Toronto Preview: Home Win for Hinch or Dixon Rebound?

The Toronto Honda Indy marks the official beginning of Indycar’s home stretch. It’s the first of the final 6 races and the last street race of the year.  This is a great event. I was fortunate to attend the races in 2013. I felt like I was at Indy.  The atmosphere and the buzz was that tremendous. This is a treasured event in Canada. I hope in the future Indycar can have as many as 2 more races in Canada.

I was surprised to see that this is the 50th anniversary of Indycar’s first venture north of the border. In 1967 Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) hosted two 100 mile races, both won by Bobby Unser.   I knew there had been races in Canada for a while but hadn’t realized it had been that long. This is the 33rd race at Exhibition Place.

The track at Exhibiton place has changed over the years as new construction forced alterations to the layout. It is a tight track with one good passing zone. Pit strategy is key here, as is usually the case with street races. There is a possibility of rain Sunday afternoon, which could really scramble the order.

Honda cars have swept the street races so far and there is no reason to believe this weekend will be different. James Hinchcliffe, from nearby Oakville, Ontario, is the sentimental favorite. He has one street course win this year at Long Beach. This is the race Hinch would love to win. his record here is not great. He has just one podium finish at his home track. This weekend could be a good one for him.

Graham Rahal swept both races in Detroit although Penske cars of Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden challenged him. Can he win his third straight street race? Rahal has driven well this season and should probably be at least two spots higher in the points. When he finishes a race, he is usually in the top ten, but DNFs have cost him points.

Scott Dixon was the last driver to win both parts of a doubleheader before Rahal’s Detroit twin wins. Dixon won both Toronto races in 2013. He did not have a great weekend at Iowa and his lead in the championship is down to eight points. Dixon and his team know how to win on street circuits and I look for him to bounce back from last week’s showing. In fact, Scott Dixon is my pick to win this weekend and extend his point lead.

News and Notes:

Sebastian Saavedra will replace Mikhail Aleshin in the #7 Schmidt Peterson entry this weekend. The car will carry sponsorship from AFS, a long time Saavedra sponsor. I suspect a funding issue is the reason for this switch, mainly due to Aleshin using up his crash repair budget. Aleshin will be at the track this weekend, so he apparently hasn’t completely lost the ride yet.

Sebastian Bourdais will make his first appearance at a racetrack since his crash during qualifying at Indianapolis. Bourdais has recovered incredibly fast. He plans to race again at Watkins Glen and Sonoma this year. I continue to marvel at how quickly drivers return from horrific debilitating injuries.  They are wired differently than I am.

Team Penske’s entry into sportscars next year with the new Honda DPi car appears to signal the end of Castroneves’ full time Indycar career. He will team with Juan Pablo Montoya running the IMSA circuit full time and both drivers will have one-off rides for the 500. Penske is expected to field just three cars in Indycar next season.  Drivers of all talent levels enter and leave the series constantly. Castroneves has had a great Indycar career. It is sad when one of the most popular drivers leaves.

Ganassi is also likely to have three entries next year, as Tony Kanaan’s ride is in doubt. NTT Data will switch full time to Dixon, leaving TK without a sponsor.

Tonight I’m seeing that Andretti is thinking of a sportscar program with Marco Andretti as one of the drivers. I am skeptical about this one. It’s difficult to imagine an Indycar season without an Andretti in it. Also, how much thinner can Michael spread his resources?  Are they planning on dropping to three cars as well?  There are also whispers about AA switching to Chevy power in 2018, which would mean Takuma Sato would be the car dropping off.

It’s been a wild, unpredictable season so far, and the offseason is shaping up to continue the same way.  We may not know what next year’s grid looks like until the cars get on track March 9 in St. Pete.

 

 

Iowa Recap: An Indycar Icorn Snaps a Losing Streak

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It wasn’t the longest winless streak among active Indycar drivers but it was the one that had the most attention. Helio Castroneves hadn’t won a race since Race 2 at Belle Isle in 2014, 55 races ago.  I did not think he would ever win again because of his age, his penchant for getting in-race penalties, and the sometimes strange strategy his team used. Sunday, however, he put it all together for a dominating win, beating J. R. Hildebrand. Hildebrand pitted early on his last stop hoping to cycle to the front when everyone else stopped on schedule. He may have pitted a couple laps too early. His older tires were no match for Castroneveves’ fresh rubber once Helio passed him. J. R. had trouble lapping Alexander Rossi, allowing Castroneves to zip past.

This was the cleanest oval race of the year. Mikhail Aleshin’s single car spin was the only hard hit of the day.  The other cautions were for wall scrapes by the Foyt cars and for rain, which eventually led to a brief red flag.  The long green stints had the leaders in constant traffic which made for a fun race.

Ryan Hunter-Reay had  his best drive of the year, finishing third from his 15th starting spot.  Points leader Scott Dixon, on the other hand, had a difficult weekend, starting 17th and struggling to an 8th place finish.   He leads Castroneves by 8 points heading to Toronto next weekend. Honda should have a better time there than they did in Iowa. It was a decent race, processional at times, with several on track passes for the lead. There were some great battles all day, especially the one between Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal, who finished fifth.

Notes:

Iowa is great track and the racing is a lot of fun.The race needs to be on a Saturday night. Temperatures will be cooler, the cars look so much better, and the racing is so much better. Iowa was a night race before nascar went to Kentucky. Nascar should move their date. I know that won’t happen, so Iowa and Indycar should mutually find a different Saturday. This race works better after dark.

The crowd, while somewhat better this year than last, was still meager. I heard ticket sales were 10% better this year. There is still a long way to go to get the attendance back to the first few years.  I have several friends from Indy who can’t go to this race because they have to be at work Monday morning. Driving straight home from Iowa will get most people back to Indianapolis around 2 am. If it has to be on Sunday afternoon, have the race began  around noon. That time works great for Road America.   But a Saturday night race is the best option.

The red flag for moisture was appropriate. However, at that  late point in the race  I thought the yellow was out too long. Even under caution at Iowa laps go quickly. With less than 100 to go, the red flag should have come out sooner.

Saturday morning there was a lot of confusion at the ticket window. Fans didn’t notice the schedule said the grandstands didn’t open until 1 pm. Most, like me, assumed they would be open for the first Indycar practice at 10.  Fans were allowed to go to the infield and view practice from the fan walk for free. usually there is a charge for the fan walk. Last year I watched the first practice from the grandstand. It seems Iowa Speedway changes their policies every year. they need more transparency about their policies.  On a positive note, they solved my ticket issue smoothly.

I was happy to read that Indycar will conduct a test at the newly repaved Gateway Motorsport Park August 3. Each team is allowed one car and one driver. I’m glad they are attempting to avoid another debacle like the race in Texas. Now about those downforce levels…

Silly season officially began this weekend with Robin Miller’s story about Castroneves running sportscars full time for Penske plus a one-off for the 500. Team Penske stated no decision has been made. Media was requested not to ask Helio about his future at the winner’s press conference last night. I don’t know why they couldn’t ask and get a non-answer.

I’m very excited to hear that Phoenix and Long Beach will be on back to back weekends next year. That is a road trip I would definitely consider. One set of flights, time to go to Vegas and maybe the Grand Canyon make this something to really think about doing.

Back later this week with thoughts on Toronto.

 

Iowa Preview- Penske or Carpenter?

0710161242Editor’s note: This post is my 100th on this site. Thanks to all of you who have read. It’s a lot of fun.

 

If the Iowa Speedway were a candy bar, it would be called Fun-size. It’s the smallest track on the schedule at 7/8 of a mile. It is also the most fun race of the year.  Lightning quick laps create a bullring atmosphere for Indycars.  There are virtually no straights. The cars are turning constantly.

My favorite year at Iowa was 2012 when the USAC Midgets ran as part of the program.  It was a great show as the fun size cars zipped around the fun size track. I’d like to see them back here someday.

The Iowa Corn Producers use the race to promote ethanol. They are a dedicated state wide group justly proud of the success this race has. They have exclusive t-shirts proclaiming “This is Our Race”. I know they’re exclusive because I asked someone where I  could buy one.

The only thing that could make this event better would be returning it to a night race. The racing was better and the crowd was better. Attendance has been hurt by the late Sunday afternoon start. Surely the track could work something out with Knoxville Speedway for one Saturday a year and change the date by a week to avoid conflicting with the night race Nascar has this weekend.

The strangest thing about this track is that a Penske car has never won here.  Ed Carpenter Racing meanwhile has last year’s dominating win by Josef Newgarden which was the team’s third consecutive podium at Iowa. Andretti Autosport has won seven of the ten races here, with Ryan Hunter-Reay winning three times. Look for a Penske or a Carpenter car to win Sunday.  Chevy should have a big advantage on this track, which is not good news for  Andretti drivers.

Any aero advantage of course can be negated by how cautions fall. The race has been decided more than once by untimely yellows. That may not be enough to help Hunter-Reay, whose luck this year has been awful. Potential good finishes have disappeared for him several times this year.

I think the race comes down to one of the Penske drivers, likely Newgarden, or Carpenter’s lead driver, J. R. Hildebrand.  Newgarden has three straight podiums in a Carpenter car here. Hildebrand is now driving that car. Is ECR the new Andretti at Iowa? I’m looking for Hildebrand to get his first win Sunday.  A Penske car will probably be on the pole. No driver has won this race from the number 1 staring spot. Newgarden started second last year, but took the lead on the backstretch of the first lap and cruised to victory.

The New Ice Age- Dixon’s Win Sets Up a Title Run

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Scott Dixon goes through Canada Corner.

It was appropriate that the driver nicknamed the Iceman would win at a track carved by glaciers. In a season where nothing is as it should be, the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America did its part. Practice and qualifying told us that the race would be complete Penske parade. Penske cars were the top four in practice sessions and qualifying. Everyone expected the race to finish that way as well. The team did finish in consecutive spots, only the first Penske was in second place.

Scott Dixon passed Josef Newgarden on the restart following the first of two brief caution periods and led most of the race from there. Newgarden pulled within half a second at the finish. Helio Castroneves led early from the pole but Newgarden passed him shortly after the first pit stop. It seemed Castroneves’s car wasn’t quite the same after the tire change.

Most cars opted for a three stop strategy, which seemed to fit the new race distance of 55 laps. Many thought four stops might be needed. Alexander Rossi chose to go with four stops. It would have worked had there been one more full course yellow and head the caution periods been longer. The yellow was out for only three laps the entire race. Rossi’s tangle with Tony Kanaan didn’t help his chances either.

Dixon is the eighth different winner this season in ten races. His 41st career win puts him just one behind Michael Andretti in victories and sets Dixon on a nice path toward his fifth championship. It is a bit of a surprise that this is the frist win of the year for both Dixon and his Ganassi team.  He now has a 34 point lead over Simon Pagenaud with seven races left.

Notes:

Ed Jones continues to have a strong rookie season. He fought an ill handling car all weekend to finish seventh and stay in the top ten in points. I thought entering the season his Indy lights success was mainly due to driving for one of the top teams, but I was wrong. This kid can drive.

I was able to do more track exploration this year. The thing I was most aware of was the sounds at the track. During Friday afternoon  practice I stood on the straight leading into turn 5. The cars carry a lot speed into the turn, and the popping of the turbo as they downshift is exhilarating. It was fun to see where each driver shifted in relation to the 100 foot marker. Then I realized when the cars were not in view, they can be heard all around the track. I could hear them downshifting on the back of the course out of sight. I have not noticed this at other tracks.

Sitting on the hill above turn 5 I love listening to the echo of turbos popping as the cars go under the bridge. It sounds like gunshots. The sound of the engines as they race up the hill bounces of the trees.

I watched Saturday practice from the inside of Canada Corner. There are spots here that allow for very close viewing. I loved watching the brakes glow as they entered the turn. It was fun seeing how each driver dealt with the bump in the middle of the turn.

I was curious to see if this year’s attendance would even come close to last year’s massive race day crowd. It did.  The Friday and Saturday crowds seemed to be smaller, but race day attendance was very close to last year’s crowd.  There seemed to be fewer campers this year when I visited friends there Friday night.

In only two years road America has become my favorite road course. I could write thousands of words about what an amazing place it is, but I’ll stop now. I figure in 47 years I will have seen the entire track. If you haven’t been, make plans for next year now. You will never view road courses the same way again.

Back to the Woods- Road America Preview

It’s time to return to the magic kingdom of Indycar, Road America.  I am curious to see if the second year has the same excitement and sense of wonder as last year. I really hope familiarity doesn’t dull the event, but enhances it. This time, I can take it in without the sense of awe and amazement. I can begin to appreciate its awesome beauty now that I know what I’m experiencing. This is the closest thing to a European track in the United States.

Oh yeah. there’s a race here too.  Last year Chevy dominated the event. The track has elements that favor Chevy and elements that favor Honda. Will Honda’s extra power help them this year? Scott Dixon had a very strong car last year, but mechanical woes on lap 4 took him out of the race. Will Power won the pole and the race, leading most of the way.

In this most unpredictable season, I think Chevy still has the edge here. By Chevy, I mean Penske, and by Penske, I mean Will, Power. He could be starting a title run here. There could be strong showings by Ganassi drivers Dixon and Tony Kanaan and from Graham Rahal.  Kanaan finished second to Power last year.

Indycar has added five more laps to the race. It could take four stops to get to the end. Will someone try a fuel saving race to try to get through on just three stops? Will there be enough full course yellow laps to help a three stop strategy? I don’t think drivers can count on much caution time. Last year there was just one full course yellow near the end of the race, which was prolong when the tow truck dropped the car.  The longer the green run, the more likely the extra stop will be needed. If everyone tries to do just three stops, it will not be much of a race. I look for a mix of strategies as some teams go of sequence to try to gain positions.

The winner?  Finally, a Ganassi car will see Victory Circle. Tony Kanaan will improve his finish from last year.  His teammate Dixon will extend his points lead some more, but not a lot. Despite Chevy’s advantage, pit strategy will win this one.

Notes:

Gateway Motorsports Park announced Wednesday the track will be repaved before the Indycar race August 26. The track broke up during testing resulting in several cut tires.  While the track is not configured the same as Texas, my hope is there isn’t too much grip in the new surface. Indycar needs to test on the new surface prior to the event and work with Firestone so we don’t have the issues that occurred at Texas.

Esteban Gutierrez will return to the #18 car for Dale Coyne this weekend.

 

 

Halftime Ends; Indycar Returns This Weekend

Indycar begins the second half of its all too short season Sunday at Road America. The first half was a combination of strange and wonderful, which has led to several curiosities in the standings and results. The points leader hasn’t won a race, nor has one of the larger  teams. Penske drivers have won half the races and small teams have won most of the rest.  What will happen in part two?

We may see a return to more normal results with a couple more surprises thrown in. Scott Dixon continues to lead the points despite not having won a race yet. Helio Castroneves, second in points right now, has not won a race either. No one has more than two wins. I can’t remember the last time a season went this long with no one winning more than twice. No driver from Ganassi has won yet while Coyne, Schmidt Peterson, and Rahal all have won races.

Other surprises to me are the disappointing performance of Mikhail Aleshin and the fact that Alexander Rossi hasn’t won a race.  I thought at least one of them would have won a race this season.  While there is still time, there aren’t many tracks remaining where Honda  should do well.

The only constant is Team Penske.  Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud each have won once, while Will Power has two victories.  should succeed.  A win for Will Power at Road America, where he dominated last year, should give him a big boost toward his second title-except for one thing.

Scott Dixon usually begins a season slowly then comes on strong at the end. If he has another strong second half, he could extend his lead significantly. It is not usual for him to be leading the points at this juncture.  He can surely hear Power’s footsteps. It is hard to imagine Dixon not winning a race in any year. To maintain his lead, Dixon needs to avoid any more mishaps like he had at Indy and Texas, and take advantage of the tracks that favor the Honda package.

However it turns out, it is going to be a most intriguing eight races. I can’t wait to get started this weekend.

Notes:

A huge shoutout to Dale Coyne Racing crews who got cars together to test at Road America just three days after the carnage at Texas. Coyne has had five cars severely damaged in crashes this season.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has possibly three more shots at finding Victory Lane this year- Iowa, where he has won twice,  Pocono, and maybe Gateway. Can his engine hold together for an entire race? If it does, can he avoid getting caught up in someone else’s accident?

I hope Indycar has learned its lesson from Texas and has a couple more tests at Gateway before they race there. The trucks looked awfully fast there Saturday night.  The series cannot afford another bad oval show this year.

Le Mans was an incredible race this past weekend. It strengthened my resolve to go there next year.

Back later this week with a Road America preview.

 

Texas Recap- Tires, New Surface Make for a Difficult Night

It was the type of race that draws fans. It was the type of race that turns purists away. It was the type of race one should expect in this most strange,  unpredictable Indycar season. It was, in essence, a typical race at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas seems to bring out the best and the worst in all involved in the series.

Overall, this was the type of racing that Texas is known for.Despite a couple great finishes, the cars had been more strung out the last few years.  It was not pack racing in the sense of an entire field grouped together. There were small groups fighting for position; I saw three rows of two by two at times. In general this was the best race at Texas in a while, despite the messy situations.

The concerns going into the race were fulfilled. We had  tire issues, blistering and lack of fall off during a stint. Drivers  attempted to go three wide when it was not possible.  Passing was difficult because of the lack of a groove and the tires. All told, this led to the mayhem we saw on track.

The best thing Indycar can do for this race is reduce the downforce. Let cars get away from each other. There is a really good race hiding at this track. Let it come out.

Some notes and comments:

The teams of Rahal Letterman Lanigan and  Harding Racing are the only ones to escape the race with no damage. Some teams are planning a midweek test at Road America. Interesting to see who actually comes.

Dale Coyne Racing has had damage to five cars since Phoenix. Ed Jones sustained his first DNF of the year Saturday.

Will Power is the first driver this season to win at two different tracks. He is only the second driver with multiple victories this year. Scott Dixon extended his points lead despite a) not winning a race yet, and b) not finishing the race.

Kudos for Tony Kanaan for admitting his responsibility in the eight car crash which resulted in a red flag.  He ended up finishing second.

With only eight cars running at the checkered flag, several drivers had their best finishes of the year. Conor Daly, Gabby Chaves, and Marco Andretti all scored season bests.

Graham Rahal dodged spinning cars all night to finish fourth.

Great job by Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing to persevere and get their second top ten in as many races. The team will likely reappear at Pocono and is aiming to be a full time entry next year.

Tristan Vautier impressed early challenging for the lead in a very fast Coyne entry. If Esteban Gutierrez is in the car for the rest of the street/road course races, Vautier needs to drive the 18 on the remaining ovals.

Helio Castroneves appeared dazed after his crash. I’m wondering if he will go through concussion protocol.

I agree with the red flag decision here. It was in the middle of the race, and there was no way to avoid the debris. The cleanup would have burned a lot of laps. I just hope Indycar hasn’t started a trend of waving the red flag each time a multicar incident occurs. This was the third red flag in as many weeks. The one at the 500 and the flag Saturday were justified.

This is the first time I’ve ever been disappointed with Firestone’s on track product. Perhaps Indycar should have allowed another test day or two at Texas to ensure the tires were correct for the track. I hope everyone works together so this isn’t an issue at Gateway.

There has to be an alternative strategy for safety involving a tire issue. I do not agree with the competition yellow decision as a way to resolve the tire safety issue. Yes, tire blistering was a concern, and tires most likely did need to be changed more often. But, really, tire blisters were only a concern on a couple of cars. Could their setups be the cause? The entire field was penalized by the problems of a few. Pit stops could have been required by Indycar using a mandatory pit window similar to what Champ Car had for their races. If someone doesn’t stop, use the black flag. Going the way they did, and using a term employed by  that other North American based series, left a sour taste.

Indycar teams now get a welcome two week break before going to Road America. This may signal a return to normalcy, or it may not. The only predictable thing about this year is the unpredictability.

The season title is still up for grabs, and will probably again go down to the finale at Sonoma. Dixon leads Pagenaud by 13 points and Sato by 14. The top 7 are separated by just 59 points.