2018- Passing Grade for New Aero; Close Points Battle; Talented Rookies

St.Pete set the tone. The racing was going to be better with the new kit. It was going to be a competitive season. A rookie star emerged and would captivate fans. 2018 was all that. That rookie, Robert Wickens, unfortunately didn’t get to complete the year.  Younger stars made a bold statement that they arrived, but the established stars rose to the top at the end, It was one of the most enjoyable seasons. I’ve seen.

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Robert Wickens at Mid Ohio. He finished second in what would be his last complete race of the year.

The Meteor

Robert Wickens stole the pole at the opening race in St. Pete and dominated the race until a lap 108 collision with Alexander Rossi knocked him out of the race. Indycar fans suddenly had a new star to root for. Wickens followed up with a second place finish  at Phoenix after leading the late stages of the race. Five consecutive top tens, including three top fives followed. Then everything came to a horrendous halt in the accident at Pocono. Whether Wickens gets back into a car again is still undetermined. He may miss the entire 2019 season. Despite missing the final three races, Wickens still finished tied for tenth in points and won Rookie of the Year. One of the highlights of last Sunday’s Sonoma finale was seeing a video of Wickens talking to the fans.

The New Aero Package

Two goals of the new aero package were to improve the racing and put the car back in the hands of the drivers. It definitely accomplished the second aim. There was better racing for the most part. Ovals definitely need some more work. Street courses showed the most improvement and road courses had more passing than last year. There is still an aero wash that needs to be tweaked. It’s fun seeing the cars slide through the corners.

A Tight Title Fight

Six different drivers swapped the lead eight times through the Texas race. Scott Dixon took the points lead with his win at Texas and led the rest of the way. His lead ballooned to 62 after Toronto but shrunk to 26 after Gateway. Alexander Rossi was third after Toronto, 70 points behind, but won two in a row at Mid Ohio and Pocono to cut into the lead. Rossi’s last chance to catch Dixon ended in the second turn at Sonoma when he clipped Marco Andretti, cutting a tire and damaging his front wing.

While Dixon’s 57 point final margin seems large, it was not an easy title to win. Dixon, Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power won three races each, and Ryan Hunter-Reay won twice. This concentration of big points days among a few drivers kept things close.

Dixon’s fifth title puts him into rarefied air. Only A. J. Foyt with seven championships has more than Dixon.

It was a strange route to the championship. Dixon did not win a pole and didn’t lead a lap until the first race in Detroit in June. He had the fewest bonus points of the four main contenders. Dixon dodged two bullets late in the season. He narrowly missed the spinning tub of Wickens’ car at Pocono. At the start of the Portland race, Dixon was involved in a scramble with four other cars, but he suffered no damage and fought back to a fifth place finish.

New teams

Carlin and Harding Racing joined the series full time. Meyer Shank Racing and Juncos Racing had part time entries. All four new teams will return next year with expanded programs. The biggest change for 2019 will be Harding, now Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Carlin is planning on adding a third car. Meyer Shank hopes to participate in ten races next season. Juncos bought a second car but is unsure if it will race during he season.

I will talk about the Harding Steinbrenner team in a post next week.

Rookies Impress

In addition to Wickens, Zach Veach had a string of four consecutive top tens at Toronto, Mid Ohio, Pocono, and Gateway. Veach had run well at times in other races but was plagued by mistakes. He was instrumental in setting up the Andretti cars in testing.

At Sonoma, Indy lights champion Patricio O’Ward got his first Indycar ride with Harding Racing. He got people’s attention with the third quickest lap in Friday’s second practice. He backed that up by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth in the race. O’Ward and Colton Herta will be full time next year for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Final Thoughts

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Alexander Rossi at St. Pete. He showed amazing ability to pass anywhere and also had some controversial moments.

Rossi put some spice into several races this year with his charges from the rear. He started 32nd at Indianapolis and finished fourth. At Phoenix he went to the back because of a penalty and came back for a third place finish. At Sonoma he used a timely caution to fight back to seventh and keep second place in the final standings.

Rossi also created some controversy with some moves where contact was involved. the most notorious was was his collision with Wickens at St. Pete. I liked the way he didn’t apologize and just went on driving. Rossi has an old school attitude I really enjoy.

I admire Mike Harding for fielding a team all season on a limited budget. Next year the team should be stronger with added resources.

Thanks to Verizon for their series sponsorship the last five years. I appreciate that unlike other series sponsors, they completed their entire contract length.

Finally, I will continue to send good healing thoughts to Robert Wickens. I hope to see him race again.

 

 

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Quick Thoughts- Sonoma Grand Prix and Championship

 

The championship ended before the first lap was over.

Sounded like NBC fumbled the coverage. I hope this isn’t an indication of how next year will be.

Scott Dixon definitely has a place among racing’s legends. Only A. J. Foyt had more championships.

Patricio O’ Ward continued his amazing weekend with a top 10 finish.

Alexander Rossi can pass almost anyone on any track. He might won the title next year.

The race reflected the youth ve. veterans theme of the entire year.Look for my full race recap later this week on Wildfire Sports. I will also have a season review here on Friday.  Thanks for following along this  year.

Quick Thoughts on Sonoma Qualifying

Hunter- Reay may have won the pole but Pato O’Ward was the star of the show. What a great job in his first Indycar weekend.

A non title contender winning the pole helps Dixon and pretty much knocks Power and Newgarden out of contention.

This was Dixon’s best road course qualifying of the year and only his second Fast Six on a natural road course. He could win the championship without winning a pole.

Power regrets not running another lap.

Wind will be a significant factor in the race tomorrow.

 

 

 

Hunter-Reay, Newgarden Lead Day 1 at Sonoma

Ryan Hunter-Reay had the fastest time of the opening day of practice for the Grand Prix of Sonoma. He lead the first session with a lap of 1:17.5742. Josef Newgarden had the quick time in the afternoon session of 1:17.8156. Seven of the ten fastest times of the day were turned in the morning session.  This doesn’t happen often since the red tires are allowed in the afternoon. Newgarden did not turn a lap in the morning session due to a fuel system isdue.

Several drivers talked of high tire degradation, getting just two good laps out of their tires. Shifting winds also factored into the lap times.  No one was overly concerned about today’s times.

The biggest surprise of the day was rookie Patricio O’Ward with the third fastest time in session 2 of 1:18.0073. He set the time early in the session on black tires. It was the sixth best time overall.

Besides Newgarden, the other championship contenders ended the day on the combined charts third (Scott Dixon), fourth (Will Power), and eleventh (Alexander Rossi). Rossi was sixth and eighth in the two sessions.

Quick Thoughts on the Iowa Corn 300

This was the best oval race of the season, maybe the best race of the year to date. The lead was not safe, there were battles for position and lots of passing, both high and low. Cars were going different speeds allowing for separation. There were two on track passes for the lead, including one for the win. I don’t know what more anyone could want.

James Hinchcliffe could have done donuts for thirty minutes if he wanted to. He is the master of the comeback after being knocked down by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2016, the year after his near fatal crash, he won the pole for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. This year he gets bumped, but comes back to win a race.

It was evident early that Hinchcliffe had the fastest car. After the first pit stop, the car was not getting off turn 2 well, but the next stop corrected that problem. Josef Newgarden had a very fast car as well, but not as fast as Hinchcliffe’s. newgarden had the early advantage of track position. Once Hinchcliffe caught and passed him with 45 laps to go, it was game over.

Congratulations to Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot on his first career podium. Pigot drove a smooth race after starting 19th and fought with Hinchcliffe for second after the restart. I have expected great things from Pigot. It seemed something always kept him from getting a good result.

The Finish

I have no problem with the way the race finished. A caution with six laps to go on a larger track may not have been a problem to have a one or two lap shootout. A track the size of Iowa chews up laps quickly even under caution. Jay Frye and Ryan Novak explained their case after the race. They just ran out of time. No team was told that the race was going back to green. Those that pitted did so on their own hoping the race would resume.

Fans are not entitled to a green flag finish, Races end at the scheduled distance. I do not want to see this changed in Indycar.

Cutting Into Dixon’s Lead

Scott Dixon should put a table outside his hauler with a sign reading, “Please Put Your Points Here.”  Alexander Rossi and now Josef Newgarden have given back precious points. Rossi lost 22 points in Detroit Race 2 by trying to stay in front of Hunter-Reay. Newgarden lost the runner-up spot today with the late pit stop costing him eight points. Dixon now leads Newgarden by 33 points, but it could be closer.

None of the contenders  besides Newgarden had a good day.

The Crowd

Attendance seemed to be slightly better than the last two years, but still not great. The buzz is that there will be a race  next year and that it will be a night race. Moving today’s race up a couple hours helped, but I know a lot of people who still could not attend because of work Monday.

Watch for my full race recap on Wildfireradiosports.com on Tuesday.

Power Wins Iowa Pole; Newgarden Completes Another Penske Front Row

Their  positions from Road America are reversed, but the Team Penske duo of Will Power and Josef Newgarden again grabbed the front row spots for tomorrow afternoon’s Iowa Corn 300. Power won his 52nd career pole with an average of 182.371, edging Newgarden  by 0.24 seconds.  Only the top four qualifiers topped 180 mph.  Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third and Simon Pagenaud starts fourth.

In a qualifying session that pretty much followed expectations, the biggest surprises were the performances of Spencer Pigot and Marco Andretti.  Both were in the top ten in morning practice, but huge second lap drop-offs have them starting 18th and 19th respectively. Zach Veach, another front runner in the morning, will start 14th.

Notes

The top five in points will start in the top six positions. Pagenaud is the only top six starter not in the top five.

For the second race in a row, the fifth place driver in the standings won the pole.

Points leader Scott Dixon starts sixth. He has yet to win at Iowa Speedway.

Observations from Final Practice

Alexander Rossi put on quite a show passing lots of cars. he would stalk them for a few laps, then was able to pass on either side. His best pass was on Simon Pagenaud. he chased the Penske driver but quite the run he needed. When the pair came upon the slower car of Matheus Leist, Rossi got Pagenaud to end up directly behind Leist, slowing him enough for Rossi to dart around him. It was a thing of beauty.

Zach Veach looked very good, passing cars and running a consistent line.

Pagenaud lost an engine with less than 10 minutes left in the session.

 

The Dixon Domino; Other Thoughts

Silly Season began early with talk of new teams, especially McLaren, working with established teams. Now the first driver name has emerged as possibly moving to a new team. To the surprise of many, Scott Dixon’s name came up as the possible diver of the full time McLaren entry should Fernando Alonso only want to do the 500. The story seemed odd at first, but Dixon has confirmed that he has talked to Zak Brown’s team. he has also had talks with Andretti about next year. While everyone assumes McLaren will, partner with Andretti, that may not necessarily be the case.

Honda wants to keep Dixon as one of their drivers. Is Honda completely okay with  McLaren?  Although HPD, the U. S. arm of Honda that provides the engines for Indycar, would be welcoming, is the parent company okay with McLaren and Alonso after the Honda/McLaren debacle in Formula 1? Zak brown has had talks with Chevrolet as well, looking for the best fit for his Indycar team. I think they will definitely be at the 500, but the rest of the season is still a long way from being settled. What Dixon does will determine all other driver movement in the offseason. If Dixon stays at Ganassi, there shouldn’t be a lot of changes in the driver lineup.

There likely will be more intrigue with new teams and this year’s part time teams than with drivers heading to 2019.

An Andretti F1 Team?

Rumors flew the weekend of the Canadian Grand Prix when Michael Andretti and one of his team principals made an appearance. He spent a lot of time with McLaren and Alonso, but there was talk that he was also looking into buying the beleaguered Force India team. Somehow, the conversation turned to Andretti trying to buy McLaren.

I don’t think  buying McLaren is even a remote possibility. Purchasing Force India is probably not happening either. I don’t see how Andretti could swing that deal. The F1 team has huge debts that the new owner needs to assume. Andretti would be better off starting an IMSA team than drowning in the red ink of a Formula 1 entrprise.

The 2019 Schedule

A great weekend at Road America got even better with Sunday’s announcement that the Kohler GP will return for three more years. Next year’s event will be on the same weekend, June 20-23. The race has rapidly become the Crown Jewel of Indycar’s  road course races.

Speculation that Homestead will replace Phoenix as next season’s second race continues to grow. Homestead had the same attendance issues that caused Phoenix to be dropped. It would be putting an oval on the schedule just to replace an oval. Indycar might be better off finding a road course replacement until an oval venue that will be viable is found. The season doesn’t need to begin with two street races.

No word on where next year’s finale will take place. There is strong sentiment for Gateway. If the season ends in St. Louis, where does Sonoma go? It would be difficult for the tracks to just swap places. Does the series go down to just one race in California? I think that would be a mistake.

Bonus Point Watch

Apparently I had way too much time on my hands this week. I have compiled totals of each drivers’ bonus points for the year. I did this as a means to see how the bonus points affect the championship. The maximum bonus a driver can earn at the Indianapolis 500 is 12, nine for the pole, one for leading a lap, and two more for leading the most laps. In all, other races, the maximum is four, one for pole, 1 for leading, and one for leading the most laps. For Detroit’s races, a point also goes to the driver who led the qualifying group that did not include the pole winner. At Indianapolis, the fastest nine qualifiers receive points, with the polesitter getting nine points then one point les for each position.

In the ten races to date, a driver has earned the maximum bonus points eight times. Phoenix and Texas are the only times no driver received all bonus points possible. Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden have earned four bonus points twice, Rossi at Detroit Race 2 and Long Beach; Newgarden at Road America and Barber. Below are the top eight in bonus points through Road America:

Newgarden                       20

Will Power                         16

Rossi                                     13

Sebastien Bourdais          12

Ed Carpenter*                    12

Simon Pagenaud               11

Robert Wickens                  10

Dixon                              9

*Carpenter’s points all earned at Indianapolis 500

Dixon’s first bonus point was qualifying ninth for the Indianapolis 500. Newgarden has earned bonus points in seven races. Bourdais, Rossi,  and Ryan Hunter-Reay  in six each.

While bonus points may be important, consistent finishes lead to championships. They are the reason Dixon leads the championship at the moment.