Random Thoughts On Sonoma
The Verizon IndyCar Series has closed the books on the 2016 season. To say that it was in riveting fashion would be a stretch. Not to be negative, but yesterday’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway was one of the more boring races I’ve seen in a while.
Simon Pagenaud sent a signal that Will Power needed to bring his A-game in Saturday, when he won the pole for yesterday’s race while Power qualified fourth. It added another point to the total that Power would have to surpass to snatch the championship away from Pagenaud.
When the green flag dropped to start the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Pagenaud sent another signal when he immediately pulled away from the majority of the field. For those that were expecting a drama-filled race, they were beginning to suspect that it wasn’t to be. Their fears were confirmed on Lap thirty-six, when Will Power started slowing down during a commercial break. I could see Power being passed by many cars in the little window as the commercial blathered on. I had no idea what the issue was, but if you were a Will Power fan – it didn’t look good.
As the telecast came back from the commercial, it became pretty obvious that it was some type of gearbox issue. Suspecting a yellow to come out at any moment, Pagenaud and the leaders ducked into the pits for service. Power was eventually towed back into the pits and eventually solved the problem with the gearbox control unit. The problem was, he was eight laps down to Simon Pagenaud who was still leading the race – virtually ending any potential drama on who would be the 2016 champion.
For the remaining forty-nine laps, the only drama was whether or not Helio Castroneves would finish third in the championship, giving Team Penske a 1-2-3 sweep in the final points standings. He did.
Not only did Simon Pagenaud win the 2016 championship, he also won yesterday’s race – giving him five race wins for the season and nine in his IndyCar career.
Sometimes, I find a race entertaining while others say it was boring. That will not be the case this time. I found yesterday’s race a drudgery to watch. The only thing that held my interest was the chatter about the silly season which will now get into full-swing, as if it wasn’t already.
So congratulations to Simon Pagenaud on his championship season. There is no question that he deserved it. His stint of winning three races in a row at Long Beach, Barber and the GP of Indianapolis pretty well sealed his fate for the season. A win at Mid-Ohio thwarted a big mid-summer run by Power. He made only one mistake all season – his Turn One crash at Pocono that made things interesting, but ultimately had no effect on the championship.
It’s just a shame for Power, Pagenaud and especially the fans that we weren’t treated to an on-track battle that went down to the final lap. But with the season finales that IndyCar has had recently, none of us can complain very much.
Pagenaud deserved this championship and I look forward to him defending it next year with the No.1 flying proudly on the bright yellow Menard’s car for ten races next season.
TV Coverage: The most scintillating part of the entire telecast was when Robin Miller would drop little nuggets about the silly season. Who knows if any of it was accurate, but it gives us plenty to talk about for the next few weeks.
I got the feeling that NBCSN was expecting a dull race, when they had several previously recorded interviews queued up for their Through the Field segment. We’ve heard Kevin Lee reveal that you can tell how boring a race is by how far they get through the field. As I recall, they got pretty far. But I’ve never seen the pre-recorded interviews before yesterday. It was a nice touch, but I think they were expecting to need lots of filler material.
I was ready to give all of the NBCSN crew high praise across the board, until Jon Beekhuis had his too-painful-to-watch interview with the mother of Simon Pagenaud. He asked the French-speaking lady a long rambling question that ended up with asking how old Simon was when he knew he would be a racer. You could tell she understood about a third of what he said, so she gave a polite answer in broken English about what a dream this was. Jon followed up with the age question and she said she didn’t hear him. For a third time, yelling in her ear, he pressed again for an answer to the age question. By this time, things had gotten awkward and I found myself uncomfortably wishing that Jon would have just let it drop. She finally gave some nebulous answer about since he was little. I was relieved when Beekhuis finally left her alone.
No extra drivers: Normally, the final race of the season brings an added car count. Sometimes, some Indy Lights drivers are brought up or teams will take an opportunity to take a look at a driver many of us have never heard of. I’ve always liked the bigger fields in the last race of the season, but it didn’t happen this year. The same twenty-two full-time cars that ran all season started yesterday’s race – no more, no less. I’m not sure what that means, but I thought it was worth noting.
Get out! Another awkward moment was the extended amount of time it took to get Simon Pagenaud to climb out of his car in victory lane. Sometimes, the driver is held in the car while waiting for the TV audience to return from a commercial break. Then the driver is given the GO sign and the driver miraculously pops out of the car just as the network comes back. It’s all very scripted.
Yesterday, Pagenaud just sat there. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to gather his emotions or if he had mistakenly been told that NBCSN was in commercial break. Whatever the case, it produced a long period of awkward silence as we sat there waiting for Pagenaud to get out.
Still hungry: One thing I kept hearing over and over yesterday was that not winning this championship didn’t hurt so much for Will Power because he had already won one, two years ago. Am I the only one that felt bothered by that sentiment?
I’m thinking that if you are as competitive as most of these drivers, it might even hurt worse because you’ve done it and know what it feels like. I’ll promise you that Scott Dixon’s four championships didn’t take any sting out of the fact that 2016 was a disappointing season for him. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the title in 2012 and now sulks each season when he doesn’t win. If I’m a car owner, I want my driver to hurt when he or she fails to win a race or a championship. It goes back to the old saying – Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.
Will Power was graceful in defeat and knew that the racing gods worked against him yesterday and the situation was out of his hands. But he was still very disappointed and it showed. Winning the 2014 championship was probably the last thing on his mind, other than the fact that it made him even hungrier for another one going forward.
All in all: A great season with lots of close and exciting racing ended in somewhat of a thud yesterday. Sonoma doesn’t normally lend itself to great racing, but yesterday’s race was more boring than usual. It happens. Some of the greatest tracks and venues produce a clunker now and then.
But part of the reason the race was so boring was the way Simon Pagenaud dominated the entire weekend. No one could keep up with him. He can’t help it that he was that good this season. Yesterday was not the first race that Pagenaud has run away with this season. Maybe the other teams need to step up their game to keep up with Pagenaud before we start talking about how boring Sonoma is.
But it was a great season for Simon Pagenaud and I’m happy for him. He deserves to be able to celebrate for a while through the offseason. But everyone will be gunning for him next season – throughout the rest of the paddock and within his own team. He’d better enjoy the celebration now, while he can.