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.

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The Positive Thinking of Power

“When you work hard at something it eventually comes to you,” Will Power said at his Sunday afternoon press conference. He credit this approach to his determination in the closing laps of the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Winning the 500 had run through his head more than ever over the last year, he said. It was. “The last box to check on his career, which includes an Indycar Series championship won after several close calls. Again working hard will eventually get you what you want.

The race was an intriguing event. It was difficult to pass, as expected, but drivers liked that the outcome was more in their hands. Some teams, Scott Dixon and Robert Wickens, tried alternate pit strategies which were hurt by the timing of the caution periods. Power, on a normal pit cycle, was in the right spot in the end to take advantage of those who gambled.

Ed Carpenter and Power had the strongest cars all day. Carpenter led 65 laps and Power led 59. No one else led more than 19. Tony Kanaan looked to be a third factor until a cut tire forced an extra stop. He had worked his way back to ninth, then crashed on lap 189, setting up the dramatic finish and near storybook ending.

Oriol Servia, Stefan Wilson, and Jack Harvey gambled there would be another yellow and they would be able to save enough fuel to go the distance. Servia led the field to the green on lap 193 and was quickly passed by Wilson and Harvey. Wilson led the next three laps, which sent a buzz through the crowd. The two leaders pulled into the pits for fuel on lap 196, hand Power the lead and the victory.

The usually stoic Power was one of the happiest winners in Victory Lane in many years. “I started screaming on the white flag lap,” he said. Tim Cindric corroborated that.

Notes

Power’s win was the first for a front row starter since Dario Franchitti won from third in 2010. It was Team Penske’s first 500 win since Juan Pablo Montoya won his third in 2015.

There were 30 lead changes, many on pit cycles. While we didn’t see constant passes for the lead, I thought it made each pass more genuine and a result of driving and not equipment packages.

Alexander Rossi had another march from the back of the field. His fourth place finish from a last row start was one of the highlights of the day. He also charged from the back to get a podium at Phoenix after a pit penalty. Rossi is now two points behind Power in the series championship.

Graham Rahal continues his season of starting in the back and getting to the top 10. Yesterday he finished tenth from his 30th starting spot. I’m sure he’s looking forward to Detroit where he dominated the weekend last year.

Danica Patrick’s career ended with a crash on lap 68. It was the only the second time she has not finished the race. Patrick had always done well at the Speedway, including being the first woman to lead.

Helio Castroneves spun and crashed on lap 146. I’m not sure if he will return next year. If he does, 2019 may be his last time to try for win number 4

Power is the first driver to win the Indycar Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year.

What is Up with the Pre-Race?

For a couple of years now I have become annoyed with the pace of the pre race ceremonies. This year I thought they were longer and more drawn out than ever. It seemed as if parts were out of order as well. These ceremonies used to be compact, flowing and built the tension leading to the start. I don’t get that feeling or the goosebumps I used to get during this part of the day.

The Speedway has found its new singer for “(Back Home Again in) Indiana”. It was another great performance by Jim Cornelison. Please keep him.

The highlight was playing a recording of Jim Phiilipe’s homage to veterans which preceded taps. It was wonderful to hear that again, but the moment was ruined when instead of following it immediately with “Taps”, the invocation was next, followed by an ABC commercial break, then “Taps.” A solemn moment was ruined.

The last straw was Tony George giving the command, “Drivers, start your engines” for the second year in a row. I’m not sure if I heard the engines or if the sound was Tony Hulman spinning in his grave. Please, IMS, give the traditional (Ladies) and Gentlemen, start your engines command. Drivers, start your engines is fine for every other race on the schedule.

I will close with a couple more photos from yesterday. I have more stories of the month this week before the series moves to Detroit.

(Left) Will Power’s car om pit lane race morning.

(Right) Power waits to take questions from the press.

All photos: Mike Silver

King of Barber Knows a Good Tire Guy

Josef Newgarden needed help from his Tim Cindric to win the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Monday. For the second time in three races, Cindric made the correct call on when to switch tires. In Phoenix it was a fresh set for the final restart. Monday it was putting rain tires on several laps before anyone else. He had some assistance from the weather. Had it not started raining harder Sebastien Bourdais would have won staying on slicks.

The rain with about 15 minutes left turned what was an ordinary race into an intriguing finish. Newgarden was clearly the class of the field. Bourdais’s gamble didn’t work because the rain intensified. He might have had a better chance pitting when Newgarden did. Bourdais ended up fifth, beating Scott Dixon in a drag race to the line.

With the victory Newgarden takes the points lead back from Alexander Rossi, who finished eleventh. This is the first time this season Rossi has not been on the podium. Newgarden leads by 13 points. I expect these two to swap the lead back and forth a few more times before Sonoma. Meanwhile, don’t ignore Sebastien Bourdais or Graham Rahal. They are tied for third 39  points behind. Bourdais owns the tie breaker with his victory at St. Pete. Rahal is having a very consistent year and one of his best starts to a season. He is usually very strong in the second half. Bourdais has led laps in all four races this year.

Notes

Why weren’t the leader lights working at Barber? They were on during Friday’s first practice, but weren’t on the rest of the weekend.

SPM continues its resurgence with a third for James Hinchcliffe and fourth for Robert Wickens.

Matheus Leist finished 12th for his best result this season. It was a bit of  salvation for an otherwise horrendous weekend for the Foyt team.

Zachary Claman De Melo turned the fastest lap of the race, 1:09.8183. He made some great passes. Keep an eye on this rookie.

Three drivers have won at what they consider their home tracks this season.  Bourdais at St. Pete, Rossi at Long Beach, and Newgarden at Barber. Does this trend bode well for Ed Carpenter at the 500?

Newgarden has won three of the last four races at Barber. He now has nine career wins.

Marco Andretti earned his third top 10 of the season Monday. This is by far his best start in a long time.

The windscreen gets its second test at IMS next Monday after the open test. Josef Newgarden will test the the device. Dixon tested it at Phoenix.

“Bump Tales” Begins May 3

A four week series recounting some of the more dramatic Bump Days in the past begins May 3. Many former winners missed the race and there was once a tie for the last spot.

Check in each Thursday during the month for stories about who didn’t make the fastest 33.

 

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.

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

 

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.

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.