Into the Crystal Ball… Drama in the LBC, Edition

Pandora’s box has surely been opened this week. Nearly half the field will see grid penalties this weekend in Long Beach, the setting for the longest running street race in the western hemisphere. Open wheel racing has descended on the streets of southern California for 36 uninterrupted years and continues strong into this new era of machinery. From Indy Lights to CART, GT cars to F1, and of course indycars, the track has truly seen it all. And it will see even more as the entire Chevy contingent will move to the back after a manufacturer mandated engine change on all Team Chevy cars. It seems nothing is safe in socal, not even Helio’s new found championship strength as the points leader will be among those penalized. This is the definition of street racing in America and our shiny new DW12 could give Sebastien Bourdais’ lap record of 1:06.886 a run for its money.

Five Things to Watch

Chevy – The bow tie brigade seems to have run into a bit of engine trouble the past few days necessitating an engine swap for all 11 Chevy entries. Not ideal. To add insult to injury affected drivers have all been handed ten grid position penalties. This should make things very interesting if not a bit mental during the early stages of the race. The Chevy stable has more than its fair share of heavy hitters and those boys will have their work cut out for them. I have no qualms with this penalty either. Yes, the teams are all taking more than their fair share of fallout from a manufacturer issue. But I doubt that the teams were totally in the dark when the manufacturers and INDYCAR were drawing up the engine sporting regulations. I refuse to believe that the teams were blindsided with this and the teams seem to be taking it in stride. It should be very fun watching these front runners legitimately dicing it up with the rear of the field instead of lapping them.

Tires – Last time we saw the indycar circus we were extolling the amazing virtues of the new compounds that Firestone had brought to Barber Motorsports Park. Degradation and equipment abuse were thrust into the spotlight and it looked like Firestone had finally found a combination that worked well for the road courses. We are racing on the streets this weekend. The tire used in St. Petersburg earlier in the season seemed to be the standard its-a-bit-too-hard compound that has plagued turning right since the series started doing it in 2005. I am sure the historic company will strike a good balance between a super soft road tire and the made to survive a cheese grater street tire this weekend and deliver more of what we saw in Barber.

Sebastien Bourdais – Yes, my season long love affair with the Frenchman doesn’t seem to be easing up a bit. Bourdais qualified in 17th position at Barber; couple that pace with the plethora of grid penalties that are sure to happen ahead of him and the four time champ may be able to start from a decent position. Unfortunately he is due a ten grid penalty as well, and we are not sure how INDYCAR will deal with multiple penalties. I would assume his will be moved before the more recent Chevy penalties and still have a not awful starting spot considering his equipment. Due to his blinding race pace, Seabass seems to always be caught in a gaggle of slower cars in the back of the pack until after halfway. If he starts in the teens again he will be able to race the fast drivers instead of demanding the overtake from slow drivers.

Honda – It would seem like victory circle is a mortal lock for the Japaneses manufacturer, but this in not the weekend to be over confident. I would imagine that there will be more than a few Chevy drivers taking an alternate strategy as soon as the fuel window opens up. Add in a few well timed cautions and those Chevy guys may not be in nearly as deep as they started.  We saw at Barber that the Honda does have the legs on the straights so I would expect the action on Shoreline Drive to be very similar this weekend. The Honda contingent has no room for error and anything less than a win would be a failure at this point in the season, especially given the circumstances.

Turn 11 – Under the old regime this was deemed a no passing zone. The new and improved race control has no time for these sorts of things on a racetrack. Although passing is usually accomplished at the end of the straights, a move or two here would not be a surprise. The T9-11 complex is very similar to the final complex of Barber; an “impossible” place to pass that actually saw its fair share of action. A mistake coming off of the back straight at T9 and the lead driver could be in a vulnerable spot once the drivers enter the hairpin. We know its tight because the drivers couldn’t go through here two by two last year. A wider, yet much more robust car, plus looser track rules, plus trick new tires equals insanity in the hairpin.

Predictions

Pole – Takuma Sato – Reaching deep this week! He may not be able to outright win pole but Taku knows what he is doing. This will be his third trip to the streets of Long Beach and he has retired with mechanical gremlins in his first two events this year; third times a charm.

Winner – Simon Pagenaud – With the Chevy’s out of the way it could be Hondas time to shine. Simon has shown he can produce in qualifying and has the pace of the Ganassi camp in the race. He could steal one from the big dogs this week.

Epic Performance – Rubens Barrichello – He too will be smacked with a grid penalty but I think he will finally start coming into his own this weekend. LB is not the most complicated of tracks to learn and with his ever growing experience I expect him to really start his movement towards the sharp end by the time the checkers wave.

Biggest Loser – Chevy – Even though the weekend hasn’t even started yet I cannot fathom giving it to anyone else but Chevy. They had to change 11 engines… 11! After an epic reintroduction to indycar racing the past two events, this is just plain awful. Time is running out for them to figure the issue out before Indy. Hustle up boys.

I am truly stumped as to how this weekend will eventually play out. The exact process of doling out the penalties is unknown to me right now and I hope INDYCAR does a first in first out. I want to see Team Chevy penalized as heavily as possible for such a massive “my bad”. I hate that the teams and drivers are ultimately the losers in the whole deal but it may be what Chevy needs to get their program back on course. Two weeks of solid performances and wins mean nothing if you are taking grid penalties every third race. If Honda fails to find victory lane it will be downright embarrassing. No excuses left for Honda; sink or swim in Long Beach. Will Lotus take this chance to try and turn the wick up on one of its cars? I would; they need to start thinking about their plan for the rest of the season as we are nearing the end of the first quarter of the 2012 campaign. The order will be jumbled this weekend and it should make for a very intriguing race, lets hope its heavy on action; light on oil dry and carbon shards.

Eric Hall

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