Rossi Stars in Amazing Race Again

It was a home game for Alexander Rossi and he won convincingly. Rossi led 71 of the 85 laps in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and never faced a serious challenge for the lead. He pitted ahead of the mid race caution that caught out two of his biggest challengers, Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon. Rossi drove a perfect race, blasting ahead on restarts and executing flawless pit stops. While he was breezing along, there was quite a bit of drama behind him.

In turn 1 Graham Rahal bumped Simon Pagenaud, knocking him out of the race. Rahal served a drive through penalty but fought back to finish fifth.  Bourdais and Dixon engaged in a great battle for second. Bourdais made one of the greatest passes I’ve ever seen, darting between Dixon and backmarker Matheus Leist. Race control deemed the move illegal as Bourdais’s right side tires crossed the line marking the pit exit lane. Officials ordered him to relinquish the spot to Dixon. He did- for about half a lap.

Josef Newgarden went to a three stop strategy, which didn’t work out for him. He finished seventh. Teammate Will Power had the last shot at stealing the victory from Rossi on the last restart but could only get within 0.71 of a second at one point. Power had twice as many push to pass seconds as Rossi when the race resumed, but burned it quickly and still couldn’t catch him.

It was another good street race with the new aerokit. There was passing and strategy. the yellows fell at times that made for an entertaining event. The first two street races have been so good I’m tempted to make a return to Belle Isle this year.

Notes

Rossi has been on the podium all three races this year and four of the last five races. He has two wins and two thirds.

Robert Wickens, the star of the previous two races, struggled most of the weekend and had a gearbox issue. he finished 22nd.

Andretti Autosport had a great day with Zach Veach coming in fourth in just his third race and Marco Andretti getting his second top 10 of the season. Veach nearly caught Ed Jones for third after the final restart.

The only down part for the team was Ryan Hunter-Reay’s awful day. He got clipped by Dixon in turn 1 at the start, later had a flat tire, and then got stuck in the hairpin traffic jam that also ruined Bourdais’s comeback. He ended up 20th.

Tony Kanaan had his second straight top 10.

Is Matheus Leist in over his head? He seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time all day, interfering with the leaders. He has been the least impressive driver in the field this year.

500 Field at 35

Two announcements this week brought the field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 to 35.

The worst kept secret in the paddock became official when J. R. Hildebrand got the ride in the second Dreyer and Reinbold car.

James Davison, who filled in last year for Bourdais in the 500, will drive a third car for A. J. Foyt Racing with sponsorship from David Byrd.

I’m planning a series on past Bump Days beginning the first week in May. I will highlight some of the more memorable moments of bumping.

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The Long Beach Winding Road

Just two races into what has been an entertaining Indycar season to date, we have seen a great mix of new names and familiar names. It’s hard to believe Alexander Rossi is only in his third year in Indycar. We’ve heard Robert Wickens’ name so much it’s hard to remember he is a rookie in this series. I think we will once again be hearing those two names, along with the names of some veterans we haven’t heard from much yet this year at Long Beach this weekend.

While a pair of races don’t create a trend, there are some things forming a consistent pattern. Wickens is a darn good driver. Rossi has quickly learned the tracks and has fully embraced Indycar. In  2016, no one would have been shocked if he didn’t come back in 2017. But then the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 happened, and Indycar had a new star.

We can also see strength from the smaller teams which appears to be sustainable over the long run. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan have had two strong weekends and that should continue in California. While neither may have the season champion driver, they will be in contention for a long time. These teams will be more than spoilers.

Long Beach is the second longest running event on the Indycar schedule. This will be the 35th Indycar race on the streets.  There has been a race at Long Beach since 1975, when Brian Redman won the Formula 5000 race. The following year F1 began an eight year run. In 1984 CART took over and Indycar in some form has raced in Long Beach ever since.

Sebastien Bourdais is one of several current drivers who have won here. Bourdais has three victories, and Will Power has two. Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud also have won.  Can the young guns overcome all the experience on this narrow track?

We know the new cars race better than the Honda/Chevy kit versions, but will that make for a better race? I don’t expect the kind of show we saw at St. Pete. Long Beach doesn’t have a long wide runway for a front stretch. Passing will rely on mistakes, tire degradation, and pit strategy. There have been some dramatic races here as well as some parades.

Who will win? Alexander Rossi should pull into Victory Circle this time. He was in a position to win last year before engine failure knocked him  out of the race. With the win, Rossi will take the points lead to Barber next weekend. Wickens will have another strong race, but might miss the podium.  Oh, some of the veterans might make a splash as well.

Back Monday with a recap. The race is on NBCSN at 4:30 pm ET Sunday.

 

Photo: Ryan Hunter-Reay  pit stop in Phoenix last Saturday.   Photo by Mike Silver

 

Formula 1 Opener Validates Indycar’s Forward Direction

Yesterday’s Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, the season opener for the premier international open wheel series, provided a lot of validation for the positive steps Indycar has taken lately. F1 has done two things poorly that Indyccar has done correctly. First, the halo. Yikes! Second, the US television situation.  The messenger is definitely the problem there.

The halo, a bar attached around the front of the cockpit, was rushed into service this year. It may deflect some flying debris, but Indycar’s windscreen, which is still undergoing testing, makes a lot more sense. The halo ruins the esthetic of the cars. At some angles it makes them look WEC prototypes. It intrudes in the on board camera shots. Does the driver have that same obstructed view? If so, that may negate any safety benefit the device is supposed to provide. Another issue I noticed during the pre-race- when a crew member was strapping a driver in the car this morning, he had to bend over the halo to tighten the belts. He looked very uncomfortable doing his job. I would not be surprised if the crew members who did he belt tightening don’t all have sore ribs today.

Indycar is taking their time testing the windscreen. Since the first on track test at Phoenix, they are evaluating the feedback from Scott Dixon, and plan to test on track at a road and street course before putting it on the cars next year.  Formula 1 seemed in a hurry to get the halos on the cars this season. I think it would have been in their best interest to evaluate  it longer.

The US television rights for Formula 1 are no longer in the very capable hands of NBC. Instead, ESPN is carrying the Sky Sports feed from the UK.  Why a network that doesn’t care about motorsports received the right to do this is beyond me. First, Sky Sports airs the races commercial free. ESPN does not run programming that way, so ads were inserted into the commercial free broadcast. Many were side by side, but they were in a break at the restart and the return from breaks offered no review of anything that may have been missed. I don’t see why Sky should have to alter their practices for ESPN. ESPN needs to figure out a way to have all the ads pre and post race.

As far as the Sky Sports broadcast, I liked their presentation and the graphics. Paul di Resta is difficult to understand with his heavy Scottish accent, and the announcers were sometimes not keeping up with the track action. There was some good tracking of the battles going on, and in this race, there were many.

Indycar’s new TV deal with NBC next year, as I and others have said, is a huge boost for the series. NBC’ s coverage and promotion should help exposure grow considerably. Formula 1 in the US has always been a small niche within the small motorsports niche, and it will likely shrink more with this broadcast arrangement.

The race itself was better than most Formula 1 races. There was a lead change for the win, and some good battles throughout the field, including a fight  for the lead. The problem is, there are maybe three F1 races a year that are considered good, and one has already been spent in Round 1.

The next race is Bahrain on April 8, the morning after the Indycar race in Phoenix. If the Phoenix race is as good as anticipated, the side by side  race comparison can only help Indycar further. By the way, Phoenix will be on NBCSN. The tv side might look better also.

A Great Boost for Indycar- The NBC Deal

Yesterday the announcement everyone knew about became official. Beginning in 2019, NBC will be the exclusive television home of Indycar. Eight races will be on NBC proper, with the remaining races on NBCSN. The Indianapolis 500, of course, will be one of the eight. The others will be announced later.  I will venture some guesses in a bit. This deal is a huge boost to the series. Indycar is at last on a network that seems to care about it and produces a great race broadcast. I like most parts of the agreement.

Another component to the deal is streaming. I am not a techno whiz, but here is what I understand. Some practices and qualifying sessions which are not televised will be on the NBCSports app or NBC.com. MRTI races will be on NBC Gold, a paid subscription app. My understanding is that Indy qualifying will be shown live on television. I hope that’s the case.

NBC will include the Indianapolis 500 in its “Championship Season” promotion along with other major events it covers like The Kentucky Derby  and the Tour de France.

ABC, which had shown Indycar races since 1956, and the 500 since 1965, had shown little interest in producing quality coverage of the 500 or the other races the past several years. It will be interesting to see how they run out the string. Will ABC make their last Indy 500 a great broadcast? Will they produce the same tepid show we’ve seen the last couple of years despite some incredible races?

Back to the NBC package. My main concern is Mazda Road to Indy races being on the pay app. This arrangement does not help help the up and coming drivers establish name recognition and hinders their ability to attract sponsors.  Indy Lights now has a large field one year and a small field the next. More Indycar teams need to run MRTI teams to keep this feeder system viable. Taking this series off broadcast television is not the way to go.

A positive is having a solid network broadcast package should help teams and the series attract sponsors. I could see a company signing on for the eight network races, which gives a team at least a half season of sponsorship, and perhaps lead to a full season deal.

Another advantage of the arrangement is better coordination with NBC’s NASCAR coverage. NBC covers the second half of the stock car season. Does that mean the eight Indycar races on NBC  will be front loaded?  It’s likely the two series will not be on against one another. Will one follow the other? If so, the series that doesn’t believe races should go overtime should be first to avoid bleeding into the next broadcast. Indycar can set the stage for NASCAR.

My guesses for the eight races on NBC are St. Pete, Phoenix, Indy, Road America, Iowa, Pocono, Mid-Ohio, and the season finale. This schedule showcases the diversity of tracks the series runs, and it includes the season opener and the finale. It might provide the impetus to move Iowa to a Saturday night race and move the finale to Gateway.

Overall, I am very excited with this television deal. The next step is a new series title sponsor for 2019. This broadcast package may help that process move more quickly.

 

 

 

Sebring Recap= Mixed Day for Indycar Drivers; ABC out?

Cool nights and very hot days made the 66th 12 hour race at Sebring an endurance contest for the fans as well as the drivers. It turned out to be a great race with some late drama as usual. The final two and a half hours had some great battles for the lead. At one point after dark, both the Prototype and GTLM classes had three way fights for the lead. IMSA’s restart procedure in which the cars line up in groups helped. It made for exciting action.

Indycar drivers had a mixed day with a couple class podiums, some major disappointments, and some midpack finishes. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the top finisher with a second place overall in the Wayne Taylor car co-driven by Jordan Taylor and Renger Van Der Zande. Former Indycar driver Mike Conway  joined Hunter-Reay on the podium in the third place entry for Action Express. He teamed with Felipe Nasr and Eric Curran.

Other Indycar related finishes:

The Penske team did not fare well, retiring early in the contest. The car of Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finished 40th overall. Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal dropped out first in 41st place. In general, the number 7 of Castroneves, Rahal, and Ricky Taylor has been the faster of the two. Taylor qualified third.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GTLM machines did slightly better. Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, and Richard Westbrook finished 4th in class and 13th overall. Sebastien Bourdais dropped out in 39th place, last in class.

Car 55 with Spencer Pigot led late and was in contention for the win. On a pit stop with 41 minutes left, the car would not restart. They finished a lap down, 6th overall.

The best story of the weekend was Michael Shank Racing’s car 93. A brake failure and heavy wall contact in Thursday evening practice destroyed the car. The crew worked tirelessly to make repairsr and presented the car for Saturday’s pre-race warmup. From starting in last place the trio of Lawson Aschenbach, Mario Farnbacher, and Justin Marks led some laps and eventually finished seventh in class.

Next year Sebring will be interesting. After IMSA runs the traditional 12 hour race, the WEC will have its own 12 hour race about 90 minutes later, beginning at midnight. This sounds like a logistical nightmare to me. Exchanging pit equipment, podium ceremonies, pre-race for WEC, all in less than 90 minutes might make for a more interesting show than the race. The response from the fans will be interesting as well. I talked to several fans at the track about it. Most are not sure how this will work. There is a lot of skepticism about this idea.

ABC Out of Indycar?

A tweet sent out Saturday by a weatherman in Macon, Georgia, said that 2018 will be ABC’s final year covering the Verizon Indycar Series. The tweet was taken down and Mark Miles said it was a little premature. If true, it means that NBC will be the sole carrier for Indycar next year.

ABC has covered the Indianapolis 500 for 50 years. Since their new deal with Indycar that split the races between ABC and NBCSN, their coverage has been rather weak. There is no chemistry in the booth, they seem to always have the wrong camera shot on screen, and worse, it seems like they care very little about their product. Even their 500 broadcasts, which should be one of their crown jewels, has not been great.

I will have more to say after an official announcement. I’m thinking it will come just before or during the Phoenix race weekend.

Servia Enters the 500

There was an announcement that slipped through the cracks St. Petersburg race weekend. Veteran Oriol Servia will enter the 500 in a car in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan stable run by Scuderia Corsa. Corsa has an association with Ferrari and runs sportscar programs in the US and Europe. I don’t see any interest beyond the 500. It’s nice to have some more international flavor to the race.

Rookies Came to Play on Pole Day; Wickens Nips Power at St. Pete

At the star of the weekend the big question was how would the Indycar rookies fare against the strong veteran field in the opening race at St. Petersburg. The answer is, “Very well, thank you.”  Three rookies made the Fast Six in a slippery, wild qualifying session. The pole and a new track record were both claimed by newcomers.

The first round saw Marco Andretti dropped from the final transfer spot after a penalty for impeding another driver. Alexander Rossi received the same penalty which kept him out of  the Fast Six. Then the sprinkles came. It wasn’t a hard rain, just enough to make a slippery turn one even more slippery. Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud nearly collided at the end of the runway, with Dixon just squeezing around the stopped Menard’s car. Pagenaud later brought out a red flag as his engine stalled after another spin in the same area.

Dixon failed to advance as well. He started round 2 on blacks while everyone else was on reds to get in a lap before conditions worsened. Another surprise was Josef Newgarden not making it out of the first round. His car has not looked good all weekend. All the havoc provided openings for the rookies.

The Fast Six had three Hondas and three Chevrolets with six teams represented. Will Power, Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Matheus Leist, Jordan King, and Ryan Hunter-Reay  fought for the pole. In round 1 King set a new track record with a lap of 1:00.0476, another strong statement by a rookie. Power took the early lead and appeared to have yet another St. Pete pole in hand, but Wickens, the last driver on course, beat him on the final lap by 7 hundredths of a second.

Qualifying is one thing, racing is another. Several rookies have never done pit stops or managed fuel. Wickens said in the press conference he needs to make sure he knows the start procedures for tomorrow.  Several fast cars are starting mid pack or worse. They should come to the front. It should be quite an entertaining race tomorrow. Back Monday with a race recap.

 

Season Preview Part 3- Big Teams Will Still Contend

This is likely the group from which your 2018 Indycar champion will emerge. It won’tbe easy. I see as many as seven contenders from this group, with two teams having multiple contenders. Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud could stage one of the greatest title fights Indycar has seen. Each team won  at least one race last year. I expect that to be the case again.  A reminder- the order I talk about the teams does not indicate any prediction of season results.

Team Penske

Another year with this team in the championship hunt. Penske drivers should again dominate qualifying on the road/street courses and will probably do well at some ovals, too. Defending champion Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power will  each win races. I don’t think they will win as many combined as they did in 2017, but they should win nearly half of the events. The key is where thel finish in the others that will determine their title hopes.

Newgarden will not relinquish his title willingly. Pagenaud, who had a strong title defense in 2017, will be a threat to win at every road /street course. He showed huge improvement on ovals last year as well, winning Phoenix and nearly winning Gateway. Power lurked near the front all season but early DNFs doomed his chances. He has had to fight back from low finishes at St. Pete the last two years.

The new aero packages should favor the Penske cars. The question is, will the new package allow other teams to catch  them? I think there will be a closing of the gap.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

RLLR has been the best of the smaller teams the last three years. A single car team until now, they usually have one dominant weekend a season and have another race fall their way. In 2015 Rahal left Mid-Ohio just nine points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya. This year could be even better.

Finally, Graham Rahal gets a teammate to help with setups. Not just any teammate, but defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who is known to be very good at helping his team in that department. Rahal has been in the top 5 or just outside it for the last three years and has won races for three consecutive seasons.

Sato was fastest at the Phoenix Open test. Rahal also showed speed. The first part of the year is where this team has struggled. If Graham can have success early, he can make a real run toward his first Astor Cup. Sato won the 500 last year and a pole. He still needs to be more consistent and stay out of trouble.

I think Rahal will be in the top four at season’s end. I’m not picking him for fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing

The addition of sponsor PNC full time on Scott Dixon’s car and downsizing to two cars put the Ganassi team in great shape for another title run. Dixon is the only driver holdover from 2017. Tony Kanaan is now with A. J. Foyt Racing, and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton now are teammates at Carlin Racing. Ed Jones will be Dixon’s teammate in the NTT Data car.

The contracted operation allows more focus on Dixon and should help Jones as well. The main goal, however is putting the 9 car in victory lane more than once and bringing the title back to CGR. Their chances are good.

Jones will have a steady season and could help his teammate by taking points away from some of Dixon’s chief rivals.

Andretti Autosport

The armada is coming. Look out for these guys. Two strong title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi will be frequent visitors to the podium, including the top step. Promising rookie Zach Veach will lead a strong rookie class. Marco Andretti has renewed hope to improve his results with the new aero package.

Hunter-Reay should return to winning after a drought that seemed to begin with the manufacturer’s aerokit.  He is one of the early favorites to win his second Indianapolis 500. Huner-Reay sounds very enthusiastic about the new configuration.

Rossi is on the verge of a very special year. He came on strong at the end of last season, capped by a strong performance at Watkins Glen. He will win well before Labor Day this year, and likely more than once. Fans will need to pay attention to where he will finish at Sonoma. This could be his championship.

Veach has waited a very long time for his chance to be in Indycar, and I expect him to take full advantage of it. He is more ready than any rookie ever has been. Veach should have many top 10s and possibly a couple of top 5s.

Marco and his crew chief Bryan Herta have displayed a lot of excitement about the coming year. We have heard this before from Marco, but the results have never matched his preseason optimism. Will this year be different? I think they might, but what is the bar? What will constitute improvement? I would like to see better qualifying performances- 2nd round on road/street courses consistently with an occasion Fast 6 for starters, and more race presence with results in the top 10 becoming routine.

This will be a very good year for Andretti Autosport. Rossi will rival Josef Newgarden for attention and points.

Tomorrow, a season preview with my rock solid predictions. That means my picks will be dropping like rocks by Long Beach. Thanks for reading this week. Look for my posts on Wildfire Sports in a day or two. I will let you know when they are up.