By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
AVONDALE, AZ. April 2, 2016 – Heading into tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, Honda teams are left scratching their heads as Chevrolet-powered cars swept the first ten grid positions led by Penske Racing’s Helio Castroneves.
After completing a two-day test in February, all the Verizon IndyCar Series teams reported that track conditions were remarkably different upon returning to the 1.022 mile oval. The track had hosted the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in the interim and, despite a power-washing of the surface, quite a bit of the NASCAR rubber remained on the track.
Problems for the Honda camp reared their ugly head very early in the first practice session when the A.J. Foyt car of Takuma Sato suddenly snapped around exiting turn one. Sato’s machine slammed tail-first into the SAFER barrier.
Sato’s team had set the car up in qualifying trim, removing some of the downforce from the rear of the car.
After being checked in the infield care center, Sato said, “It was a quite a big impact and I have a little bit of a headache, but I’m good. It was a quick spin, I lost it simply with a little bit of oversteer. We were doing a qualifying trim, so unfortunately we lost the back end and it caused pretty good damage, but hopefully we can come back.”
Shortly after the track was cleared and open for practice, we saw another Honda-powered car, the Schmidt-Peterson entry of James Hinchcliffe, collect the wall in a nearly identical accident. Hinchcliffe was running a very similar qualifying setup to Sato’s.
A flurry of activity could be seen in the pits as Honda Teams were adjusting rear downforce, and changing rear wings, as the Chevrolet cars posted faster and faster times.
The practice session was led by the Carpenter Racing cars of Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden with Ryan Hunter-Reay being the quickest Honda with the 11th fastest time.
When the teams returned to the track for qualifying, a third Honda car snapped around and hit the wall coming out of turn one. This time it was Carlos Munoz in the Andretti Autosport entry.
“I just lost the car” said the Colombian driver, “Went through everything really quick. It’s a shame. I feel a little bit injured on my knees, but I’m OK. I can’t wait to be back on track tomorrow. I’ll just rest a little bit today and think about tomorrow.”
As qualifying continued, several drivers reported that the track conditions had again changed. Many drivers, both Honda and Chevrolet had to lift the throttle out of turn one to maintain control of the car.
One driver who remained committed and kept his foot in it all the way around was Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves.
Despite having a bit of a moment on his second lap, Castroneves obliterated the track record with a qualifying run of 192.324.
“The temperatures were really difficult because of the temperature and you’ve got to push to the limit, and we definitely pushed to the limit,” said the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “My first lap was pretty good, and the second lap was a little bit of a moments in Turn 3 and 4, which I was not expecting that. That’s probably why it was huge.”
Castroneves will share the front row with Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan, while Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball will occupy row two. Ed Carpenter and Scott Dixon rounded out the top six.
With a time more than 3 mph off of the pole speed, Marco Andretti will start in eleventh, leading the Honda effort.
“The disappointing part is that was a good run, and we’re 11th.” said Andretti, echoing the sentiments of the Honda teams. “Obviously, when we have the car wrung out we want to be running for pole and not 11th. (I’m) so disappointed. We have a lot of work to do tonight but we have a direction I think we can work on. If we get the car good in race trim, the competition will be more human tomorrow night.”
The Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix will be broadcast tonight on NBC-SN with coverage beginning at 8:30 PM EST.
1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 192.324
2. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 191.511
3. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 191.366
4. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 191.220
5. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 190.780
6. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 190.376
7. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 190.094
8. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 189.972
9. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 189.749
10. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 189.654
11. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 189.071
12. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 188.966
13. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 187.998
14. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 186.939
15. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 186.544
16. (19) Luca Filippi, Honda, 185.814
17. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 185.046
18. (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 184.261
19. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 179.770
20. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, no speed
21. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, no speed
22. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, no speed
Image: Chris Jones/INDYCAR