Random Thoughts On Toronto

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The Honda Indy Toronto is usually a wild stop for the Verizon IndyCar Series, and yesterday was no exception. It is not an exaggeration whatsoever to say that things got crazy right at the drop of the green flag. Heading into Turn One in the shadow of the Prince’s Gate, the entire field was acting as if they were on the final lap instead of the opening lap. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more aggressive first lap the entire way around the track as the one I saw yesterday. Everyone was driving with a sense of urgency.

This race has a history of having a profound effect on the points race. It either neutralizes the leaders and bunches up the championship, or as was the case yesterday – it separates the leader from the rest of the pack. Last year, Scott Dixon was leading the points by a substantial margin entering the weekend at Toronto. But poor timing on his last pit stop relegated him to a tenth place finish. He was still leading the championship after the race, but Josef Newgarden won the race and was up to fourth place and trailing in the championship by only twenty-three points. As we all now know, Newgarden used that race to springboard his way to the 2017 IndyCar championship in his first season with Team Penske.

Fast-forward to yesterday. Newgarden trailed Dixon by thirty-two points after winning the pole on Saturday. Newgarden was leading the race when one critical mistake on a restart on Lap 34 cost Newgarden the lead and a chance at victory, where he could have closed the gap to Dixon. Instead, Newgarden had to salvage points by finishing ninth as Dixon drove on to his forty-fourth career victory and his third of the season. After the race, Dixon had a sixty-two point lead over Newgarden, who is still in second by the way.

The remaining of the Top-Five in points all had bad days as well. Alexander Rossi had an eventful day from the very beginning. I lost count of how many front wings he had to replace. Was it one or two? He was sent airborne after his first wing change, by his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Rossi worked hard all day and managed to somehow finish eighth and is now seventy points behind Dixon, but still in third. Hunter-Reay had another bad weekend and finished sixteenth. He is still in fourth place, but now trails Dixon by ninety-one points. Will Power remains fifth in points and trails Dixon by ninety-three points after a disastrous day that saw him finish eighteenth after starting fourth.

Once again, if you were to look at the box score, you would see only one pass for the lead that was not due to pit stop shuffles – and that was when Dixon passed Newgarden on the front straightaway on Lap 34 after Newgarden inexplicably hit the wall on the restart. But if you watched the race, you know there was so much more. There was hard racing for position all over the track. There was a lot of banging wheels as if this was on a natural terrain road course with lots of run-off areas, not a temporary street circuit surrounded by concrete walls and tire barriers.

Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato gave us a lot of good battles throughout the day, but Robert Wickens and Simon Pagenaud may have put on the best show. Pagenaud came out of the pits on his last stop just in front of Wickens. It was so close that Wickens ran into the back of Pagenaud in Turn One. As they ran down the long backstretch on Lake Shore Blvd., alongside Lake Ontario – Wickens made an aggressive move on the outside as they headed into Turn Three. Pagenaud made an equally aggressive move by edging over into Wickens, forcing him to either back out of the throttle or hit the wall. Wickens begrudgingly backed out.

I kept waiting for Wickens to catch Pagenaud again to see what would happen, but it was not to be. Pagenaud finished second behind Dixon, while Wickens finished third – putting the Canadian rookie on the podium in his first-ever hometown professional race.

Marco Andretti appeared to be heading to a fourth-place finish, but while Scott Dixon was taking the white flag – Marco Andretti pitted. The broadcasters speculated that his team didn’t give him a full tank of fuel on his previous stop (i.e. AJ Foyt in 1961). But in his post-race interview, I got the impression that Marco said they just weren’t getting the fuel mileage that other cars were. Whatever the case, it sent Marco back to tenth at the finish as James Hinchcliffe moved up to fourth, giving the Canadian duo at Schmidt Peterson Racing third and fourth in front of their hometown fans.

It was a wild day on the streets around Exhibition Place in Toronto. Had Scott Dixon suffered the same fate as all the other front runners, we may be talking about what a jumbled mess the points race has become. Instead, Scott Dixon may have put his stamp on what may turn out to be his fifth IndyCar championship and third in six seasons. Aside from brushing the wall late in the race, Dixon drove a perfect race yesterday when most drivers didn’t. That’s the kind of day that championships are made of.

TV Coverage: Although NBCSN had a pretty solid day, it was not their best outing. I thought they did an excellent job of following all of the action going on behind the leader and not just focusing on the cars up front. But Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy both misidentified cars and situations all day. I understand that things happen quickly and that I don’t have a producer shouting in my ear as I watch from my couch. But if I could see things happening, why could they not at least come back and correct what was misidentified earlier?

Tracy and Bell had a humorous exchange during Saturday’s qualifying. In Round Two, Tracy correctly stated that he thought the rain was starting to fall again. Bell disagreed and said it was just the residual rain falling from the street lamps. Soon afterwards, it was reported that it was raining hard in Turn Eight. Tracy deadpanned that there must be a lot of street lamps in Turn Eight. Bell acted as if the dry comment sailed completely over his head, but I caught it.

My biggest complaint about the telecast was with about twenty laps to go, they went to a full-length commercial break. They returned for about forty-five seconds, just long enough to show a few highlights before going to another full-length break. Coming out of one of the breaks, they didn’t show any on-track action. They instead showed a view of the Toronto skyline as Leigh Diffey read a promo for the move Skyscraper. Coming out of the other break, they showed aerial shots as they talked about the race. By the time they showed their first on-track action, Takuma Sato had just hit the wall. As they followed that, my picture went black for about ten seconds as they talked. By this point I was getting very frustrated.

I realize that networks need to show commercials. That’s the life blood of televised sports. I am also very grateful for the side-by-side commercials that still allow us to watch what is going on in a small window as the commercial plays. This was pioneered by Versus for IndyCar telecasts ten years ago, and was later used on ABC/ESPN. Then TNT and FOX and all of the other NASCAR partners copied it and acted as if it they invented the concept – just like everything else that NASCAR “invents”, but I digress.

But what network producers of motor racing need to understand is that we viewers don’t care about the artistic shots of skylines, fountains or local attractions when green flag racing is going on. When coverage resumes at any stick & ball sports, it is always during a stoppage in play. If that’s the case, let them show all of the creative shots of local flavor they want. I’m all in at that point. But if we are missing action on track while looking at a fountain while a promo is being read – I find that very irritating as a fan.

The star of yesterday’s broadcast? The pit reporters. I think Kevin Lee is as good as it gets, and is probably wasting his talents in the pits. I’ll also take Jon Beekhuis any day over Marty Snider. Katie Hargitt has really stepped up her game this season. She was always pretty good, but she has really polished her skills in the offseason. Robin Miller is Robin Miller – enough said.

Whatcha Cookin’? For the second week in a row, I actually watched a driver make something I thought looked pretty good. After watching Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud make dishes that left me kind of cold, last week Josef Newgarden impressed me with a barbeque turkey burger. I’ve never eaten a turkey burger and they sound disgusting, but Newgarden made one look edible.

This week, Alexander Rossi made “Rossi Risotto”. It was mouthwatering watching him prepare risotto with garlic and lots of butter. The pan-fried turkey sausage actually looked good as he spooned it into his concoction. His finished product looked very good, and I thought Kevin Lee was a bit harsh giving him only an “8”. I would have thought that maybe it didn’t taste as good as it looked, but Katie Hargitt gave him a “10”. As much as I initially disliked this sponsored spot from Butterball, I’ve actually grown to like it. I believe there are just two more driver segments left. But yesterday, Kevin Lee mentioned the finals. Will this go on through the end of the season? Believe it or not…I hope so.

Conor Daly’s shot: Conor Daly made the most of what may or may not be his only shot at the second seat at Harding Racing. In an unusual form of holding auditions, Gabby Chaves has been pulled from the car, possibly for the remainder of the season, as the team evaluates drivers for next season.

Daly had been toiling near the back of the field for the three practices. But when it rained in qualifying, Daly used it to his advantage and qualified eleventh. He ran in the Top Ten for some of the day, but ended up thirteenth. A disappointed Daly looked dejected as he blamed a couple of cars late in the race for getting in their way. Someone should have told Daly that in one race, he had just handed Harding Racing their best finish of the season.

Harding Racing has said they will be giving shots to several drivers currently in the Mazda Road to Indy, but I wouldn’t count out Daly at Harding or somewhere else in 2019. I understand the Air Force was very happy with the exposure they got with Daly at Indianapolis. They may not be able to step up and sponsor an entire season, but it sounds like they may be stepping up their sponsorship program with Daly in 2019.

Sophomore Slump: This may anger a few, but I’ve felt this way for some time. Surely others think the way I’m thinking about a certain driver, but the way everyone raves about him – it seems that he’s made of Teflon and immune from criticism.

I’m talking about second-year driver Ed Jones, whose most notable drive to date is a third-place finish as a rookie in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. If you recall, Fernando Alonso was named Rookie of the Year and many were incensed that it was not Jones. Personally, if I had a vote – I would have voted for Alonso, but I’m not going to reopen that debate.

I don’t have anything against Jones. I thought he had an impressive start to his rookie year in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Along with that third-place finish as an Indianapolis 500 rookie driving for Dale Coyne, Jones had a tenth in his first start at St. Petersburg, a sixth at Long Beach, a ninth at Belle Isle and a seventh at Road America.

But what some choose to overlook while raving about his talent is that after that seventh-place finish at Road America 2017, his best finish for the remainder of the season was thirteenth – at Gateway and Watkins Glen. Some of Jones’s forgettable 2017 finishes include an eighteenth at Iowa, twentieth at Toronto, twenty-first at Mid-Ohio, seventeenth at Pocono and nineteenth at Sonoma. Overall, Jones finished fourteenth in the points – mostly on the strength of the third-place double points finish at Indianapolis.

It was enough to catch the eye of Chip Ganassi, and the lure of going to Ganassi was strong enough to make Jones ignore a verbal agreement to return to Dale Coyne for 2018.

It has not gone splendidly for Jones at Ganassi. While Scott Dixon may be headed to another championship with Ganassi, Jones seems mired in mediocrity. The twelfth place finish Jones had yesterday was about par for the course. He qualified twenty-first and drove well enough before stalling in the pits on his first pit stop. He was off sequence through the day and finished twelfth.

This has been an up and down season for Jones. He has had third place finishes at Long Bach and Detroit, but four finishes worse than twentieth, including a thirty-first place finish in the Indianapolis 500 and currently sits thirteenth in points. He probably already knows that finishing thirteenth will not set well with Ganassi.

Chip Ganassi is not known for his patience with young drivers. Tomas Scheckter, Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe, Nick Minassian, Bruno Junqueira, Sage Karam, Sebastian Saavedra, Max Chilton and Graham Rahal all spent two seasons or less at Ganassi before being shown the door. Dan Wheldon lasted three seasons with Ganassi, while Tony Kanaan lasted four. Wheldon, Luyendyk and Kanaan all had their face on the Borg-Warner Trophy when they signed with Ganassi. Wheldon and Luyendyk went on to win another after leaving Ganassi. History does not indicate that Jones will be given time for on-the-job training. He needs to produce results, or Ed Jones will join the long list of those that lasted two seasons or less at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Drive of the Day: While many of the front-runners for the 2018 IndyCar championship had rough days yesterday, there were many who had one of their best days of the season. Tony Kanaan started fifteenth and finished sixth. Robert Wickens started tenth and ended up with his third career podium. Marco Andretti started fourteenth and appeared headed to a fourth-place finish before having to stop for a splash of fuel in the closing laps.

Due to a gutsy spin in qualifying where he went for it on the last turn of the last lap, Zach Veach started twenty-second and finished a very impressive seventh. It was so impressive he almost earned the coveted Drive of the Day. The reason he didn’t win it is because he’s already having a strong rookie campaign and he drives for a good team.

My Drive of the Day goes to a driver I’ve criticized here more than once. But yesterday Charlie Kimball started twentieth and finished fifth, giving Carlin their best result to date in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

All in All: As it has been in recent years, the Honda Indy Toronto was a wild affair that has had a direct effect on the championship. Scott Dixon has a sixty-two point lead over Josef Newgarden, heading to Mid-Ohio in two weeks – a track where he has won five times in the previous eleven races since the Verizon IndyCar Series returned there in 2007. Dixon’s last win at Mid-Ohio was in 2014, so I’d say he’s due. That probably does not sooth the nerves of those that are chasing him.

There are five races left on the 2018 schedule and three of them are on natural terrain road courses. I’d say things are shaping up nicely for Dixon to earn his fifth championship in the next couple of months. That’s what Toronto can do for a championship.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Toronto”

  1. Yesterday shows the reason why Penske doesn’t win as many titles as Ganassi. Penske drivers are fast and daring but sometimes they all lack that ability to cruise a bit. Dixon has that, he’s the iceman! Ride around, let the competition crash themselves out or miss it in the pits while being too aggressive, and snatch up the win. The championship is over.

    This isn’t a dig at Penske, that’s my team, but those driver’s aren’t as smooth as Dixon is.

    Speaking of brash, Wickens is going to have to muscle some guys if he wants to win.

    • I think we notice this with Wickens more because he is the first rookie in a long while to run up front from race one. It is easier to look like a rookie in the back where no one will notice.

      Is next year finally the year the 10 car goes to Bourdais?

    • Gurney Eagle Says:

      I don’t blame Ed Jones any more than I blame Kanaan, Kimball, Chilton, Briscoe, Rahal, et al. It’s clear that Ganassi has structured this team to serve Dixon, period. Bourdais (and every other driver) should stay as far away as possible.

  2. It looks like the aero kit is doing a great job and the teams are getting into them.

  3. Have a sorta off-topic question for your readers, George. I was reading about “marbles” and tire degradation during this race and how it was so slick. I’ve noticed in other races that they’ll actually have to sweep the track during cautions to remove rubber bits from the track and how drivers talk about there only being one groove (and less overtaking, etc.) because of marbles.

    I realize Firestone creates tires purposefully to degrade and that the reds fall off faster than blacks and all that. My question is if Firestone created “harder” sets of blacks and reds to lessen the amount of marbles, how would that affect the racing? Hope this isn’t an ignorant question but I wouldn’t be at all surprised…

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      That’s something that’s always in my mind. Back in the day marbles weren’t nearly the problem they are now and tracks would have multiple lines which led to…racing. Now, at most tracks there’s only one lane after about 10 laps due to all the crap off-line and it becomes a parade. Not just IndyCar either, happens across a lot of series.

    • Bruce Philbrick Says:

      Suggest that you send your question to Robin Miller. His contact info is on the Racer web site under his weekly Mailbag column.

      Imagine that you will have a response from Miller once he has a reply from Firestone.

      Let us know the response.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    The Chevrolets acquitted themselves well in qualifying and the race after looking like they were at a serious torque disadvantage during practice. Newgarden’s pole impressed me.

    This season is starting to feel like the last few Supercross seasons, where the consistency of Ryan Dungy and Jason Anderson triumphed over the sheer speed of the mistake-prone Marvin Musquin and Eli Tomac. There are a few guys faster than Dixon nowadays in this series, but they don’t close the deal the way he does.

  5. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I would have voted for Alonso too!

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    It appears to be easy to keep up with the Joneses these days.
    Perhaps Marco could learn how to conserve fuel while keeping up a good pace as Dixon does. I practically fell off my couch when I saw him pull into the pits as the white flag waved.
    Charlie pinball drove a clean race and deserves George’s “Drive of the Day” award.

  7. Marco cannot catch a break! He raced better than most of his outings. Too bad he didn’t finish in the top 5. And as much as I gripe about Charlie, he had a clean race and deserved the Drive of the Day.

    It is disappointing that the networks have to leave the race completely at the top of the hour. I think maybe at the bottom of the hour too. I have learned to live with side-by-side, but am getting spoiled with the ESPN commercial free coverage of the F1 races on Sundays thanks to Mother’s polish.

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