It’s hard not to point out that this is by far the worst track, in terms of action, that the series visits. Yes, we can make arguments for Barber Motorsports Park and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, but I believe Sonoma/Infineon/Sears Point takes the win. There was a marked absence of meaningful passing this weekend when compared to the other two legs of the purported “trinity of boredom.” All three of these tracks state the “It’s a gorgeous facility and an amazing track to drive.” Lies. Infineon is a dust bowl; every tire that drops off track is followed by a blinding rooster tail of dust and debris. The whole area looks dead on TV and I am sure that at some point during the year the grass is green, I just don’t believe it. Having driven the track… ahem… virtually, I can agree that it is an amazing track to drive for all the reasons always stated when we come here. However, INDYCAR chooses to run the neutered, a-few-turns-short-of-a-great-track, motorcycle version. In my eyes we have no reasons to come here. Three things stood out at me this weekend; P1 through P5 were unchanged from green to checkers, Power lead flag to flag minus two laps on pit stop rotations and that I was awoken from a partial conscious slumber by a caution for what should have been a local yellow.
Configuration – Were going to spend a bit of time on this subject, as it could be a way to easily improve the on track action. There are three major differences between the course that indycar runs and the honest to goodness original configuration. I have mixed feelings about these changes, sometimes I can see them add to the race, most of the time they detract from it. Indycar takes the final T11 (T11a) hairpin, what looks to be, 300 some yards from where NASCAR and sports cars turn in. I understand there is no runoff room on the normal configuration, but don’t you think we could half the distance? Allowing for a bit more straight but still keeping some runoff area, I don’t think safety would be compromised too much.
The straight after the carousel, the drag strip straight, has two ways to enter the T7 hairpin. The left fork, the historic line, turns the hairpin into a greater than 180 corner, more of a tear drop shape. Indycar used this line until, 2008 when they decided to skip the fork and continue to the end of the drag straight, entering a much tighter hairpin. (2007, skip to 0:50 to see old line. 2008, skip to 5:40 to see new line.) The change was an effort to promote passing, I don’t think it worked. Go back to the old configuration, a more open corner, faster entrance speed and multiple lines would all be gained.
Finally, indycar takes some weird chicane, leaving the esses and entering a downhill blast into the very tight chicane before rejoining at the final right hander before the hairpin. This basically adds T8a and skips T9 in favor of T9a. This layout was created solely with motorcycles in mind, to slow riders down before entering the hairpin. The back side esses is the type of configuration open wheel racecars were created for. We cannot have it both ways though, if we remove the chicane straight, the final hairpin would have to stay put as entrance speeds would be much faster. I say leave the hairpin, but skip the chicane and take the original line after the drag straight, creating the best of both worlds and hopefully giving the drivers a bit more passing room. The track is great but we run a very neutered version.
Restart – I had failed to mention my worries about the start and restarts in my prerace. I was very relieved to see the field file through the long T11 on the start. I was even more relieved when they, again, ran through the long course on the restart giving drivers increased distance to line themselves up in the two by two formation. After the initial green and restart green, we were all sure of devastation, carbon fiber shards, and plenty of tears. What we got was amazing, clean and respectful racing. The boys and girls of course did a little bumping but everyone came out on top and both starts were super professional. A very nice departure from what we have been accustomed to this year.
Honestly, we should have had a local caution for the Ho-Pin Tung off in the closing laps of the race. The car was well off the racing surface and the driver removed himself quickly from the crash site. Although a local yellow would mean no passing into that corner, would it really have mattered? I am not upset that we went full course as it broke the monotony and allowed for a shoot out to see if anyone could stop the Penske train at the front. This, though, is a small consistency issue. At Barber we had cars and corner workers much closer to the track under local yellow conditions, Sunday we went FCY for the same type of wreck. I liked and, even more, appreciated the FCY, it just shouldn’t have happened. Smells like late race debris caution, someone had to say it…
Penske Perfect – The greatest team on the grid has, from what it look like, has finally pulled it together. Will Power maximizes his points, taking pole and leading the most laps. We have a race for the championship now with WP pulling to 26 points, and a mere seven back in the road standings. Helio had a great run and would never challenge Power for the lead, smartly. Ryan Briscoe rounded out the top three, giving Roger a weekend to remember.
I really like this facility, it’s just a shame that indycar puts on such a stinker of a show here. Sadly, track changes like this would never happen and we could be stuck with this event for a while. The teams like the venue because of the abundant opportunities in the heart of wine country to, well, wine and dine sponsors. Think Monaco, terrible race, great for teams. I know it’s not quite in wine country, but if we must run a million dollar parade on a natural road course in California, we might as well go to Laguna Seca. At least we would have the corkscrew and the sand surrounding the track will be just that, sand and not grass with an identity crisis. The weekend is good for the series; it just hurts us out here in TV land.