Into the Crystal Ball… We Think Baltimore is Ready Edition

One short week after the common cure for insomnia that is racing at Sonoma, the paddock makes the 2800+ mile trip to Maryland for the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix. Reports are saying that the event is selling quite the large amount of tickets with grandstand seating nearly sold out. This equates to around 110,000 people hopefully attending on race day.  I have noticed that this is one of six events without a title sponsor. Being a new addition to the calendar, first year success is critical and conventional wisdom would dictate that without a tile sponsor, tickets will be tougher to sell. The projected attendance comes as good news, even without corporate marketing help more than a few tickets have been sold. Either there are some very curious people in Baltimore or it is filled with indycar fans just waiting to be tapped. Both outcomes are OK with me as the weekend is looking to be very popular with the locals.

5 Things to Watch

Track – As I am typing this on Thursday afternoon, the city of Baltimore is paving streets, constructing curbs, and setting up catch fencing in preparation for this weekends events. It is a little worrisome that the asphalt will not have proper time to set as cars hit the track in the morning. The layout looks very racy with only the backside of the track looking a bit tight. Track officials installed a chicane on the front straight to change the angle that the drivers will hit a set of train tracks, poor planning on someone’s part. The last time open wheelers had to deal with train tracks was at the San Jose course, it was craziness. Just to add another wrinkle, the chicane, located a few hundred feet before the start line,  will make lining up for the double file starts incredibly difficult. All chicanery aside, the layout looks intriguing and has the potential to produce good racing.

Pitlane – This week brings the addition of two extra cars above the regular 26 fulltime field. I have no idea if this is true, but it seems when the track designers laid out pitlane, they only planned for the normal 26 cars. With these two extra cars this weekend, two unlucky drivers will have to pit on the opposite side of pit road. 26 cars will fuel from the right side of the car, two will be pitting across the street, fueling form the left side. Danica Patrick and Ed Carpenter are the two unlucky souls who are assigned to these very precarious pit stalls.

Parity – We have had seven different winners across the 14 rounds that have been run so far, without wins from TK or Helio. That is a new winner every other race. Only the two drivers leading the championship have collected multiple wins. This ability to consistently come home at the sharp end of the field has pushed Power and Franchitti into a two horse championship battle. Although it would be nice to see more than two multiple winners, every race has the feel that 10 or 12 people have a realistic chance at capturing a win at the beginning of each weekend. The field is undoubtedly the most competitive it has ever been.

Who’s Next? – So, with all of the apparent parity in the series, who is the next new winner for this year? My money is on a driver out of either the KV or NHR camp. These two teams have each been a simple turn of luck away from capturing a win. Out of the five drivers, I think we can all agree that Viso will not be the one to take home the honors first. Out of the other four; Kanaan, Sato, Servia and Hinchcliffe I don’t see a clear advantage, but TK and Oriol have the veteran talent and on paper look like they are the next in line to make a trip to victory lane.

Tomas Scheckter – Tsheck is back in full force this weekend. Driving an SH Racing/DRR and carrying the awesome Redline Extreme Energy sponsorship, he should be an easy one to spot. Scheckter is always a blast to watch. Although he is known for his prowess on ovals here in the states, Scheckter was raised a road racer and did quite well for himself in Europe, eventually landing an F1 test drive role with Jaguar. Road racing in the indycars, he has not done so well but is trouble on the track and is not afraid to mix it up with anybody, including championship contenders.

Predictions

Winner – James Hinchcliffe – I know I said the next new winner would be TK or Servia, but Hinch has run very well all year. Newman/Haas has really come to grips with the chassis and has been giving their drivers wonderful rides, its only a matter of time for either of the teams drivers. The last time a true rookie made it to victory lane was Marco Andretti in 2006. Rahal, Power and Wilson all held rookie status in 2008 but had previously raced in ChampCar.

Pole – Helio Castroneves – Continuing his momentum from last week, Helio defiantly has the chance to stick the car on pole. We all knows he could use the added shot of confidence as he faces his first winless season after never running dry in the ten years he has previously raced in the top series.

Epic Performance – Simona De Silvestro – The poor Iron Maiden has had quite the confusing past few weeks. Upon her return to the states before Sonoma, she was turned away by customs and told she had been doing too much travelling. Swiss Miss will make her triumphant return this weekend and I’m sure she will be driving with some fire.

Biggest Loser – Ed Carpenter – I know he was raised an oval racer and his Sarah Fisher Racing squad is trying to gain experience on road courses, but they had have a tough year finishing 22 and 25 in their previous outings. Add the unlucky pit stall and Ed could be in for a really hard weekend.

The track is new, untested, and only finished hours before the first wheel was turned. The weekend hold many unknowns; the odd pitlane, added chicane, and train track crossings will all be a unique challenge for all of the drivers to deal with. Race control played a relatively cool game during Sonoma and I hope we see more of the same. Will Power needs to have a big weekend before we head into the final twistie of the season. The impending trip to Japan poses more questions and concerns every day, and the paddock will be rife with conversation about the dangers and pitfalls that could be encountered. This final US twistie event of the year in Baltimore is stacking up to be a very exciting weekend… Do we ever need one after last Sonoma.

Eric Hall

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