While much will be made about the late-race run-in between Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi and Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s rookie Robert Wickens, and rightfully so. But lost in the shuffle is the fact that not only were two Honda entries battling it out for the win at the end, but another car with a capital “H” was waiting in the wings to pick up the victory at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
When the dust had settled, Honda drivers had finished in each of the top six positions and eight of the first nine. This is after Wickens, who led a race-high 69 laps, was relegated to an 18th-place finish after spending much of the day in the top three. The first Chevrolet representative in the race was reigning series champion and Team Penske driver Josef Newgaren, who finished 7th in an up-and-down day for the No. 1.
Interestingly enough, few if any drivers made mention of an advantage (and it is just the first race of the season), but it was clear that Honda entries could easily cut through the field when being shuffled back while Chevrolet teams struggled mid-pack for most of the race and seemed to only drop from those positions instead of rise.
Each of the podium finishers from Honda started the race outside of the top-10, while Graham Rahal started dead-last in 24th before finishing runner-up to back-to-back winner Sebastien Bourdais. The highest qualifying Chevy was Will Power, who started the day on the outside of the front row. He would finish 2nd after a lap one spin sent him to the back of the field, though an early yellow saved him just as it did Ryan Hunter-Reay (who diced his way to a 5th place effort by the day’s end).
To add to the unpredictability of the day, it is important to note that three Chevrolet drivers started in the first two rows with Power being joined by rookies Jordan King and Matheus Leist. The two youngsters making their first career starts in IndyCar competition ran into troubles with Leist retiring from the race on lap 16 (in 24th place) and King finishing the day three laps down in 21st.
While there was a strong effort made by Chevrolet in qualifying, weather conditions certainly played a part in the final starting order which saw those three rookies start in the top four spots while veterans such as Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Bourdais started outside the top-10.
It will be interesting to see how the balance shakes out over the course of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, with teams being tested on a variety of varying course types. The consensus last year was that Chevrolet generally had the better aero kit, but Honda’s engine program was strong enough to shine through its less-than-stellar aero kit at each track other than short ovals.
As the playing field has been balanced with this universal aero kit, now more than ever it is important for engine manufacturers to push for every ounce of speed they can extract from their 2.2L twin-turbo V6 engines.
It is a long way to the second race of the season on April 7 in Phoenix, but right now Honda has the early season edge.