Twin Ring Motegi Preview
This weekend finds the IZOD IndyCar Series headed east – to the Far East. The series makes its annual pilgrimage to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. After several CART and IndyCar races that ran in the spring since 1998, the race was moved to the fall, beginning in 2009. It won’t happen for 2011, but I’d like to see this race moved back to the spring.
This is not my favorite track. In fact, it may be my least favorite oval on the current schedule. Not only is it a logistical nightmare for the teams and drivers, it hasn’t presented very good racing. Probably the two most memorable moments for the Honda-owned facility happened in the last two races. Danica Patrick won her only career victory there in April of 2008. Then last September, Ryan Briscoe had one of his famous brain-fades and carelessly crashed into the inner pit-wall exiting the pits while leading, thereby throwing away the twenty-five point cushion he had over Scott Dixon.
The one and a half mile oval that sits atop a mountain is more famous for its inaccessibility than it is for great racing. It is an egg-shaped oval similar to the now-defunct Gateway and Darlington. Adrian Fernandez won the first two races there in 1998 and 1999, while driving for Pat Patrick in CART. Other CART winners included Michael Andretti, Kenny Bräck and Bruno Junqueira. When Honda made the move from CART to the IRL in 2003, Motegi went with it. After two embarrassing years of losing to Toyota, Honda finally got a victory at its own track at the hands of Dan Wheldon in 2004 and 2005. By the time Helio Castroneves won in 2006, Honda was the sole engine supplier to the league so the bragging rights became a moot point.
This event is an unnecessary evil that keeps Honda happy. Honda has been a terrific partner to the league. Quite frankly, when all other manufacturers left a few years back, the league would have been in serious trouble without their support. But this race is a major undertaking to participate in, without getting very much in return. It is a half a world away and starts at midnight on the east coast. It’s probably safe to say that this won’t be a ratings blockbuster. I consider myself a die-hard, but it will be a struggle for me to stay up and watch this race after a day of watching college football. I’m sure most that don’t have Sunday carved out for NFL games will be putting this one on the DVR. Other staunch IndyCar fans will probably just miss this one altogether.
Although many don’t share my concern, I don’t care for the fact that with this late race date in the season – the IZOD IndyCar Series runs the risk of crowning its champion in the middle of the night on another continent, every single year. With a 0.15 rating for the season finale at Homestead last year, no one was watching anyway; but I still think the series owes its fans the opportunity to see the championship battle decided during normal waking hours. Couple that with the football-induced apathy for racing in September and this race is totally insignificant, except for the participants in the championship hunt. If the league feels the need to appease Honda and continue going to Twin Ring Motegi, they should move it back to the spring when the racing season is young and interest is higher.
Now about those participants in the championship hunt…there are still four that are mathematically alive; Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves – although in reality, it is down to Power and Franchitti.
A win on an oval would pretty well wrap up this championship for Will Power. I also still have this gut feeling that he won’t win the remaining two ovals of this season. He has never won an oval in his life, so asking him to do it with a championship hanging in the balance is a tall order. That being said, I still think Will Power will win the 2010 championship.
That means that some bad luck will have to befall Dario Franchitti in one of these next two races. I don’t mean Franchitti will have to crash, but just a two-second slip-up in the pits can add points to the seventeen point cushion that Power currently enjoys. Power’s best oval finish this year is a fifth place at Iowa – but he has driven better than that. He has led in every oval race this season except for Kansas. It just seems that he has had some bad luck near the end on most of the ovals.
As for the rest of the field, most will be driving for pride, while some will be driving for 2011 jobs. Some will be trying to convince their current teams to keep them for next season, while others will use this as an audition for a prospective new team. I don’t expect anything really unusual in this race. A KV car will crash and a Penske-Ganassi car will win – pretty much business as usual.
My pick to win? Ryan Briscoe’s slip up at Motegi last year cost him the win at this track and ultimately the championship. His 2010 season has been a big disappointment, but he’ll get some redemption while standing in victory lane in Japan. The trouble is, no one will be awake to see it.