Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
New Era begins as Honda Supplies Entire IndyCar Field
After dominating IndyCar racing the past two years, Honda agreed to power every car in the 2006 Indy Racing League lineup.
Which really agrees with two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and past champions Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Dixon.
That talented trio hasn't had Honda on board the last two seasons and they were smiling wider and longer than anyone in winter testing.
"What can I say? It's great to be back with Honda," said Castroneves, who won six races with Honda in CART from 2000-2001.
"Our team had a lot of success with Honda before and I can't wait to get started. We've been a little down on power the past couple years but now everything is equal."
Team Penske, which won back-to-back CART titles with Gil de Ferran and Honda power in 2000 and 2001, has been shut out of IRL championships but that could change quickly with '06's even playing field.
"We have a tremendous amount of optimism coming into this year now," said Hornish, the IRL's all-time leader with 14 race victories and a two-time series champion. "We have a lot more power with the Hondas. We really think we have the opportunity to show what we're made of this year.
"Helio and I have really been pushing each other and I think as we go through the season, if we use our heads, we're going to be up there fighting for a win in a lot of races."
If pre-season testing is any indicator, Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing will be challenging reigning IRL kings Andretti Green Racing at every corner.
Castroneves paced the road course tests at Homestead, with Target Ganassi's Dixon second, while defending series champion Dan Wheldon, now teamed with Dixon in Ganassi livery, showed the way on the oval. Hornish Jr. hovered around the top in all three days.
"I'm always impressed with Honda, even though it's a one-make series now," said Wheldon, who collected the Indianapolis 500 and IRL crowns in '05 driving for Andretti Green before signing with Ganassi. "Honda still does everything right and takes care of everything that needs taking care of.
"Our car is obviously fast on ovals but I'm still learning the Panoz chassis and I need to improve our road course setup, but Scott will be a great teammate."
After capturing the 2003 IRL title, Dixon endured a long victory drought before winning last year at Watkins Glen. He fell in love with his Honda engine instantly.
"I could feel it had more power as I left the pits for the first time and it only got better as I got up to speed," said Dixon. "I really like the idea of everyone having the same motor because now you know you're not going into a race at a disadvantage.
"I've been very impressed during winter testing."
Of course the Andretti Green team has been the IRL yardstick in 2004 and 2005. Tony Kanaan took the championship in '04 and, together with Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, this group has racked up a dozen race wins.
"If you were to ask Honda, I don't think they would say they really want this one-make series, but it's a situation we had to face," says Kanaan. "I'm not pleased, but I have to say that we did such a good job that we kicked everybody out, basically.
"There's no closer and no tighter racing than what we've had in the IRL and I can't imagine how it's going to be now that everybody has a Honda. We've got a great team, but this year is really going to be tough."
The Rahal/Letterman team didn't score any wins in 2005 but nobody did more for the IRL's profile than Danica Patrick. In her rookie IndyCar season, Danica drove into the national headlines by becoming the first woman to ever lead the Indianapolis 500, and earned three pole positions and a mountain of respect from her rivals in the process.
"Everybody says it's so much better the second time around [the circuit] and I feel like I really learned a lot last year," said Patrick, whose picture graced the cover of Sports Illustrated following the Indy 500. "Everybody keeps asking when we're going to win a race and I keep telling them I'm trying as hard as I can but it's not like you can just walk into this series and begin winning. It's very tough."
Teammate Buddy Rice is eager for '06 after the 2004 Indy winner suffered through a frustrating '05 campaign. "If anything else could have gone wrong I don't know what it would have been," he observed. "It was a character builder."
Scott Sharp, one of only two original IRL starters still behind the wheel, won at Kentucky last year for Fernandez Racing in his initial season with Honda and he returns, along with Kosuke Matsuura.
But the rest of the IRL lineup has been adjusted.
Tomas Scheckter has left Panther Racing to join Ed Carpenter at Vision Racing, while Vitor Meira is now at Panther after leaving the Rahal Letterman team. Anthony Foyt IV headed for NASCAR, so grandpa A.J. replaced him with veteran Felipe Giaffone. Buddy Lazier, the 2000 IRL champion who's been without a full-time ride the past two years, returns to combat with Dreyer & Reinbold. Rookie P.J. Chesson is expected to move to Hemelgarn Racing, while Paul Dana has recovered from last year's Indy injuries and now resides at Rahal Letterman.
And 18-year-old Marco Andretti has moved up to Andretti Green's fourth seat and will be joined by papa Michael for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500.