Drivers face the unexpected as Indy practice opens
Honda could be getting a bigger boost than expected at this year's Indianapolis 500.
Less than 24 hours after IndyCar officials announced each car would have additional horsepower for next week's qualifying, the series' longtime engine-manufacturer learned Friday that it also could keep a new compressor cover on its single turbocharged engine -- a move that should help Honda drivers find more speed in Indy's long, flat straightaways.
On Friday, a retired Indiana Supreme Court judge upheld a ruling series officials made last month, which allowed Honda to use the cover at Sao Paulo. Chevrolet appealed even though it's won all four races this season, all by Roger Penske's team.
Those relying on Honda engines say they hope the changes will put some parity back in the series.
''Honda has not really filled us in on what it does, but hopefully it helps us equalize our speed at some point in time down the straightaway,'' said Mike Hull, managing director for Target Chip Ganassi. ''I just think it's important for IndyCar racing to go IndyCar racing.''
Coming into the May 27 race, the two biggest questions were how the new cars would handle at the season's first oval race and how fast would they go.
Nobody seems to know.
When asked Friday what fans should expect for a pole-winning speed, KV Racing Technology owner Jimmy Vasser projected it to be in the 222 mph to 223 mph range. Justin Wilson, a two-time IndyCar winner who drives for Dale Coyne Racing, projected speeds topping 225 mph thanks mostly to the new rule in place for next Friday's practice and both qualifying days.
''I don't know what it's going to take to win the pole,'' said former IndyCar driver Michael Andretti, now the owner of Andretti Autosport. ''The only thing I see is that there may be bigger tows because I think this car pokes a bigger hole in the air.''
Saturday's fastest speeds are expected to be in the 220 mph range, and the series' change means cars will get a horsepower boost of 40 to 50 that could translate into speeds 4 mph to 5 mph faster.
The Honda ruling could have even bigger implications.
Fifteen drivers are trying to make the 33-car field with Honda-powered engines, and points leader Will Power, who has won the last three races, believes the cover gives Honda an edge.
''There's no question it made them more competitive at Brazil, where they went from being pretty close to us to having a slight advantage,'' Power said. ''It's a much bigger advantage on an oval than a road course because you run wide-open for longer, so the horsepower really makes a difference.''
Honda had been the sole engine provider for the IndyCar Series since 2006 but has yet to win a race this season with its single turbocharged engine. Chevy and Lotus, the other two manufacturers all season, use twin turbochargers.
Series officials ruled that Honda needed the part to be more competitive.
''We are pleased that Justice (Ted) Boehm's ruling has again confirmed IndyCar's initial step to address parity of the series-mandated single and twin turbochargers. This has been IndyCar's intention ever since the matter first came under discussion in late 2010,'' said Steve Eriksen, vice president of Honda Performance Development.
General Motors, not surprisingly, disagreed.
''GM's position on this has not changed,'' said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports. ''Yes, we are disappointed with the decision. All we've asked from the beginning is that the existing rules and engine regulations be applied fairly.''
Other issues are causing angst, too.
Jay Penske's team still needs engines for the cars driven by Sebastien Bourdais and rookie Katherine Legge. Neither turned laps Thursday or Friday, and it doesn't appear they will be running Saturday or Sunday, either. Penske dropped the Lotus engines and has filed a $4.6 million lawsuit against the company, accusing it of damaging his team's reputation and hurting its ability to be competitive.
Lotus has been way behind both of the other engine manufacturers all season.
Many around the speedway still expect Penske to get help from his father, Roger, and wind up with two Chevy engines. If the two Dragon Racing cars can't cut a deal, Indy's driver-car combination list would shrink to 31 and jeopardize having a traditional 33-car starting grid.
Of course, there are plenty of other questions about the cars, too. When two-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti tested the cars at Indy in November, he didn't like the results. Following this week's latest test, at Texas, drivers had better reviews.
''The first time they tested, I heard so many horror stories about how bad it was, how loose it was turning in,'' Wilson said. ''But when I tested at Texas, my car was quite nice, so I was quite relieved. In a perfect scenario, it would have been great to have one (oval) race under our belt before coming here.''
Instead, the drivers and teams are back in Indy looking for more answers.
''We have to work on getting the fuel mileage right and that's up to us. At Brazil, the Chevys were getting two more laps than we were,'' said Franchitti, who has won four IndyCar titles including the last three. ''There's a lot of questions, that's why we have questions and it's all about who can get it right. But they're exciting questions, and that's why we're here.''
Notes: Rookie Jean Alesi of France was given additional time to pass the rookie orientation program Friday. He made it through two of the three phases, posting a fast lap of 208.975. The French native will try to complete his rookie test Saturday. ... Indy Lights driver Chase Austin crashed in practice but was checked, treated and released from the infield hospital.