets with Dallara chassis can never be contorted into representative versions of the passenger cars the companies market, anyway, not like the ostensibly similar NASCAR versions.
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So, IndyCar has what it has, and that presents a whiff of mystery. Fans don’t want to know who is going to win when they buy a ticket or tune in to a race. Nine different drivers won races last season. This season, maybe more.
“I think it is better. I don’t think we are where we want to be yet. We were half a second off the Penskes in qualifying,’’ Hunter-Reay said. “That’s not acceptable. But last year I think we qualified 10th or 12th or something. I’m not even sure (Hunter-Reay qualified eighth). It was a side note. This year we made the Fast Six. It’s definitely better.’’
And, he said, more predictable.
Drivers and engineers dislike variables they cannot control, and the tricky 2015 version of the kit, adorned with winglets and pods, provided far too many to create a foundation for improvement early in the season. Honda recovered to win four of the final six races — on two speedways, a short oval and a road course — however, leading some officials and drivers from Chevrolet to decry the need for relief. The diversity of the venues in that Honda splurge underscored the point, but IndyCar postseason testing produced data to validate disparities between the brands.
“This car, the new package, what it does best is it doesn’t surprise you,’’ Hunter-Reay said. “Last year’s package, it was constantly trying to throw you under the wall. You couldn’t really get on top of it. You always had to stay at 90 percent. This one you can drive at 100 percent, at least you know what it’s going to do. Somewhat predictable.’’
And that should help this IndyCar season be less predictable.
Next race: at Phoenix, 8:30 p.m. April 2, NBCSN