When Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they’d be switching from Chevrolet to Honda for 2017, it caught a lot of people off-guard, and some wondered whether they’d perform well this season. After all, it was Chevrolet that won all but two races last year.
However, it appears the decision is working out so far, and the manufacture battle could be interesting this season. In the first race of the year, four Hondas started the event in the top-five, followed by four Hondas finishing in the top-five. Sebastian Bourdais led the way with the checkered flag, followed by CGR’s Scott Dixon in third, and the Andretti Autosport teammates of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato rounded out the top-five.
While he always expects to perform well at the track, Dixon admitted post-race that he was “a little surprised actually in competition performance this weekend,” especially considering Team Penske swept the top-four in time trials with their Chevrolets last year at St. Petersburg.
Manufacturer may not be the only reason for the change, though, as Bourdais pointed out the repave may have thrown “Penske off a little bit.”
“It’s a very different game the way you use your tires,” Bourdais added. “Tire degradation used to be a massive deal. Now it’s not anymore. It’s a lot less bumpy. So what’s true probably isn’t anymore.”
Even with that factor considered, No matter the reason, both Bourdais and Dixon feel Honda has made gains, which Dixon gives credit to hard work during the off-season.
“I think they had definitely more of a deficit starting last year because they ran kind of an older engine for three or four races,” Dixon said. “There’s still a lot to learn, I think, on our side, and some areas to definitely improve. But I don’t know. I think just the engine’s really strong. I think the aero kit is basically in a freeze; nothing has changed on that. Configurations are slightly different. Maybe they’ve zoned in a little bit better and a little more consistent drive. I think they’ve made big gains on the engine.”
The other factor is perhaps the fact the manufacturers split through the field and the level of talent on each side. Chevrolet has the four-car team of Team Penske, two cars from Ed Carpenter Racing, along with AJ Foyt Racing’s two cars. Meanwhile, Honda has Dale Coyne Racing’s pair, Chip Ganassi’s foursome, Andretti Autosport’s four drivers, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s entry, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ two entries. With it broken down, it gives eight cars to Chevrolet, compared to 13 now for Honda. Last year, it was 10 for Chevrolet, along with 11 for Honda. As Dale Coyne said, “There’s strength in numbers.”
“I think Honda end of last year were very strong. But when you take four good cars from Chevy and then move them to Honda, that sways a little bit, too,” Dixon said. “Generally, we were a little surprised, I think, with how our cars hit the track here, how much speed they had right out of the gate. We knew the car was good at Sebring, but Sebring doesn’t really account for too much.
“I think we had a pretty decent start with the new brakes, a lot of the development stuff. I think knowing we had to reset and go to a totally different package; we looked at a lot of different things that were in our control, too, mechanically and setups, areas that we can improve.”
Bourdais also feels they can improve more going forward, though knows the manufacturer battle isn’t anywhere near sewn up, as there is some concern going forward in the season, especially surrounding the race at Phoenix International Raceway. He feels perhaps they won’t have the advantage there due to their cars having too much drag compared to the Chevrolets. However, it’s not bothering him too much so far.
“You can’t be the best at every type of tracks,” he said. “You’re going to have some really good days and some not-so-good days. If you take the span of the season, we’ll probably have more good days than bad days.”
For now, though, while some may call it an excellent day given the initial expectations, Dixon wasn’t entirely satisfied himself as he felt he had the car to beat this weekend.
“I didn’t capitalize in some areas,” he said. “Today things just didn’t fall our way.”
Instead, though, it was Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing celebrating in victory lane, already starting off a trade of words.
“I feel sorry for Mr. Foyt picking the wrong side this year,” Dale Coyne said. “We’ll see. It’s early yet.”
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