Hearts will be heavy as the Verizon IndyCar Series heads west to Sonoma for the season finale. Drivers, teams and fans won’t have near the enthusiasm for the battle for the championship as they normally would. But by today’s first practice, the heartbreak will be temporarily set aside in order to focus on the business at hand.
One nice touch to honor Justin Wilson is the running of Wilson’s No.25 Andretti Autosport car, with Oriol Servia behind the wheel. I’ve always felt that Servia was one of the most underrated drivers in the paddock. I’m sure he would prefer to have this ride under better circumstances, but he’ll take it just the same. Another nice gesture is that Honda will contribute money to the fund set up for Justin Wilson’s children, for every lap that a Honda completes on Sunday. That certainly makes you pull for all the Honda teams to perform well this weekend.
In all honesty, I think it’s good that there is a race just a few days following Justin Wilson’s passing. When Dan Wheldon was lost, there was not another competitive lap turned for over five months. That was an agonizingly long time to go after such an accident before we saw cars on the track again. I’m not a driver, but I’m sure it was even more agonizing for the drivers.
My guess is that this will be somewhat therapeutic for everyone. I know I’m to the point that I’m ready to move on and focus on something besides the events of the past week. I’m not saying we need to forget about what happened, but life moves ahead and so should we.
As far as this race goes; it’s no secret that Sonoma Raceway is not my favorite track. As far as permanent natural terrain road courses, it may be my least favorite. I’ll qualify my next statement by saying I’ve never been to the track or the area. I’ve been to San Francisco, Yosemite and other parts of northern California – but I’ve never been to the wine country. But it’s always staggering to hear the announcers talk about how beautiful the track is, because on television – it comes across as nothing but a dust bowl that holds a narrow track that offers little passing.
A few years ago, IndyCar held a pre-season test at Sonoma in early March. Seeing photos and videos of the test, I hardly recognized the place. The same brown hills with dead grass that we’ll see this weekend, featured lush green grass. It looked more like Ireland than Sonoma. Since then, I’ve always wondered why IndyCar races there in August instead of spring.
Of course, this is one of the few tracks on the schedule that actually has some semblance of date equity – and it shows. This is one of the better attended races on the schedule. I’m going to assume that television does this venue an injustice. Those that I know that have been to Sonoma swears to me that the whole setting is gorgeous. I’ll take their word for it.
But television can’t mask the lack of passing at Sonoma. Track position is everything at this race. Saturday’s qualifying may be just as important as Sunday’s race. It’s a lot easier to stay up front by starting up front, than it is to work your way up. There are just so few places to pass.
Unless there is some quirky yellow like they had at Mid-Ohio that shuffles the field – it’s not s stretch to say that the qualifying order will be the running order for much of the day. Of course, there will be some mishaps and mechanical difficulties for some, but it’s quite likely that Saturday’s pole winner could very well be Sunday’s race winner. That would go against the rule of thumb for this season. Going into last weekend’s race at Pocono, the average starting spot for race winners was tenth.
The fact that track position can be so static at Sonoma is why I don’t like this race being the season finale. This is the first time in the history of IndyCar/IRL that the series has finished on a non-oval. Previous finales for this series have taken place at Texas, Fontana, Chicagoland and Homestead. Champ Car finished its series at Mexico City a few times in its short existence. CART finished the 2002 season at Mexico City. Prior to that, you have to go back to 1996 at Laguna Seca to find the last time CART finished its season on a non-oval.
You like to see the series finale to take place on a track where anything can happen. The unpredictability for settling a championship has a lot of appeal. There is very little that is unpredictable at Sonoma. Series officials have declared this a double-points race to add some drama, but to me – that seems very fake and contrived. I am not a fan of double-points races and never have been. As much of a fan as I am of the Indianapolis 500; I don’t like it paying twice as many points as almost all other races. I always liked the fact that no matter how big the Indianapolis 500 was on the schedule, it paid the same points as Milwaukee or any other race. My hope is that the powers-that-be will do away with the double-points at the end of this season.
So before we all settle into what is now likely to be a rocky offseason, there is still the business at hand of running one more race and crowning a champion. As far as the race goes, I won’t go out on a limb at all. Will Power has won three of the past five races at Sonoma. One of those he did not win, he finished second. To say Power knows the quick way around Sonoma is a major understatement. Power will win the race, but not the championship. I think Juan Montoya will go against his nature and race very conservatively – and it’ll cost him. I think he will falter in the race, have a poor finish, while Rahal will be bitten for the second week in a row. Your 2015 Verizon IndyCar champion will be…Scott Dixon.