Into The Crystal Ball… Welcome to Wine Country Edition

Sonoma raceway is the third leg of the “trinity of boredom” and location of the final run to the championship. Barber Motorsports Park and Mid-Ohio Sports Car complete said trinity, but if those two races were any indication of what we can expect to experience during indycar’s ninth trip to the California natural terrain road course, we could be in for yet another amazing race. The DW12 has proven itself time and again and I expect nothing less from it this weekend. As is standard as we near the end of the season, the point’s standings are razor close with four talented drivers vying for the championship hardware. I fully expect one of the main title contenders to stumble this weekend as the pressure and possible engine penalties start to affect even the most solid psyches.

Five Things to Watch

Refined setups – Sonoma has boasted an intensive testing program throughout the 2012 season. As a result of this, drivers may have the best race machine under them they have had all season. Teams have a very real chance of hitting on the “perfect” setup this weekend. Take a random street course for example. The teams unload and have but a few precious hours to fine tune the setup before qualifying and the race. Although there are many long and winding technical roads to explore during practice, teams don’t usually stray too far from the baseline because they don’t want to head down a developmental dead end. This weekend, all bets are off. Teams have had ample time to try, fail and discover some hidden gems in the setup department. This could be one of the better chances for a first time winner to come out victorious at the end of the day.

Track Changes – Barring our new equipment, the single most important aspect of this weekend will be the changes made to the “Indy” layout. Sonoma Raceway’s management felt that indycar racing was worth the investment and commitment and looked at a few areas of the track in hopes of finding some more room for the open wheelers to maneuver around in. Turn seven will just see a few cones move as the drivers will now take the tightest configuration, changing the corner from a slow carousel to a proper hair pin. This will be the third configuration of T7 in four years. The most telling changes will be seen in the turn nice chicane. The track will actually be widened allowing drivers to have a few more line option when attempting to overtake. Finally, the turn 11 hairpin will be extended by 200 feet. I still don’t get the safety argument of not using the full T11 configuration when we go 225 headed into a concrete wall in Indy. An argument for another day I guess.

Three-in-a-Row? – Can the boys and girls of indycar race a third race in a row clean and caution free? I highly doubt it and fully expect to see some first lap carnage. Sonoma is a very tight track and the initial two-wide trip through turns 2,3 and 3a are nearly always accented by carbon fiber confetti. With the race lengthened by ten laps, a caution free event would nearly guarantee a three stop strategy punctuated with pure pace until the end. However, even a few caution laps could push the race into a two stop fuel savings race. Ultimately I would like to see the event go green from start to finish and watch the drivers run at 110 percent the entire afternoon. If there is any yellow, there needs to be more than just a few laps to comfortably allow the drivers to attack without worrying about fuel savings.

It’s Hotting Up – With the grueling three week summer break in the bag, the championship battle returns in full swing. In a bit over three weeks we will know crown the 2012 season champion, and it all starts this weekend. Ryan Hunter-Reay is still in the prime spot because the pressure is off of him and pointed at Will Power. Power has won this event the last three years, but I don’t feel he has the legs to get it don’t this year. And we all know, when Power pushes, Power comes up just a bit short. But, I expect Will to smash the field in Baltimore and have a tough weekend in Fontana where RHR should have the upper hand. But we cannot forget Helio Castroneves, who is always a threat if he can qualify well and mirror the leaders pit strategy; Helio could be a dark horse for all three of these events. And Scott Dixon is always lurking and is ever present and dangerous (insert jaws music).

Takuma Sato – I keep getting the feeling that the Japanese driver really likes racing at Sonoma. His responses to the days of testing are always filled with disappointment due to his testing days seemingly cut short every time the team unloads. Taku just seems like he gets Sonoma; I have always felt this could be the closest thing to a European road course that the series runs on. This could also bode well for Rubens Barrichello who has been fairly vocal about the decrepit state of the racing surfaces that indycar competes on. Taku is a pure road course racer who has speed in hand every week but often lacks the traction to keep the pointy end faced forward. Why do I keep dumping up a known crasher? Because I got his autograph at the USGP as he was on his way back to the paddock… wait for it… after a crash. D’oh! He can still get it done; one of these days Taku will be there…

Predictions

Pole – Scott Dixon – The perfect start to his final attack on the championship and the dashing of Penske racings and Will Powers dreams for one more year.

Winner – Simon Pagenaud – every now and again, it feels like

Epic Performance – Simona de Silvestro – HVM and SdS have two events left to make honest headway through the field, and the tight and twisty confines of Sonoma could play right into hear hands. A few yellows couldn’t hurt her cause either.

Biggest Loser – Will Power – I hate harping on Power, but his location in the predictions this week is a simple matter of position. One of the contenders is going to lose a fist full of points this weekend; might as well be the leader so the championship can become even closer.

Ahh, we finally have some racing this weekend, and it should be pretty good. With only three natural terrain road courses on the schedule, I really enjoy any chance I get to see our drivers fight it out over the hills. And in all honesty, I would love to see a few more proper road courses added to the schedule. But there aren’t very many left with an unburned bridge to open wheel. Sure, the race has been a snoozer in the past, but it is facilities like this that truly give our drivers the most diverse schedule in the world. One road, one street and one oval comprise the final three rounds of the championship; what a way to end the season.

Eric Hall

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