Weekend Rewind… The Broken Record of Fantasticness Edition

Sunny So-Cal and indycar had another amazing weekend, punctuating a blistering start to the 2013 campaign. Takuma Sato took the checkers while the rest of the finishing order looked like something out of the twilight zone. Some will say that Dallara was the real winner because nearly every car had some sort of physical damage at some point throughout the weekend. I say, through good use of local yellows, full course cautions and laps behind the pacecar were minimized considering the track and amount of contact. The race was another stellar performance from everyone involved; we are all sounding like a broken record at this point, but I don’t think anyone is complaining.

Reactions

SATOOO – The Japanese driver finally arrives in indycar with his long overdue win on Sunday. He not quieted naysayers about himself, but he also raised AJ Foyt Enterprises stock quite a bit. The car was clean and without a blemish on the nose, Sato drove a picture perfect race, and the crew was able to give him the support he needed throughout the race to finally seal the deal. With Larry Foyt and Takuma Sato helming the ship, AJFE could be headed to the top of the midfield. Where’re you at SSPM, DCR and BHA?

Clean Driving? – It’s hard to fault the drivers for the plethora of bent noses and shattered carbon fiber seen on Sunday. Sometimes on street circuits, indycar has a sort of minor league feeling with all the yellow flags that fly, but our street circuits are more akin to Monaco than anywhere else. Super tight confines and open-wheels are never a winning combination. I’m not too sure the F1 guys really could do a better job of keeping it clean at Long Beach, especially considering the poor surface indycar drivers are asked to work with at almost all street facilities.

Kimball – after the drive of his life in Barber, Charlie ends up in the tire barrier… twice. And both were cases of over cooking the corner and ending up in the tires. His first foray into the fence came after quite a spirited and clean battle with Alex Tagliani before making a rookie error. On the front row as a lapped car on the map 55 restart, Kimball proceeded to smash it into the barriers once more for good measure. Not good Mr. Kimball; Wild, self-inflicted inconsistency does not sit well with The Chipster.

The Booth – With all credit to our wonderful commentators and NBCSN, I absolutely hate it when the guys talk over pit-to-driver radio broadcasts. It’s not a new problem for the network, and it seems like the guys just don’t care. Not only can we not hear them, most of the time the booth makes no attempt to relay the missed message to the audience. Not that it would matter, because there are no accompanying graphics to denote who is actually on the radio. I love the usage of comms in the broadcast, but NBCSN needs to figure out to make it work. …(cough cough)… F1 …(cough cough)…

Championship – The 2013 campaign thus far: no Penske or Ganassi wins, Simona de Silvestro and Will Power are tied for P8, AJFE pulls out a huge win and we have had two first time winners in three races with the most recent podium containing AJFE, RLLR, and DCR. We knew this year would be competitive, but no one saw anything like this coming. Who would have thought we would be celebrating a Franchitti finish of P4 to pull him into P20 of the championship?

Ganassi Rebound – They figured something out for Long Beach. All three drivers were on it and with May looming only a few weeks away, Ganassi may be heating up at just the right time. It’s hard to say the team has been out to lunch, but it has been a dice roll regarding which car would be fast on what weekend. All three drivers were in the hunt with a fast car under them all day long. With a win or two, we could have a nice team battle brewing with AA.

Andretti Autosport – I’m sure that days like Sunday make Michael Andretti, and every other team owner in the paddock, glad there is no team championship in indycar. When Marco is your highest only finishing entrant on a street circuit, you know something went amiss during the race. Hunter-Reay drove it into the tires, Hinch put himself in a poor position and got squeezed into the wall, and Viso fell victim to the accordion effect to end his day. Not a total team failure, but there were still shades of the AA of past on Sunday.

How can a series redefine road racing every single time they hit the track? Indycar has been doing that for the past three races. It used to be that you would strap in for a snoozer with the possibility of moderate excitement always present, but usually untapped. Now it does not seem unreasonable to expect at least a “good” race every weekend with the possibility of a snoozer almost undetectable. And a great race is absolutely possible every single time the green falls. Dreams of “what could be” were realized at Long Beach this weekend. There are almost no expectations at this point in the season and quite possibly anyone is in position to steal race wins and a championship.

Eric Hall

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Into the Crystal Ball… Welcome to the Concrete Jungle Edition

crystal ballWhat an odd place we find ourselves in the championship entering round three on the streets of Long Beach. Dario Franchitti is in last place, Andretti Autosport has four cars in the top ten and Will Power is sitting in P8, just three spots ahead of Simona de Silvestro who is on the run of her career. The deep field, wonky championship table, very clean racing and an all-important year of experience with the equipment had started to turn 2013 into something of a renaissance. We literally have every component honed to make the current edition of indycar one to remember. Now the circus heads to the most storied street race in the western hemisphere to contest the 39th Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Five Things to Watch

Busy Day – Long Beach is a mentally and physically taxing track. The short blast down Seaside Way, also known as the back straight, is the only time drivers will be able to take a short breather. Because of the short distance of the straight, drivers will still be subjected to acceleration g-forces, making exactly zero spots around the 1.9 mile track where drivers bodies won’t be subjected to some type of physical g-loading. The front straight is anything but, and the rest of the track is textbook street course design with multiple fast flowing 90 degree corners. A split second lapse of concentration could mean meeting the wall and an early end to the day.

The Walls Are Close – The drivers have played pretty clean this year, and a weekend at Long Beach will test this newfound respectful driving. There is something about Long Beach and Toronto that makes competitors extra hot under the helmet. With its close concrete walls and without much racing space to be found anywhere on the track, we could see a bit more carbon fiber than the first two rounds. St. Pete still had some open sections that gave everyone a few seconds to breathe, a luxury that will not be found this weekend. Close walls make drivers crazy; I hope everyone can make it out of the weekend relatively unscathed.

Expanded Field – AJ Allmendinger makes the second start on his homecoming tour and 2011 race winner Mike Conway straps in for his only confirmed race of the season after vacating his seat before the 2012 season finale. 27 machines, the biggest field of the season so far, look to take the green this weekend. And in the tight concrete canyon of Long Beach, that only adds to the possibilities of unseen unfortunate crashy type events. Make no mistake, our drivers are world class and AJ and Mike are no slouches in their own right. Theoretically we should have another cleanish race, but for some reason, I just don’t see that happening.

Attrition – Two races in and the 2.2 liter engines could have as many as 1000 miles on them. We already know Honda is suffering from possible faulty exhaust system issues and on the second street circuit of the year, we could start to see increased mechanical failures. Although reliability has been incredible this year in comparison to 2012, the engines are still only in their second year of development. These 2013 gen one engines still have quite a long way to go, including 80 race laps down the notoriously rough Shoreline Drive; a portion of track known to eat racecars alive.

KV Racing – Tony Kanaan, Simona de Silvestro and the entire KVRT organization are on the cusp of moving to the next level of competition. The paring of Kanaan and de Silvestro has created something special within the team; a team that has been in dire need of such a thing for many years. The pairing is quick and seems to work really well with each other. Tony Kanaan looks like a new man and Simona is already having the season of her career. A win may be too much to ask of the still jelling team, but anything less than a top ten would be difficult to swallow for a team capable of so much.

 Predictions

Pole – Tony Kanaan – TK turned the fastest race lap last year, and as already described, the team are close to something. Long Beach could be their breakout weekend.

Winner – Will Power – The Aussie finally gets his season on track. Unlike other early season poor performances, Power will undoubtedly be able to bounce back.

Epic Performance – AJ Allmendinger – Would a top ten count at an epic performance? In AJ’s case, I think so, especially on a street circuit in this hyper competitive era. Allmendinger is focused, driven and has the best equipment under him. A top ten will happen, and a top five would be analogous to a win for the tin-top transplant.

Biggest Loser – Dario Franchitti – The four-time champion has never started a season this poorly. Granted, an exhaust issue on his Honda engine sidelined him in Barber, but Dario has struggled since the debut of the DW12. Franchitti looks to have a few more bad days ahead before the good one start rolling in again.

Tight confines, big numbers, quick drivers? I think I’ll take that. It is something of a miracle, but the DW12 has actually made me start looking forward to the street races instead of just merely standing them. The season is front loaded with killer street courses, a fact made all the more clear as we head to the Streets of Sao Paulo in two weeks; the best street course in the championship. Long beach really is the street crown jewel in our crown, it’s no wonder F1 is stirring the pot again. Let’s light this candle and see what Long Beach has to offer in 2013.

Eric Hall

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Indycar Lore… 1980 CRL Season

What had started in 1978 as an honest attempt at increasing the marketability of championship racing sanctioned by The United States Auto Club, spiraled out of control almost instantly. The “White Paper”, a simple inter-team memo, sparked the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams and, with help from the Sports Car Club of America, created its own rival championship trail. The 1979 season saw both CART and USAC sanction their own full, but independent, championships. The “split” was already in full swing and each side started digging in for a long battle.

However, in 1980, there looked to be an amicable resolution on the horizon when the Championship Racing League was formed. The CRL was to be a joint sanctioning effort combining the best of what USAC, date equity of events and officiating, and CART, the stars and cars, had to offer. The once rival sanctioning bodies were, for a short time at least, able to hammer out agreements on rules, tech and release a 12 race schedule.

1980 CRL seasonThe happy union was announced on April 3, 1980, just ten days before their inaugural event. Representation on the CRL board of governors was not equal, with car owners capturing five of the six seats and already presenting a thorn in USAC and IMS’s side. But the agreement pressed on in an attempt to keep big time racing in the US unified.

Before the papers were signed, USAC had already released a 12 race schedule independent of CART and was intent on seeing it out until the creation of the CRL. The initial 1980 USAC season contains an oddity that has been lost in open-wheel history. The opening round at Phoenix International Raceway scheduled to take place on March 2nd, over a month before the CRL was announced, was cancelled due to the Salt River flooding and making access roads to the track inaccessible.

Nevertheless, the CRL successfully ran five races together, as a happy family, early in the year before the floor fell out from under the whole deal. Already disenfranchised by losing six races from their initial schedule in favor of less established CART events and in a position of underrepresentation on the CRL board, USAC quickly cut all ties with the CRL before the fifth and what would become the final combined round at Mid-Ohio. USAC would not sanction another race in the 1980 season. What could make USAC cut all ties so quickly? The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of course.

IMS President and CEO John Cooper lobbed the first grenade, signaling the end of the honeymoon. On June 20, Cooper told media outlets that the CRL is too heavily controlled by car owners. He went on to say that “… champ car racing must be run by an independent group… and if USAC did not realign itself, the 500 would look to sanction elsewhere.” Independent was not something that CART or USAC could claim to be while under the guise of the CRL.

A whirlwind of politicking ensued, including the rumor that NASCAR, Cooper’s former employer, would be tapped to officiate the 500 if USAC didn’t get its act together. On June 30th, the USAC board attempted to amend their own bylaws in an attempt to change the way CRL’s Board of Governors were selected. A move that they believed would quell the IMS uprising and keep the tenuous relationship between the three players going. The revision failed to capture the unanimous vote needed to amend the USAC bylaws.

The two nay votes were casted by Pat Patrick and Roger Penske; Both team owners and CART stalwarts given voting positions on the USAC board with the formation of the CRL. After the failed vote, USAC had no choice but to immediately withdraw from the CRL and reorganize their own board in order to maintain their good standing with IMS.

The CRL ran one more combined round at Mid-Ohio before USAC totally wiped their hands of the now untenable union. But not before firing one last shot at CART by voting Roger Penske and Pat Patrick off the USAC board.

CART finished the planned season and awarded the championship based on the five rounds of CRL competition in addition to the final seven rounds of CART competition. What followed in 1981 and beyond is well documented. USAC, as just a pawn in The Speedways attempt to keep control of technical regulations in-house, was never able to recover from the negative PR and soiled relationships with track owners. CART flourished and, with the decisive victory in 1980, became the de facto national championship trail.

A lot could be said about the key players from all sides, and as it stands, all participants are guilty of simply promoting their own self-interests. And, as ironic as it may sound, attempting to protect championship car racing in the United States so it could flourish and grow to new levels. IMS felt a need to protect what, in their eyes, was the key to the whole sport. USAC was only guilty of being a pawn in the IMS war chest and doing what they felt was right by maintaining a link between the powerful owners union and IMS. Finally CART, specifically Patrick and Penske, for being forced to throw the final punch and Cooper for throwing the first.

In the spring of 1982, John Cooper resigned to take a chairman position on the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States and Joseph Cloutier was named president of IMS. The ACCUS, an organization known to vehemently choose their own path to the detriment of others, is the arbitrating body overseeing all sanctioned racing in the US on behalf of the FIA and a perfect place for Cooper.

Cloutier had initially been named president of IMS in 1977 after the passing of Tony Hulman and was known to be more open minded when dealing with team owners. The IMS board appointed Cooper to the role of president, displacing Cloutier, in 1979. For only presiding over The Speedway for two and a half years, it seems like Cooper did an awful lot of damage.

Under Cloutier’s leadership, CART, USAC and IMS were able to coexist more or less peacefully for eight years.  You have to wonder what would have been if Cloutier, who served until his passing in late 1989, could have presided over The Speedway for those 30 faithful months. Would the CRL have been able to flourish in a new era of cooperation? Would Tony George have made the same decisions once he took control of IMS after Clouter? If the CRL has maintained stability, what kind of fire breathing open-wheeled monsters would we have now? What would F1 and NASCAR look like today?

Yet another interesting story of deceit and lies in the fragmented history of American open-wheel racing. A story that is not told enough in the context of events leading to the “big split” in 1996 and 1997. Fortunately, I think everyone sees the value in sticking together for the foreseeable future. In due time, we could very well see those fantastical machines we all dream about now that we are all rowing in the same direction; for most of the time anyway.

Eric Hall

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How I Saw It… Barber Does it Again Edition

For the second year in a row, the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama contested at Barber Motorsports was a clinic in road racing; after the early yellow flag shemozzle of course. Once the racing resumed on lap six, we were treated to runaway stints by both Will Power and eventual race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, multiple on-track passes for the lead, record breaking speeds and a dash of innocent contact. Scott Dixon crossed the line in P2 for the fourth year in a row, Charlie Kimball finally has a strong weekend from start to finish, St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe drops out early due to a missing tire, the return of AJ Allmendinger and to top it off,  Helio Castroneves now leads the championship after two rounds. For a nearly full green flag race, the action was nonstop from front to back.

4Gs – For the first time in many, many years, indycar looked nearly as fast as Formula One on a road course. The new tire compounds from Firestone and the offseason surface grinding transformed the DW12 and indycar into something of a spectacle on a tight motorcycle track. The drivers were fighting up to four Gs in the corners, not something uncommon on ovals, but an extreme rarity on road courses. More often than not, indycars look heavy and cumbersome on the twisties, not the light and nimble formula cars seen in Europe. One of the perceived problems with indycar is the inability to be taken seriously as top level open wheel racing by road racing and formula fans. If Firestone could build something with this extreme grip to unlock more cornering speed at the notoriously slippery street courses, I think indycar could break some prejudices’ against it. Regardless, that was an amazingly quick racing, and it transferred very well to the home viewers.

Ryan Hunter-Reay – The reigning champion and winner at Barber put in a dominant performance starting from the moment they unloaded. RHR never ran lower than P3 in the race after stealing pole position from Will Power on Saturday qualifying. Even given his champion status, I have always quietly doubted Hunter-Reay’s pure skill behind the wheel. This was the first weekend that he, backed by Andretti Autosport, unloaded the car and absolutely claimed the weekend as his own. The story of RHR’s career has been one of overcoming adversity. Even throughout his championship run in 2012, it seemed every race was marred with some kind of high pressure situation that never allowed him to relax and just drive. This last weekend, that is precisely what he did by unloading quick, grabbing pole, running at the sharp end all day and gaining a ten plus second lead on a street circuit after the early yellow flag.

The Big Two – I have always been focused on the drama of the Big Three/ Big Two; particularly Andretti Autosport’s annual unknown of whether they will be a powerhouse or just a thorn in Ganassi and Penske’s side. With a recent championship, and nine wins in the last three seasons, they just may be in the position to unseat Ganassi from the Big Two. Unseat?! Ganassi has really struggled with the new equipment. We know Scott Dixon can drive through nearly any kind of handling issue, but Dario has fizzled and Kimball has shown moments of insane ability, but I am not yet convened the P2/P4 finish seen from Dixon and Kimball at Barber is the norm instead of a fluke. Right now is the time for Charlie Kimball to set himself up for a future target ride and he did a great job proving himself on Sunday. The real question is if the team will, or can, support him in a breakout season.

Two Stopper – Will Power and Team Penske attempted a two stop strategy on Sunday and came up just a bit short. Power was beat by pure speed. The other drivers were able to cruise right around the slower driver as he fought to save fuel from the drop of the green. I don’t appreciate Power and Penske’s attempt to win a mileage race, and I feel almost vindicated that they failed to even make the podium. It almost serves them right as the series has made very serious attempts to prevent that exact scenario. Obviously you can never know when the yellows will fall, but this is racing; it needs to be done full tilt from green to checkers without even a pause in the speed. Kudos to the team for rolling the dice after the lengthy early yellow, however their attempt at an underhanded win was rewarded the way it should have been: not good enough.

Helio Castroneves – Spiderman sits P1 in points after just two rounds, the same position he was in last year before succumbing to the heated battle between Power and Hunter-Reay as the championship wore on. It is well known that the only thing missing From Helios resume is clinching the series champion trophy. Of course he has three 500 wins, but that does not make a well-rounded driver. If he were to retire tomorrow, he would be remembered as one of the greats, but with a huge asterisk beside his name. There aren’t many competitive, full season years left under the Brazilians belt, and as the field gets deeper and deeper each year it will become increasingly more difficult to finish this task. 2012 was a momentum year for Castroneves and he is in prime position to make an honest run this year. I hope to see him successfully check this final box in an amazing career.

It’s almost ironic that the once bemoaned tight and too tough to pass motorcycle track has become the gold standard of natural terrain road course racing and possibly the best twisties on the schedule. Barber delivered again and it was accomplished through nearly a full race distance of green flag running. When the drivers finally emerged from their cars after 85 green flag laps, they all looked fresh faced and ready to race again. I think the whole grid has been prepping for the double header weekends, and that only adds to the competitiveness of the field. After a couple years of phenomenal racing, the growing on-site crowd and the meticulously manicured gorgeous facility, the Grand Prix of Alabama is quickly becoming the road course crown jewel and an overall blue chip event.

Eric Hall

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Into the Crystal Ball… The Gorgeous Facility Edition

crystal ballIndycar returns to the gorgeous facility that is Barber Motorsports Park for round two of the 2013 championship season. A track once hated for its lack of action is now quickly becoming a fan favorite and open wheeled strong hold year in and out. In only its fourth year on the schedule, Barber is still a newish addition to the schedule, but has produced everything from incendiary action to coma inducing follow the leader parades. The DW12 and Barber seem to be a match made in heaven and this year’s edition should be the best example yet. Round two is the first of three natural terrain road courses on the schedule and the lack of these types of track means there isn’t much development time available to teams throughout the season. Well prepared squads should unload quick and stay quick all weekend, whereas teams slightly off the mark may have a really tough weekend ahead.

Five Things to Watch

New Track Record – Spring training at the gorgeous Barber facility produced the quickest lap times ever turned at the track; over three seconds faster than the 2012 pole time. Because the laps were turned independent of race weekend, they are considered unofficial. This weekend should see the record officially broken as the series will be under sanctioned timing and scoring during qualifying and the race. A freshly ground racing surface and spiffy new Firestone tire compounds should prove more than adequate to smash whatever may be left of the record once the 26 drivers hit the track. I will be especially focused on the Firestone Fast Six pole shootout once the remaining drivers strap the grippier red compounds onto their race machines. Although the added speed will not come from chassis or engine technological improvements, breaking track records is something sorely missed in indycar racing.

AJ Allmendinger – The once promising American open wheel star will finally be making his competition return to the machines that lit the fire for his love of racing. Allmendinger was on a meteoric rise to stardom in 2006 when he signed with Forsythe Championship Racing halfway through the season. During his short stint with the Champ Car powerhouse, he racked up five wins and landed himself third in the championship standings before being shown the door on the eve of the season finale due to a new NASCAR contract. The guy knows how to get around the twisties and with Penske engineering prowess powering his return, there is literally nothing he cannot achieve. Allmendinger has been slightly pensive regarding his return, but I think once the competition heats up he will fit right in at the top.

Turn Five – On a track with extremely limited passing opportunities, the run to turn five proved to be a hotbed of action last year. The blind, downhill, off camber corner is one of the trickiest places to get right leading to blown entries, exits, and plenty of passing. I expect this year to be no different once the drivers get a bit hot under the helmet later in the race. Words of the day will include dive bomb, banzai, shoulder check and poke and hope when describing the action seen in the slower, carousel type corner. T1 and T11, the other passing zones on the track, are both a bit too fast to pull off an honest pass on a competitive driver so we may see an entire lap taken to set up an overtake into T5. Hopefully we can make it through the 90 laps without too much smashed carbon fiber.

Setup Unknowns – It was very apparent in St. Pete that most teams had a much better handle on creating quality setups for the new equipment. The main issue was tire longevity once the magic rings got more than a few laps on them. Simona de Silvestro’s lack of grip in the closing laps two weeks ago showed that a slightly off the mark setup would not treat the tires well. This is in direct comparison to the Team Penske drivers who looked to be able to sprint an entire stint without much noticeable loss of traction. The fresh pavement at Barber may be even more abrasive on the rubber, so set ups will need to be extremely close to the mark at the start of the race if teams and drivers are to have any hope in staying within the performance envelope for the entire race.

James Hinchcliffe – After an amazing start to the season with a trip to victory lane, The Mayor has a hard road ahead to prevent the second half slip seen in 2012. James clearly has the skill, and engineering backing to be a serious title contender this year. The only question is if the still young driver has the mental prowess to stay a serious contender through the remaining 18 rounds of the season. The Go Daddy ride should be up front all day again this weekend, but maintaining his momentum should be the main aim this weekend. As he has already proven, wins will come if all the homework is done. It’s just a matter of keeping his head in the game, qualifying near the front and simply clicking off quality laps all year long. The title push starts this weekend, will Hinch be up for the challenge?

Predictions

Pole – Will Power – The Aussie was two tenths faster than the second quickest time turned in testing; a country mile considering most of the field in St. Pete was covered by less than a second. Power was in his own zip code during preseason testing and I don’t think anything will change that position on Saturday.

Winner – Will Power – His mistakes in St. Pete that pushed him back in the pack and allowed Hildebrand to ruin his race should be minimized if he can stay at the front. If testing was any indication, Power will be untouchable this weekend.

Epic Performance – Ed Carpenter – The oval specialist claimed one of his best twistie finishes in St. Pete with a P14. And in the hyper competitive 2013 season, that is a huge accomplishment for him. Consistent top 15 finishes on the twisties will be a huge win for him. His strong start to the season should continue into Indianapolis.

Biggest Loser – Honda – Without a chance to work on the engine components until the first rebuild window, Honda’s only hope at gaining more speed will be in engine management upgrades. And there is simply not enough to be found to compete with Chevy. The next three rounds will be very tough for the Honda contingent.

Even after a six month offseason, two weeks have felt like a long time. Sometimes it takes a few rounds to really get the season swinging, but it’s already April, so we know the long summer haul is right around the corner. I really enjoy the trip to Barber each spring because the facility has the ability to seemingly produce something we have never seen before. What started out as one of the worst races of the year has miraculously transformed into something very special. The show indycar is able to pull off down there is rare in the single-seater world. Round two here we come; the series is a total crapshoot right now, who knows what will happen this weekend. One thing is for sure: the race will be a heck of a good time.

Eric Hall

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How I Saw it… That is How You Start a Season Edition

The 2013 season finally kicked off this weekend, and after a hotly contested race with multiple passing locations James Hinchcliffe took his maiden trip to victory lane. As far as street courses go, we were treated to another awesome race delivered by the still cryptic DW12. Speed did not come easily for anyone this weekend, and at times it looked to be a race of who can hang on the longest. Power had initially jumped to an early lead, but again proved he can quickly lose the storyline when not clicking off laps all alone at the front.  The day was filled with incredible story lines from Dario Franchitti walling it and finishing last, or Simona de Silvestro’s rise from the Lotus ashes to run up front literally all day. I don’t think we could have asked for a better kick off to the 2013 season.

Hinch – Indycar racing welcomed its newest member into the winners club for the first time since Ed Carpenter held off Dario Franchitti to the line at Kentucky in 2011. Not only does James Hinchcliffe’s win solidify him as a true future championship hopeful and proven performer, it also puts even more pressure on poor Marco Andretti to come up with another win, and soon. From the moment Hinch stepped into a big car, there was no question that this day would come. I had pegged Simon Pagenaud to beat the Canadian to the honour, but there is no better way to make a run at the championship than stealing the checkers from Helio in St. Petersburg. Hinchcliffe has the team and talent to be a serious competitor this year and he has silenced any doubts in Andretti Autosport’s ability to consistently mix it up with Penske and Ganassi.

Ganassi – Ok, Dario did win the 500 last year. But I wonder if there will be a return to the “big three” this year or whether we have just slotted Andretti in for Ganassi. Dixon won twice last year, but one came at the red flagged Belle Isle Grand Prix and the other at Mid-Ohio through speedy pit work to get Dixon out ahead of Power. Franchitti is out to lunch and Kimball looks to be squandering another year away for Chip. Dixon had a strong showing, but without quality input from his teammates, there is no way he can keep pace with the Penske and Andretti drivers all year long. Franchitti has not won his championships by a landslide, and the perennial bad luck of Dixon may very well run much deeper than we think. I think the problems with Ganassi are systemic and it may take an uncomfortable shakeup at the team to start the healing process.

Exhausts – In a most unusual turn of events, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier were both eliminated from competition due to header/exhaust problems. One failure is chance, but two on the same team in a spec series? There must have been something deeper going on. Honestly, I have no idea if the exhaust system is a homologated part, but I cannot imagine that the Honda engineers would be OK with teams experimenting with exhaust system configuration at the detriment of engine performance and reliability. Nor do I believe that teams are even allowed to play with exhaust construction or configuration. Something very fishy is going on, and we know that Sam Schmidt is not above bending the rules in search of the winning edge. That’s not what I am saying happened in this situation, however there is more to this story that I think we will ever know. I very highly doubt we will see another exhaust failure on a Honda engine this year, especially out of the SPM camp.

Setup – Since preseason testing kicked off, teams have been struggling to find that optimal setup in 2013. The speed seen at Barber did not transfer to the Streets of St. Pete and once teams bolted the red sidewalls on, the problems were only magnified. The DW12 started life at a naturally pushy car. Whether by learning to drive a wonky setup, or simply changing driving styles, teams and drivers were able to work most of the machines bad habits out by the end of 2012 and the DW12 was transformed into quite the racey car. Come race conditions in 2013, and it was like the paddock was just handed the equipment only a week prior. The complete lack of front grip was the main complaint, and the visually loose racecar of Will Power in qualifying may be the only solution to get the rotation drivers need. We could have a long season ahead of tail happy racecars and nervous drivers.

Honda – Simply put, the Japanese manufacturer has lost their way and need to rediscover the path soon. Ganassi had pointed words for Honda, a sentiment not publicly backed by other similarly powered teams but something, I am sure, the other teams were happy was said. Since Ilmor was ripped from the Honda stable and hand delivered to Chevy by Mr. Penske, Honda has not had a real sniff at consistent success. Has Honda gone down the wrong developmental path with a single turbo setup? I am not totally convinced, but HPD has proven they can engineer race winning machinery as proven by the 24 race wins by multiple types of HPD designed engines strapped into the ARX-01 Le Mans Prototype. Honda has the knowledge to compete with Chevy, and they have never made it a secret that they want competition in IndyCar; it’s time to step it up and give their teams something to bring to the fight.

With this first round in the books, if Sunday was a preview for the year to come we may very well have another heated year in indycar. The new and improved booth was fantastic with the addition of Leigh Diffey is an absolutely stellar addition. He brings an air of professionalism that has been missing from our broadcasts, and the pit road crew is even stronger than last year. On nearly every front, the series is poised to have a breakout year and the only question is if management can properly capitalize and parley it into positive growth. Two weeks until Barber Motorsports Park is too long to kick the season off; the two opening rounds of the season need to be back-to-back so any casual viewers can get in the habit of watching indycar. I cannot think of a better way to have kicked off the season than with the mostly professional driving and a win from The Mayor.

Eric Hall

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Into the Crystal Ball… The Sunny South Florida Edition

Into the...The real racing season is finally here. The 24 hours of Daytona, 12 hours of Sebring, Daytona 500, and Australian Grand Prix are cool and all, but open wheels visit to St. Petersburg is something a bit more special. The season is upon us, and all bets are off. The street/airport track has always been a tough round of the schedule, allowing only one driver to rack up multiple wins on the 1.8 mile , 14 turn temporary course in its ten year history. In 2012, Helio Castroneves visited victory lane for the third time in an emotional win on a weekend that was almost foretold to be a Penske walk away. This year things are a bit different as the grid is much closer than the blind roll that was the inaugural race for the new equipment package.

Five Things to Watch

Turn One, Lap One – Whenever I think about the green dropping on the season, I inevitably have flashbacks to the many, many, many times indycar drivers have made absolute fools of themselves heading into T1 in sunny southern Florida . Make no mistake, it’s a tricky corner, but the six month offseason must be worse for some of the drivers than us. It seems, more often than not, there is some sort of season opening calamity before the championship hunt is even a single lap old.  Admittedly, the DW12 has made strides to rectify the problem of interlocking wheels, but nothing will stop a driver from careening into the rear of the field. Even after a year of much better driving standards, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about our drivers totally embarrassing themselves and us this Sunday.

Man Handling – St. Pete is still more of a street circuit than an airport course and is a tough track to jump back into the car after six months of gym training. The paddock will be whooped after the 198 miles of high speed excitement. Drivers who have not done their work this offseason could fade near the end of the race. Although fast, the DW12 needs to be man handles in a silky smooth way to gain the most from the tires, brakes and horsepower. The handling characteristics of an indycar sit on a sort of island in single-seater racing. Because of this we have some of the fittest drivers in motorsports, but attrition will still play into one of the toughest opening rounds of a season in the motorsports world.

Parity – In terms of chances to win, 2012 seemed like it was anyone’s game. Teams came and went all year long, and it was not limited to just the lower half of the grid. Honestly, I don’t feel anyone can accurately pick anything for this first round until we see how it goes. Coming into most years, and even 2012, you still had an idea of who can do what, but after so many teams getting oh so close to fantastic finishes, anything is possible for 2013. The field is more streamlined and competitive than we have seen for many years. In years past, teams low on the grid were often forced to hire someone with a big check just to keep the program alive. Now, although the ride buying still exists, the pool of drivers is incredibly deep and not a single one does not deserve the position they are in. 2013 may just be the year of the little guy, kicking off in St. Pete with an unusual results shakeup.

Ten More Laps – INDYCAR management has decided to extend the race by ten laps to a total of 110 in a bid to decrease the likelihood of a fuel mileage race breaking out from the drop of the green flag. This is a fantastic idea. Save for the 500, I don’t think much of the fanbase has any kind of huge tie to race length, especially if it will force teams to run full power all afternoon. If everything goes as planned, we should have a straight up sprint to the finish. I don’t care what your views on street racing are, a true competition of speed is always a good thing.

Engines – We finally get to see what Honda and Chevy are going to do with their newfound power. If I was a manufacturer, I would keep power levels similar to last year to increase fuel mileage and reliability. Do you think they can turn it down enough to cover the ten extra lap gap and still make it a two stop race?  I really hope not, and if Honda and Chevy chose different engine mapping philosophies for St. Pete; power verse economy, we could very well see a very one sided race. Lap time will drop all year long; it’s just a matter of how much. The track record at St. Pete is 1:00.928 set by Bourdais in 2003, last year’s pole time was 1:01.3721. With three seconds in hand during preseason testing at Barber, I think we can kiss the track record goodbye this weekend even if the engines are in economy mode.

Predictions

Pole – Will Power – No one is better at turning a single hot lap than Power. Hey may have barely lost the championship the past three years, but he is the king of qualifying; especially on street circuits. Until someone can consistently topple Will, who scored 5 of 15 pole positions last year, Power will be the man to beat in Q3 week in and out.

Winner – Scott Dixon – The 12 year veteran of top level American open-wheel racing begins the renaissance of his career with a win in St. Pete. Dixon has won at least two races each year for the last six seasons but has only been able to clinch the championship once. The old adage goes: if it weren’t for bad luck, Dixon wouldn’t have any; his fate changes this weekend when he finally gets the good results at a track that he has

Epic Performance – Simona de Silvestro – For the first time in her short career, SdS can actually have a glimmer of hope heading into the opening round for the championship. If it isn’t Lotus holding her back, it was the poor organization of her previous team. Nothing has been easy for Simona. It will be nice to watch her reboot her career with KV Racing.

Biggest Loser – Dario Franchitti – The slide of Dario’s career that started in 2012 will not show any signs of slowing for 2013. Another frustrating year is ahead for the Scottish driver, and I truly feel we are witnessing the sunset phase of the most successful driver of the modern era. His year will kick off with a tough weekend in St. Petersburg.

Can we just run this thing already? Don’t worry, the green drops for the opening practice session of the 2013 campaign in a few short hours; it truly has been a long offseason. Everyone was quite spoiled by the busy testing and development schedule from last offseason and we really felt it this winter. Spring is in the air, ethanol is flowing and the tires are roasting, and it’s about time to crown the first race winner of the 2013 season.

Eric Hall

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