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- Portland Grand Prix

Scott Dixon must have been an alchemist in another life. He turned what looked to be a disastrous points day into gaining points on his closest rivals.

What can I say about the Dale Coyne with Vasser Sullivan racing team and Sebastien Bourdais? Took P1 in Saturday practice, crashed the next lap, pieced a car together to qualify fourth, then finish third in the race. That team will sleep well tonight. This is the best story of the weekend.

It was a tough ending to what had been a great weekend  for Zach Veach. His top ten streak ended. I still look for great things from him next season.

Another great day for Spencer Pigot. He’s another young driver coming into his own. His fourth place finish today and his second place at Iowa show his late season maturity.

The crowd today was the largest I’ve seen for an Indycar race outside of IMS. I hope attendance figures for the weekend are released. Each day was a crowd other tracks would have been thrilled to have on race day.

For a race where not much passing was anticipated, there was a lot of drama and plot twists. Takuma Sato’s two stop strategy paid off. The yellows fell at the right time for him, while others were caught out by them.

Overall, it was a good race.

I believe Robert Wickens has clinched  Rookie of the Year. It shows what a strong season he was having. Continued hope for recovery for him.

Whos Rossi’s Rival?

At the beginning of the season the talk was of a rivalry between Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden. After St. Pete, it was Rossi and Wickens. In mid season it Rossi and everybody. It turns out that the rivalry was Rossi and Scott Dixon. They are the only two realistically with a shot at the title.

The twenty nine point difference between Dixon and Rossi is a good argument to get rid of double points. I don’t think the series needs six drivers eligible to win the championship at the last race unless the points naturally fall that wa

Notes

There is a strong buzz that COTA will be the seventeenth race. The schedule should be announced Tuesday.

After two consecutive  races with huge crowds,  Sonoma will look emptier than usual.

Fernando Alonso will test an Andretti Autosport car at Barber this coming Wednesday.

Look for my full race recap on Wildfire Sports later tonight or tomorrow morning.

 

Bommarito 500- The Race with Many Faces

Another successful event at Gateway Motorsports Park ended with a race that had something for everyone. Will Power grabbed his third win of the season, closing some ground on points leader Scott Dixon. There were a couple of passes for the lead, pit strategy, and fuel saving. A driver charged from deep in the pack to earn a top five. The surprise was that it wasn’t Alexander Rossi or Sebastien Bourdais.  As is typical of night races, the complexion changed as the track cooled.

Fortunately, setting the field by points did not affect the results. That is always a concern when the starting grid is set with no regard to speeds on a particular weekend.  It was evident that Power had tje best car from the green flag when he jumped into second place behind Dixon as Rossi had an unusually bad start. Rossi at one point fell all the way back to eighth.

Drive of the Race

While positions remained fixed at the front, Zach Veach charged to tenth from sixteenth. He would remain in the top ten the rest of the evening and lead his first career laps before finishing fifth. Veach has four consecutive top ten finishes. Saturday was his second top five this year. Veach got credit for helping Andretti Autosport set up their cars for Pocono from Rossi in Victory Lane. He should be even stronger next year.

Caution Sets Up Fuel Run

The second caution on lap 173 for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s stalled car caused everyone to re-figure pit stops. The race went back to green with a distance remaining that was a bit too long to make the end on a full tank. Rossi was one of only three cars to not make a fourth stop. He has becoming a fuel saving master on the same level as Dixon and Power. He salvaged second as Dixon was indecisive on whether to save or go wide open. meanwhile, power had stopped with 17 laps left and go full speed.

Great Save

Several cars, including Power, tried to pass on the outside going into turn 1 and ended up getting very close to the wall. Rossi slid in turn 2 and appeared to be heading straight for the wall before getting the car under control. It must have made some dirt car drivers jealous. He lost the race by 1.3 seconds. The margin would have been closer if not for that adventure.

Gateway Hits Another Home Run

Gateway Motorsports park and the Bommarito Group put on a much improved event. They took feedback from 2017 and put more than 1 million dollars into making the fan experience better. There were many more food vendors, including several food trucks with quite a variety of offerings. The widened drive and paved parking made leaving smoother. My group was on the highway in about twelve minutes.

A couple things they might consider for next year- many workers still did not know where to redeem paddock vouchers for wristbands nor which seats were general admission. The track also could establish a number to text if a fan has an issue. There were people smoking in the grandstands in spite of signs prohibiting it.

Overall, this group knows how to promote and put on a race.

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Sebastien Bourdais sits on track after hitting the wall on lap 1.

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The first two rows line up on the backstretch for the start.

Gateway- Therapy for the Indycar Community

The Bommarito 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park could not have come at a better time.  The entire Indycar community- fans, teams, drivers, crews- needs to get right back to a race after last Sunday.  When Dan Wheldon lost his life in Las Vegas in 2011, it was the season finale. That made the pain worse as we all had to wait until the following spring to get back to a track.

In 2015, after Justin Wilson’s accident, Sonoma was the following week.  It felt comforting to be back  at the track so quickly and to be with many Indycar friends. I remember the subdued tone to the paddock that Friday at Sonoma.  I’m keeping Robert Wickens in my thoughts still, but I will feel better when I get to the track Friday.

Friday the paddock again may not have its usual frenetic short weekend buzz, but by Saturday things should get back to normal. Once the green flag drops everyone will focus on the race. There is still a tremendous fight for the season championship going on. Scott Dixon will try to extend his shrinking lead over Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power.

The Bommarito Group is expecting another huge crowd this year. To address some issues from last year’s event, they have undertaken a $1.1 million project. A new entrance, wider roadways inside, and more parking are just some of the items added to help fans have an easier time at the track.

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Part of the tremendous crowd at Gateway Motorsports Park last year. Photo: Mike Silver

 

Iowa or Phoenix?

The big question is will we see a race like we saw at Phoenix with no passing or an action packed race like Iowa? The Gateway track sits between those two distance wise. The banking more resembles Phoenix, as does the narrowness of the racing surface. Perhaps the shorter distance and the aero tweaks since Phoenix will make for a better race. After Sebastien Bourdais tested here, he said he thought a pass could be made one on one, but passing would be difficult in a group of cars. That could prevent the leader from getting away from whomever is chasing him if he has trouble getting through lapped traffic. Rossi is the only driver who has consistently been able to pass cars on difficult tracks this year. Bourdais has also shown the ability to pass to a lesser degree.

Chevy or Honda?

Honda cars have won the last three oval events despite a Chevy winning the pole. I suspect that is what will happen Saturday. The Chevy cars have not been great in traffic on ovals, while some  Hondas seem to be able to work around slower cars easier. Hondas also appear to be getting better fuel mileage. In a normal year, which this hasn’t been, I wold this should be a Chevy track. But then,  Pocono and Texas should have been also.

Can Dixon Hang On?

This will be the week Dixon extends his lead. I don’t think it will grow by much, but he will finish ahead of the three drivers chasing him. I’m not sure one of the contenders will win Saturday’s race. I think Dixon will leave St. Louis with a lead big enough to hold through Portland next weekend and be the man to catch going to the Sonoma finale.

Will Veach Continue His Late Season Run?

Zach Veach has finished in the top ten the last three races and should make it four at Gateway. Veach also had a fourth place at Long Beach. He sounds very confident and is someone to watch for the rest of the year. Veach has shown some flashes of good driving which have been spoiled either by on track missteps or pit fires.

Notes

Gabby Chaves returns to the number 88 Harding racing entry this weekend. Chaves began the season as Harding’s regular driver, but Conor Daly stepped into the car in Toronto. Daly gave the team its best qualifying spot and finish there and also drove at Mid Ohio and Pocono as the team looks for developmental help.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will James Hinchcliffe as their only entry this weekend. The #6 car of Robert Wickens will return at Portland with a driver to be named.

Winner?

This is a tough one to call, but I’m going to say Marco Andretti breaks his long drought. I have a perfect record this year (all wrong), so don’t bet the house on this.

 

 

 

Quick Thoughts on the ABC Supply 500

A huge thank to Dallara, the AMR Safety Team, Jay Frye, Indycar and anyone else who had a hand in designing this car. It definitely saved a life today. I hope Robert Wickens has a speedy recovery.

It looked like the front aero improvements did not help passing. I’m not sure if it the lack of the final practice, the temperatures, or effects of the accident,  but it seems as if there was no improvement from IMS.

Alexander Rossi continues his meteoric rise to stardom. If anyone can overtake Scott Dixon for the title, he is the one who can do it.

Dixon showed again today why he will be tough to beat for the Astor Cup. He had an amazing drive today for the podium.

Zach Veach had an outstanding weekend. he lead the practice session, sat on the provisional pole until fewer than ten drivers were left to qualify, and had his third straight top ten finish. keep an eye on him next year.

Why did NBC have to replay the accident so many times? I could understand once or twice, but it seemed as if they were showing it over and over. It seemed as if one time they showed the replay followed by the Indycar commercial with Dixon’s accident at the 2017 500.

The repair of the catch fence looked like a shoddy patchwork job that was not up to standards. I’m glad there was not another incident there the rest of the day. The series should have paid more attention to Sebastien Bourdais.

I hope before the race at Gateway Race Control has a long talk with the drivers about starting a race. Power did start correctly, but other drivers got too anxious.

I will have a full race story on Wildfire Sports sometime tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Thursday at IMS- Some Photos to Start the Day

Good morning, Race Fans!  Here are some more photos from yesterday to start off the day.

Later on I will have a story about the Dreyer and Reinbold team with owner Dennis Reinbold and drivers Sage Karam and J. R. Hildebrand. Look for a piece about Cara Adams from Firestone in the late afternoon. Tonight my daily wrapup will be on Wildfireradiosports.com.

Pit Lane Parley will be doing a podcast bat the track tomorrow night. More details to come. Catch up on earlier episodes at wildfireradiosports.com or Podbean.

Enjoy the photos.