Long Beach Preview
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has never been my favorite race, in all honesty. Perhaps if I were ever to attend it in person, I might feel differently. In fact, I hear it is quite a spectacle to be in attendance on race weekend. Not for the racing sights, mind you – but for the party atmosphere that surrounds the event.
I know, I know – Long Beach is considered the Monaco of the IZOD IndyCar Series. The historical significance of this race is not lost on me. It has been on the North American open-wheel schedule since 1984 and was part of the Formula One schedule from 1976 through 1983. Mario Andretti has the distinction of winning at Long Beach in both Formula One and CART. I can just think of several other venues that I enjoy watching from my living room.
This year has an added twist. Without going off on another rant regarding the ten-spot grid penalty for an engine change; it was announced yesterday that Chevrolet had decided to change the engines on all eleven of their teams. And yes, as it stands right now – they will all be issued a ten-spot penalty from where they qualify. I noticed on Twitter that everyone was talking about how Sunday’s race would be a slam-dunk for Honda. I’m not so sure. I think due to this assumption, this puts the pressure to win squarely on Honda. Imagine their embarrassment if they don’t win – and it’s quite possible. Will Power proved that starting ninth at Barber certainly wasn’t insurmountable, and he had several Chevy’s in front of him there. Putting what so far has been the fastest engine toward the back, will certainly spice up what, historically, has not been my favorite race.
I won’t go so far as to say Long Beach is my least favorite race, but most know I’m not a big fan of street races. As far as street races go – this one is pretty good. At least there are a couple of passing zones around the 1.96 mile, eleven turn circuit. Barber Motorsports Park has a reputation for few passing opportunities, yet the new DW12 put on a great show there two weeks ago. Perhaps we can expect the same thing at Long Beach.
I won’t go so far as to say that every race at Long Beach has been a dud. I’ll never forget the 1992 race, when Al Unser, Jr. was going for his fifth consecutive victory at Long Beach. He was already hindered by the quirky Galmer chassis, but managed to be leading the race in the late stages when he was taken out by his teammate Danny Sullivan – who did manage to win the race. The following year saw Paul Tracy win his very first race of his Indy Car career.
The IZOD IndyCar series began racing there in 2009 (after the Champ car finale of 2008). The most intriguing storyline of that race was that Helio Castroneves was acquitted in his tax evasion trial on the Friday afternoon of the race weekend. He hopped on a plane immediately and jumped in his car that Will Power had planned to drive. Always being prepared, Roger Penske had brought the No. 12 Verizon car that has now become synonymous with Power, just in case such a scenario played out. Power proceeded to put the car on pole and finished second – a sign of things to come with Power on street circuits. Dario Franchitti went on to win a race that was sort of a parade.
Ryan Hunter-Reay won the 2010 edition in an Andretti Autosport ride that was partially funded by IZOD, but on what seemed like a race-to-race basis. Hunter-Reay dominated by leading sixty-four of the eighty-five laps. Will Power and Scott Dixon were the only other drivers to lead laps in what was somewhat of a snoozer until Justin Wilson challenged Hunter-Reay for the win in the late stages. Graham Rahal, another rideless driver at the time, drove Sarah Fisher’s car before crashing into the tires on Lap 58.
Last year’s race was much more entertaining – especially in the last twenty-five laps. Helio Castroneves made his infamous move leading into Turn One on teammate Will Power that took both out of contention. Later on, Ryan Briscoe was leading Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dario Franchitti and Mike Conway. Suddenly, Conway caught fire as he passed Franchitti, then overtook Hunter-Reay as he was having gearbox issues. Conway drove like a man on a mission as he did away with Briscoe for the lead and the win. All the while, his pulse rate jumped an amazing two beats per minute as he actually cracked a smile in victory lane.
Conway’s win put everyone on notice that he had completely recovered from his injuries suffered in the 2010 Indianapolis 500. With a stronger team, he was certainly going to be a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, it was not to be. He finished sixth two weeks later at São Paulo, but failed to qualify for Indianapolis. It was at that point that his 2011 season fell apart. The best he faired following the debacle at Indianapolis was an eighth-place finish at Edmonton, and his average finish in that twelve –race span was 18.6.
Based on what we’ve seen in the first two races this season, what do we know? Well, we know that Helio Castroneves is driving like a man driving for his job – and succeeding. We also know that he and teammate Will Power have won both races and are first and third in points, respectively, while their teammate Ryan Briscoe is languishing in a forgettable eighth place. Scott Dixon is carrying the banner for Chip Ganassi in second, while Graham Rahal sits in seventh place and Dario Franchitti sits in a head-scratching tenth place tied with Rubens Barrichello. The last two winners of this race; Hunter-Reay is in sixth, while Conway is ninth, now driving for AJ Foyt. James Hinchcliffe, who has already suffered a ten-spot penalty due to blowing an engine in testing, currently sits fourth in points.
We also know that the DW12 is proving to be somewhat racy on road & street courses, which could help to make this an entertaining race. What would really make it entertaining would be to have a camera always focused on the car of Sébastien Bourdais. If he can perform at Long Beach like he did at Barber, we’ll all be entertained.
So who do I curse this weekend by picking them to win? I went back and checked – I have not successfully picked a winner since I picked Will Power to win at Sonoma in August of 2010. That’s a span of twenty-two races. Surely, the law of averages will catch up with me. Anyway, my pick to win this weekend is Will Power, despite being one of the Chevy engines to suffer a ten-spot penalty. In fact, he will not only win, but he’lltake over the points lead while Helio and Scott Dixon both have sub-par weekends. We’ll see.