James Hinchcliffe, driver for the Honda-powered Schmidt Peterson team and self-proclaimed “Mayor of Hinchtown”, could be talking about either the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Monaco track, such is the allure of both venues.
The Indianapolis 500 brands itself as ‘The Greatest Month in Racing’, and whilst that’s a somewhat biased view, there’s no doubting that May 28 is a very special day for race fans. With the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy500 taking place on the same Sunday, millions of fans worldwide will be glued to their screens.
2017 takes the excitement up a level, with Fernando Alonso heading Stateside to compete at the “Brickyard” while Jenson Button makes a welcome return to McLaren-Honda in Monaco. Alonso’s challenge - in a McLaren-Honda-Andretti entry - has caught the imagination. But what is it that makes these two races so special?
“I think the history is the biggest part, for sure,” says Hinchcliffe of Indianapolis. “It’s the one thing that you can’t buy. You can’t build it, that is something that you have to earn in a sense.”
Of the two events, the Indy500 has a longer history, having first been run in 1911 as part of a plan to stage a major race, lasting from mid-morning to late afternoon. Honda has enjoyed great success at the Brickyard, with 11 wins - including nine straight victories from 2004-2012 - putting it third on the all-time list of engine manufacturers.
While the Monte Carlo Rally also debuted in 1911, it wasn’t until 1929 that the first Monaco Grand Prix was held. Quickly growing in status, it was included in the first F1 World Championship in 1950 and has remained on the calendar since 1955. Honda has also achieved multiple victories in the Principality, with an unbroken run of six victories from 1987-1992 and a surprise win for Olivier Panis in his Ligier Mugen-Honda in 1996.
Satoshi Nakamura, Honda R&D Co. Ltd Principal Engineer, first went to Monaco in the late 1990s and has plenty of experience of this unique event.
“I’ve been to Monaco six times, it’s a special place,” says Nakamura. “My first one was when I was in charge of Mugen for Jordan in 1998 or 1999. At that time Jordan’s car was really competitive and I was there in 2000 when Jarno Trulli qualified on the front row!
It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and preparation because qualifying is so important, so that was probably the highlight of my Monaco experience.
“Monaco is a very technical circuit for us and it’s a really tight street circuit. We have other street circuits on the calendar but there’s nothing similar to the other tracks. When people see it on TV they think it is really glamourous, but for the team the working area is very, very small. And it gets very hot! It’s hard to work there, but it’s always exciting to go back. It’s very special for me, with a very different atmosphere.”
Whilst Nakamura looks ahead to Monte Carlo, at the same time Alonso faces a new challenge. But the two-time Monaco Grand Prix winner is well placed to compare the two venues, after qualifying 5th for this year’s Indy500.
“In a way they are similar with the walls around the race track,” Alonso says. “Both circuits don’t have room to make mistakes, which is different compared to other circuits we run. Obviously here the speeds are quite high so if you have to crash in one of the two you prefer Monaco, not here!”
In Monaco, the tight nature of the circuit and Armco barriers make the speeds feel higher from inside the cockpit, despite the cars averaging around 100mph. By contrast, the average qualifying speed at Indianapolis topped 230mph for a four-lap run, and the two venues could not be more different from an engineering standpoint.
“Not so much outright power but responsiveness is really important in Monaco,” Nakamura explains. “We also have to work on drivability around Monte Carlo. More than the race, though, qualifying is the most important session because it is so difficult to overtake. And it will be even harder this year with wider cars, so we have to concentrate on qualifying. This makes it a very different approach to other circuits.
“Normally we prepare different engine performance settings especially for Monaco. For example, the hairpin - now named after the Fairmont Hotel - is very low engine revs, so is important we prepare for that. We do not normally use such low revs at any other circuit.”
One of Nakamura’s counterparts at Honda Performance Development in the US - Race Team Principal Alan Miller - is faced with a very different challenge.
“It’s a different duty cycle here in Indianapolis,” comments Miller, “You sit between 11000-12000rpm pretty much the entire length of the race. So it’s a different engine frequency, a very different demand to a road course. There’s not the same amount of shifting. Fuel economy is a big thing here so we’re always looking for ways we can improve that.”
“We’ll put new engines in for the race so we’ll do the simulations based on that. It has to do a 500-mile race and then carry on and do road courses. It’s all part of the four engines you’re supposed to use for the year.”
“Acceleration is somewhat of a concern though. You have to be able to accelerate off the yellows and it’s an 80-100mph yellow speed, so it’s not slow, but when you consider getting from 100mph to 200mph you’ve got to be able to recover. So they do run around in first and second gear on yellow, and they have to be able to accelerate out of the pit lane. You can’t just focus everything on the top speed.”
There’s also a slight difference in attitude towards the value of the two events, too, with Nakumara viewing Monaco as a special race but worth the same as the other 19 on the F1 calendar.
“Well, to be honest, not especially in terms of the race itself because every race is important for me,” the Honda F1 engineer says. “But it is definitely special because of the atmosphere, and it’s so different with the Thursday practice session and then Friday with no F1 track action.
The team has a party in Monaco for all the members and the drivers. It’s good to get everyone together and that way we get to enjoy a little bit of the Monaco atmosphere!”
However, when Miller is asked if the Indy500 results in more pressure than any other race, he replies: “Oh yeah! “As a company, for HPD, the 500 is our number one goal: win this race. Above all, above the whole series, everything else. Yes, we want drivers’ championships, manufacturers’ championships, race wins everywhere we go, but this is the number one.”
For the drivers, too, each race means something special. The Indy500’s status means it is worth double points, and it was Andretti-Honda’s Alexander Rossi who took a stunning rookie win last year, courtesy of excellent fuel economy. Having been on pole for the race 12 months ago, Hinchcliffe admits choosing between one win at Indianapolis and the IndyCar title is a tough ask.
“It’s funny, there was a long, long time when that was an easy answer for me and it was a championship,” Hinchcliffe says. “The 500 is a race, any guy can be good on any day or have a lucky break on any day - or have an unlucky break on any day - but to be a champion you’ve got to be good across road circuits, street circuits, short ovals, super speedways, rain, night races. You’ve got to be good at everything.”
“But then I started coming here and really started to understand what this race means. Now I’d probably take a 500 over a championship.”
As largely unchanged circuits that have retained their challenge over the years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Monaco Grand Prix circuit are two of the great links to motorsport’s past. They provide very different types of racing, but it is that heritage, coupled with the race day spectacle, that truly captures the imagination.
“In general it’s two circuits that, probably because of this danger or the show from the outside, to see those cars in Monaco and Indianapolis running at those speeds - one on the streets in a city and one here between these two walls - makes terrific races for the spectator and the fan from the outside,” Alonso surmises. “So that’s part of the whole thing about these legendary races.”
And once again this year, Honda will be on the grid at both, chasing more history.