When Sebastian Bourdais took the checkered flag on Sunday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he likely turned a few heads. Not only was the win monumental for proving a small team such as Dale Coyne Racing was capable of beating the likes of Penske and Ganassi, but it also showed that Honda is far more capable than it has been throughout the past two seasons.
Since the Verizon IndyCar Series introduced engine manufacturer aero kits back in 2015, Honda have been constantly playing catch up to Chevrolet. Over the past two seasons Chevrolet have dominated in both qualifying and races, winning 24 of the 32 races held between 2015 and 2016.
This discrepancy was especially evident on road and street courses, where Honda was outperformed in all but three races, two of which were in wet weather conditions. This gap in performance, as well as increasing costs, is why IndyCar announced a freeze on aero kits for the 2017 season. This means that manufacturers are unable to make changes to last year’s kit and in theory, this should favour the previously dominant Chevrolets.
It therefore came as quite a shock when the Honda teams dramatically outperformed Chevrolet throughout practice and qualifying in St. Petersburg. Despite Chevrolet taking the pole position, four out of the top six cars in qualifying were Hondas.
Despite this, it hasn’t been too uncommon for some Hondas to do well in qualifying, only to be outperformed by Chevrolet come race day. This was not the case last weekend however, with Honda taking victory and occupying seven out of the top ten finishing positions.
What was even more impressive about the result is the fact that Bourdais led 69 of the total 110 laps of the race, quite a dominant performance. The Frenchman led home the Team Penske Chevrolet of defending series champion Simon Pagenaud by over 10 seconds, though some could argue that Bourdais’ opportunity to pass Pagenaud for the lead came because of a fluke caution on lap 26. It is fair to say without that caution Bourdais would likely have failed to claim victory.
However, it is very likely that another Honda driver would have won the race. Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who passed Will Power for the lead on Lap 4, led 21 laps prior to the controversial yellow flag that came out on Lap 26. Honda’s win could have come from several drivers this weekend; they seemingly had the upper hand on Chevrolet.
The major unknown as the series heads to Long Beach in April for the second round of the championship is whether the strong Honda performance this weekend was a one-off or not. When IndyCar announced plans for a universal body kit to be introduced in 2018, many believed Honda would finally have a chance to return to contention.
However, all signs seem to indicate Honda can get back up to speed much sooner than expected. Will the Japanese giant remain competitive all season long?