Random Thoughts On São Paulo
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.