Team Honda at PIR: Down But Not Out

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The Verizon IndyCar Series returned to Phoenix yesterday, setting new records over the weekend for qualifying runs and average race speed. While passing was not a habit of every lap, the passing that we did see was daring, controlled (mostly), and gasp-worthy. Even though Honda found their cars at the back of the field through practices, qualifying, and a majority of the race, they exhibited some of the most impressive highlights from the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi were not only the best Hondas to watch, but they provided some of the best action throughout the field at the Saturday night event.

16C_7256-1-2Rahal, piloting the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, started his Phoenix adventure high above the city on Thursday when he went for a ride with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds. He described it as the coolest thing he’s ever done and discussed that the sensation of vertical G-force was very different than the lateral kind they experience when driving an Indy car, but did note that the ability to breath was an issue for both. Never let it be said that IndyCar drivers are not athletes, the level of training they undertake and the stress they put their body through at a track like Phoenix, where they push through 6 G’s in the corners for nearly 2 hours straight, is nothing to sneer at.

Rahal started back in P19, the same starting position he held at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA last season when he came out victorious. Rahal did not see the checkers first this weekend, but he was the biggest mover in the field. He credits a good number of those gains to his No. 15 United Rentals/Mi-Jack crew. He expressed that his confidence going into race weekends and on track is because of the work they do and the plans they set forth.  “When I was stuck in traffic, I was trying to save fuel, dial back and catch a yellow and we did.” The strategy worked because he finished P5, the best finish for Team Honda in IndyCar’s return to Phoenix.

04CJ6019Another mover and shaker for Team Honda was Andretti Autosport driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay. His 5-car jump in the first lap had everyone’s head spinning and set the stage for a quick-paced race with gutsy maneuvers. He ultimately finished P10 but was smirking at the end of the race while comparing the Phoenix restarts to the Test Track at Walt Disney World. He’s kind of a beast on short ovals. Remember his “hyperspeed” laps at Iowa in 2014 where he went on to capture victory? That innate ability coupled with the bad luck that the No. 28 DHL Honda team experienced with pit stop timing and cautions tonight, is likely the reason he was frustrated with his results.

Running up front but also ending with a less than desired race result was rookie Alexander Rossi, driving the No.98 for the blended Andretti Herta Autosport team. He had gained 8 positions to run P6 with about 54 laps remaining but had to come in for fuel during a closed pit time and that shuffled him to the back of the field at the next restart. He was unable to earn back those lost positions and finished the race where he started in P14. Something not shown on the NBCSN broadcast was Rossi’s scrape along the wall in Turn 4 on Lap 248. That was the reasoning for the series dropping the yellow flag and therefore finishing under the same color.

There was confusion about the caution for those at home because the Rossi incident was not shown on air or even addressed by commentators. The assumption for the yellow was debris on the track, as there had been a piece of carbon fiber that flew off Hunter-Reay‘s car from a brush with the wall on Lap 240 in Turn 4. Part of Rossi’s issue was a slow puncture, and the fact that it occurred in the same turn makes me wonder if the puncture was due to hitting that piece of wing from Hunter-Reay’s car. That begs the question, why didn’t they call a yellow for debris with 10 to go? We would have had a better chance of finishing under green and Rossi might have avoided kissing the wall in the first place if the track had been clean.

We can’t live in the what if’s though. The fact of the matter is, the race ended under yellow and guess what? That didn’t take away from the fact that Honda did put up a hell of a fight, particularly because they were not expected to climb above P11. They will continue to work on the new aerokits and find the combinations that work for them in order to compete at the same level as Chevy and truly challenge Ganassi, Penske, ECR, and KVSH Racing for wins every weekend. I for one, look forward to seeing the battle play out and these teams do what they do best, fight for every millisecond on track and set their sights on Victory Circle.

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The next Verizon IndyCar Series race will take place on the streets of Long Beach, California. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will host IndyCar for the 42nd time over the weekend of April 15 – 17. The race will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 4:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 17th.

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Rahal photo by Chris Owens c/o IndyCar
Rossi/Hunter-Reay photo by Chris Jones c/o IndyCar