Thoughts on the Indianapolis 500

The over-use of the slogan ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ and that some appear to take it as a pre-ordained fact rather than the marketing slogan it is, instead of looking at each race objectively, has been a personal pet peeve of mine for some time.

That was until this year’s edition started. This year the race very much lived up to the branding and showed me and others just why the place is revered the way it is. I’ll take some more of the same next year, please!

Working the Air

After the race I saw it tweeted that the DW12 is a keeper. Too right. It may not be the most advanced and it may not feature the chassis competition many of us crave, but really, what a car. Nobody cares that it is slower than the old one now. It races so well at Indy, and what’s more, it didn’t come out of the box that way. The teams have had a lot of work to do to solve a lot of problems it had on ovals – problems that have been overcome and resulted in the best Indy 500 I have seen in six years of watching, and some of the far more experienced veterans were saying it was one of the best they’d seen in years.

Even before the exceptional drama of the last 20 laps which really made this race so nail-biting there had been overtaking and lead changes and drafting and all sorts. Okay granted, some of it was ‘fake’ lead changes as the Ganassi pair – and others – fought not to lead in order to save fuel and not end up as a sitting duck on the next restart. I don’t have a problem with such ‘fake’ or ‘scripted’ passes as they are part and parcel of the strategy of oval racing. Ganassi executed this strategy better than anybody else, with some of the Andretti drivers doing pretty well with it in the early stages as well.

Engines

What a turn around by Honda, Ganassi and RLL. Surely some of those teams were sandbagging in free practice! Very cleverly played if that’s the case, nobody had a clue. I suspect this had more to do with work done by Honda for these race engines, perhaps teams were using older less developed units in practice and qualifying knowing they’d get a ‘special’ for the race. Honda do like their specials, the Japanese department always used to bring out an uprated engine for the Suzuka F1 race.

I loved the unexpected dymanic between the two engine manufacturers. Chevy had run all season with engines which were both more powerful and more fuel efficient than those from Honda. The double-whammy. Race day rolls around and suddenly Honda has a significant fuel efficiency advantage (I’m not sure about power, they seemed roughly equal but if one was ahead of the other it was the Honda), enough of an advantage to allow them to pit a lap, two laps, even three laps later than the Chevy teams.  That was the race-winning difference right there.

The third manufacturer had both entries embarrassingly black flagged barely 10 laps into the event, shockingly early and far earlier than I had expected. Alesi and de Silvestro were running lap averages in the 200-205mph bracket while the leaders were up at 215-218. The eventual fastest lap was 220+. By the numbers it was the right decision but I can’t help feeling they should’ve been allowed to run more than ten minutes. Of course the leaders were bearing down on them rapidly and perhaps the sight of two Lotuses trundling around whilst Chevys and Hondas blew by 15mph per lap faster would’ve been even more embarrassing than simply disappearing whilst eyes were elsewhere.

Highs and Lows

Takuma Sato. What a guy, what a drive. He was passing people all day and he’d been working his way up, picking people off, until the one that counted – the pass for the lead. If it hadn’t been the final lap he’d have made it. As it was I suspect the red mist descended as it often does with Taku and he made the instinctive move to pass when the space wasn’t quite there. Probably lulled into it after making it past Dixon last time around, perhaps forgetting Dixon had left more room because Dario had just gone by him too. Still – good on him for trying! It was the final lap, there were no guarantees he’d get a chance at turns 3 or 4, he had to take it. Classified 17th, first of those a lap down.

Tony Kanaan. That cheer when he took the lead! Such a popular driver, I wish he could’ve won it. The place would’ve erupted. I wondered where he was for a while, then he appeared working his way forward. He made the most of the restarts, perhaps unfairly perhaps not. 3rd is a good result but still he chases that elusive Indy win. In a Q&A last week one journalist said to him he was more famous for not winning at Indy than he would’ve been had he won. True words. I really hope he does win before he retires.

Very pleasing to see James Hinchcliffe run so well early on, I felt for him later after he slipped back. Hunter-Reay and Andretti were up there too and an Andretti Autosport win looked a good in-race bet. RHR hit a mechanical problem and Andretti got a hot head (again), leaving Hinch as their remaining bullet. It wasn’t to be this time and I seem to recall that was due to a slow pitstop, but also down to some of the restarts where the midfield swamped those up front.

Oriol Servia somehow made it up to 4th. I still don’t know how – he was well back in the pack and just appeared from nowhere within the last 5-10 laps! There’s a team and driver glad they switched from Lotus to Chevrolet.

Justin Wilson was running up there too and finished 7th, after the awful season he’s had that’s a well-earned result.

Rubens Barrichello. No doubts about him on an oval now. Solid, consistent, aggressive when needed but mostly drove a careful defensive race, the perfect way to approach a debut oval event. 11th is a very respectable performance in a field this stacked.

Townsend Bell. Once again taking a one-off IndyCar entry to a good finish at the 500. Once again we ask why he hasn’t got a full time IndyCar drive.

Ed Carpenter. A great run came to a sad end when he got too low, clipped the paint and the apron/transition and spun. Frustation for the owner/driver.

Every one of the teams and drivers had an interesting story to tell.

Coverage

I usually find a hooky feed of the US broadcast but this year I was able to ditch the dodgy feeds altogether and watch Sky Sports 4. This might have been an error. I didn’t mind that the program started at half past, the race isn’t as big a deal as it is in the US so I can understand not giving it the full hour of pre-race particularly when the other races on the schedule sometimes seemingly don’t get any more than 10-15 minutes.

I did mind that it started 2 or 3 minutes after the scheduled time because they were showing adverts. It looked like the preceding event (rugby) had run very slightly over and they still needed to fit in their commercial allocation. This meant we missed driver introductions – a little annoying but okay.
It soon became clear the UK coverage was going to stick with the London studio discussion rather than show the pre-race festivities, including driver intros, all of the songs and anthems, balloons, flyover, practically everything. Even Dan’s car was shown in replay. By then I thankfully had the dodgy stream up again so I saw what a great tribute that was.
Part of the whole appeal of Indy is the way the pre-race builds – it has taken six years of watching for me to realise this – and Sky just had no idea that it was important at all.

I commend Sky for having Tomas Scheckter in the studio, he brought the much-needed perspective of someone who has raced many times at Indy. Jonny Kane’s input is always worthwhile but ultimately he is an LMP driver not an IndyCar driver so there is only so much he can relate to – I wouldn’t ask Helio to analyse Le Mans!

The other good thing about Sky’s studio was that when the international ESPN feed went to commercials, some of the time Sky would take their own break but other times they’d cut back to the discussion in London. It was a nice way to sum up the action so far. I just wish they’d not talked all the way through pre-race!

On the whole though, Sky’s effort here has been completely shown up by their own coverage of Formula 1. It really could use just 10% of that magic to liven it up a bit.

The ABC/ESPN portion was good, better than usual. They were very late coming back to show restarts on a couple of occasions but at least they didn’t miss them! The commentary was okay, I didn’t find it grating at all which is a good result for Reid & Co for me. Everyone has their own tastes and usually they aren’t mine but I thought the trio did a good job this time. The pit reporting was mostly very good, the glaring omission being that of Will Power and Mike Conway after their clash, it was a long time before we heard from either team let alone drivers.The number of ad breaks didn’t seem anything like as poor as last year, either they were fewer or better timed, or Sky going to the studio masked how many there were. On the whole the US feed was a vastly improved broadcast compared to 2011. I also saw many, many tweets praising their pre-race features which Sky also missed, I intend to look those up later in the week.

Result

1. Franchitti – Ganassi – Honda
2. Dixon – Ganassi – Honda
3. Kanaan – KV – Chevy
4. Servia – Panther/DRR – Chevy
5. Briscoe – Penske – Chevy
6. Hinchcliffe – Andretti – Chevy
7. Wilson – Coyne – Honda
8. Kimball – Ganassi – Honda
9. Bell – Schmidt/Pelfrey – Honda
10. Castroneves – Penske – Chevy
11. Barrichello – KV – Chevy
12. Tagliani – BHA – Honda
13. Rahal – Ganassi – Honda
14. Hildebrand – Panther – Chevy
15. Jakes – Coyne – Honda
16. Pagenaud – Schmidt/Hamilton – Honda
17. Sato – Rahal Letterman Lanigan – Honda  +1 lap
18. Viso – KV – Chevy  +1 lap
19. Jourdain Jr – Rahal Letterman Lanigan – Honda  +1 lap
20. Bourdais – Dragon – Chevy  +1 lap
21. Carpenter – Carpenter – Chevy  +1 lap
22. Legge – Dragon – Chevy  +1 lap
23. Beatriz – Andretti/Conquest – Chevy  +10 laps
DNF: Andretti, Newgarden, Saavedra, Hunter-Reay, Power, Conway, Clauson, Cunningham, de Silvestro, Alesi

Points

200 – Power (3 wins)
164 – Castroneves (1)
164 – Hinchcliffe
153 – Dixon
143 – Hunter-Reay
136 – Franchitti (1)
136 – Pagenaud
128 – Briscoe
113 – Kanaan
103 – Hildebrand
102 – Barrichello
100 – Sato
99 – Servia
97 – Rahal
96 – Kimball
etc.

Next Race

Sunday June 3rd at 8.30pm BST (GMT+1) – Detroit Belle Isle, a narrow course running through a park with concrete walls and a bumpy street track. It is a bit like Montreal or Melbourne but without usually being as interesting as the track is too narrow and twisty, save for the fast backstraight. It has been a few years since the last race here, I hope the new cars and engines spice things up.

Thoughts on the Monaco Grand Prix

I love the Monaco Grand Prix. Always have.  The history, tradition, colour, spectacle and test of driver challenge are rivalled by no other race on the Formula 1 calendar and that includes the other classics at Monza, Spa and Silverstone. Despite this we all know it can produce processional races. Many people would prefer to drop Monaco completely because of this – I say no to that. I can put up with the odd procession because Monaco can, now and then, produce utter classics. It might have 50 laps of tedium out of the 78 but when something happens in Monaco it happens in a big way. Countless races in the past have taught us this. Not every year can be a classic and that’s why classics are remembered.

At least.. this is the theory I’ve subscribed to for years. With that being the case, why is it then that when a processional race rolled around this year I was so turned off by it? In the first 20-30 laps there was a lot of promise of action caused either by rain or tyre degradation and that held my attention, I was sitting there expectantly waiting the action that would surely follow. Has F1 been so good this year that a ‘traditional’ Monaco isn’t good enough any more?

Even if there wasn’t passing I expected to see attempts at passing, cars darting this way and that as the drivers tried to force their way by. Didn’t happen. Even when the pack condensed in the latter laps and we had six cars covered by just six seconds, none of them ever really seriously looked like trying to overtake the guy in front. That’s why it was boring. If I can see people attempting to pass but failing, that’s fine, that’s still racing, it just means the guy in front did a better job. To seemingly not even try… that’s no fun.

Holding Back

Why did this happen? Tyre preservation. The soft and supersoft tyres brought by Pirelli were being nursed by the drivers. Rather than go balls-to-the-wall in the quest for speed, burning up the tyres in the process, every one of the top runners was content to sit back in order to preserve the rubber to reduce the number of stops they would have to make. In all fairness I hadn’t clocked this until Sergio Perez, delayed after contact, pitted and emerged in 17th place nearly a lap behind the leaders, and with a clear track promptly set a Fastest Lap on yellow soft tyres a clear 1.5 seconds (and I have a feeling nearer 2 seconds) faster than the frontrunners were going – I have in my mind that these guys were on the faster red supersofts by this point but I could be wrong. According to the official FL list he was still 1.2sec faster than the nearest driver all race.

Okay, conservation is a valid way to win a race. We saw later in the day the Ganassi team won the Indy 500 by holding back to save fuel and tyres for the final run. Not a problem. Perhaps I expected this strategy to be run against someone else doing the opposite – running hot, burning up the tyres and pitting. Like the classic Senna v Mansell race here when Senna ran long and Mansell pitted, caught up, tried to pass… drama, intrigue, could he do it before his tyres go off too? We didn’t really see that.

Vettel and Hamilton tried. They went off-sequence with tyres which was interesting, even if it was a bit dull to see Vettel driving around by himself for a while. Perhaps we blame the TV crew here for not showing us more from the field. Once they slotted into the field I expected them to use the reds to fight past the cars around them. Again, it didn’t happen. Seems as though they pitted too early for the reds and had to conserve them – which begs the question, why do it? Surely the point of using that strategy was to make use of the extra grip. Don’t squander it by telling your guy to go slowly to nurse them.

Highs and Lows

Despite the boredom I was pleased Mark Webber took the win. I always like it when Webber wins, he’s a good guy and I’ve been a fan for ages. Good also to see Rosberg hitting form this season.

Alonso was 3rd, since he joined Twitter I’ve taken to him a lot more, he’s showing personality we arguably haven’t seen properly since his days in blue and yellow at Renault when he was the breath of fresh air ending Schumi’s reign. Since he’s effectively fighting the lone fight in a Ferrari which is not the class of the field he’s almost an underdog, which means it is okay to root for him too!

The alternate strategy only netted Vettel and Hamilton 4th and 5th. The result says Massa was 6th but I don’t remember seeing him. Force Indias took 7th and 8th, again largely missing from the screens.

Perhaps the real mystery was the whereabouts of Kimi Räikkönen. After running so well in Spain I really expected Kimi to run well here and even win it. The form was repeated on Thursday practice. Then Kimi started struggling for reasons not explained fully. Romain Grosjean qualified well but was taken out before turn one, frustratingtly as he also looked set for a good run. I still think one of them will win this year.

Bruno Senna took the final point in 10th, largely unseen by us. Perez made it to 11th by the flag but he was helped for three of those places when Button hit Kovalainen and Vergne made a stupid gamble to take intermediate wets (from inside the top 8!) when the track was still dry.

History

You absolutely have to watch this video found from British Pathe at Sidepodcast (via Joe Saward). Precious little footage exists from 1929 of the first ever Monaco Grand Prix, I certainly have never seen any before now. It is just under 2 minutes in length and is a must-see for any fan of the history of racing. You can tell even then it was almost impossible to overtake at this place!

Race Result

1. Webber – Red Bull
2. Rosberg – Mercedes
3. Alonso – Ferrari
4. Vettel – Red Bull
5. Hamilton – McLaren
6. Massa – Ferrari
7. di Resta – Force India
8. Hülkenberg – Force India
9. Räikkönen – Lotus
10. Senna – Williams
11. Perez – Sauber  +1 lap
12. Vergne – Toro Rosso +1 lap
13. Kovalainen – Caterham +1 lap
14. Glock – Marussia +1 lap
15. Karthikeyan – HRT +1 lap
16. Button – McLaren +8 laps
DNF:
Ricciardo, Pic, Schumacher, Petrov, Kobayashi, de la Rosa, Maldonado, Grosjean

Points

76 – Alonso (1 win)
73 – Vettel (1)
73 – Webber (1)
63 – Hamilton
59 – Rosberg (1)
51 – Räikkönen
45 – Button (1)
35 – Grosjean
29 – Maldonado (1)
22 – Perez
etc.

Red Bull drivers tied on points, Vettel breaks the tie on countback. Button is amazingly low in the standings considering the car he is driving.

146 – Red Bull
108 – McLaren
86 – Ferrari
86 – Lotus
61 – Mercedes
44 – Williams
41 – Sauber
28 – Force India
6 – Toro Rosso

Next Race

Canadian Grand Prix, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Ille Notre-Dame, Montreal.

Always a race worth watching as the circuit is heavy on brakes, and the walls and bumps catch the drivers out. Expect Safety Cars.

IndyCar’s Openers

I’ll be straight – I’d planned to write a short review of each race a day or two after it happened, say 800-1000 words of what I thought of the race – but I only managed to do that for round one! We’re at a natural break in the season now, so what better time than to review the opening tranche of races?

This post from F1 stalwart and IndyCar rookie Lukeh of Gridwalk Talk on his impressions of the series after the first four races [and I do recommend any long-time IndyCar fan stops right now to go away and read that] got me thinking about the trends we’ve seen since the season opener, who is doing well and who isn’t, whether the new cars and engines are any good, and so forth.

Tracks

Three of the opening rounds were held on street courses with just one on a permanent road course, and no ovals. In a year unusually focussed on road and street courses this actually helps us identify frontrunners for the rest of the season.

Some of these four tracks have picked up a reputation as being boring, notably Barber Motorsport Park. Happily they all seemed to race differently this year, in fact Barber was a real classic and one of the best IndyCar races in a while. Long Beach and Sao Paulo were entertaining as well, whilst I remain convinced St Pete was better than the broadcast made it out to be.

Whether due to car or engine or if the tyre specs have changed, we’re already seeing one of the better seasons in IndyCar racing. I’m even hopeful that Mid-Ohio and Sears Point will race better than they usually do. Then of course, we have all the intrigue of wondering how these new cars race on an oval!

Personally while I don’t mind the first four races being street or road courses, I feel uncomfortable that the first oval of the year is at the fastest, biggest track. I know they did it last year but I do feel it is appropriate to have a ‘warm-up’ oval race before Indy, a race some of the Indy one-off entries might be tempted to enter. That’s not just because we have new equipment, I think they should do it every year. Perhaps the solution is to add a 5th race in late April or early May, or commute the last of the opening 4 (whichever it is – it doesn’t have to be Sao Paulo) to an oval track and run the moved race later.

Chassis

We’ve seen the new Dallara DW12 races very well. It appears more driveable, more nimble, drivers seem to feel more at ease in placing the car where they want it on the racetrack. It can also take a few hits, something a lot of open wheel cars struggle with, I’d say this was down to the increased bulk inherent in designing a car to race on ovals, but then the previous IndyCar wasn’t as resilient as this (and it was pretty damned resilient!).

Notable areas include not just the rear protection but also the front wings which seem to be able to take a hefty punt before breaking, meaning teams aren’t wasting time changing wings.

I’m still not sold on the looks from some angles, yet from others it does look great and immediately dates the old car, as it rightly should. Just judging from TV coverage and still photos it seems to be the biggest single-seater I’ve ever seen, very bulky, too bulky.

Engines

Chevrolet undoubtedly have the early season advantage and it is a double-hit: somehow they’ve managed to get more power AND better fuel economy! With this in mind it is no surprise they’ve dominated the top ten at each race and qualifying session held so far. Both qualities are even more essential at Indy than the courses visited so far, I expect their teams to hold a distinct advantage at the 500, cautions and DNFs notwithstanding.

That said, Honda recently received a break from INDYCAR which could see them close the gap. In reality it isn’t a very big gap, the grid is so close though that a few tenths are enough to make the deficit seem huge with the number of positions lost. We may also see the Honda teams focus more on trimming out their cars which could level the playing field.

Lotus are as behind as we all expected. They were always going to be after their very late start. The off-season scare stories suggested they’d be 3 or 4 seconds behind. In reality they are at most 2 seconds down and most often less (I’ll need to run some numbers to check).
Two teams have moved away from Lotus after Sao Paulo – the official line being that Lotus ‘released’ them. It is very disappointing to see teams link up with a partner knowing the short-term deficits, only to walk away after a handful of races barely two months in to the season. Their decision? Don’t know. I suspect so because Lotus wouldn’t want the egg-on-face. If I were a Lotus team I’d take the hit now in the expectation the engines will be competitive next year. Of course if the whole Lotus empire does collapse these teams come out of it as the smart ones!

Surprises

The really pleasant surprise this year has been the mix of contenders in the top six or seven at each race. At long last, there are no guarantees that every race will see 3 Penskes and 2 Ganassis in the top 6!

Simon Pagenaud has been on it from the word go, underlining the raw speed and relentless metronomy we’ve already seen in his Acura/HPD and Peugeot sportscar drives. The man is a talent.

If bands have difficult second albums, racing drivers traditionally have difficult second years. James Hinchcliffe is having none of it: in a team in which drivers either sink or swim he’s routinely beaten both teammates and sits third in points. Remarkable.
That’s not to say his Andretti Autosport teammates are struggling – both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti have put in good drives and shown fighting spirit. RHR’s pace in Brazil was excellent and I particularly remember the way Marco drove at Barber. It seems streamlining back to 3 cars was the right move at least for the early season.

None of us can be surprised at the pace of Team Penske and of Will Power in particular – but who would’ve put money on Helio Castroneves being the other car up front? Not only that but winning the first race? Not me and I’m an Helio fan! Conversely, where is Ryan Briscoe?

Over at the other Big Team, Ganassi, not one of them are in the top five in points. That’s amazing. No surprises to see Scott Dixon up front for the team.. but a huge surprise to see Dario Franchitti struggle so much. I’d read of his difficulty adapting to the car but I didn’t have any idea it was this bad. Add in the trouble he’s had with the ECU and his championship defence is all but over already. That said, he’s put in some spirited recovery drives – I’ve no idea how he made up so many positions at both Barber and Sao Paulo. There’s also a lot of racing to be done.

JR Hildebrand and Panther Racing seem to have overcome any weakness the team had on road courses. Similarly, I was pleased to see Ed Carpenter at Sao Paulo was running similar lap times to competitors on similar tyres, after struggling so often it is great to see the oval specialist making real progress on other courses.

Josef Newgarden is very impressive in his rookie year, very fast and has his head screwed on. So much so that I forget he’s a rookie sometimes, only to be reminded so when he makes the errors that are inevitible in the first year in the big league.

Takuma Sato and EJ Viso have calmed down immensely. Sato is driving extremely well, he’s not crashing into things and the reasons he’s not been recording results were not of his making – it was great to see him rewarded with a podium in Brazil. As a measure of Viso’s progress, he finished as top KV runner in Brazil in a team containing Tony Kanaan and Rubens Barrichello – need I say more?

Rubens himself is adapting well. He did seem out of his depth in his first race but that’s understandable, completely different environment to what’s he has been used to. Then in the other three races he scored three top tens! I expect he’ll only get better on the other road courses. Up next though is Indy and a couple of other ovals, one of the big storylines of May and June will be how Rubens adapts to oval racing. TK seems to be struggling a little this year.. I’m sure he’ll work it out.

What’s happening with Justin Wilson? Can he still be struggling with the injury he picked up last year, despite the win at the Daytona 24 Hours? Perhaps he’s just not getting along with this car. He’s yet to finish higher than 10th this year.

Officialdom

Much improved over recent years. There’s a greater transparency and clarity, there’s a common-sense approach and willingness to listen to fans, teams and drivers alike. There are still calls I disagree with (e.g. incurring penalties after an engine failure in testing), thankfully the number of them is reducing to the sort of level you might say of any series. Starts and restarts look much better. And halleluyah, the ‘draw a line in the middle of the track’ rule is gone!