ANALYSIS: IndyCar's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

ANALYSIS: IndyCar's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

IndyCar

ANALYSIS: IndyCar's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

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WILLY P’S GOT HIS MOJO WORKIN’

Lost within the controversial penalty at Sonoma that dropped Scott Dixon to the back of the field with 15 laps to go was the fact that Will Power was on a serious charge to challenge Dixie for the lead.

By the numbers, and when they were running 1-2, Power had the measure of the race leader toward the end of each stint, and although we’ll never know if the Aussie would have gotten by the Kiwi during the final laps, it would be unfair to paint Power’s win as nothing more than a gift from Race Control. Could he have actually passed Dixon who knows? But on pace alone, the sprint to the checkered flag would have been fascinating to watch.

The difference in tire consumption between the two cars really came to light towards the end of their run to the second pit stop. With the two on used reds, Power drew Dixon’s nearly two-second lead down to 0.7sec in a handful of laps before they stopped for tires and fuel. Power took on used blacks while Dixon had a new set, and utilized that edge in the race to the next stop.

Despite the car/crewman contact that occurred during their final trip to the pits, Power emerged with new reds while Dixon took on a used set, which could have tipped the balance in Power’s favor. It was rendered moot with Dixie’s drive-through, but Power felt like he might have had an answer for his rival without it.

“His rear tires were going off really badly and he got very loose at the end of stints,” said Power, who earned his 19th Indy car win on Sunday. “At the end of the black-tire stint, he was really struggling, and yeah, I think we had something for him, but that’s impossible to tell. On that last restart, my team told me he was probably going to be penalized, so I didn’t attack too hard on new tires because it’s not worth it. But I knew he was in the championship and I have nothing to lose but to go for wins so I was going to be very aggressive at the end of the race. If he hadn’t been penalized, it would have been interesting. The No. 9 car was strong in the beginning of stints and we were very strong from halfway through to the end.”

Dixon, understandably, didn’t necessarily agree with the Power-might-have-won-on-his-own hypothesis.

“Strategically, we made the car fast for the first 15 laps and then sort of maintained it,” he said. “I don’t think at any point we were really trying to drive away; we were just trying to maintain pace. The only time it got a little tricky was when Justin [Wilson] went on the reds and we were on blacks. So that was fun but, I think where the last yellow had fallen when I was still leading, we were in the right situation to win the race. Sure, you get to the last five laps of the stint and the tires fall off a lot anyway, but the car was strong most of the time. Maybe it did fall off a little bit more than some of the others, but generally we were quick enough to be up front all day until that was taken away from us.”

Dixon and his Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti had the fastest cars from Sonoma’s Wednesday test day onwards, claiming an all-Target front row in qualifying and leading 42 of the race’s 85 laps, but the sustainability of that pace became problematic. Franchitti led the first 17 laps from pole (BELOW) but struggled to post the same lap times in traffic, and Dixon had his late-stint degradation, but Power and his Verizon Team Penske engineer David Faustino seemed to find a happier middle ground to work from. The No. 12 Verizon Wireless car might not have been as fast in a lap-for-lap duel in every phase of the race but, according to Power, the choice to aim for a faster average speed over those 85 laps was the right call to make.

“We actually changed our philosophy quite a bit after qualifying,” he confirmed. “When I was on blacks in those qualifying rounds, the back of the car was a problem and so hard to drive, but on reds, it settled down and I was fine. For the warm-up, we made a pretty big change and then went a little bit more in that direction after the warm-up, and we thought if maybe we’d done that in qualifying, the car wouldn’t be so hard to drive. Overall, we took things in a direction that was going to be fast but more consistent for the race and that helped quite a lot.”

Winning his first race since Brazil in April 2012 could be just the mental boost Power and the No. 12 team have needed to get back to their old form of dominating on most road and street courses.

“Yeah, it’s just amazing that bad results basically being on pace but not getting the wins like we used to does actually wear on your confidence,” he mused. “It’s such a big deal, winning a race; it boosts your confidence. You feel that, for whatever reason, when you struggle you’re just lost. You start asking what’s wrong with yourself. And sometimes you get a bit lost in the setup side of things where you’re actually struggling. It snowballs.

“Confidence is a big deal in racing and Sonoma was probably one of the most fun races I’ve had in IndyCar this year rubbing and banging and good, hard racing. That’s the way I want it to be.”

BALTIMORE PITS

One final note on the Dixon/Power pit stop incident. We head to Baltimore this weekend where, based on qualifying positions at Sonoma where Dixon was P2 and Power was P3, Dixon will be pitted directly in front of Power. I can only assume that, with the cramped pit lane behind Camden Yards, and Race Control watching how the two teams interact after leaving California, every effort will be made by Dixon’s crew to make room for Power to exit cleanly throughout the weekend.

SAFER Turn 8a

Sebastien Bourdais had a painful meeting with fellow driver Josef Newgarden at the exit of Sonoma’s Turn 8a last year, and the track made sure they did something about it on the series’ return to the wine country.

Bourdais went straight entering Turn 8, swept across the track, brought Newgarden with him, and the two headed directly at the left-hand barrier. But before he got to the barrier, Bourdais met with Newgarden’s Xtrac gearbox which, due to the nose of Newgarden’s car already being in contact with the cement wall, acted like a center punch to Bourdais’ Dallara DW12 tub.

The impact broke the tub at Bourdais’ left shoulder and, with the jarring impact to his ribs, left the veteran open-wheel driver in rough shape afterwards. Newgarden suffered a broken finger in the crash, which forced him to miss Baltimore the following weekend and, with this injury-laden accident in mind, Sonoma Raceway had improved protection measures at Turn 8a (ABOVE, pic by Marshall Pruett). Rather than stick with the single row of tires in front of the cement barriers, a second set of tires was added to try and prevent another spear-like impact, and thankfully, it went un-tested.

“I’ll be really honest and tell you I didn’t even look over there to notice,” Bourdais said after finishing 10th. “After the memories of what happened last year, I didn’t want to tempt anything by looking too muchit still hurts sometimes when I think about it. But I’m glad to hear they put more protection there. I’m glad, too, that no one had to use them. I wouldn’t wish that kind of crash on anybody.”

BRICK TAMLAND WOULD BE PROUD

Sonoma’s jab-fest piled up the broken wings, bent wheels, damage sidepods, smashed rear wheel guards and pummeled egos at an alarming rate. It had the look of IndyCar’s latest ode to the fight scene in Anchorman, and while it might have been amusing to some who watched the race, it had dire implications for some of the drivers in need of a strong finish.

Takuma Sato was a popular punching bag, collecting the spinning car of Graham Rahal and losing 20 minutes in the pits for repairs. To make matters worse, Charlie Kimball used the front of Sato’s car like a vert ramp while trying to get going after spinning late in the race in Turn 7.

Tony Kanaan was hit from behind at the start and dealt with a car that no longer wanted to turn left on a track with lots of sweeping lefts to tackle. Kanaan soldiered away to score an unrepresentative 16th-place finish, and Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe fell back after triggering his pit lane speed limiter and then moshed his way from 20th to eighth.

Even more drivers were involved in the afternoon’s scrum, but for those like Kanaan and Hinchcliffetwo guys who need to record competitive finishes while they look to secure new contractsbeing derailed by contact at Sonoma or any of the final races has much bigger implications than might be expected.

TURBO MUPPETS

One of the more recent visual developments in the paddock has come beneath the engine covers of the four Andretti Autosport entries. The first clue was hard to miss when I walked past James Hinchcliffe’s unmistakably green No. 27 GoDaddy Chevy and noticed the team had painted the turbo intake piping and cold-side plenum feeds to match his car color.

A closer look at the other three cars revealed yellow piping on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s yellow DHL Chevy, red on Marco Andretti’s RC Cola Chevy and blue on E.J. Viso’s CITGO Chevy (LEFT, pic by Marshall Pruett). The engine bay decorations are unique to the Andretti team as the rest of the paddock seem satisfied with leaving those forced-induction canvases blank.

“We just thought it would be something to individualize each car a bit, said Andretti team manager Kyle Moyer. “Having a sense of style doesn’t hurt, does it?”

No, it doesn’t.

ROYAL RECOVERY BY RHR

Most IndyCar teams were looking for the earliest opportunity to pit once they were within the window to complete Sunday’s 85-lap race in three stops, and with a caution period falling on Lap 17, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that all of the leaders would pit.

A bold strategy call by 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport team left the No. 1 DHL Chevy circulating behind the pace car while the two leading cars in front of him and almost a dozen cars immediately behind him dove in for service.

Losing that early race game of musical chairs made for an exciting afternoon as RHR sank to 21st after pitting on Lap 24. Cue a fairly crazy march through the field one that was aided by the Rock’em Sock’em Robots routine that went on throughout the field as RHR hauled himself up to sixth at the finish.
It was a better ending than in 2012 when he and Alex Tagliani had a meeting of bodywork at Turn 7 that left the future champ in 18th. He was in a much happier mood after this year’s race, despite knowing some points had been left on the table.

“I made mistakes on the track and obviously the strategy we took was different than the Ganassi and Penske guys, but we do this together and won our championship last year together,” said RHR. “It definitely hurt being in the top three, being one of the leaders and then staying out, but taking a risk at the time to try and get ahead of Dixon and Franchitti was worth a shot because like we saw last year, playing it safe isn’t going to get you the points to take over the championship.”

Hunter-Reay (BELOW) was one of very few drivers to press ahead and make up positions without major contact being involved.

“Yeah, it wasn’t all clean, but I kept my head down and kept going, as I know championships come down to a couple of points so I knew every position was extremely valuable,” he added. “We had a lot of digging out to do to come back to sixth. The Andretti Autosport team is very good on recoveries, but we definitely made the day harder than it needed to be for ourselves. Can’t afford more of those this year.”

By contrast, teammate James Hinchcliffe was in the wars. “I honestly felt like I was hit by every car out there,” he said. “You can’t really control everything that goes on around you, and we haven’t been qualifying well enough lately, so you start farther back and run the risks involved with being back there. We really need to put our emphasis on qualifying for the final races and if we can improve there, it will help a lot with getting better results.

“It’s especially true at Baltimore and Houston, where contact is easy, but the guys up front tend to be more aware of what’s going on around them. Giving away points or better finishes just isn’t helpful at this stage of the season. Finishing strong would be really helpful and getting another win or two would come at exactly the right time. You don’t want anything negative to happen at this point in the year where a lot of planning and talks are taking place about the future.”

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