Random Thoughts On São Paulo

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After a major fiasco on Saturday – and yes, it was a fiasco – the Izod IndyCar Series redeemed themselves on Sunday with the inaugural running of the São Paulo Indy 300. The result was one of the most entertaining street courses that I can remember in all of my years of watching open-wheel racing. This race had it all – rain, successful and botched pit strategy, great passes for the lead, unforced errors and tons of story lines and sub-plots. Oh yeah, it also had a violent crash which injured no one, but will surely be replayed on SportsCenter many times over the next couple of days.

The overnight grinding of the surface of the Sambadrome predictably created a massive amount of dust. The surface was rinsed early Sunday morning and it was hoped that the practice sessions had gotten rid of most of the dust. However, when twenty-four, side-by-side cars rolled over the dusty area at speed; coupled with a bold move by former Formula One driver (but IndyCar rookie) Takuma Sato – the result was a white cloud of dust that engulfed the Sambadrome and a huge melee going into the first turn.

As the race resumed after the cleanup, it seemed like we were going to have another single-file street race. Then things started getting racy especially as Ryan Hunter-Reay made a great move past Alex Tagliani for second place behind Dario Franchitti. Then, when a full-course caution came out for Milka Duno’s spin, the entire complexion of the race changed. Rookie Simona de Silvestro had just pitted four laps earlier, so when all the leaders pitted, she stayed out.

Not only did the Swiss driver lead in her very first appearance in an Izod IndyCar race, she held her own against the likes of Dario Franchitti and Hunter-Reay, before finally giving the lead up to Hunter-Reay.

Then came the monsoon. The race was stopped when it became obvious this was more than just a gentle sprinkle. Puddles suddenly became small ponds. Normally, I would say “let ‘em race”, but this deluge was a little too much. I did think they waited too long to let the track dry. As soon as it was manageable, throw the green flag and let them have at it. That’s what rain tires are for and it can create a whole new set of dynamics. Instead, they waited until the sun had been shining for a while and the track was almost dry – and they were forced to change to a timed event.

Once things got going again, it was pretty much non-stop action. Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay waged an epic battle at the front, each swapping passes for the lead. With about twelve minutes to go (not sure what lap it was); while leading, Briscoe inexplicably missed a turn with Hunter-Reay pressuring him from behind. Briscoe found his nose stuck in the tire barriers as the leaders drove past. This is the second brain-fade that Briscoe has had while leading in his past three races. Championships are won and lost over the smallest of details. I hope that these momentary lapses in concentration are not becoming a pattern for Ryan. He is a good guy, but these things will cost him.

Suddenly, it was a battle between Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport and Will Power of Verizon Team Penske. They drove away from the rest of the field, with Hunter-Reay leading the way. Then at the end of the long backstretch, Power set up RHR beautifully, took the lead going into the tight right-hander and never looked back. Power’s comeback from a broken back after a crash at Sonoma is seemingly complete. It was a well-deserved win for a very nice guy.

I will never be convinced that street races are as exciting as ovals – I’m too hardheaded. But this race was as exciting as it gets. If you didn’t like this race, you need to find another sport. It also speaks well for the season before us. Even though the Penske-Ganassi stranglehold was not broken, there were many new and fresh faces lined up behind the winner. Seven of the top-eight finishers were from different teams and three of the top-five were from single car teams (Foyt, Luczo Dragon de Ferran and Panther).

About Qualifying: Although many were on board with my assessment of the hiccup that caused qualifying to be postponed, others disagreed with it. I was especially berated by two that chose to e-mail me to voice their disagreements with me. That’s fine. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me and I welcome challenging opinions so long as they are presented responsibly, as most of them are. But I have to take issue with one that called me a “doom and gloomer”. I’m certainly not going to blindly carry the sunshine banner for the league, but I don’t constantly preach the impending doom for the series either.

When the league does something right, I like to think I’m one of the first to praise them for it. When they do something that’s, well…stupid; I certainly feel free to take them to task. That’s what I do here. I give my honest opinion. I consider myself to be fairly level headed and I rarely go off on some wild tangent. Between the Champ Car fanatics and the IRL Kool-Aid drinkers; I’m probably in the middle, but lean more towards the IRL side. But if you are looking for someone to spew the party line for the league on every issue, Mike King might be more suited for you.

Speaking of Mike King: I tuned into the online qualifying broadcast before the scheduled Versus telecast. Although it was the first race of the season, Mike King of the IMS Radio Network was in mid-season form – and that’s not a compliment. While the cars were practicing instead of qualifying, Mike King’s voice suddenly jumped a couple of octaves as he exclaimed that Ryan Briscoe had just hit the wall on the front stretch almost in the exact spot he had earlier. Fortunately, he had Kevin Lee to calm him down and explain that it was just a replay of Briscoe’s earlier tap with the wall. Although he initially argued that it was live, Kevin’s calmer approach finally prevailed.

On a more serious complaint…Mike King was explaining that Tony Cotman had designed the track and about his earlier role with the league. He mentioned that Cotman had previously worked with “another series”. Is King that much of an IRL homer that he cannot purse his lips together to say the words “Champ Car”? I don’t see it as a crime for those with the league to acknowledge that CART/Champ Car did actually exist.

TV Coverage: Given what they had to work with, Versus did an OK job. Most of the video feed came from Brazilian television, which understandably spent most of the time following the Brazilian drivers. The video quality was poor…in fact, almost amateurish. Colors faded in and out more than usual and the picture became pixilated several times. Jack Arute was the only Versus on-air talent on site. Lindy Thackston and Robbie Floyd had the weekend off, while “the booth” did commentary from a US based studio. All in all, they did a good job being detached and without any ownership of the telecast.

Fortunately, Izod has finally retired the “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” commercial with more of a futuristic theme where they can choose drivers. I guess the others are still in production because they kept picking Tony Kanaan, but it is far less irritating than last year’s. The one I was tired of seeing was the oversized peanut on the sailboat. Enough!

Still a pert-timer?: It is my hope that Izod (or somebody) liked what they saw out of Ryan Hunter-Reay and will pony up the cash to run him for the entire season. He showed Sunday that he is simply too talented to be a part-timer in this series.

In Conclusion: I am hopeful that this was a sign of things to come and not an aberration. Many teams showed improvement and perhaps the gap between the top-two and the rest of the field is narrowing. The top half of Andretti Autosport looked very competitive. Tony Kanaan was taken out of contention early while running third and Ryan Hunter-Reay very well could have won the race. Danica Patrick was pretty much of a non-factor all day and Marco had a forgettable weekend, but the team as a whole seems improved.

Dan Wheldon is remembered for punting Tagliani into Kanaan, but his race seemed to go unnoticed and that’s a shame. What no one seemed to realize was that after starting eighteenth, he had worked his way up to the front of the field right from the start. He got up there and stayed and could have finished higher. Panther’s worst performances last year were on street courses. They should be ecstatic with a fifth place finish.

Will Power wasn’t the only one completing a comeback from a broken back. After a horrifying crash at Indianapolis, Vitor Meira returned to the cockpit at AJ Foyt Racing. Starting sixteenth, he avoided the skirmish at the start and steadily moved up all day. He made a great pass on Rafa Matos, the driver who put him into the wall at Indy, for third near the end of the race. He has gotten Foyt’s team off to their best start in years. For AJ and Larry Foyt and Vitor – I certainly hope they can keep this momentum going. I like all three of them.

To me, the biggest surprise of the weekend was Alex Tagliani and the newly formed Fazzt Race Team. I predicted last week that they would surely struggle. Instead, they were fast all weekend. Tagliani’s second place starting spot was no fluke and he was near the front all day before being taken out by Wheldon. I knew Tagliani had talent – he proved that at Indianapolis last year. But given the circumstances of a new team that is probably not flush with cash, logic would tell you that they would struggle. Good for them for beating the odds.

Hopefully, the gap will continue to narrow. It really makes it much more intriguing to watch a race and wonder who among eight to ten drivers might win, instead of who among the same four. I hope we never have another season like 2009 where the same few win everything. So far, 2010 looks to be a lot more competitive.

George Phillips

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22 Responses to “Random Thoughts On São Paulo”

  1. Hey George, nice comments. I was one of the ones calling you a doom and gloomer but I appreciate your candid opinions and hope you continue. If we all agreed, what fun would these discussions be! Either way, the race turned out great in my opinion as well!

  2. Vic Lovisa Says:

    George, I would also add that I was pretty impressed with Marco’s post-accident interview. I felt he had full rights to totally bang on Moraes, but for the most part he was very professional. I’ve never been much of a Marco fan, but his interview surprised me. As for Moraes, I constantly read people writing about how “talented” he is. I don’t get it. The only thing he seems to be talented at is being the new Cheever to the Andrettis!

    • Maybe they should separate the children?
      The children have had many wrecks in their short careers and both of them are no more mature than the other. IMO. Since AA has 4 cars (almost 1/4 of the grid) there should be no real surprise that one of them will be hit …especially given the condition of the track.

      Also had RHR won this race there would have at least been some champane throwing. There was a little bit of poking fun at William when he was eating his snack and showing off his blistered hands and his recovery story. It was very emotional for him. Coming back from a broken vertabrae, blistered hands, bruised knees and elbows and minimal celebration for this win?
      Very interesting to watch the disproportionate elevation of excitement for this winner.

  3. Scott Simmons Says:

    Great race but you’re right that the video quality was terrible. I chalk it up to it’s Brazilian origination and not Comcast.

  4. On Tagliani, I think that people also forget that he bought his equipment from Marty Roth. Roth had done quite a bit of good work on those cars before, so I think aero package-wise, he started off in pretty good shape. All in all, a very impressive weekend for his new team.

  5. Lots of random thoughts about this race. First and foremost I guess, is that I had a lot of fun watching it. I think it is a good move to race in Brazil, as long as the enthusiam holds. I think, more than ever, that it’s not about oval vs. twisty, it’s about good race course vs. bad race course. I like most of the driver’s–what’s not to like about Will Power, RHR, DiSivestro, Justin Wilson, and the Vitor and AJ show not to mention the old guard of TK, Helio and Dario. And that’s not including Sarah and Rahal yet. And the continuing saga of young Marco. Speaking of that, I was also very appreciative of the safety of the Dallara chassis.

    Yeah, the coverage was lame, but I think that will remedy itself over the next few races with the domestic Versus crew and ABC. And the race itself may have been rushed, but it worked out in the end.

    I really look forward to a good home opener in Florida and a lot of good publicity and Hollywood glitter in Long Beach. I’m starting to get very curious about the race at Barber–which I may just watch with the announcers turned off and classical music blasting.

    Anyway. It was really fun.

  6. George, I had a lot of people upset at me for my critique of the qualifying thing too. I’m sure after Iowa or Montegi, the oval fans will be upset with us.

    It was a good race, if only I didn’t have Direct TV. I was pleasntly suprised with the ammount of overtaking. Hopefully St Pete and Long Beach will not turn into parades.

    • Optimistic that St Pete will be a decent race, Long Beach will be what Long Beach has always been – a great party for those @ the event. Fortunately that includes me and the Mrs this year.

  7. Chad Paff Says:

    I didn’t see the race.

    • Stephen_P83 Says:

      If you have direct TV, you should have watched it online. Complaining about not having Versus is getting old. If you’re a fan, you’ll watch the race. You had options. Indycar.com showed the race online and they’ll show the next one too. If you have Versus but just didn’t happen to watch it, the race replays tonight on Versus starting at 10pm ET.

      • Chad Paff Says:

        “Complaining about not having Versus is getting old.”

        Really? I think its a very valid complaint. One that MANY folks have.

        This series has hitched its wagon to a 3rd tier network. If they want to survive much longer, the sport better figure something out soon.

      • Indycar.com does show the race, but when I ran it, it crashed my internet multiple times. In the end I went to the radio feed, which worked great. BUT, this isn’t the 1970’s, and people demand video coverage. That is a major issue. And the Vs. thing is pretty serious. Not getting to watch the races on TV sucks

  8. Stephen_P83 Says:

    “I will never be convinced that street races are as exciting as ovals – I’m too hardheaded. But this race was as exciting as it gets. If you didn’t like this race, you need to find another sport. It also speaks well for the season before us.”

    I know you’re hard-headed George (I have read every post over the last year), but I’m glad you can admit that is was an exciting race. Fans, and bloggers, need to understand that street/road courses are what many fans prefer. You’ll never convince me that an oval is more exciting than a road course for many reasons, but I will still watch every oval because I like Indycar racing. Too often we get people or bloggers making comments about how terrible road courses are and how all street races are only a parade. When I hear those comments, I always chuckle to myself because I know a real race fan doesn’t think like that. Anyway, that was a slight rant on my part. I appreciate that even a hard-headed guy like you can admit that not all street courses are parades. If you give them a chance and don’t prejudge the race, you’ll probably be surprised at how exciting the races are.

    • True, but a lot of it depends on the course. Infenion and Mid Ohio are incapable of producing a good Indycar race. Watkins Glen, on the other hand, can. Sometimes street courses work out well, but overall they need to be in the minority, compared to ovals and good road courses. And Indycar needs to be at Road America, Road Atlanta, and Sebring, which are actually large enough to pass.

      • How many actual Indycar races have you been to Dylan? Especially Mid Ohio and Infineon. I go to Mid Ohio every year and it is a great race. Reality and tv are two different things. There are areas for passing and it is much wider than you think it is. Wonderful invention called youtube. Try Mid Ohio in the 90’s and you will see some great examples. However watching a turbo zip around there vs. what we have now is not quite the same but to say that mid ohio is incapable is just ignorant.

      • Maybe Mid Ohio is better in person, but I don’t really think, compared to other possiblities, Mid Ohio and Infenion really need to be in the series. They just don’t put on good races, at least for TV viewers, and that’s where the sponsors come from.

  9. One thing that is either unknown or unnoticed is how people had started to write off Wheldon for road courses and how great he did, passed more than half the field. This off season I think Wheldon was at a big go-kart race almost every weekend (I know I saw him myself at SKUSA in Vegas and saw him twitter/tweet about being in almost 10+ other big events). Not sure its a direct correlation, but he sure looked good on the streets of Brazil; maybe some other could try his off season go-kart regimen.

  10. I don’t know which was worse, the crash at the beginning or the lack of concern from the commentators.

  11. Mike Silver Says:

    George,
    Great synopsis of a great race. I was really hoping RHR would win, but there is hope for other teams. Three amazing stoires of redemption on the podium.

  12. A few observations:

    Very good race. Better than most street/road course races. Will Power is going to be a beast on street/road courses. If he gets his oval skills down, look out. He’s also hungry after nearly losing his career-and life-in last year’s accident at Infineon, so I look for him to be extremely motivated this year.

    Good to see RHR near the front. It’s good to know Andretti Autosport has 2 legitimate drivers. Hopefully, he’s signed for the full season soon.

    Did anyone think Vitor Meira would be the highest-finishing Brazilian driver? Driving for A.J. Foyt? On a street/road course? I certainly didn’t. Way to go, podium guys.

    A few brain fades that need toe corrected, especially Briscoe’s. The Captain won’t stand for that for long. Is Briscoe hearing footsteps? That question remains to be answered.

    Simona De Slivestro leading a lap. Yes, it was due to pit strategy and she is in the HVM, one of the truly bad cars in the series, but given the right car-she’s not in it now-this young woman can perform. Hopefully, she’ll impress enough-or have enough sponsorship-to get a better seat in the future.

    Credit also to Alex Tagliani. Running up front most of the race-for a first year team! Talent does will out, doesn’t it? So does middling and non -talent.

    Although Dan Wheldon did punt Tag, the fact that he was running up in the tip 5 is encouraging for Panther Racing.

    Next race at St. Petersburg will to me be a more telling race. Unlike Brazil, most of the teams have been there, so they will know the circuit better than they did Brazil. Of course, some of the drivers don’t, so we shall see how it all plays out. I’m very excited for the season.

    Overall, George a well-done writeup on the race. It’s also good to see that you can be open-minded about things. So many “fans” aren’t.

  13. I don’t like the former AGR. But how great would it have been if their first win in a long time came from the part-timer in his first race with the team?

    Also, hats off to Simona. She will great to watch on the road courses this year.

  14. A wonderful race and the action slammed the F1 race from Bahrain. Marco will get going at St. Pete and RHR might just pull it off. The Foyt crew worked hard and Vitor did an excellent job.

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