INDIANAPOLIS — All the negative publicity Honda received in the lead-up to the Indianapolis 500 washed away when Takuma Sato dumped a bottle of 2 per cent milk over his head in victory lane.
So what if three Honda engines blew up Sunday while they were running with the leaders?
It only took one to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“We sort of knew you’re going with the odds when you have six cars,” said Sato team owner Michael Andretti, whose cars had two of the failed engines. “We only needed one to come through.”
In truth, the blown engines of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball and Fernando Alonso merely put a hazy cloud far in the background of a banner day for Honda. The company whose power surpassed that of rival Chevrolet throughout May not only ushered Sato past Helio Castroneves and across the finish line, but counted four of the top five finishers and six of the top eight.
Ed Jones finished third, Max Chilton was fourth and Tony Kanaan was fifth, while Sato’s teammates on Andretti Autosport, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti, also finished in the top eight.
It was the third time in four years that Honda had reached victory lane.
“When I was seeing each Honda going away I’m like, ‘Here we go.’ That’s what I said,” said Castroneves, whose Team Penske teammates hoped the reliability of their Chevrolet engines would win the day. “They gave the good engine to Alonso but they gave the meaning engine to Takuma Sato.”
Honda has had engine trouble all season, losing five at Long Beach, eight more at Phoenix and two during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. But the focus became more intense in the lead-up to the biggest race of the season. A handful of engines went down during practice and qualifying, and James Hinchcliffe lost his engine with only minutes left in the final practice on Carb Day.
Honda engineers found some commonalities in the engine failures, but they were never able to fully diagnose what was causing the problem. And that left teams a bit nervous on Sunday.
For a while, it looked as if everything would be OK.
The Honda-powered cars went straight to the front, dominating the early laps. But then the first groan echoed across the speedway went Hunter-Reay’s car came to a halt 64 laps from the end, and Kimball’s car experienced the same fate 21 laps later.
Alonso was still running in the top 10 when his engine let go on the front straightaway with 20 laps to go, just as the two-time Formula One champ was working his way back to the front.
All of them had led laps ‚Äî Hunter-Reay for 28, Alonso for 27 and Kimball for five. And the fact that Hunter-Reay and Alonso were part of the six-team Andretti Autosport effort, it was little surprise that their troubles gave Andretti some serious concern in the closing laps of the race.
“I don’t blame Honda at all,” he said. “If anything, I blame all of us, pushing Honda so hard. They had come to us and said, ‘We can give you a little less reliable engine and it would have more power,’ so of course we said, ‘Let’s go for the power.’ And when we did that, obviously, we knew there was going to be some sad faces.”
There was at least one very happy face in victory lane, though.
Sato went through all the usual post-race traditions, drinking the milk and kissing the bricks and snapping pictures in his car. At one point, he pulled on a Honda hat and flashed a big smile.
For the engine manufacturer, that made up for all the other trouble.
“Oh, absolutely,” Honda motorsports executive T.E. McHale said. “To win this race you’ve got to push the envelope. In past years, kind of dating to the era of single supply, we had to build engines more for reliability than for performance, because we knew we were going to win the race no matter what.
“But we’re in a new era now,” he said, “and Chevrolet’s bringing everything they’ve got and we have to kind of walk that fine line. I feel gutted for Fernando and Ryan, who were front-runners today and could have easily won the race. But we made the decision earlier in the week to run for speed and performance rather than for durability and distance.”