Honda may finally have found a way to catch Chevrolet in the IndyCar Series.
Racing on ovals.
After watching rival Chevrolet dominate the first five races this season—all on road and street courses—the switch to Indianapolis' historic 2.5-mile oval is giving Honda a chance to restart with new aero kits that could spur a turnaround.
"I hope it will make a difference," said Graham Rahal, who has finished second in each of the last two races with a Honda-powered car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. "We're only a couple days into this, so it's hard to say, but it looks like it will be (more competitive)."
Nobody knows what to expect from these distinctly different-looking cars.
Honda has opted to go with two center pillars that loop around the wing and with a narrow carbon fiber strip on each side that connect each side of the outer wing to the rear wheel guard. Chevrolet is using a more traditional-looking but smaller, more efficient rear wing to make the cars faster.
So far, Chevrolet has been almost flawless. It has claimed all five poles, won four of the first five races, swept the top 10 starting spots for Saturday's Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then had eight of the top 10 finishers.
It might not be the same in the first oval race of the season, the Indianapolis 500.
In Monday's rain-shortened practice, Marco Andretti, who drives for his Andretti Autosport, had the fourth fastest lap of the day and was the top Honda finisher at 225.184 mph. That's a big jump for a team that had four cars qualify start Saturday—with none qualifying higher than 18th and none finishing higher than 11th.
On Tuesday, Andretti's cars fared slightly better in colder, windier conditions. Justin Wilson, Andretti and Carlos Munoz all finished in the top 10 even though the Chevy drivers took seven of the top eight spots on the speed chart. Brazil's Helio Castroneves, a three-time 500 champion, led the field at 227.514. His teammate with Team Penske, France's Simon Pagenaud, was second at 227.382. New Zealand's Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy champ, as third at 226.769 for Target Chip Ganassi.
England's Justin Wilson, an Andretti driver, was fourth, at 226.688 but finished the day getting a ride back to the garage after his car started smoking at the end of practice. He said he felt a vibration, heard a clunk and then saw smoke.
Of course, there's no telling whether the fastest drivers caught a draft or who was working on the faster qualifying setups versus race setups.
But most expect the Honda cars to perform better at Indy.
"I know Honda has had a lot of concentration, a lot of focus, at least publicly, on the Indianapolis 500," said Charlie Kimball, who drives for Chip Ganassi's Chevy team. "I do have a lot of confidence in the Chevy as far as roads and streets, and we really need to work to understand what we need to be doing to get the most out of it (the new aero kits) on ovals."
Chevy isn't exactly dialing back its plans.
"When we took on this challenge, we prioritized the speedway package because we're very interested in winning the Indy 500," said Chris Berube, the chief engineer for Chevy's IndyCar department.
A more competitive manufacturer's race would add another element to IndyCar's biggest race.
Honda had been the sole engine supplier for IndyCar from 2006 through 2011 and began the month with 11 wins in the last 12 IndyCar races at the Brickyard, including a sweep of the Indy GP and the 500 in 2014.
Now, on the biggest stage of the season, Honda is hoping it can catch Chevrolet with another trip to Victory Lane.
"We've got to focus on our job, to do the absolute best we can," Rahal said. "Without a doubt we're making progress, and I think people can see that."
In addition to Wilson's mechanical problem, three other drivers had trouble.
But the day's biggest mishap belonged to Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro, who drives the No. 29 car for Andretti. She escaped safely after a fuel leak sparked a fire in her car. As track workers extinguished the blaze, a thick cloud of black smoke billowed across the track. De Silvestro was not injured and returned directly to pit lane without going to the infield medical center.
It's the third time in five years that de Silvestro's car caught fire.