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 Preview- Will the Pack be Back? Indycar news.

Saturday night Indycar concludes its marathon stretch with the Rainguard Water Sealers 600. The sponsor is ironic, since the track could have some type of rain guard last year. This was one of the best races last year with Graham Rahal nipping James Hinchcliffe on the last lap. Will this year’s race be similar?

In past races at Texas we have seen pack racing, processional races, and close finishes. Lately, the worst place to be is in the lead with a late restart coming. Cars behind the leader pit for fresh tires, while the leader can’t afford to give up track position. Track modifications may help the race, but there is a chance they could hurt the race as well.

The track has been repaved and the banking in turns 1 and 2 has been changed; tires did not fall off very quickly when Indycar tested there. The second lane seems to have disappeared as well. This could lead to a return of pack racing.

Teams have an 11 am practice , qualifying at 3:15, and a night practice at 6:45 today to figure out what will work best.  Perhaps a change in downforce will be necessary. Firestone has been working on developing a tire that won’t hurt the racing.

Pack racing like we saw at Chicagoland and Kentucky, while exciting, is very nerve wracking to watch. Indycar has been extremely lucky that Las Vegas was the only pack race that ended in tragedy. Given the severe crashes we’ve seen this year so far, I hope for the best.

Will Scott Dixon finally win his first race of the season tomorrow? Can Hinchcliffe claim the win he should have had last year? Might Ryan Hunter-Reay finally end his bad luck streak?  Will we have our second straight repeat winner? Will Rahal be strong again?

Honda cars should have the advantage,yet that advantage could provide some of the drama with the reliability issues they have had this year. Penske seems to be the only Chevy team that has found some speed.  Will Newgarden continue to be the best car from them?

I’m going to predict a Ganassi car wins their first race of the year tomorrow night. Look for Tony Kanaan to break his slump with a close victory.  I hope the race is safe.

Race Notes and News:

Gabby Chaves returns to the track in the #88 Harding Racing car. The team finished 9th at Indianapolis. If this race goes well, they will likely be at Pocono. They are aiming for a full time presence next season.

Tristan Vautier will be in the #18 this week subbing for Sebastien Bourdais. Esteban Gutierrez, who drove in Detroit, has no experience on ovals, and Indycar decided Texas is not the first oval he should attempt. Gutierrez may drive the rest of the road and street courses with other drivers running the ovals.

In the not a surprise category, Dallara will build the new aero pieces for the 2018 season.  Test dates announced for the new kit- July 25-26 oval configuration at IMS; August 1 road course kit at Mid-Ohio; August 28 Iowa; and September 26 Sebring.

 

Street Sweeping- Rahal Dominates Belle Isle Weekend

There were track records broken, there were accomplishments not seen in several years, and they all took place in two very typical, ordinary races. The weekend was totally dominated by Graham Rahal. The only drama in either race was whether  Rahal would have an issue on a pit stop. He led Race One from the pole on Saturday, only losing the lead during pit cycles. In Sunday’s race he had to get to the lead from his third starting position, but after taking the lead on lap 23 , he controlled the race. The only potential problem was the restart after the red flag with four laps to go. It turned out no one wanted to fight him for the lead when the race resumed.

Takuma Sato set a new track record with a time of 1:13.6732, to win Sunday’s pole. The record was barely twenty-four hours old, as Rahal lowered the standard on Saturday in winning the top starting spot. More on Saturday’s qualifying in a bit. Sato finished eighth Saturday and fourth Sunday, one of the strongest performances in a while by the winner of the 500 the week following the race.

Rahal is the first driver to sweep a double header weekend since Scott Dixon took both races in Toronto in 2013. He is also the first American born winner at Detroit in 21 years, when Michael Andretti won the Detroit race. Oddly,  Rahal is 2017’s first repeat winner, breaking his 24 hour drought.

I noted in my preview that I thought there would be a seventh different winner on Saturday and the streak would end Sunday. The same winner was not what I had in mind, but Indycar racing is a strange beast sometimes.

Penske teams had a difficult day Saturday, but rebounded Sunday with a second place for Josef Newgarden and a third for Will Power.  Had the race stayed green, Newgarden could have possibly challenged for the lead on the last lap. He was gaining almost a second a lap on Rahal.

Points Battle

Scott Dixon leads by eight over Helio Castroneves. Neither has won a race this season, but both have put together consistent top 5 and top 10 finishes. The variety of winners has helped them stay in front. Graham Rahal jumped to sixth place with his  two wins. This is the best season long title fight in a long time.

Saturday Qualifying

Helio Castroneves appeared to have set a track record and won the pole for Saturday’s race. The Verizon P1 presentation was in full swing when it halted abruptly, and Rahal was awarded the pole. Castroneves was assessed a penalty for not slowing for a local yellow. He lost his record lap and the pole.  If Indycar was investigating, the presentation should have waited until a ruling was made. It made the organization look bad. No, it was downright embarrassing.

Red Flag?

I am not necessarily against a late red flag if track conditions warrant- damage to a barrier, a hole in the track, a huge debris field. I am against a late red flag just to have a green flag finish. Yesterday’s red flag had the appearance of being more for the second reason.  Yes, there probably was oil on the track from Spencer Pigot”s car. If the field is circling under yellow, the cars can be directed away from it. The oil wasn’t covering the entire track at that section.

Fact of racing- sometimes races end under yellow. I am fine with that. Fans are not entitled to a green flag finish every race.  The other major American series has a rule to ensure ending under green, but yesterday  that backfired and their race finished under yellow.

Bottom line, if there are fewer than five laps left and there is no danger to the drivers, do not throw the red flag. A one or two lap shootout that could cost someone who dominated  the race all day is not good for the series. It manipulates the finish.

Some Stats

Rahal led a combined 96 of the 140 laps run.

There were only 8 laps of yellow all weekend.

Josef Newgarden made a 3 stop strategy work, while all the other top finishers were on a 2 stop schedule.

On to Texas

There is one race left in this marathon stretch of racing, next Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. Graham Rahal is the defending champion. Can he win three in a row?  I’ll discuss his chances later this week.

Belle Isle Preview; Thoughts on The Victory Banquet- I Don’t Know You Any More

The Verizon Indycar season improbably reaches the halfway mark this weekend with The Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit.  It seems way too early in the year to be talking about the halfway point, but with a 17 race schedule, , Sunday is number 8. After next weekend’s race at Texas, the schedule slows down and the races are spread out more.  Texas will be the fifth straight weekend Indycar has been in action, plus the week of practice at IMS. Crews must be exhausted. Here are some thoughts on the Belle Isle event.

This is a very nice event. The volunteer staff is friendly and helpful, and GM throws a lot of support toward the race. The track is not one that produces great racing. Drama usually is dependent on how cautions fall and the weather. The last two years weather has had an effect on the outcome in at least one race of the weekend.  This year, there is the added drama of Honda unreliability and the lingering question of whether Helio Castroneves will break his three year victory drought. There have been six different winners in six races this season. How long will this continue? I think it goes for one more race, then Sunday will see the first repeat winner of the year.

Other things to look for- Will Ed Jones back up his third place finish in the 500? How will Esteban Gutierrez do in his role subbing for Sebastien Bourdais? What effect will Dixon’s foot injury have on his chances? Can A. J.  Foyt Racing finally have a successful race? Conor Daly has three finishes in the top six here.

This track should give Honda a slight edge as we witnessed in the street courses at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Chevy won the poles there, but Hondas were strong in the races.  I look for the same situation in race one and a Chevy pole and win in race two. Remember, this is a home game for Penske.

My picks- Tony Kanaan will win Saturday’s race.  Sunday Will Power wins from the pole.  The points race will continue to be topsy-turvy at least through Road America. As long as there so many different winners at the beginning of the season, no one will take command for a while.

Both races are on ABC at 3:30 pm Eastern time both days. Practice and qualifying will be live streamed.

The Victory Banquet

As much as I look forward to the Indianapolis 500 every year (already excited for the 102nd running), I also eagerly anticipate watching the Victory Banquet the day after the race.  Each driver gets to speak about his race and thank those who helped him compete.  It used to be a clean, straightforward program. Short clips of the driver in action preceded each driver’s appearance, there was a brief chat with the emcee, then the racer spoke.  I miss those days.

I have seen this program deteriorate for a few years. Last Monday’s edition was the worst abomination yet. From the dreadful jazz number that began the show to Dave Calabro’s constant attempts at hipness, I finally stopped watching until the time Takuma Sato was about to accept his reward.  He had a long speech, not necessarily unprecedented for winners, and Calabro tried to get him to wrap it up.  If someone wins the Indianapolis 500, he or she should get to talk as long as they want to. Next year, I will most likely record it and skip right to the winner’s presentation.  The late night talk show bit with two drivers interviewed at once takes away from each of them a chance to talk to the fans directly.  I’m not sure how the selections for the  chair talks are made, but it classifies the field into those more important to talk to, and those who are just supposed to just get their check and sit down.

I realize the old format was dated and changes occur over time, but this format needs to go.  It was tedious and over the top Hollywood wannabe.  I don’t even recognize this Monday after the race thing.  End Rant.

Enjoy the races this weekend. I will be back next week with thoughts on the action from Detroit, a Texas preview, and possibly another feature.

 

Weird, Wild, Wonderful- The 101st Indianapolis 500

I have seen a lot of 500’s, but never one as strange as this one.  There were really three parts to this one, each with its own subplot. There was great racing, there were horrific accidents, and there was  a great finish.  If you were in a pool where you had to pick the top ten, you probably didn’t fare well.  No one else in the pool did either.

The first 50 laps had some of the best, cleanest racing I’ve ever seen at Indy. There was passing galore and blinding speed. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was sure fun. After the first yellow and the ensuing red flag, there was no flow to the race. Cautions came with regularity, interrupting any chance at a rhythm.  Many of the accidents seemed more severe than usual this year.

My seat was right in front of the Howard/Dixon accident.  It was one of the most horrific accidents I have seen at the Speedway. I would rank it second behind the 1964 lap 2 accident. I’m  talking about accidents that were in my view from my seat. The flying car and and flying debris were frightening. Fortunately all the safety features of the track and the car did their job. It was a relief when Dixon got out of what was left of the car. More on this in the notes.

Eleven cautions will chop up any race.  Several yellows were just a few laps apart. While this changes race strategies, it does not help the racing.  What it did, however, was set up a terrific finish.  In the end , Takuma Sato erased the disappointment of his failed attempt to win the 2012 race.

The last twelve laps were great. After the cleanup from a wild five car melee, Max Chilton gamely tried to hold his lead,  but he had more fuel than he needed and his tires probably cooled too much during the yellow. Chilton had pitted before everyone else so his tires had less life in them. It came down to a shootout between Sato and Helio Castroneves. When Sato took the lead with 5 to go, he was able to hold off Castroneves for a popular win. Sato’s unbridled screaming on the radio was a joy to listen to. Quite a contrast from Rossi’s stunned shock last year. Rossi, however, grew into a great champion, and Sato will also be a very good one.

Overall, it was a good race, not a great one.  With fewer cautions this race had the makings of a classic. There was the drama of contenders dropping out, unexpected drivers surging to the front, amazing rookie performances, and a furious duel to the finish.  The 500 continues continues to be the best race of the year.

Notes:

The Howard/Dixon accident emphasized the need for some form of cockpit protection. A piece of Dixon’s car nearly landed on Howard’s head, and Dixon’s car almost landed on Castroneves. I am not in favor of completely closed canopies, but something over the driver’s head should be developed. The outcome may have been worse had Dixon hit a fence post. He broke the fence above the tunnel entrance. Fortunately it didn’t appear anyone was walking or driving in the open area at the time.  A net over the tunnel might be a good safety addition.

What was the deal with Tony George and, “Drivers Start Your Engines?” That is NOT how you start the 500. Other races, yes. Not this one. IMS needs a rethink on this issue.

Jim Cornelison did a fantastic job singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” and arrangements should be made to have him sing it every year.

Fernando Alonso proved what a talented driver he is. He adapted and learned quickly all month.  He figured out how to race here quickly and looked very smooth all day.  He had a most impressive rookie month. Alonso adapted to the hectic schedule of Indy and enjoyed it all. His return is not a sure thing yet, but I hope we see him here again.  Alonso brought an electricity to the Speedway I haven’t felt from a driver in a long time.

Ed Jones also deserves a shout out as a rookie. Jones has had a great season so far and did very well all month, finishing third in the race.  I was skeptical of how he would do in Indycar as I had attributed his Indy Lights success to being with Carlin. But he has talent. Watch out for him the rest of the year.

Honda engines continued their unreliability. Ten engines were lost in May, including those in the Grand Prix. The three blown engines Sunday belonged to contenders. Andretti seems to have had more than their share of lost engines this year.  They were going for power over reliability. This decision could have championship implications. It is a trend to keep an eye on as the series moves to Detroit.

I do not enjoy the breaks in the opening ceremonies. They take away from what used to be a dramatic buildup to the start.  The ceremonies need to be shortened and put in one block culminating with the start.

The points battle has really tightened up. Castroneves leads with three drivers just eleven points behind.  Look for another new leader after Belle Isle. The six Indycar races to date have had six different winners.  It is hard to believe Scott Dixon is not one of them. There may not be a definitive leader until after Iowa.

Michael Andretti couldn’t win the 500 as a driver, but he now has tied Lou Moore for second place with five wins as an owner. Andretti cars has won five times in thirteen years, and three of the last four.   Sato’s only two career wins have come in Indycar’s most prestigious events, Long Beach and Indianapolis.