Honda Sweeps Doubleheader; Race 2 and Weekend Thoughts

Above: Ryan Hunter-Reay just after taking the checkered flag to end his three year winless streak. Photo: Mike Silver

Another drought ended yesterday as Ryan Hunter-Reay chased down teammate Alexander Rossi, forced him to make a mistake, and won for the first time in 42 races. On Saturday, Marco Andretti ended his five year pole drought and Scott Dixon won his first race in nearly a year. Honda won both poles and both races in the home games for Chevy in Detroit.

Unlike Saturday, drama started in turn 3 of the first parade lap, when GM Vice President Mark Reuss spun the Corvette ZR-1, slammed head first into the wall, and bounced back in front of the field. Pole sitter Rossi was the only car able to get past wounded pace car. The others later returned to pit lane after the car was cleared. Rene Binder stalled the engine and needed a tow back to the pits. After a 30 minute delay, Oriol Servia, in a backup pace car, led the field to the green flag.

Sunday’s race looked a lot like Saturday’s event. teams used  different pit strategies with some cars opting for a three stop race. Ryan Hunter-Reay was one of the first to pit. meanwhile, Rossi was running away from the field. Rossi and Hunter-Reay exchanged the lead on pit stops. Rossi, on a two stop schedule, took the lead when Hunter-Reay pitted on lap 53. A 63. second stop put the deficit to Rossi at 10 seconds. Hunter-Reay’s DHL car had a lot of speed on fresher tires. Rossi had made his last stop six laps earlier. The lead gap slowly closed until on lap 64, Rossi missed the turn with a huge brake lockup. Hunter-Reay zipped past and took the checkered first. Rossi shredded a tire and after a quick replacement, he ended up twelfth. The mistake not only cost Rossi the victory, it also cost him the point lead that he had just gained on Saturday. Rossi is now third in points behind Will Power and Scott Dixon.

Overall, Sunday’s race was a better than average Detroit race. There were battles for position throughout the field and a fight for the win at the end. Belle Isle will return to the schedule next year.

Notes

I hope Sunday’s pace car incident leads to the end of celebrity pace car drivers. While Reuss does have experience driving high performance cars, he does not drive professionally. The drivers in this series deserve professional in all phases of the race. I have opposed this practice for a long time. I feel the same way about celebrity flag wavers. Professionals should controla race from the command to start engines on.

Sunday changed my mind about the new car racing at Detroit. It was amuch more competitive show than Saturday. This package needs a little tweaking. Texas next weekend will show how much adjusting needs to be done.

Zak Brown, principal at McLaren, and Gil De Ferran were at Belle Isle this weekend talking to teams about entering the season next year. DeFerran is helping facilitate McLaren’s entry into the series. Nothing has been confirmed.

Will Power’s runner-up finish yesterday was the only Chevy on the podium all weekend. Andretti had three of the six spots and Ganassi had two.

ABC/ESPN televised its final Indycar race for the foreseeable future. NBC Sports takes over television duties next weekend at Texas and all of the next three years. ABC at one time was the go to network for Indycar, but at the corporate level seemed to have had a waning interest in the sport the last few years. I appreciate the hard work of all the people I’ve met who work for ABC and hope many can catch on with NBC next year.  Some great people may not be back next year.

What is the Ceiling for Dixon?

Now that Scott Dixon has tied Michael Andretti with 42 career wins, how many more can he get before he retires? Someone asked me Saturday if I thought he could get to 50. I think that may be a stretch given his age and how difficult it is to win in today’s Indycar series. On the other hand, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that he can reach the 50 mark.

Advertisements

Power Takes Indycar Grand Prix Pole

Call it equalizing. At St. Pete, Robert Wickens nipped Will Power for the pole. Today, Power just beat Wickens to take his second consecutive pole for tomorrow’s Indycar Grand Prix.

 Power led both practice sessions. His  best lap in the afternoon round was 1:09.8759. Jordan King was second quick, 0.3 tenths behind.  Rossi was third to go with his second place in the morning practice. Power, King, and Rossi were them only three to place in the top five in both session

In Group 1,  Wickens, James Hinchcliffe, Spencer Pigot , Jordan King, Josef Newgarden, and Helio Castroneves advanced. Castroneves was given a 5 minute hold at the start of tomorrow’s warmup for running an extra lap after the checkered flag.

Qualifying Group 2 had the top three in points- Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi,  and Sebastien Bourdais.  As the cars were leaving the pits, Gabby Chaves stalled and his crew retrieved the car and restarted him. Advancing were Bourdais, Power, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, and Rossi. Rossi will start eigh

In Round 2 Wickens, Power, KIng, Hinchcliffe, Bourdais, and Newgarden made the Fast 6. Teams making the final round were Penske (2), Schmidt-Peterson (2), Ed Carpenter Racing. and Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.

Power won the pole with a time 1:09.8182. Wickens was second, 0.007 seconds behind. This is Power’s 51st career pole, placing him third on the all time career pole list. It is his first pole this year.

In the Fast Six press conference, Wickens said he made a mistake on his first lap in the final round. His teammate Hinchcliffe had brake issues in the second practice. He gave “huge credit to the 6 guys (Wickens’ team) for helping to solve the problem.

King was glad he was able to test on the road course before the season, He said that it helped him get right to work on qualifying today.

 

Bump Tales- Marlboro Snuffed; Team Penske Fails to Qualify

Nothing at the Indianapolis Motor4 Speedway is a given. A car, a team, or a driver cannot be penciled into the starting lineup because they just happen to be at the track in May. This point was never driven home as hard as it was in 1995 when Team Penske, winners of the previous two 500s and three of the previous four, failed to make the field for the 79th running of the Indianapolis 500.  Penske came to Indianapolis with a new chassis. The car was a handful from the first practice day. A switch to a Lola or Reynard chassis didn’t help.

The powerful Mercedes-Ilmor pushrod engine that dominated the field in 1994 was not available by rule. The engine wasn’t the issue, however. The car had handling issues. It couldn’t get through the turns well. By the first qualifying weekend, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, winners of the last two 500s, were running 10 mph slower than eventual pole sitter Scott Brayton. Penske hoped they could find a solution in the week following pole weekend and get the cars in the field on the second weekend. Pole weekend 1995  was the first time Team Penske did not qualify at least one car on opening weekend.

Bump Day arrived and still neither car had qualified. Bump Days during the era of two qualifying weekend followed an unwritten schedule. If the field hadn’t been filled by then, a handful of cars would go out early to grab the few reamaining slots. If weather interfered later in the day, those cars were guaranteed a spot in the race. Then, several hours of open track for practice occurred. No one seriously thought about qualifying until after 4 pm, when a cooling shadow appeared on the front straight.  1995 stuck to the pattern.

The day before, Fittipaldi made an attempt to qualify. He was averaging 225.5 but the crew waved off the run. It was a speed that would have put him in row 10. Unser, Jr. did not come close to a  speed that would get him in the field. The team put all their hopes into the final two hours of qualifying.

At 5:20 pm Fittipaldi completed a run at 224. 907 which placed him insecurely on the grid. With 12 minutes left in qualifying, Stefan Johanssen bumped Fittipaldi and Team Penske from the field of 33 for the 1995 race. The team that dominated the previous year did not come close to getting in the race.

To his credit, and one thing I have always respected Roger Penske for, he did not try to buy qualified cars to put his drivers in the race. Other owners have done that in this situation, as recently as 2011, when Michael Andretti bought one of A. J. Foyt’s qualified entries for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Unser, Jr. was the first active defending champion to not make the race. It would be the first 500 without an Unser in the field since 1962. He and Bobby Rahal are the only defending series champions to fail to qualify. Rahal’s bump story is coming next week in this space.

Following the 1995 season, Tony George formed the IRL, which precipitated a 12 year war with CART. The competing open wheel series hurt the sport. It is slowly recovering, but will likely never regain the prominence it once held. Penske opted to stay in CART and didn’t return to IMS until 2001. His team won three consecutive races and his team has since won three more. Team Penske’s most recent victory was in 2015 with Juan Pablo Montoya.

As bizzare as qualifying was, the 1995 race was one of the strangest I’ve seen. It seemed as if every driver who led crashed. The strangest crash was Jimmy Vasser, who loked to be in complete control, crashed trying to pass a lapped car. Scott Goodyear took command and was well on his way to victory. On a restart with about 10 laps to go, Goodyear passed the pace car, which had not yet left the track. He ignored the black flag. Officials stopped scoring Goodyear’s laps after lap 195. Jacques Villeneuve, who had received a two lap penalty earlier in the day, inherited the lead and the win. Villeneuve drove 505 miles to win the 500.

Next week on Bump Tales, stories of two former winners who failed to qualify in different years.  Look for my Indycar Grand Prix stories Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

 

Bump Tales- Stories of Past Bump Days at the Indianapolis 500 – Tied for 33rd

Welcome to the first edition of Bump Tales, a weekly series this month about some of the wilder Bump Days of past Mays. Today is a reprise of a post from  August 16, 2016, “Tied for 33rd.”

Bump day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway meant a driver needed to be one of the fastest thirty-three drivers or go home. Your car did not get multiple attempts- one four lap run and you lived with it. While the car was done after that, a driver could find a different car if he were to be bumped. After a usually furious Pole Day, action on the other three days followed a more laid back pattern. A couple of cars would make attempts early in the day. Everyone else then waited for  the five o’clock shadow to cover the front straight before going out for their run. Things were running as usual in 1963 on Bump Day.  The shadow appeared at its appointed time. Then things got strange.

As the magic hour approached, some stars were in danger of not making the field. Troy Ruttman, winner of the 1952 race,  qualified just before 5 to bump Ebb Rose. Len Sutton, runner up  the previous year, had also been bumped. He was trying to find a new car to drive, as was Rose.  The last hour congestion began in pit lane, with thirteen or so cars lining up to get a try.

Ralph Liguori then bumped Masten Gregory, who had qualified one of Mickey Thompson’s cars.. Thompson had entered five cars, but only two would make the race. Liguori getting in was good news and bad news. He had a faster speed than Gregory, but he was now the slowest in the field. Sutton found a new car and took to the track. His qualifying run started well, but at the finish, he and Liguori were tied at 147.620. Thirty- four cars had the thirty- three fastest speeds.  In these pre-computer days, the officials had to do some hand figuring to carry the speeds to next decimal place. All they really had to do was wait until Ebb Rose went out again in A. J. Foyt’s spare car.

Rose, owner of a trucking company in Houston, had entered his own car, which Ruttman had bumped. In Foyt’s car, with about ten minutes to go, he comfortably beat Liguori’s and Sutton’s time. In effect, he bumped two cars at once. A new track record! It turned out that Sutton had a better time than Liguori after the time was figured to the ten-thousandth place. Sutton would be first alternate.

This was not the only tie in speed that weekend. The day before, Bob Christie and Lloyd Ruby also had the same average speed. Christie started eighteenth and Ruby nineteenth, based on the tie -breaking fourth decimal place. They were separated by six ten-thousandths of a second.

The race was dominated by Parnelli Jones from the pole. Jim Clark in second began closing in late in the race when oil on the track became an issue. Many thought Jones’ oil tank was leaking. Colin Chapman, Clark’s car owner, pleaded with officials to black flag Jones. They didn’t, and Jones won easily as Clark decided to back off on the slippery track.

Ruttman finished twelfth and Rose came home fourteenth. They both completed all 200 laps. Al Miller, the fastest last day qualifier, finished ninth.  It was a pretty good day for some starting at the back of the field. Three rookies in the field, Jim Clark, Bobby Unser, and Johnny Rutherford, would go on to win the race in future years.

In 1963 sixty-six cars were entered. Today it is a struggle to get to thirty-three.  Granted, we don’t need two qualifying weekends, and cars do need limited multiple attempts. Indycar is still struggling to find the correct qualifying format for the race. I miss the old format, but I realize it doesn’t work with as few cars as there are now. 1963 provided the drama we all seek out of qualifying.

Top photo: Parnelli Jones (L) passes Ebb Rose, the last driver to qualify,  during the 1963 500. (Photo from 1964 500 Mile Race program)

Next week: A year after a dominating month, one of the most formidable teams in Speedway history fails to make the race.

 

 

 

 

 

Barber Preview- The UAK’s First Road Test Could Be a Wet One

The ninth edition of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama gives us our first look at the new aerokit on a natural road course. The car is great on street circuits- racier, harder to drive, better to attempt a pass with. Will it meet these standards on a road course? I think it should come close. The elevation changes, three straights, and slow curves should make this harder to drive car quite a handful. I will be spending a lot of time in turns 1, 2, and 3.

Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most beautiful tracks in the United States. The venue sits in a park with gorgeous landscape and whimsical pieces of art scattered throughout the property. The museum is one of the best motorsports museums anywhere. I’m interested to see if they’ve enhanced their Dan Gurney exhibit this year.

Barber  has become a more competitive track since the introduction of the DW12 chassis. The first two races, in 2010 and 2011, were rather tepid affairs with little passing. In 2012 Will Power won from ninth place on the grid. He did have the fastest car that weekend but was caught out by a red flag situation in qualifying. In 2016 Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal waged a spirited battle for the lead. Rahal took the lead briefly but made contact with a lapped car and soldiered home to his second straight runner-up finish.

Only five drivers have won this event, three of them twice each. Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race. Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Josef Newgarden, the defending champion, have a pair of victories here. Simon Pagenaud won in 2016. Power has won the most poles.

Scott Dixon has not won at Barber, but he has more podium finishes than anyone else here. He was second five times and third twice. 2016 was the only time he missed the podium. While he has been quick this year, he has spent a lot of time having to fight his way back through the field from an incident or penalty.

Points leader Alexander Rossi  does not have much of a record at Barber. This will only be his third race here. Based on the three events so far this year, he will likely make his presence known this weekend. His teammate, Hunter-Reay, has a great resume in Alabama. Andretti is a team to watch this weekend.

Team Penske has dominated this track with poles and they have five wins in the eight races to date. They have to be considered the favorites going into the weekend. This year, though, they will face the most competition they have had here in Andretti and possibly Coyne and Schmidt-Peterson.

All four of these teams have fought hard so far this season. Sunday will give us a big clue as to how the year might play out. I’m looking for a long multi-team battle through the end of the season.

My pick for Barber- Will Power. His race in Long Beach showed he has shaken off his issues from the first two races and he is at a track he usually dominates. I would not be shocked if he repeats Rossi’s Long Beach weekend.

Rossi will retain his points lead as the series heads to Indianapolis for May.

Race coverage begins at 3pm Eastern Sunday on NBCSN.

The latest weather forecast has Sunday as a very rainy day. It might be a race run completely on rain tires. This package has yet to run in the rain. If it is going to rain, I would rather see a dry start and then rain. My second preference would be a wet start and then a drying track with rain returning late in the race. The weather could make for some amazing strategy.

“Bump Tales” Begins May 4

A weekly feature, “Bump Tales,” starts Thursday, May 3. I will share stories of some of the more dramatic Bump Days of the past. Bonus editions will post on May 18 and 19. It will give you something to read during the rain (or possibly) snow delay on Saturday.

 

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

 

Phoenix- Double Edged Test for Indycar.

Above: A. J. Foyt on his way to winning the inaugural race at Phoenix in 1964.

A classic track and the new aerokit  come together Saturday night, testing Indycar on two fronts. USAC began racing at Phoenix in 1964. The track was a staple on the circuit through 1978,  hosting two races, one in the spring, and one in the fall. There was no spring race in 1973.  CART held races from 1979 off and on through 1995. The current Indycar series raced at Phoenix from 1996-2005, then returned in 2016.

Will this new car make for a  better race and will that lead to better attendance? Those two questions  may decide if Phoenix remains on the schedule. Attendance in 2016 was low, and the race didn’t help the crowd grow last year.  The original deal ends after this race. The last two races at Phoenix ISM Raceway were rather dull affairs. Scott Dixon won in 2016 after first Helio Castroneves and then Juan Pablo Montoya had tire issues. The leaders had difficulty lapping the slower cars. Last year, the leaders had the same problem passing cars. Simon Pagenaud won after inheriting the lead from  the way the cautions fell. Once he got to the lead, he was not going to be passed. Phoenix has never allowed much passing. It has always been a one groove track, but I remember some great races there.

The new aerokit creates less downforce and should lead to more tire degradation. This combination should lead to more passing late in a tire stint. Depending on when the caution periods occur, we could see a great show. Where last year many races were  about fuel management, the game this year could be tire management. I much prefer tire math over fuel math.

Late word is a second groove will be rubbered in, perhaps before each session, to allow for more passing opportunities. Indycar must not be sure that the new aero package will work.  This is a gimmicky fix to the problem. I know the race needs to be good, but I’d like it to be naturally good.  Added horsepower for all races might help, for instance.

From the open test in Phoenix before the season began, it looked like the cars could run closer together. Whether they can pass remains to be seen. Rahal Letterman Lanigan had the fastest team with Takuma Sato. Will they be quick this time as well? Team Penske has dominated the last two years here, winning the pole both years and the race last year. Look for another strong showing from them.  Matheus Leist was quick in the test, but spun four times in the final session. He is quick, but needs to manage his speed to have success. How will Robert Wickens do in his first oval race?

A team I wouldn’t count out this weekend is Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi had strong showings in St. Pete. Marco Andretti also was competitive. Zach Veach had some early issues but was the highest finishing rookie. If Hunter-Reay’s car is working right, watch out for him to contend late in the race.

My fearless predictions: I think Ryan Hunter-Reay returns to Victory Lane this week.

Bonus prediction: Graham Rahal heads to Long Beach as the points leader.

Watch for updates from Phoenix Friday and Saturday on twitter (@tutorindie) and a brief post or two in this space.