Random Thoughts On Long Beach
Oddly enough, there will be some that will say that yesterday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was boring. I will respectfully, yet strongly, disagree. Perhaps I’m a little enthusiastic after having just watched the race from the comfort of my easy chair, but after continuous decades of watching races at Long Beach – I’m thinking yesterday’s may have been the best of the bunch. Granted there have been some snoozers mixed in there, but even taking the very best ones into account – this one may have topped them all. I’m not afraid to call a parade a parade, but I thought this race had a little bit – no, a lot of everything.
First of all, there was a tremendous crowd on hand. There were different strategies at work from the very beginning – some worked, some did not – while others had to be tweaked throughout the day. There was drama from the outset as last year’s race winner had to start from the back. There was intrigue as we watched all four of the Andretti Autosport cars drop out one by one. And there was passing – lots of passing; perhaps not that much at the front, but Simon Pagenaud didn’t pass all of those cars in the pits.
Most importantly, seeing James Hinchcliffe win his first race after his near-death experience at Indianapolis almost two years ago gave this race a feel-good storyline that will resonate for quite a while.
Some of the aftermath of the first two races will continue to linger for the next two weeks. Honda has won the first two races that were dominated by Chevys last year. The Top-Three teams of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are winless after two races, while Dale Coyne and Sébastien Bourdais actually extended their lead at the top of the points standings. I’m not sure that even the biggest optimist in the Dale Coyne camp saw that coming a month ago.
And all Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay can do is scratch their heads and wonder what happened.
The biggest debate of the day was whether or not to use a two or three pit stop strategy. Some would say a two-stop strategy made sense because it was less time in the pits. But the two-stoppers would have to save fuel in order to make it, while the three-stoppers could run all-out. Plus, the three-stoppers could benefit from a third set of fresh tires.
Race winner James Hinchcliffe and the presumed second place finisher, Ryan Hunter-Reay, were both on a two-stop strategy. But Hunter-Reay dropped out with electrical issues six laps from the finish, leaving Hinchcliffe as the only car running that had only made two pit stops. Had it not been for an extended five-lap caution period and another two-lap yellow-flag for Hunter-Reay’s crippled car – I’m not sure Hinchcliffe would have had the luxury to pull away like he did. But that’s what racing is all about – capitalizing on the breaks that are given to you.
James Hinchcliffe had a bigger break go against him in the last race at St. Petersburg. After leading for twenty-one laps, an ill-timed yellow shuffled him back in the pack. He and those around him never recovered and he was forced to settle for a ninth-place finish, when he deserved so much more. If you follow this sport long enough, you know that the breaks generally even out over time. This time, they evened out from one race to the next.
But make no mistake – James Hinchcliffe deserved this win and I think this is going to be a very popular win throughout the paddock and the entire IndyCar community. Congratulations to driver James Hinchcliffe, car-owner Sam Schmidt and engineer Robert Gue, who laid out the strategy and committed to it.
TV Coverage: I found the voices in the booth to be knowledgeable and cohesive, considering they were going with a substitute play-by-play (lap-by-lap?) announcer. There is no noticeable drop-off between the regular Verizon IndyCar Series lead announcer Leigh Diffey and Rick Allen, who called yesterday’s race. I’ve said before that I would have no problem if Allen or even Brian Till were handed those duties. I’d love to see pit-reporter Kevin Lee get the gig. He has done well on the Indy Lights broadcasts in the past and we all know how well he handles Trackside.
The only gaffes that I heard from the booth was when Paul Tracy said that Marco Andretti last won in 2013 (it was 2011 at Iowa); and not once, but twice I heard Rick Allen refer to Ryan Hunter-Reay simply as “Reay”. The fact that I heard it twice tells me it wasn’t just a slip.
The pit reporters did not have such an error-free day. Well, actually – Robin Miller, Kevin Lee and Marty Snider were pretty much on point throughout the broadcast. I can’t say the same for Katie Hargitt, who may have had her worst day since she started covering IndyCar races in 2015. Her gaffes were too many to name, but she completely butchered the “Through the Field” segment. Twice she missed the “handoff” from her colleagues, which left the broadcast with awkward silence. Then when she handed it back to Kevin Lee, she referred to him as “Lee”.
Katie Hargitt has had some good broadcasts. She is a racer who has raced on dirt, which qualifies anyone to talk about racing in my book. Broadcasting is much tougher than it looks. I can only imagine how tough a job it is to try and speak while a director is shouting at you in your earpiece. Recently retired Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is about to find that out as he gets moved immediately into the top seat at CBS. But she has to do better than what she showed yesterday.
I’m assuming that Katie Hargitt simply had a bad day and needed to shake off the rust from the offseason. Let’s all hope so.
The biggest gaffe of the day came from the production truck. Ryan Hunter-Reay was running second and Alexander Rossi was third. On the back part of the course, you could tell that Rossi was setting up to try and pass his teammate for second place. Suddenly the picture went blank for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only about five seconds. The scroll kept running at the top, so I know it wasn’t the fault of my cable company. When the picture returned, I could see that Rossi was able to complete the pass. Unfortunately, no one in the booth caught it for another half lap or so. Nor did they ever go back and show a replay. That left me more than a little frustrated.
On a lighter note, I found the Robin Miller grid-run to be entertaining, but for once – too short. He only interviewed two drivers; Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti. I’m guessing they suddenly realized they were up against a commercial, but I felt a little shortchanged.
Medical Update: In the closing laps, JR Hildebrand tried to overtake Mikhail Aleshin on the main straightaway. Aleshin squeezed him and Hildebrand’s right-front wheel collided with the left-rear wheel of Aleshin. Hildebrand continued harmlessly straight into the runoff area for Turn One, while Aleshin sustained damage to the rear of the car.
Sunday night, we learned that it was not so harmless. JR Hildebrand sustained a broken left hand. After an evaluation, Hildebrand could not be cleared to return to competition. He will be re-evaluated this week back in Indianapolis before he can be cleared for Barber in two weeks. If not, Ed Carpenter will have an unwanted decision on his hands.
Kimball Again: In my post following the St. Petersburg race, I mentioned how frequent it is becoming for Charlie Kimball to make boneheaded moves early in races and taking out some of his competitors in the process. A few of you came to his defense for his Lap One contact with Graham Rahal at St. Petersburg. Apparently, Kimball did not learn his lesson because he took himself out with another boneheaded move about a quarter of the way through Lap One yesterday – this time ruining Will Power’s day. Power was able to continue after getting his damage repaired, but he was immediately taken out of contention and had to settle for a thirteenth-place finish.
It’s an old saying in racing that says you can’t win the race on the first lap, but you can certainly lose it on the first lap. Both races in 2017, Charlie Kimball has lost the race for himself and others while making idiotic moves on the first lap of each race. At some point, he might want to realize that there is a distinct possibility that he might just be the problem.
Chevy Woes: Since Chevrolet returned to the series in 2012, I’ve started a few sections entitled Honda Woes, but never about Chevy – not until now. We learned this past weekend that St. Petersburg was no fluke. Honda has rebounded from a series of embarrassments to the point that the first two races suggest that Honda may even dominate the 2017 season.
St. Petersburg and Long Beach were the sort of tracks that Chevy had dominated over the past few seasons. But at both races this season, Honda has won both of them and took seven of the Top-Ten races in each race. The only thing Honda really had going for it the past two seasons was that they seemed to have an advantage at the large superspeedways like Indianapolis and Pocono. One can assume that Honda has not lost that advantage, so it now looks like the shoe is on the other foot.
I’ll be curious to see if Honda continues its resurgence at Barber in a couple of weeks, or if Chevy can dominate there like it has for the last couple of years. After all, Honda is the title sponsor of the race at Barber.
Andretti Woes: Not since the 1992 Indianapolis 500, when two of the three Penske cars were taken out in separate incidents on the same lap; have I seen a team’s fortunes turn so sour, so suddenly as they did for Andretti Autosport yesterday.
Marco Andretti went out early on Lap 14 with electrical issues. While disappointing for Marco, his father still had three bullets in his gun. Takuma Sato had run as high as twelfth. Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay had been running in the Top-Three for much of the day and looked poised to bring home at least a podium finish or two.
It all started going wrong on Lap 62 with only twenty-three laps remaining. First, Rossi experienced an engine failure, while running second, that left his car smoldering on the side of the track. With seven laps to go, Sato experienced a similar engine failure. On the very next lap, Hunter-Reay experienced an electrical issue that caused his car to shut down. Within a seventeen-lap span, three out of the four Andretti cars dropped out with mechanical issues. Like Marco’s problem, none of the four cars dropped out due to driver error.
Michael Andretti was shown on the pit box with his head buried in his hands, undoubtedly thinking of what might have been. What looked so promising among the four cars could only produce a best finish of seventeenth by Ryan Hunter-Reay. That team deserved more. They won’t have too much time to dwell on it. The trucks left for Indianapolis Sunday night. After a quick turnaround over Easter Sunday, they will head south for Barber – hoping for a much better outcome than they got yesterday.
Not Entirely Reliable: While some of the other teams in the Honda camp may be a little concerned after watching the Andretti cars fall out with various engine or electrical issues, the lack of total reliability adds an element that has been missing from the Verizon IndyCar Series for more than a decade.
For years, even when a driver was seemingly running away with a race – you knew that there was always a chance that a driver’s engine could give way with little or no warning. We have all seen the dreaded plume of smoke billowing behind a car in the lead with just a few laps to go. It was a part of racing that held our suspense, knowing that that was a distinct possibility.
When Honda became the sole engine provider to the series in 2006, they significantly detuned the engine since they had no other competition. While performance dropped a little, engine reliability rose dramatically. While that was good for Honda and the teams, it removed a level of intrigue for the fans. Perhaps Honda’s improved performance comes at the price of reliability. Quite honestly, that doesn’t bother me. Racing is all about running on the edge. I like that fine line between achieving high performance and taking it too far. That level of intrigue is much better than some of the manufactured drama we’ve seen show up in other forms of racing.
No Fluke: I think there were some that felt that Sébastien Bourdais’ win at St. Petersburg was a fluke and that he and his Dale Coyne Racing team would get a dose of reality at Long Beach and crash down to earth. Instead, Bourdais finished second at Long Beach and his rookie teammate, Ed Jones, came in sixth to bolster the idea that there is more than luck associated with this team. Bourdais’ second place finish actually extended his points lead to nineteen points over second place, which is now occupied by James Hinchcliffe.
It’s still early, but I’m guessing even the skeptics are thinking that the investments and personnel changes that Dale Coyne made to his team are paying off. I’m sticking with my prediction after St. Petersburg that Bourdais will finish in the Top-Five for the season. That may now be a bit conservative.
Happy Household: One of the happiest households this week probably belongs to Robert Gue and his wife, Pippa Mann. Gue did a phenomenal job calling the race for James Hinchcliffe’s winning effort yesterday. His driver is now comfortably in second place in the points and the future is looking bright with the Honda package they have.
Pippa Mann is now confirmed to drive in her sixth Indianapolis 500 next month, and her fifth straight “500” with Dale Coyne Racing – the team that happens to lead in the points. Pippa will also have what appears to be the preferred Honda engine in May, meaning she could very well improve on her career-best finish (eighteenth) Indianapolis 500 finish with Coyne last May.
All in All: While the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is always a spectacle and a very well attended race; the racing there can sometimes be a little boring to watch – especially on television. That was not the case this year. With the different strategies in play, the question of engine reliability and the sudden strength of some of the smaller teams, I watched yesterday’s race with no idea how it would all play out.
It ended up with an extremely popular winner, victorious for only the fifth time in his career, a low-budget team expanding its points lead and an engine manufacturer continuing a newfound resurgence. What more could you want in a street race? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This looks to be a very interesting season.