Random Thoughts On Baltimore
The weekend started fairly typically for the Grand Prix of Baltimore. There was the usual complaining of the chicane on the main straightaway and a few dramatic still pictures of airborne cars from the practice, but there was no real indication that yesterday’s race would be anything different from the previous two races in Baltimore. Those two races were competitive and entertaining. Yesterday’s race was nothing short of controlled chaos.
There were divers that you knew were headed for great finishes, that ended up retiring before the race was over. Then there were those you thought had no chance, that ended the day running up front. For the record, Simon Pagenaud won the crash-fest yesterday, with Nashville’s Josef Newgarden finishing second and Sébastien Bourdais rounding out the podium.
When Helio Castroneves tagged Newgarden in the hairpin of Turn Three on the opening lap, it was a sign of things to come. For being the points leader, Helio had what would normally be classified as a horrible day. He had to pit early to get a new nose as a result of his contact with Newgarden, which put the points leader in last place. He then had a slow pit stop, which lasted about fifteen seconds, but in the process – he hit one of his crewmembers. He had to serve a late-race drive-through penalty for that infraction. On track, he was involved in three separate pileups. Yet, through some crazy circumstances which we’ll get to in a minute – Helio increased his points lead over Scott Dixon by eleven points from where the day started.
It was a bizarre day that saw heavy attrition. One third of the field was gone by the time the race ended. There were times that the podium finishers all looked like they were headed for a disastrous day, yet they kept pushing and had a great battle at the end among themselves. I’m not sure, but I don’t think any car went unscathed in yesterday’s bloodbath. Baltimore gave every appearance of being “Bristol by the Sea” with tempers flaring and contact happening almost everywhere. Fortunately, there were no injuries to speak of.
Fast cars were eliminated, great drives were erased and things went topsy-turvy early on. How else could you explain Helio Castroneves finishing ninth and James Hinchcliffe coming home in seventh, after both were seemingly headed towards poor finishes? Marco Andretti admitted his car was terrible prior to the race, but with a handful of laps remaining, he was leading the field with enough fuel to make it to the end. It didn’t last long, however. When Pagenaud got past Marco, that started Marco’s quick decent. He finished tenth.
Tony Kanaan hung around in the Top Ten throughout the day. At the last restart, he was running second. However, he started sliding backwards and the Indianapolis 500 champion tagged the wall with two laps to go and finished fifteenth.
The drive of the day belonged to Bourdais. The Frenchman started twenty-second and led for a good part of the race. On the final restart, he put on a clinic on how to pass on a street course. For a while, I was certain he would catch Pagenaud and take his first IndyCar Series win, after being so dominant in Champ Car several years ago.
Then I was sure that Newgarden would be able to catch Pagenaud. He was closing in and catching Pagenaud quickly. I thought that Pagenaud was a sitting duck, because he had used up his “push-to-pass” allotment and Newgarden still had three remaining. But Newgarden’s brakes were going away, so he settled for second – the best career finish for the second-year driver.
Graham Rahal deserves some credit as well. He had a bad break in qualifying and had to start in twelfth. He was making passes where Townsend Bell didn’t think was possible. He ran up front all day, but the results don’t tell the story. He was caught up in an incident on Lap Sixty-Eight and finished seventeenth. He deserved better.
But in the end, Simon Pagenaud showed that his Detroit victory on the second day of the double-header was no fluke. He backed it up in Baltimore with an impressive win for him, his Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsport team and for Honda.
TV Coverage: On a day when it was very hard to keep up with all that was going on, I thought the NBCSN crew did a good job. They kept things sorted out as best they could and did a good job of keeping the viewers informed.
I thought their best bit of work was with the pre-race interview with Derrick Walker, IndyCar President of Competition. Walker was very frank and very clear with his viewpoints of what had happened in the pit-road incident at Sonoma. He was also very clear on the new rules going forward, where a crewmember would be penalized for impeding another car. When asked if he had any regrets about last week’s ruling, he was very candid in answering that he wished it did not interfere with a championship battle. His clarity and candor was very refreshing and extremely rare.
A tip of the hat goes to Pippa Mann for her excellent work as commentator on the Indy Lights television broadcast. Although I didn’t listen to the IndyCar race on the IMS Radio Network, I understand she was on there and did a superb job there as well. She has a career opportunity awaiting her whenever she decides to hang up her helmet – which I hope doesn’t happen for several more years.
Dixon-Power Part II: The race took a decidedly nasty turn on Lap Fifty-Two. Sébastien Bourdais was bringing the field to the green flag on a re-start, with Will Power and Scott Dixon behind him respectively. Dixon was making a move inside on both of them when Power suddenly jerked to his right and virtually slammed Dixon into the wall. The contact ended Dixon’s day while Power limped back to the pits.
It appeared so obvious that Power tried to take Dixon out intentionally, that you knew there had to be some explanation. I mean, if you are going to take out another car, wouldn’t you try to make it look not so obvious? At least, that’s how my devious mind would work.
As it turned out, Power darted out to make an inside move on Bourdais and said “I never thought to look in my mirrors”. In the process, he collected Dixon who had a good run on both Bourdais and Power and was attempting to overtake Power.
The closest I have ever come to driving a race car was when I drove an outdated and under-powered Dallara for three traffic-free laps at IMS in October of 2008, when my brothers chipped and bought me an unforgettable gift for my fiftieth birthday. It was an unbelievable ride, but it in no way qualifies me to talk about the do’s & don’ts of driving a race car.
That being said, I find it hard to believe that any driver, much less a driver as skilled, talented and experienced as Will Power, would make such a move without checking his mirrors. Is that the norm for drivers? Is it naïve on my part to think that drivers check their mirrors? Things happen in split-second timing on the track, but does it take that long to glance at the mirrors. In my daily commute, I drive ninety miles round-trip on the Interstate each day. At 75 mph, I cannot fathom making lane changes without checking my mirrors regularly. I’m sure I would do it at twice that speed. Overnight, I talked with some that say on re-starts – drivers never check their mirrors. They just go for it. That bewilders me.
A few years back, when the IndyCar Series was still racing in Nashville, Susan and I had an extended conversation with one of Helio’s crewmembers in the afternoon before the race. While we were talking, Helio came and sat in the car for about fifteen minutes to make sure that the mirrors were angled perfectly for the race that night. I know oval racing is different than street-course racing, but it sure sounded odd when Power said he never thought to look in his mirrors.
Whatever the case, Power apparently didn’t know he had even made contact with Dixon until he made his way back to the pits. By the look on Dixon’s face, he certainly knew it. Added to Dixon’s frustration was the fact that IndyCar did not return Dixon’s car to the pits, where it could be worked on to repair the damage and possibly return to get some points. Credit Dixon for keeping his composure on live television this week as his season goes down in flames.
For his part, Power looked devastated and sounded very contrite when he said he didn’t blame Dixon for not even wanting to talk to him. I believe Power when he says he never checked his mirrors, although it still seems incredible. Nor do I believe for one minute that Power’s move was remotely intentional in order to help his teammate, Helio Castroneves, win his first championship. It was just a bizarre occurrence on a crazy day in Baltimore.
Speaking of the championship: When you’re leading the championship and spend a lot of time in the pits while getting involved in several on-track bottle-necks; you can assume it’s simply not your day. You can only hope you don’t take too big of a hit in the points. In the case of points leader Helio Castroneves, he had all of that happen to him, yet he padded his lead to forty-nine points over Scott Dixon.
A few weeks ago I said I thought this might be Helio’s year to win the championship, because it seemed that no on else wanted it. Obviously, that’s juts an expression because the look of despair on the faces of Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay as they climbed out of their retired machines, told you that they wanted the fleeting championship very badly. You hate to say that Helio is backing into a championship, because his driving in the first two-thirds of the season was superb.
The last few races, Helio has driven hard at times, but has possibly been too conservative at other times. Normally when you see a driver do that, you see the gap in points start to evaporate. In Helio’s case however, he has seen his lead grow to a season high.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anything like it. As much bad luck has been thrown Helio’s way, more bad luck has hit his pursuers. With the win, Simon Pagenaud has some momentum. He jumped over Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay to occupy third place in points, but is still seventy points behind Castroneves. Helio is not so far ahead that he can sit out a race and still lead, but he could now have a last place finish, have Dixon win and he would still come away in the lead. It’s the oddest points race I can ever recall, but I’m thinking more and more that Helio Castroneves will finally have an IndyCar championship to accompany his three Indianapolis 500 victories.
Big Al returns: It was good to see Al Unser at the front of the field yesterday, as he drove the IndyCar two-seater with a lucky fan riding along. Unser has had some health problems in recent years and hasn’t been around much lately. He says that’s all behind him now and the seventy-four year-old claims he feels “as fit as a fiddle”. His picture on the IndyCar website from yesterday seems to back that up. It’s good to have one of the all-time greats and perhaps the smoothest driver to ever sit in a race car, back involved in the series.
Double reverse: In his post-race interview, Power said one thing that made me start to re-think a previous stance I have taken regarding the double file re-starts. Since they were introduced three years ago, I’ve always been an advocate of the double-file re-starts. They added an extra element of excitement that spiced up some otherwise dull races. I was disappointed when they were taken away from Texas and Indianapolis in 2012 and 2013.
This goes completely against what I’ve said in the past, but it’s my site and I reserve the right to change my mind whenever I want. Power made it very clear he thinks they should be done away with on street courses, because they just don’t work there. He may have a point.
It certainly was awkward yesterday to have just a few rows of cars get into rows of two, just after coming out of the chicane and before taking the green flag. It certainly was a factor in last year’s race in Baltimore and worked in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s favor in ultimately winning the championship.
Several street courses, and road courses for that matter, have a very slow corner before the field approaches the starting line. Sonoma and Long Beach both come to mind.
The drivers have hated the double-file restarts from the moment they were introduced. I think they introduce an interesting element at some tracks, but are not appropriate at others. I think IndyCar should re-evaluate each track and make a case-by-case determination on where to utilize them, or else get rid of them altogether.
Bad day at the office: In addition to Helio Castroneves hitting a crewmember and Will Power’s brain fade on Lap Fifty-Two, it was a very un-Penske-like day for Team Penske. Both drivers made mistakes in the pits when they pulled in too close to the wall, hampering tire changes. Will Power also ran over an air hose and had to back up. This is the team that makes it a habit to overlook nothing. No details are too small for The Captain, yet they made some pit stops yesterday you would expect from teams at the other end of pit road.
The season is coming down to the stretch where every mistake is magnified. Team Penske needs to get their house in order during this five-week layoff, before the final three races in October.
Let the hiatus begin: We’ve known it was coming for almost a year now, but it is still hard to believe that the series is about to go on a five-week sabbatical. Yesterday, I heard Robin Miller say it’s four, but it’s five. Yesterday was September 1st. They don’t race again until October 5th. By my count, that’s five weekends from now. College football kicked off this weekend. By the time the IndyCar season picks back up, some schools will be halfway through their football season.
With my Tennessee Volunteers kicking off their season and games like Virginia Tech-Alabama; Georgia-Clemson; LSU-TCU among others, it was hard for me to remember there was an IndyCar race on Sunday – and I consider myself a die-hard. How on earth will any casual fans remember IndyCar is still going on five weeks from now? Whining about it will do no good, but it’s still hard to imagine things got set up this way.
All in all: I’m sure I’ve seen crazier races than yesterday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore – but I’m not sure when it was. Suffice it to say, it’s been a while. One thing I can say is that it was entertaining. When Josef Newgarden had a chance to take the lead with a handful of laps to go, it certainly had my attention.
I’m not sure many owners or drivers were entertained, but I know the fans were. It was not a work of art. In fact, it was downright ugly. But it was entertaining and ultimately, that’s what will drive ratings and attendance.
Enjoy your Labor Day! I know I will.