Rossi Stars in Amazing Race Again

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

Tony Kanaan had his second straight top 10.

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

500 Field at 35

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

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

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

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

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The Long Beach Winding Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Season Preview, Part 2- Smaller Teams Look for Bigger Results

First, some personal news:

Beginning this weekend I will be covering Indycar for Wildfire Sports, a sports site carrying podcasts and written content. I am very excited for this opportunity. Please give them a look at wildfireradiosports.com. I plan to continue this blog, probably with a slight change in content. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. You helped make this happen.

 

The four smallest established teams in the paddock expect better results this year thanks to the new aero package. TheHonda teams are especially optimistic that equal aero with superior Honda power will yield higher finishes. Each of the teams featured today have at least one driver new to the team. All but one driver was not in Indycar last year.

A. J. Foyt Racing

Foyt turned over their driver lineup for the second year in a row. They now have former series champion and 2013 500 winner Tony Kanaan and rookie Matheus Leist. Kanaan has struggled the last few years with Ganassi. He is looking for a fresh starts. I’m not sure this is the best team to get better results with, but his talent may help improve the team’s standing.

Leist drove in Indy Lights in 2017 and won the Freedom 100 in dominating fashion. He also won at Iowa. Still, I think he could have benefitted from another season in Lights. Leist spun four times at the Phoenix test. He will have a challenging year.

Overall I don’t look for much improvement from Foyt Racing. The constant change of personnel makes it difficult to produce decent results. Kanaan may be able to get a few top 10s, but anything beyond that would be a major accomplishment.

Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan

This team has some unfinished business. Sebastien Bourdais was poised to be a championship contender last year, winning the St. Pete opener and on his way to the pole at Indy when the horrendous crash occurred. Bourdais was sidelined until Labor Day weekend.

2018 begins with a full time sponsor and a partnership with former team owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan. This may be the boost that Coyne needs to move his organization closer to the front consistently. Look for Bourdais to be in the thick of the title fight.

The second car will have two part time drivers, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi. DeMelo drove in Indy Lights last year and had an Indycar debut at Sonoma with Rahal :Letterman Lanigan. After a slow start to the weekend he showed a decent race pace. I thought he was one of the most improved Lights drivers last year, but I still think he could use another year’s experience. DeMelo will run at St. Pete, Long Beach, Barber, Detroit, Road America, Pocono, Toronto, and Gateway.

Fittipaldi is the grandson of former series, world, 2-time 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi. He raced in Europe last season and did well. He performed well in testing, but he is still a rookie on a low budget team. I think he will be interesting to watch. Fittipaldi’s seven races are Phoenix, GP of Indy, the 500, Texas, Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma.

Ed Carpenter Racing

2018 sees some shuffling and one part time addition to the Fuzzy’s Vodka backed team. Owner Ed Carpenter will continue to drive the ovals in car 20 and rookie Jordan King, who comes from F3 and F2 with respectable credentials, will take over the car fro the road and street schedule.

The 21 car will have Spencer Pigot, last year’s road and street driver of the 20. Pigot is a major talent who should do well in a full time seat. Last year a series of mechanical issues cost him some great finishes. I anticipate fewer problems and some top 5s this season.

Carpenter always qualifies well at Indianapolis, but has very little good fortune in the race. Could this be the year their fortune changes?

The 20 and the 21 will have different liveries this year. Last year the two cars were a spotter’s nightmare as they were pretty much indistinguishable in the race. When both cars carry the Fuzzy’s sponsorship, the 21 will be green and the 20 will be black.

Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports

I always start the new season with high hopes for this team.  There are some flashes of brilliance but not a consistent result for the entire schedule. 2018 could be different. James Hinchcliffe returns and his teammate, Robert Wickens, is someone he grew up with. Wickens was headed for an open wheel career which got derailed and spent last year in DTM.  This is the strongest two car lineup SPM has had in a while.

Adding Leena Gade as lead engineer is a huge hire for SPM. She is one of the top engineers in the world. It will not take her long to get these cars competitive. Gade is also a strong, articulate  advocate for equal opportunities for women in sport. I am very glad she is in the Indycar paddock.

There were some issues with Hinchcliffe’s car at Phoenix, which hopefully will be resolved by the April race. Wickens showed good speed at the Sebring test. He has a smooth style.

The team has added several partners in the offseason. The biggest deal is with New Era as the team’s apparel provider.

I think Hinchcliffe will win a race this year as he did last year. Wickens will have several good runs and likely finish second in the season Rookie of the Year chase.

Tomorrow concludes my team previews with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Andretti Autosport. On Friday I will have a full season preview with predictions you can take to the bank, or anywhere else that has a trash can..

Season Preview, Part 1- New Teams Hope New Aero Package Levels the Field

New teams, new drivers, new sponsors, and a new aero package are ready. The fans are more than ready. The 2018 Indycar season starts Friday when practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins.

In a three part series, I take a look at each team and make some predictions for the year.

Today I focus on the new teams. In all parts of this preview, team order is random and is not intended to be a prediction of season long results.

Michael Shank Racing

It has been a long road to Indycar for Michael Shank, beginning last year with the Indianapolis 500. Jack Harvey drives the Shank car, which has a technical partnership with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. The team has scheduled 6 races this year so far. Harvey will drive at St. Pete, Long Beach, The 500, Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma. The team may add a couple more races. This will be an interesting team to watch. They might be able to grab a couple of top 10s, but I see them using this season to learn and build.

Juncos Racing

Ricardo Juncos may be pioneering the model for future Indycar teams. Juncos has been a long time steady participant in the Mazda Road to Indy, winning the 2017 Indy Lights championship with Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser and the team both move to Indycar this year. Juncos has eight scheduled races this year. Kaiser will drive in four, and newcomer Rene Binder will drive the other four. There is hope to add some more outings for Kaiser, the team’s primary driver.

Binder will open the season at St. Pete, then race at Barber, Toronto, and Mid-Ohio. Kaiser debuts at Phoenix, then goes to Long Beach, and finishes the season at Indianapolis, driving in the GP of Indy and the 500. The hope is to add more races for Kaiser. I hope that happens because he needs more seat time and needs to have races deeper into the season.

I think this team will struggle to get results, but they will build a solid foundation for the following years. Juncos still has a presence in the Mazda Road to Indy with Victor Franzoni headlining their Indy Lights program.

Carlin Racing

It was just a matter of time before Carlin moved to Indycar. After a successful two years in Indy Lights, including the 2016 championship with Ed Jones, they become a two car team with former Ganassi drivers Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. Carlin knows how to run races and their two drivers have Indycar experience.

Chilton is still learning the craft and showed improvement last year. Kimball is at a crossroads. Were his problems last season a part of being on Ganassi’s B team? This will be a pivotal year for him.

I think they will have some good results and will end up in the upper half of the field.

Harding Racing

A three race toe dip last season and now Harding is a full time entry with Gabby Chaves. In their brief time last year the team produced two top 10s and was running at the finish of every race. Chaves is a steady driver. The team strengthened their leadership hiring Brian Barnhart as president and Al Unser, Jr. as driving coach. That experience alone gives them a bit of an edge over the other new teams. Look for a consistent season with some very good results on occasion. Harding could be the best of the newcomers.

Tomorrow-

A. j. Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, Schmidt Peterson Racing, and Ed Carpenter Racing

A Bumpy Saturday?

Has it only been seven years? 2011 was the last year there was bumping at the Speedway for the 500. On Bump Day that year Marco Andretti bumped teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay out of the race as time ran out. Mike Conway, another Andretti driver, also failed to qualify. Hunter-Reay still drove in the race when Andretti bought the A. J. Foyt car qualified by Bruno Junqueira.

It  appears likely there will be at least 34 entries, maybe a couple more for  this year’s race.  If things work out and there are more than 33, the format of the last few years will need some adjustments. I’m not talking a major overhaul, just a couple things to attempt to restore the drama of Bump Day. The current format, though lacking a lot of drama,  is fine if every entry is going to make the race. I think that was its purpose. But with more cars than spots, some changes are in order.

First, limit each car to no more than three attempts instead of an unlimited number. This will allow all entrants a fairer shot at making the race. Second, If you want more than one attempt, you must withdraw your previous time.  I never liked the rule where a car could keep its time when it went out for a second run and then keep the better one. This is the year to ditch that rule. Third, have a 4:30 deadline to set the Fast Nine for Sunday, leaving the last 90 minutes for bumping. These changes will bring back the  drama that has been lacking under the current format. We knew everyone was going to be in. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat hoping a driver would improve from 17th to 16th.  Seven of the top nine were pretty much a given, though there might be some drama there this year with the depth of the field. I’m looking forward to the most exciting Saturday qualifying in quite some time.

Now, my favorite part where I get to spend other people’s money. The cars that  make a qualifying run but do not make the race should get something for their efforts. Cars that put up a qualifying run but failed to qualify used to get a token amount from the Speedway. A minimum today should probably be around $25,000, which not cover much of the team’s expenses.

Where are the extra cars coming from? To get to 36, as some people think will happen, Honda would likely need to supply 19 engines and Chevrolet 17. I think those numbers are a stretch for both companies. If there is that much interest in entering the race, the urgency to find a third OEM becomes that much stronger.

Here are the entries as of Thursday evening. * -unconfirmed entries

Penske  -4- Castroneves, Power, Newgarden, Pagenaud

Andretti 6- Munoz, Wilson, Veach, Andretti, Hunter-Reay, Rossi

Ganassi  2- Jones, Dixon

Rahal  2- Sato, Rahal

Foyt    2- Leist, Kanaan

Schmidt  3- Howard*, Wickens, Hinchcliffe

Carlin  2- Jones, Kimball

Harding 1- Chaves

Shank 1- Harvey

Coyne Vasser Sullivan 3- Mann* Fittipaldi, Bourdais

Carpenter 3- Patrick, Pigot, Carpenter

DRR  2*- Karam* Hilderbrand*

Lazier 1*- Lazier*

Juncos 1- Kaiser

This is 33. There are rumors of a fourth car at Coyne, possibly for Conor Daly, and a possible second Harding car. The other possibility is a third Rahal car for Oriol Servia. I think the Lazier entry is shaky and that would probably be one of the cars not making the race. I am confident of 34. Time will tell.

There is lots of news to discuss next week, including interest in Indycar from another tire company. Have a great weekend. I’ll be back Tuesday.