Into The Crystal Ball… Princes’ Gates Edition

25 years of indycar racing at any track outside of Indianapolis is almost unheard of, let alone a street circuit. But here we are on the eve of contesting the 26th edition of the Indy Toronto, a street course no less. Long Beach, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and of course Indianapolis are the only tracks with a longer open wheel history. There’s just something about Canada and open wheel racing that feels right. Now our friends to the north have their own young and affable title contender, Toronto’s own James Hinchcliffe. This sleepy little street course has produced its faith share of calamity and controversy. It is a perfect place to start the run to the championship. Six rounds left and the only question to be answered is who can knock Will Power off the top of the road course mountain?

Five Things to Watch

Push To Pass – Love it or hate it, the overtake assist button is back for the remaining twisty events starting this weekend in Toronto. I am truly indifferent about it, but INDYCAR has decided to reduce the base horsepower of the engine to make the “button” worth more horsepower. How will the respective engines fare with 5 kPa less boost than usual? During qualifying for the 500 teams were given 5 kPa over the race baseline and the increase was put to far better use by Chevy than Honda. Since the 500 however, power has seemed very similar when comparing the two manufacturers. But it has been proven that the different engine architectures; Chevy single turbo verse Honda twin turbo, use the available boost pressure differently. Could we see a violent shift from engine parity to single make domination?

Stop The Insanity – During the 2010 and 2011 season, it all seemed to fall apart once the paddock starts its Canadian swing. Will we see something different this year? The past two years saw relative normality during the first half or so of the season. I’m not sure if it’s something in the water or if the oval portion that usually precedes the Canadian rounds that lulls the entire series into a sense of false skill or false respect, but there is just something about Toronto that causes brains to become detached from bodies, and more often than not all hell breaks for the rest of the season once the green falls in Toronto. With the blocking/defending rules change along with the introduction of push to pass, there is actually a glimmer of hope that the 2012 edition may not turn out to be the blood bath seen at Exhibition Place that we have seen in recent history.

What Engines? – The series has finally released a table spelling out the number of engines used thus far this season by each driver. This may be the deciding factor in the championship. The two Andretti Autosport drivers of James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay are the only drivers in the top ten with two fresh changes left. The two drivers are sitting on their third engine while the rest of the championship hopefuls are on either number four or five. There will be no smokey victory burnouts and drivers will be forced to turn the bare minimum of laps during practice and qualifying to save as much stress on their engines as possible. Blow an engine this weekend and even the drivers with a spare to play with will be severely hampered in their season long trophy quest.

Lotus!! – Buried at the other end of the results table is Simona de Silvestro fighting the good fight with HVM Racing and their Lotus power plant.  The British Marquee has been given the OK by INDYCAR to make “mid-season performance enhancements” in an attempt to catch up to Honda and Chevy in the horsepower race. Lotus has already stated they will take the grid penalty and throw a new engine in anytime there is a new update available; SdS is already at her max engine allotment of five for the season. Word on the street is they will have the first one ready for this weekend. Simona actually sits ahead of Chevy powered Catherine Legge in the championship by eight points; both have missed a single race. Any new power the Swiss driver that the Swiss driver receives will make the tail end of the field start to sweat. The long road to securing the future of Lotus in indycar racing may start this weekend in Toronto. We should all pull for them because the series, the fans and the 500 all need Lotus to stick it out for the long haul.

Championship Race – With six races to go including Toronto, the engine penalty issue is still maybe a race or two away. If I’m a team strategist, there will be a fresh engine in the rear for Fontana, no matter where I am in the championship or what the penalty may be. The risk is too high and the race too long to not do it. And let’s be honest, will a ten grid position penalty really be that bad at the massive two mile oval? That leaves five races in reality; a number that is reachable if you are on engine four. This may not be as large of a factor as we have initially thought. The battle looks more open now than it has in years, but I wonder how long that will last given Will Powers proven road and street dominance. The Andretti boys need to race as a team if they want any chance of catching Power. As always, Dixon lurks in the shadows competing with his fifth engine this weekend. But it’s Dixon and he is always a factor; if only to take points from the contenders.

Predictions

Pole – Oriol Servia – New Chevy power and an ongoing technical partnership with Panther Racing can mean only one thing: Oriol to the front.

Winner – James Hinchcliffe – There is no driver more deserving of a maiden indycar win than Hinch. Why not have it go down in his home city? Performances are always enhanced when racing in front of friends and family; not to mention the entire indycar world is pulling for this one.

Epic Performance – Ryan Hunter-Reay – Nothing is more epic than beating Will Power to the checkers on a road course; taking the championship lead will just be icing on the cake.

Biggest Loser – Dario Franchitti – With a poor finish, Dario’s season could be a bust. On the plus side, the pressure is off and the team can focus on regaining their confidence.

So, it’s an ABC race on a street course. Will we be entertained? We know the DW12 can pass, and it can do it around the outside with some finesse. That might be just what the doctor ordered when rounding turn three. I’m not sure I can think of place more conducive to the outside pass not on an oval. As always, I am just hoping for a good, clean race. I still have evil flashback about what happened last year; I remember Toronto as the place it all fell apart. But the drivers have handled themselves well this year so odds are good we have a fun race. The run to the end begins this weekend, who’s your money on?

Eric Hall

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