The final Indy Japan 300 was contested late Saturday night into early Sunday morning. A huge local crowd was on hand, and all 13 of us we watching live on Verse. Japan and its Twin Ring Motegi Circuit has been the center of controversy; every group had a line drawn in the sand from the paddock to the fans. No one was without an opinion on the subject. During the weekend lead up there were angry quotes, an oval that didn’t look too bad, earthquakes and more fans than the US could ever dream of pumping into a facility hosting indycar minus IMS. But when we took the green it was business as usual with a parade like race, silly mistakes, and shoddy officiating. After the checkers it was situation normal in indycar world. The championship was blown wide open and Will Power walked away the recipient of the Mario Andretti Road Championship and by Monday night it seems everyone and everything is back to normal. Scott Dixon consolidated third place in the championship with a win and the race for first is extended another week. It seems INDYCAR is going to produce another battle that could go down to the last corner of the last lap of the last race.
Fans – One concern leading up to the event was whether, post disaster; could anyone be able to actually make it out to the track and watch the final indycar race in Japan? Yes, they absolutely came out and the fans came out in droves. There were reports from drivers during the Saturday autograph session that they have never seen as many people waiting in line, outside of the Indy 500 of course. Tony Kanaan met a young father whose new son’s middle name was Teekay in honor of him. Takuma Sato looked like the four beetles all rolled into one guy with the amount of fans and media he always had around him, and love for Japan from the drivers has been rolling in since the race. If indycar fans in the US were even minutely-almost-kinda-sorta close to the Japanese fans, indycar racing would be in a much better place. Take note US fans; go to a race other than the Indy 500, take your friends and family, bring someone new, seek out the garage and divers… don’t complain, go out and be a butt in a seat because that’s what we are all here for.
The Race – No amount of rainbows, kittens or baby seals spouting form my fingertips could have saved the race. We were treated to quite the parade around the Motegi road course, broken up by agricultural excursions from even the best drivers. As we all feared, or knew in the back of our heads but not admitting it, our current formula proved once again it is not built to rip around the small confines of a motorcycle track. Dive bomb, point and hope passes were, once again, the order of the day. Following his own ill advised pass attempt, it was interesting to watch Dario Franchitti effortlessly slice through the rear of the field, showing it is possible to pass, but the sharp end is just too close to see that kind of action.
Championship – A two way battle that looked very lop sided and nearly sealed a short two months ago, has been turned on its head following a string of lack luster performances by Dario Franchitti. Will Power came out of Motegi, on top by 11 points. The switch from the oval to the road course in Japan has undoubtedly helped Power in his pursuit but he has been on a roll. Since New Hampshire, Dario has not captured a podium finish while Power has two firsts and a second. Will is welcoming the switch to ovals as he feels he can perform at the final two mile and a half tracks. No chase needed here, INDYCAR can create remarkably close championship battles effortlessly, year in and out.
Aerodynamics – Any road course the IR03 visits is going to be doomed from the start. The chassis is a super sleek machine, designed to slice through the air at high speed on an oval. When the series went road racing in 2005, they were forced to create the enormous wings we see gracing the racecars on twistie weekends. The engineers were searching for downforce on a chassis designed with very little to begin with. These wings create huge amounts of drag, causing the car to stall at 165 to 170 miles per hour depending on the length of the straight. They also create a large turbulent wake behind in the corners. On the road course, a driver’s only way to pass in these conditions are waiting for a mistake or forcing the issue. None of that matters anymore because…
IR03 says “goodbye road courses” – After seven years of road courses that the venerable IRL chassis was never designed to race, we can finally say goodbye. I love my Formula One, and thoroughly enjoyed watching the fire breathing ChampCar DP-01 take to the streets, but I am glad we are done watching the good ‘ol Dallara slowly circulate tracks. Done, we are, with the sleep inducing agility and brick like speed of the chassis-formerly-known-as-an-oval-only-machine. In hindsight, will I be upset with myself for never having seen the current chassis on a road course? Yes. Will the thrill of seeing the brand new, high tech, up to date chassis rip around Mid Ohio next year more than make up for it? Double yes. Good bye IR03, you heavier than lead, slower than smell, possessing the agility of an ancient Spanish teacher; I speak for everyone when I say we will not miss you turning right.
We now embark onto the final two races for the 2011 campaign, the ovals of Kentucky and Las Vegas. With all road and street courses finished for the year, hopefully we can attempt a return to enjoying the action on track, instead of the politics off. It has truly been a grueling year, entering every twistie event you just knew we would not get through the weekend without some sort of controversy. It seems we have slipped into the inability to please all the people all the time, and they have been at the races, all year. The return to ovals means the return to racing. The action is moving too fast to make the “judgment call” at every corner that our series seems to be plagued with at road and street events. To be clear, I am not against them at all, but the inability of the current edition of race control to apply the flawed rulebook leaves indycar road racing not something to be desired. Hopefully a long and thoughtful off season can mend some of those problems. Until then, we will be captivated by the bread and butter of the current car; mile and a half speedways. It will be a very exciting next few weeks, and I cannot wait to watch.