Random Thoughts On Toronto

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How quickly things change! Eight days ago, Target Chip Ganassi Racing had been reduced to a mere afterthought for the season championship. Andretti Autosport was coming off of two impressive wins at Milwaukee and Iowa, where they completely dominated. Ryan Hunter-Reay was closing in on what looked like a run for a second consecutive championship. Then came Pocono.

Three members of Michael Andretti’s team occupied the entire front-row at Pocono. They certainly appeared to be the team to beat again. Then James Hinchcliffe had an early exit at the first turn of the opening lap. Hunter-Reay was running strong when he fell victim to Takuma Sato’s poor judgment of pit speed. Marco Andretti dominated early, but his fuel strategy saw him limp to a tenth-place finish. Scott Dixon surprised many by collecting his first victory of the season

The Andretti luck continued at Toronto – for both races. The best finish among the four car team was Marco Andretti, who finished fourth on Saturday and ninth yesterday. The Dixon/Ganassi luck continued this weekend also. The suddenly white-hot Scott Dixon swept both races at Toronto and jumped ahead of Marco and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the points to assume second-place in the standings. He now sits only twenty-nine points behind points leader Helio Castroneves, who was consistent enough all weekend to place sixth on Saturday and a solid second on Sunday.

But make no mistake – Scott Dixon was in a class all his own on Sunday. Helio was seldom threatened for second, but never came close to matching the pace set by Dixon on Sunday.

Before the Pocono race barely more than a week ago, Ryan Hunter-Reay was only nine points behind Helio. You had to figure that Helio’s competition for the championship would come from either Hunter-Reay or Marco. But Hunter-Reay sits sixty-nine points behind Helio after the Toronto double-header, while Marco is one point further back behind Hunter-Reay.

Suddenly, Dario Franchitti has remembered how to drive a race car as well. He was eventually credited with third in Saturday’s race, and drove from the back of the pack to finish fourth on Sunday. Now the Ganassi cars are flexing their muscles while the Andretti cars can’t buy a break. Meanwhile, Helio Castroneves is driving smart and finishing races; while his Penske teammate, Will Power, continues to find ways to fall out of races.

Oh, and by the way…there were two completely different races each day. The results may look similar, but they got there in totally different ways. Saturday’s planned standing start was eventually achieved on Sunday. There was controversy at the start and after the race; but there was good racing in between that saw several leaders before Scott Dixon re-took the lead for good with seven laps remaining.

Sunday’s race was totally dominated by Dixon, who started on the pole and led all but four of the eighty-five laps. There was not a whole lot of drama as to who was going to win, but there was lots going on behind the leader. Sébastien Bourdais and Dragon Racing finally found some speed in the car and he drove like he did during his days with Newman/Haas in Champ Car. Bourdais finished second on Saturday and third yesterday, being the only driver to share the podium with Dixon for both days.

Will Power drove like a man desperate for results in both races. Power led twenty-eight laps on Saturday, but tried a foolish move on the final lap to overtake Franchitti for third while Power was sitting comfortably in fourth. Power ended up in the wall and finished fifteenth. On Sunday, during the final restart with three laps to go, Power was running third when he went wide and colleted the cars of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato. Again, Power ended up sitting still in the final laps and was forced to settle for eighteenth on Sunday. This was not the way for a man who was used to dominating on street courses, to get his season back on track.

I’m sure the drivers are exhausted, as well as the teams and fans who were there through the entire three-day event. I was tired from just scheduling time on the couch for both races. Fortunately for the teams, there was not a lot of damage to rebuild – even though there is now a three week break for everyone to regroup. The jury is still out on the double-headers. With two of them behind us now, I see some positives and some negatives. I guess they will need to decided whether to continue them for next season, before the next one – which is at Houston in October. Hopefully, the 2014 schedule will already be finalized by then.

But congratulations to Scott Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. They have certainly come out of nowhere to make this championship interesting. Had his mediocre season continued, Helio Castroneves would be running away with this championship just by winning one race and being consistent. As much as I’m pulling for Helio to win his first championship, I don’t really want to be lulled to sleep watching him win it that way. Scott Dixon is putting the heat on the old fashion way – by winning races.

TV Coverage: At the risk of bashing the group that is done for the season – the NBC Sports Network showed everyone that this is how you broadcast a race. NBCSN does it with excitement, knowledgeable commentators who don’t talk down to fans and quickly providing information. Jon Beekhuis is superb in the pits, but quite frankly – I think we fans are better served with him in the booth where he can more readily share his vast knowledge with us. Kevin Lee was solid, as usual and even Brian Till was good in a substitute role.

Leigh Diffey is finally growing on me. Townsend Bell provides good insight and Steve Matchett succeeded in not being too highbrow by constant comparisons between IndyCar and Formula One, which he is much more familiar with. You got the impression he really enjoyed the weekend.

My only complaint was with whoever made the decision to switch the camera angle to a split-screen, just as the green lights came on for the standing start. I had been staring at the grid, when suddenly we were faced with two different shots side-by-side. By the time I got my bearings, the field was already well on their way.

Speaking of Standing Starts: After bungling through Saturday’s aborted start, I had mixed emotions when I heard that they were going to try it again on Sunday. I felt as if the series and the drivers were ill-prepared for this and there was a good chance this could be very embarrassing for the series if they had the carnage I was expecting. Fortunately, the start came off without a hitch and really looked good on television. I’m still not sure about the long-term viability of standing starts, but it gave the die-hards something to anticipate. Now, I’m looking forward to seeing it done at Houston.

Act like you’ve been there: I hate to admit it, but I cringed when I saw Sébastien Bordais celebrate a second-place finish cutting donuts after Saturday’s race. I’m not a fan of that tradition that was started by Alex Zanardi and then credited to NASCAR after they stole it, anyway. But if the race winner chooses to do it, I’ve learned to live with it. But until Saturday, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a race loser burn donuts – except when they’ve clinched a championship.

Old-school football coaches will always preach to act like you’ve been there. The thing is, Bourdais is a four-time champion. He knows what it’s like to win and win big. I know he was excited, but I thought it came across as just a little bush-league when I saw him doing it. Quite frankly, I was a little embarrassed for him.

Oops!: But any animosity I felt for Bourdais quickly evaporated when I saw what happened to him on the podium celebration. By now, I’m sure everyone has seen the clip of them handing Bourdais his second-place trophy. No one told him that the crystal bowl was not affixed to the wooden base. The base tilted as he tried to lift it and the bowl bounced toward an unsuspecting Dario Franchitti. The cut glass bowl did not survive. You had to feel for Bourdais as he sheepishly lifted the empty wooden base for the celebration photos.

Controversy, Part I: Although I heard the boos of fans at the track and read lots of complaining on Twitter, I never really considered the aborted standing start on Saturday to be controversial. Perhaps it was because I had read the explanation earlier in the week that an aborted start would result in a traditional rolling start. I just assumed everyone had read it. Apparently not.

Controversy, Part II: Many were also steamed that interim race director Brian Barnhart was taking the rule book into his own hands by going with single-file start with one lap remaining in Saturday’s race. I won’t claim that I knew of the rule that allowed them to use a single file start when there was not enough time to use the sweeper, but when I heard it explained, it made sense.

Controversy, Part III: This was the one that chapped me and got me in a Twitter war with some good friends regarding Brian Barnhart again finding himself in the center of the storm of controversy. When Will Power made his dive-bomb move going into Turn Three on the final lap of Saturday’s race, I could tell from my couch that he had little chance of pulling it off. I was hoping he would, but was sure he couldn’t. He didn’t.

Had I thought that Dario Franchitti had blocked him, I would have been screaming at the television. Even after watching replays, I thought Dario was completely innocent – and that’s from someone who is not a huge Dario fan.

When they announced that Dario had been penalized twenty-five seconds for blocking, resulting in him being moved from third to thirteenth – I was outraged.

I took to Twitter blasting the call and taking my wrath out on Brian Barnhart who was back in his starring role for this weekend due to Beaux Barfield’s absence. I felt that Barnhart just had to make his presence known, even though it was an entire committee that decided the call should be made.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the call was rescinded early Saturday evening. Still, the good feelings that Franchitti had felt standing on the podium, had been taken away. Much of the talk Saturday night was the call and then the reversal of the call. Little attention was paid to Scott Dixon winning his second race in a row. Dixon took care of that by running away with Sunday’s race. That was the buzz on Twitter Sunday night.

Controversy, Part IV: There was another call on Sunday involving Dario Franchitti. He damaged his front wing and right-front tire on the opening lap. He had started the race on the red tires. The rule book calls for drivers to race at least two green-flag laps on each type of tire. At the end of the first lap, Dario changed tires, went to blacks and never ran the reds for the rest of the race.

Fans, teams and the NBCSN crew wondered how he was able to get away with that. Jon Beekhuis reported during the race that IndyCar was OK with him running only one lap. Steve Matchett was incredulous. Justifiably, he wondered out loud how you can have a rule but not hold everyone to it.

After the race, it was explained that for the double-header weekends – teams are allowed to fulfill the requirement after only one lap of the Sunday race, so long as there is actual damage to one of the tires. This is due to the fact that the teams only get three sets of reds for the entire weekend.

That seems ridiculous. If there are two races in a weekend, there should be enough tires given to the teams for two races. To compensate, they install this little known crease to the rulebook. It seems it would be much easier to keep the rules consistent for every race and just bring more tires. But what do I know?

All in all: The race weekend created quite the buzz throughout the IndyCar community of die-hard fans. There were two good races, although I thought Saturday’s race was much better than Sunday’s runaway. But the controversies got all the attention from fans, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I would rather the entire sporting world be discussing the great racing that took place, rather than the controversies.

Since both races were relatively clean, SportCenter didn’t have a lot of highlights to show. Fortunately, Bourdais provided the comic relief by dropping the trophy went viral and gave the casual fans something to discuss.

Now the series goes on a little bit of a break. Although, I know the crews are glad to not be racing next weekend – three weeks off is a little long, especially considering NFL training camps will be starting up before the IndyCar Series runs again at Mid-Ohio. It’s also not ideal that Turbo opens up next week while the series is on a long hiatus. It would have been good to have the series running as most people were seeing the movie.

But as far as the racing at Toronto goes, with the double-header and the standing starts – it was a successful weekend – all controversy aside.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Toronto”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    Compared to the pre-Barfield era, I thought any controversial matters in Toronto were pretty minor, particularly the red tire deal involving Dario. Much ado about nothing.

    Did you notice that on Sunday there were 23 grid girls and one grid guy (for Simona). Nice touch.

    The Canadian TV network that Randy Bernard switched to (Rogers Sportsnet) did a great job of promoting the Toronto race. There appeared to be a nice crowd.

    In a post race interview with Stephanie Wallcraft, Hinchcliffe really slammed the double header concept. He can’t seem to buy a break in TO.

    Despite the wear and tear on drivers and teams, there was much more green flag racing than I expected.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The racing was solid but not spectacular, none of the drivers I favor had a very good weekend, and we got a new (but not really more interesting) championship landscape. Well, it was a whole lot better than the circus that was the 2011 race.

    Steve Matchett was tremendous, my favorite part of the race weekend. Though David Hobbs received good reviews for his role on the Milwaukee broadcast, I thought he added little to the team beyond his likable demeanor. Matchett, was much more well prepared and had much more insight to offer, especially in regards to intervals and pit strategy.

    My second favorite thing was the second-to-last restart of race 1. Dixon attempted to break-check the field and Bourdais timed his move perfectly with the green flag and took the lead easily by turn 1. I’d like to see double-file restarts everywhere if only to take the advantage away from the break-checkers (Helio at Texas comes to mind).

    Also, big kudos to Indycar for keeping their promise and using the standing start on Sunday after Saturday’s aborted start. As for the standing start itself, it met my expectations and was wholly uninteresting. I’d be fine with not seeing them again in Indycar after Houston this year. But Indycar promised them, and after all the hand-wringing on Saturday, they did deliver.

    On a final note, the CW network evening movie last night was Driven. Coincidentally, the first race for Stallone’s character in that train wreck of a film is Toronto. Surprisingly, Driven’s Toronto race was even cleaner than this weekend’s (only 1 caution in the movie race).

  3. Double-headers serve their purpose–how to artificially create two races in order to inexpensively fill out anything resembling a full schedule. With added venues (hopefully) maybe they won’t be needed in the future.

    Speaking of schedule…the upcoming gaps do nothing to keep Indycar on the map. (I’m acting like Indycar is actually on the map.) They don’t have to race for 88 consecutive weeks like Nascar, but they need to be consistent. Hope that’s changed for next year.

    The more rules you have, the more you have to enforce. They should keep it simple.

    I don’t care either way about standing starts. But they should pick one style or the other and stick to it. Speaking of starts, I can’t stand them in Indycar. Line them up two-by-two and let them go when the green flag waves. If they don’t line up, then don’t start (or restart) the race. Indycar race control is like an over-indulgent parent and the “children” know they can get away with anything.

  4. The racing was okay especially on Saturday but I can live without ever seeing Dixon win another race again. To quote Game of Thrones, Dixon has the personality of a lobster. The blatant favoritism for Dario and the less than exciting race on Sunday didn’t help. It wasn’t the worst Indycar racing we’ve seen but it wasn’t action packed either.

  5. Steve Matchett is the beat announcer in American Sports. Following him around in Toronto while he talks to the teams and mechanics to get up to speed with IndyCar would have been a treat. The guy is very smart and observant.

    Dixon is my driver but it was a shame the second race wasn’t finished under a GWC.

    Double headers rule. They should be at every track but Indy, Texas, Pocono, & Fontana.

    The standing start was great. I agree that the camera work was botched. These should be at every street & road course.

    It is fascinating watching Bourdais help develop a bad team. I hope opinions of him are changing.

    What on earth did Beaux Barfield do to be denied entry into Canada? Is this really possible?

    Mid-Ohio can’t come soon enough. I will see you all at the esses.

  6. I came away very impressed with Dragon Racing. Jay is working on building his team and here are a couple of signs that it may be coming together.

  7. IndyCar actually listened to the fans. Their boos said they wanted to see the standing start so they went for it on Sunday.(I completely understand why they aborted on Saturday. I too read the start procedure.) But a series that is sometimes fan “tone deaf” seemed to listen so that’s a plus.

  8. Matt B. (Dayton, OH) Says:

    “Jon Beekhuis is superb in the pits, but quite frankly – I think we fans are better served with him in the booth where he can more readily share his vast knowledge with us.”

    George, I was thinking the exact same thing during the race broadcast. I’ve been a Beekhuis fan since his CART days and was very pleased when he was chosen for IndyCar’s Versus/NBCSN team. He seems like a regular personable guy, and is very knowledgeable and articulate. And, he doesn’t tend to hype things, so when he gets excited about something, you know it’s actually worth getting excited about. A little thing called credibility! Even casual watchers can tell the difference, even if unconsciously, and over-hyping is a big broadcast negative, at least to me. I agree he’s great in the pits but can deliver us even more from the booth. It’s good that he gets some booth-like time even from the pits, talking about strategy and overall race development even from there.

  9. S0CSeven Says:

    A pressdog refugee here.

    Re doubleheaders:
    You go to an oval, you race, you go home.
    You go to a road course, you race, you go home.
    But a street course doesn’t exist. You have to build the walls, the fencing, the communication, the lighting…. even the grandstands all starting 6 weeks before the race. And then the whole thing has to be dismantled and stored for next year.

    The promoter is on the hook for millions of bucks even before a wheel has been turned.

    In Champ Car days, weekend tickets in Toronto went for $200. Even when the IRL came along tickets only went down to $150. Imagine taking your family of four to a day at the races at those prices.

    But NOW, you can buy a ticket for either Saturday or Sunday or both and get in for $60ish a seat for one race if you want. Will it help? I dunno, but at this point in Indycar history you have to try something.

    And as for the whining drivers, there are plenty of 24 hr, 12 hr & 6 hour races where drivers aren’t allowed to behave like spoiled babies if they have to get back in the car again. Aussie V8′s even run 3 races in a weekend.

    Drivers, it’s about the FANS! If you haven’t figured that out by now you need a different career.

  10. Jack The Root Says:

    “It is fascinating watching Bourdais help develop a bad team. I hope opinions of him are changing.”

    No, he is still a tool. Donuts for finishing as first loser in a race??? They should have fined him for that and like George said, I was embarrassed for him. The team is still bad and he’s done very little to improve it, outside of a couple of races here and there. Crashing while coming into pitlane at Indy was laughable. He’s just an “alright” driver who likely won’t be around much longer.

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