IndyCar descends onto the Streets of Long Beach for the 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this weekend. However, INDYCAR can only claim five appearances at the storied street circuit, 25 rounds were sanctioned by CART/ChampCar, 8 by Formula one and the inaugural edition was a Formula 5000 race overseen by SCCA/USAC. A checkered history indeed, but the current iteration of IndyCar has found an amazing home in Long Beach, California with the local government granting the series a vote of confidence by proposing a three year extension with IndyCar through 2018. Great news for an even better race and with any luck, enough time for indycar to grow and secure its long term future. But first, the 40th edition needs to be run!
Five Things to Watch
Attachments – The barrier lined street circuit is one of the most challenging venues IndyCar visits all year. The low grip surface makes for tougher handling and a slimmer window to make a mistake in. What is the reward for a driver only slightly overstepping their skill at Long Beach? Usually a trip into the concrete wall as there aren’t very many areas with an appreciable amount of runoff. If a driver has even a momentary flash of fear about stuffing the car into the wall they will have no pace at all. It takes an out of body experience while eschewing any concept of self-preservation to capture the checkers at Long Beach.
Yellow Flags – Given the amount of concrete, one can only assume there will be more than a few smashed racecars smoldering in the garage by the time said checker flag waves. The real question will be: how many times will the field see a full course caution? Will there be any use of local yellows at all? Can you even use local yellows at Long Beach? How many times will the track become blocked? Will there be a left over ramp from Stadium Super Trucks to allow the drivers to jump over the track blockage? Could that be the answer to preventing full course cautions?
Restarts – Assuming that Robby Gordon took all of his spiffy ramps with him, we can infer that there will be at least one restart on Sunday afternoon. In St Pete, the field was clearly not prepared for how the new single file restart procedures would alter what an IndyCar restart would look like. Slower speeds and tighter alignments caused havoc in a few very different ways two weeks ago and the drivers will have to adjust their timing and expectations of how the restarts should go. Hopefully we won’t see a similar situation with overeager drivers running over each other. Personally, I like the idea of slower and closer restarts and I hope we can see at least one well executed by the drivers on Sunday.
Standing Start – I know the series unveiled standing starts last year, but they still feel so new and cool. Again, I’m very very excited to see the boys of IndyCar try their hand at something totally out of the ordinary for American racing without a hint of gimmick. INDYCAR has moved to a European style starting lights system with five horizontal lights. This only adds to the international legitimacy of IndyCar racing and brings something to America that is almost never seen. I know standing starts will feel like just another part of the series eventually, but for right now I’m still appreciating the sheer awesomeness of 20 plus race machines sprinting from a standstill.
Carlos Munoz – Honestly, I expected much more out of the Andretti Autosport rookie in St. Pete. Much, much more. The young Colombian only outpaced rookie countryman Carlos Huertas by a single position and was thoroughly trounced by Mikhail Aleshin. AA has a very good handle on the Long Beach street circuit and should provide Munoz with a solid platform to gain more confidence on the twistie tracks. The guy has a proven track record with Indy Lights wins at a wide range of tracks including Long Beach itself. Carlos showed well in St. Pete qualifying, but lost the plot during the race. I’ll definitely be watching for the green and yellow number 34 fighting through the field.
Pole – Takuma Sato – I got a little cocky with my previous pick and if it wasn’t Taku that proved me wrong immediately. Touché Mr. Sato, touché.
Winner – Mike Conway – The guy really knows how to get around Long Beach and showed last week he and ECR can get the car up front and stay there.
Epic Performance – Graham Rahal – The addition of Servia will do more for the team than any amount of cash could. Look for Rahal to be just ok… aka: super-awesomely-good-considering-the-team-and-driver.
Biggest Loser – Jack Hawksworth – The British rookie will continue his struggles of two weeks ago. A rookie driver, a financially questionable team, silly crash damage from round one; none of this instills confidence in me.
Round two is locked and loaded in sunny southern California (sunny and southern again, I need to get to an early season race one of these years…) and the points table isn’t too jumbled yet. The usual suspects are present and accounted for, but the weekend in the LBC has been known to produce some interesting results all the way through the field. It’s fitting that we visit the most famous and successful street race in the US so early in the season. St. Pete is like a nice and soft wake-up only for the IndyCar party to kick into high gear in Long Beach just two short weeks later. The first of two consecutive natural terrain road courses of the season are on tap next for the, seriously, most versatile series in the world.
PS: Juan Pablo Montoya.