Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio

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As most seasons eventually do, the 2009 IndyCar season will probably come down to one or two mistakes making the difference between a successful season and a disappointment. Such was the case in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. At first, it looked as if Justin Wilson had the entire field covered. However, two or three minor mistakes made the difference between battling for the win and finishing thirteenth – which is exactly where he finished.

Helio Castroneves was not going to contend for the race win, but he probably had a top-five finish in his grasp before he lost control on his own, spun into the gravel trap and was lucky to finish twelfth. Ryan Briscoe had no such disaster but did nothing spectacular either. He made no pass for position on track, yet gave up a couple. These are the types of things that can ruin a season or make one if you can avoid such trouble. On Sunday, Scott Dixon was able to avoid any and all trouble while coasting to an easy victory and pocketing fifty-two valuable championship points.

Justin Wilson was visibly upset after the race. He should have been – with his crew AND himself. His crew possibly played his first pit stop too conservatively by bringing him three laps ahead of the other leaders. I’m merely guessing, but they may have tried to compensate by leaving him out too long for his second stop. Just as his crew said to pit next lap, his car sputtered going into turn one and he nursed a fuel-starved car all away around the track – literally coasting into his pit. With the fuel lines dry, he stalled his car while trying to leave the pits costing him even more valuable time.

Of course, he had already fallen behind Scott Dixon by this time, being the victim of the rolling chicane — Milka Duno. No one can predict which way Milka will go when overtaking her, and Wilson guessed wrong when he approached her on lap thirty-seven. Dixon pounced and the race was effectively over at that point.

As most races do, this one boiled down to who made the fewest mistakes while doing a couple of things assertively as well. On Sunday, it was Dixon. This season has gone back and forth too many times at the top to make any type of prediction other than a guess, but Dixon sure looks like someone ready to close the deal. If he comes out fighting at Infineon in two weeks…look out!

Foyt’s team: With Ryan Hunter-Reay running near the front all day, the AJ Foyt car got a little more airtime than usual. On Hunter-Reay’s second stop, the TV cameras were watching and it revealed a telltale sign that may be the root of some of AJ’s problems.

This will sound a little politically incorrect or cruel, but there’s no other way to say it. The right front tire changer for Foyt’s team is way too portly and obese to be doing what he is doing. He was about two seconds behind the other tire changers. Before he had even removed the old tire, the others already had theirs on and the fueling was complete. There were no front-wing adjustments, he was just that slow. He looked like Chris Farley trying to change a tire. One of the complaints that some have about Foyt is that he is loyal to a fault. He is known to keep cronies on the team even though their abilities are questionable. I don’t know who this person is and for all I know, he may be a substitute. I’m sure he has other redeeming qualities within the team, but the one stop I watched him make was agonizingly slow.

Penske woes: Team Penske definitely had an off week at Mid-Ohio. After wining the past two races and reclaiming the points lead, they didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency this weekend. Yes, they had the pole – but Briscoe drove way too cautiously for a potential champion on Sunday. He seemed to be driving more not to lose than to win, and you know what happens then – bad things. Dixon drove like he wanted it. Briscoe’s two pit stops were a tick slow and his out laps were slow as well. Helio went from a not so great qualifying effort to an even worse result in the race. He was never a factor, even before he spun. Based on what I saw on Sunday – this did not look like a championship caliber team.

AGR woes: Marco Andretti took advantage of a gamble and it paid off. He moved from a thirteenth place starting point to run second for a while, owing to an off-sequence pit strategy, before finishing sixth. Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan both had off-track excursions. Danica was punted by Mike Conway, who made a boneheaded move on her going into turn four. Kanaan went off line as he tried to give room for Ryan Hunter-Reay on lap one, but ended up in the grass. He struggled for the rest of the day to finish tenth, while Danica finished nineteenth. The silent hero for AGR was again Hideki Mutoh — who sadly,is probably e out of a ride after this season. It’s a shame because he is, by far, the best Japanese driver I have seen in CART or the IRL.

TV Coverage: If it weren’t for the commercials, I would give it an A. The frequency of the commercials brings the grade down to a B and the spacing of the frequent commercials brings the Versus score down to a C. They seemed to cut away for commercials every five laps, and the “non-stop” box is getting used less and less. Why? Plus, just as either Jon Beekhuis or Robbie Buhl (it’s hard to tell their voices apart sometimes) said that pit lane is going to get very busy around lap twenty-four or twenty-five – Versus cut away to commercials on lap twenty-three. They knew the pit window – why can they not plan their breaks around it?

Later, they cut away on about lap sixty and returned on lap sixty-five. By lap sixty-seven, they cut away again after only two laps of racing. Then with only about ten laps to go, they cut away again. I understand ad revenue is important and that commercials are a necessary evil, but they need to plan their breaks better.

On the positive side, all of the announcers did an excellent job. Their pre-race show was superb. They had a good feature on Dale Coyne and showed video of his driving days at Mid-Ohio in 1984. They also had a good segment on Graham and Bobby Rahal. But their best segment was when Jon Beekhuis did a feature on the Firestone tires and the technicalities involved with racing tires. To me, this is what truly sets Versus apart from ABC/ESPN. Versus is doing a good job of educating fans from all aspects of the sport. ABC just seems to want to focus on drivers wives and emotional tax problems.

Overall: The race was not as entertaining as some, but not a yawner like Edmonton or Richmond. Like qualifying, there weren’t many surprises but the team that seemed to want it the most, won. That’s the way it should be.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio”

  1. Great recap. It’s amazing how two passes are enough to make a road race OK. The first half was marginally interesting, the second half was a yawner. I voted Thank God there is only one more road course to go.

  2. I’m trying to understand the point of street/road courses. I really am because the IRL seems determined to run them. Is it just an economics thing? Do they run streets because it’s just a big event to plan a summer festival around? Is it better for the teams because cars seem to last a little longer?

    I admit very little interest in F1, sports cars or Champ, so I don’t know much about twisties. Has there ever been an interesting, competitive race with a side-by-side photo finish in a street/road race? I know a lot of Champ fans blame the poor racing on the engineering and power–is that true?

    • Redd,
      There have been photo finishes on road courses in the past (GrandAm at Montreal last year and Senna/Mansell at Jerez in the 1985 Spanish GP are the two that come to mind), but I don’t think that road racing is really all about that. For me, road racing is about watching a driver tame a mechanical beast (/end Jack Arute voice) up hill and down dale, around a huge variety of corners, some blind, some off- or on-camber, all different from each other, braking, shifting, managing tire wear and fuel consumption, all while battling with 20+ other drivers who are attempting to do the same. The spectacle is in the actual driving, not so much in the wheel to wheel competition, though when that actually happens on a road course, the excitement factor is multiplied by about 10.

      I think that a lot of the blame for the lack of excitement in the current IndyCars on road courses comes down to a lack of power versus the amount of downforce the cars carry. The first time I saw a top-level open wheel car in person on a road course was CART at Mid-Ohio in 1999. I watched from the berm outside of turn 1 (in the infield), and it was crazy to watch the cars come through near the limit of adhesion, ride the curb at the exit of the corner, and then squat and put down 900+ horsepower toward the Keyhole. Similarly, watching from the esses at the end of the backstraight, it was obvious that Juan Montoya was on a different plane from everybody else on cold tires. Everyone else would cruise around at half speed through there for 1-2 laps after a stop or at the beginning of a session, but Juan was always at top speed on the straight, right out of the pits, and working the wheel and the throttle through the esses, trying to find the absolute limit.

      That whole thing I just wrote makes me sound like one of those “1996 is when I died inside!” ex-CART fans who can not let go of the past. I’m not. The current cars are OK, but I think that if The League can re-install a sense of speed and skill required to drive the next generation of cars, the spectacle of watching the drivers DRIVE the road courses could do a world of good. Who knows, though? Maybe people are too preoccupied with watching DVDs or preparing for their fantasy football drafts to notice IndyCars nowadays. It’s been a long time since a lot of people had the patience to watch two hours of racing that featured little passing…

      • Amen to that!!
        It is very true though that the IRL is facing what is essentially a very “F1 problem” – there is far too much downforce on the cars when compared to the speeds that they do carry through road/street courses.

        They have far too little horsepower, matched up with far too much downforce within regulations that weigh against innovation and design.

  3. Re: TV Coverage… A downside of having a car owner in the broadcast booth is when their field filler (Duno) is a rolling chicane and changes the tone of the race by being in the way…nothing really gets said about it. I’m not saying that is the only reason Wilson lost – Coyne did keep him out too long and Dixon drove a helluva race – but Milka’s gotta go. I’m sure DRR loves that CITGO money, but let’s be serious.

    • Apart from Milka; I think there was definitely a sense of disappointment coming from the booth when Conway punted Danica though – a thoroughly stupid move!!

      I don’t want to come down on the guy unnecessarily, but he really is making the same mistakes he was making when he was in GP2 – very, very fast; when he decided to keep it on the road…

  4. As a tv professional (and one who has worked on Indy programming in the past) I always watch the type / quality of coverage with great interest. i thought it might be a nail in the IRL coffin when Indy moved to Versus but the quality of what they are putting out has greatly increased. The tech packages, human-interest pieces and bigger programming window has been a real plus for the fans. You can just learn so much more about the sport. There does seem to be more ill-timed ad breaks but the biggest problem is the lack of sponsors for those ads. I’ve watch a couple of races this season with non-Indy fans around during the broadcast and the most common comment/question is how/why are we seeing IZOD, Firestone, Boost and APEX Brazil spots over and over and over and over again. Even for a fan it gets old. Couple that with the male enhancement spots that are taking time now and even with the quality coverage it’s beginning to feel like late night tv. I hope they can bring in more sponsors to advertising next season.

  5. Re: commercials. I’ve wondered why no commercials at all from Honda, Coke, Orbitz, the armed services (nat’l guard, marines) or Verizon. They all are sponsors of the IRL to some extent. Even Firestone seems to have cut back on commercials.

    By the way, watching a good road race today. Unfortunately, it’s Nascar.

  6. Cousin Dave Says:

    One thing I’ve noticed: Firestone has done a superb job with the road course red tires. They seem to have no trouble lasting for a full stint. Now they need to a bit less superb a job, because the durability of the red tires has taken the tire strategy element out of it. Right now, everyone’s tire “strategy” consists solely of running as few laps on the black tires as possible. The reds need to be more towards the classic gumball tires — they should start to fade after about 10 laps, and there’s no way anyone should be able to go 35+ laps on them.

  7. My random thoughts on Mid-Ohio:

    1. I still don’t understand why Helio’s off-roading created a full-course yellow that seemingly took a half hour. Did he drag a half ton of gravel back on the track with him? I don’t remember the yellow lasting that long for Kanaan, nor even Danica–and they had to tow her out.

    2. First JW pulled away like an antelope being chased by a heard of rhinos, then Dixon did the same in the second half. I think we should consider stop sticks–the ones the police have.

    3. I don’t think it’s fair to blame “road courses” for this being a dull race. We’ve been treated to some oval snoozers too. Dixon’s domination comes from having the best car by far, in addition to some luck. On an oval, he could have done the same thing.

    4. I guess I’m the only one who’s watching (at least some of the time) to Indycar’s internet feed. No commercials. But it was hilarious (in a train-wreck way) when their main helicopter-mounted camera had to leave to go back to base for fuel. We were treated to a long, sweeping landscape, the view from the undercarriage of the chopper, as we left the track. This went on for quite awhile until we lost the image altogether, and got blue-screen for another long stretch, until someone had the presence of mind to change the feed to pick up Briscoe’s on-board camera. (They eventually switched back when the helicopter returned.)

    5. Nice to see Vitor again. Any man who’s lit on fire, doused, and then drives back out to race again, is a cut above.

    6. I want to throw my beer at the tv (I had VS on, too) when I hear about Dixon matching Hornish’s Historic record. Considering how much the IMS embraces and revels in it’s history, it drives me bananas that the IRL wants to forget anything that happened before 1996. The IRL/Cart war is over. You won. Embrace your history.

    7. Lastly: a proposal for a rule change. If your five-lap average is more than 5mph slower than the 5-lap avg of the leader, you get black-flagged. If your pit crew can’t wring the speed out of your car, you get parked. There should be no moving chicanes, no matter how good you fill out a firesuit.

    • @ James O

      In 1996, F1 introduced the 107% rule; whereby cars that qualified slower than 107% of the pole time did not race. It worked a treat – teams that were in danger either upped their game supremely or just disappeared.
      It’s great that there were 23 cars at Mid-Ohio, but if the person in 23rd is seven seconds per lap slower, they might as well not be there.

      On second thoughts, do you think Robbie asked Milka to slow up so that Milka’s car would get airtime and possibly more dollars??

      • Brian in Panama City Says:

        I wish the powers-that-be, not just the fans, would realize that Milka doesn’t belong there and exclude her. I met her when she drove sports cars, and know that she’s a lovely, bright, educated woman. But she doesn’t belong in this field.

  8. I hadn’t noticed the tire changer for foyt…but watching it again…you’re absolutely right. He looked fat and indeed was still working when all the other tire changers were done. Great observation!

  9. Rick Hunt Says:

    Re: pit crews. I was in the pits at Mid-Ohio all weekend and I commented to my friend about the average age/athleticism of the crews. In general, the crews of the top teams were younger/fitter than the teams that are lower in the pecking order.

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