Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio
Over the years of watching CART and the Verizon IndyCar Series contest the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio; I’ve seen a lot of snoozers with some good races sprinkled in. Last year’s race was one of the more exciting I’ve seen at Mid-Ohio. While yesterday’s Honda Indy 200 wasn’t as exciting as last year’s, it ended up being one of the more memorable open-wheel races at Mid-Ohio that I’ve watched over the past few decades.
Like the championship season, most of the focus was on two contenders – Simon Pagenaud, who won the race; and Will Power, who came in second.
Yes there were others who were in position to win the race, Conor Daly and Mikhail Aleshin specifically; but whether or not Daly or Aleshin won or not did not take the focus away from Pagenaud and Power. Besides determining the winner of the race, all eyes were on which of the top two championship contenders would finish in front of the other.
Would Power continue his summer momentum and continue to nip away at Pagenaud’s lead, or would Pagenaud extend his lead over Power after seeing it dwindle over the past few weeks?
Not only did Pagenaud finish ahead of Power, he won the race and also got the single bonus point for winning the pole. By finishing second, Power minimized the damage to his own championship hopes. Pagenaud entered the weekend with a forty-seven point lead over Will Power. He left Mid-Ohio with a fifty-eight point bulge over his nemesis and teammate.
But It wasn’t easy. It took Power admittedly getting caught off-guard on the final re-start. Conor Daly was leading, with Power second and Pagenaud third. Daly took off quicker than Power had expected. That was all the opening Pagenaud needed. Power did his best to hold Pagenaud off, and the two banged wheel several times for consecutive corners – but Pagenaud finally got around Power.
Daly had been hoping for one more caution, so that he would have enough fuel to make it to the end. It wasn’t to be. When he pulled off for a splash of fuel with five laps to go, Pagenaud cruised to victory with Power a comfortable four seconds behind.
TV Coverage: The pre-race show featured a very nice tribute narrated by Bob Jenkins, for their NBC colleague, Jenny Nickell – who fell ill at the Toronto race and passed away the following Tuesday. Although most of us had never heard of Ms. Nickell, it was obvious from the video how much she meant to everyone and how passionate she was for IndyCar racing. Most, if not all, cars were carrying a sticker in yesterday’s race in memory of Jenny Nickell.
As for the race, it wasn’t the best outing for NBCSN. Townsend Bell missed Saturday’s qualifying show due to a scheduling conflict, and he seemed a little disengaged. Paul Tracy had a couple of minor gaffes, one saying that Pagenaud and Power had not pitted under the caution when the TV cameras had already shown that they had. It turns out that he was looking at Timing and Scoring, which was incorrect.
The biggest mistake of the day belonged to whomever in the production truck that ordered that they cut away from following Aleshin leaving his pit on the last round of pit stops. From my couch, I could see that Aleshin was being released into Josef Newgarden’s car, as it was entering his pit box up ahead. Unfortunately, the camera shot went to someone else’s pit. We were left only to hear Jon Beekhuis screaming “Oh, no!” as the two cars collided. We were left to use our imagination for a few moments, while the NBC crew searched through the replays. What was critical about the shot is that Aleshin was leading the race at the time.
Some complained that NBC was playing “Follow the Leader” by focusing only on the battle up front. While that may be true, it didn’t bother me since the two they followed were battling for the race win as well as the championship. It was probably the most intriguing storyline of the day.
Going back to Saturday’s qualifying show, Jon Beekhuis filled in for Townsend Bell in the booth. He did an excellent job and I still maintain that’s where he belongs. His analysis is always spot-on and I feel he is being misused as a pit reporter.
Quick Start: While Will Power admitted that he was caught napping on the last re-start, he said nothing about his teammate Simon Pagenaud jumping way ahead at the start of the race. It was an overhead shot, so I don’t know if Pagenaud went way early, or if Power was caught napping at the start. If Pagenaud jumped that far ahead, then IndyCar Race Control was the one caught napping.
Huge Crowd: There are those (myself included) that believe that the Verizon IndyCar Series needs more ovals and less road and street courses. But based on crowd shots this season, the natural-terrain road courses appear to be the place to be.
Excluding the Indianapolis 500, the crowd shots at the ovals at Phoenix, Texas and Iowa this season, have ranged between disappointing and embarrassing. In the meantime; Barber, Road America and Mid-Ohio all had very healthy looking crowds this season. I can personally attest to Barber and Road America, since I was there – the crowds were as big as they looked.
Yesterday’s race at Mid-Ohio seemed enormous, based on the crowd shots. The viewing areas looked packed with lawn chairs, coolers and race fans everywhere.
Suspension damage: When Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves made contact in Turn Two on Lap Fifteen, it was a surprise to see Dixon’s left-front suspension crumble beneath his car. Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell both surmised that the left suspension was weakened when Dixon climbed over the right curbing.
I’m no engineer and that may be the reason, but I was surprised that no one came up with the idea that it was Dixon’s left-front suspension that had light contact with the wall in the morning warm-up that also broke his front wing. The front wing was replaced, but the suspension was deemed fine. That may not have been the problem in the race, whatsoever. But I do think it was at least worthy of consideration.
Experience counts: If you want to know why Penske and Ganassi win most of the races, look no further than their pit crews. Yes, they have excellent drivers and great engineers to set up the cars; but they also have pit crews that get the job done when the race is on the line.
It has been well-documented how Josef Newgarden’s inexperienced pit crew has let him down over the past few seasons – most notably, when he was in a position to win a race.
Mikhail Aleshin has now felt the sting of an inexperienced pit crew. With Aleshin leading the race, his team let him down on the final pit stop. With Aleshin’s first career IndyCar win hanging in the balance, an over-anxious and over-worked outside front tire changer changed the tire, adjusted the front wing and then waved him out without realizing a car from a nearby pit was pitting. Aleshin was sent charging directly into the back of Josef Newgarden’s car as Newgarden was trying to ease into his pit.
You could see it coming. In the process, the right-front tire changer for Juan Montoya was struck and was fortunate to not be seriously injured. The avoidable mishap took Aleshin completely out of contention for a win and left him with a seventeenth place finish that was not indicative of how well he drove.
Probably no one feels worse today than the crew-member that sent Aleshin into harm’s way. These kind of things happen with the Penske and Ganassi teams also. But they seem to happen at the most inopportune times with the lower budget teams. When people say that Penske and Ganassi hire the best, they’re not just talking about their drivers.
Points battle: There are four races remaining (three if you’re Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly) and many drivers are still mathematically eligible to win the championship. But in realistic terms, it’s down to two – Simon Pagenaud and Will Power.
Pagenaud leads Power by fifty-eight points. Helio Castroneves is a distant third, trailing Pagenaud by 111 points. Josef Newgarden is only nine points behind Helio, but his Texas race is already in the books. Scott Dixon ruined his chances for good by having a poor qualifying effort, starting mid-pack and then tangling with Helio Castroneves after an early pit stop to go off-sequence. He and Tony Kanaan each have 357 points, but Dixon gets the nod for fifth over Kanaan because he has won a race this season and Kanaan has not.
There will still be some jockeying around from third place on back, but only Pagenaud and Power have any real chance to win the championship. With three races to go before the double-points paying race at Sonoma, a lot can still happen. Two of those four races are on ovals, which is not the strong suit of either driver, but I’d put my money on Power over Pagenaud on the ovals.
Simon Pagenaud got a much-needed shot in the arm this weekend and stopped the shrinking of his points lead. But to gain only eleven points over the driver stalking him has to be frustrating for Pagenaud after winning the race and scoring fifty-one of the fifty-three possible points in a weekend.
I’ve still got my money on Will Power to win this championship. If only he had raced at St. Petersburg.
All in all: This was a good Mid-Ohio race in relative terms. While the historic track exudes ambience, some of the races have been somewhat boring over the years. Such was not the case yesterday.
There were chances taken on the track that ended up backfiring. There was a botched pit-stop that gave up the race lead and a possible win. A rookie was in position to win, had the race had one more well-placed caution period. The race also gave Honda a speck of redemption as five of the top nine were Hondas, including positions three through six.
In the end, it was between the top two drivers in the points standings trying to just finish ahead of one another. They just happened to finish first and second in the race.
Many will call this race boring and decry the fact that it was between two Penske drivers. Well, if this was a boring race then I’ll take boring anytime. After all, shiny race cars were on track going fast. That’s about as good as it gets. If there was drama also, well – that’s just gravy in my book.