LEEDS, Ala. – There was tremendous anticipation of a new and improved Honda aero kit entering the Verizon IndyCar Series season and the Hondas were somewhat more competitive in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Then came Phoenix and Long Beach and once again the Verizon IndyCar Series was beginning to resemble another “Chevy Chase.” Chevrolet teams dominated in both races and it left the Honda teams wondering what to do next.
Apparently, the Honda aero kit is improved after all as the top three drivers in Friday’s practice session at Barber Motorsports Park were powered by Honda. A.J. Foyt Racing’s international duo of Japan’s Takuma Sato and England’s Jack Hawksworth paced the field in Friday’s combined practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Sato’s Honda was the fastest at 1:07.2157 for a speed of 123.186 miles per hour around the 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural road course. That was just a tick faster than Hawksworth’s Honda at 1:07.2197 (123.178 mph).
James Hinchcliffe’s Honda was third quick at 1:07.2455 (123.131 mph).
Why the sudden improvement from Honda?
“The proper answer is I don’t know,” Sato said. “It must be our aero efficiency is matching about the same level, so that’s why I think we are both very similar competition-wise. At some of the tracks, like if you go to Phoenix, which is obviously oval, it’s different. But if you see the extremely low drag, low downforce situation with low course package, and we had a little difficulty, but here it seems to be working, pretty happy place, and that’s hopefully our kind of reason.
“We really need to go back in and do an alliance with all the Honda groups why we are good and why we are not good on different parts of the track.”
The true test will come in Saturday’s three-rounds of qualifications culminating with the Firestone “Fast Six” that will determine the pole for Sunday’s race. On Thursday, INDYCAR officials trimmed the final round of qualifications from 10 minutes to six minutes to create a greater sense of urgency for the cars that advance into the final rounds.
Last week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach winner, Sebastien Bourdais, was the fastest Chevrolet driver. His time of 1:07.3399 (122.958 mph) was good enough for fourth place. Team Penske teammate Will Power rounded out the top five at 1:07.3434 (122.952 mph) before another Honda driven by Graham Rahal gave the automaker four cars in the top six.
Rahal’s lap was 1:07.3494 (122.941 mph).
“It was a solid first day for us,” Hinchcliffe said after finishing third. “Once again, the No. 5 Arrow Electronics car was pretty strong off the truck and we were hoping for that. We had a good test here back in February and we were hoping that that was going to transfer over. The car was quite good this morning and we didn’t do many changes over lunch but made it even a tick better. We still had some things that went wrong in the last session that I think held us back from even a little more speed so we’ll see.
“It’s only Friday, it doesn’t matter until it matters. We saw this in Long Beach too. Some of the other guys didn’t really show their speed until Saturday morning so ultimately, we don’t know where we are just yet but it’s certainly a good starting point and hopefully we can just keep this momentum going into qualifying tomorrow.”