ANALYSIS: IndyCar's MAVTV 500 at Fontana

ANALYSIS: IndyCar's MAVTV 500 at Fontana

IndyCar

ANALYSIS: IndyCar's MAVTV 500 at Fontana

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The 2013 MAVTV 500 felt like an outlaw event ” one the authorities would come and shut down at any moment [check out our In-Car Theater video].

The start was crazy, the restarts were crazier, cars worked every lane from bottom to top, drivers were routinely seen catching snap oversteer at 215mph or more, some engines glowed red-hot while others reached the point of meltdown. Some drivers fell back and marched their way to the front. And during the jaw-dropping laps that were run in waning moments of the 2013 IndyCar season, respect was earned and reputations were repaired as Charlie Kimball and Will Power left no doubt that they could get the job done under intense pressure.

IndyCar’s 18-race 2014 season is also set to close under the lights at Fontana, and like the popular double-header format the series established this year, closing the championship under the toughest possible conditions ” one that thrilled those in attendance ” seems like another tradition to build upon.

NO ARGUMENT HERE

Scott Dixon has his third championship. He went out and earned it. More accurately, he went out and took it ” in the same way Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed his first title last year. No gifts. No backing into it. No counting points. He earned it every step of the way.

Despite the relatively short 10-year span where his titles have been earned, Dixon came out on top of a very different class in 2003 during his first full season in IndyCar, did so again five years later with yet another class and, in what has easily the deepest Indy car field to date, led home a third unique field of competitors this year. That kind of versatility deserves recognition and praise.

Of the 23 or so full-time drivers he raced against in 2003, 20 have since retired or moved onto other forms of racing. Of the 25 or so full-time drivers he raced against in 2008, only 11 were still active in the 2013 championship. 12 of the full-time-ish drivers he beat this year were not competing when he earned his last title.

Different faces, different teams, different engines, CEOs, Race Directors?Dixon has demonstrated his championship-caliber talents across three distinct phases of IndyCar history.

He’s the one driver in the IndyCar Series that is genuinely feared by his contemporaries at every track. Maybe, possibly?hopefully the best driver of his generation will earn the respect he’s been due all along.

POWER PLAY

Thanks to his breakthrough performance at Fontana, one IndyCar driver will sleep better than the rest during the off-season.

Penske’s Will Power was, by his own account, a rather miserable sod after losing last year’s title to Ryan Hunter-Reay. His frustration wasn’t aimed at the American ” it came from falling short for a third consecutive year, and on an oval on all three occasions. He’d finish second in the standings yet again, and lamented over the crash that handed RHR the championship at Fontana.

He spent the ensuing months racked with angst and questioning his ability to contend at every round over the span of a season.

If you happened to see and hear the video of Power crossing the finish line to win the MAVTV 500 on Saturday, and also saw the in-car footage of championship-winner Scott Dixon passing under the checkered flag, it would have been easy to mistake Power as the title winner.

Dixon pumped his fist once, thanked his crew over the radio and pulled onto pit lane with a sense of calm satisfaction emanating from the cockpit. Power, who put to rest any remaining concerns that he isn’t an oval racer, reacted like he’d won the lottery, filled the front straight with smoke as he did donuts, damn near climbed out of his car on the way toward Turn 1 and then did an even bigger series of donuts. When he was finished, his No. 12 Verizon Wireless Chevy had disappeared, cloaked in a giant cloud of burning Firestones.

Both drivers expressed great relief over securing their respective wins, but only Power was genuinely relieved. He climbed from the car knowing he’d quieted his critics, rewarded Roger Penske’s faith and, most importantly, proved there’s nothing stopping him from earning the 2014 championship.

BALLIN’ BOURDAIS

Was that Sebastien ?I have limited experience on ovals? Bourdais leading four times for a total of 35 laps at Fontana?

The driver and team no one expected to factor in the season finale led comfortably for Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing outfit, surged and appeared to be in the mix for the win until an odd crash on Lap 229 ended the Frenchman’s impressive run.

?I didn’t have big doubts about whether I could do it or not,? he said. ?Nothing has changed since when I won with Newman/Haas at Milwaukee. I know how to do this, but it’s a case of getting everything right to get it done. You’ve got to have a feel for it and have the confidence in yourself. I’ve probably just had one of the best and one of the worst races on an oval at the same time.?

After reviewing the incident, Bourdais believes something broke on his car that sent him toward Will Power before veering hard to the right and into the wall. 

?It was really weird; I was chasing the car in a straight line and then it just went toward Will and I tried to catch it and then the next thing you know, I was crashing,? he related. ?You don’t have that happen going straight unless there’s something wrong. About six or seven laps before that, I had pretty good side-to-side contact with James [Hinchcliffe], and neither car moved, so I wonder if something bent because the force has to go somewhere. It’s too bad because except for a couple of slow pit stops, we were really competitive. It would have been nice to go out with a win for Jay.?

CHUCK WAGON

It’s hard to say whether Charlie Kimball would have won the MAVTV 500, but there’s no denying the California native was in a position to score his second victory of the season until a trail of white smoke began to pour from his headers. His Honda engine expired while the third-year IndyCar driver was coming back to take the green flag with a dozen laps left in the 250-lap event, surrendering the lead to eventual winner Will Power.

The most impressive display to come from Kimball was proof that he has the balls and intelligence required to come out ahead at a 500-miler like Fontana.  The 28-year-old, as this writer has chronicled on numerous occasions since his debut in 2011, had a nasty habit of disappearing during far too many races. Thankfully, he’s fixed that problem for the most part in 2013.

Just as we witnessed at Fontana, and Mid-Ohio, and Pocono and Barber, ?Charlie Murphy? is now hanging with the big dogs on a more regular basis. It’s a welcome change and a harbinger of even better things to come for him next year.

SAFETY PODS

As is the norm in the aftermath of a big crash, more areas of improvement deserve exploration after Justin Wilson’s pelvis-fracturing tangle with the nose of Tristan Vautier’s car on lap 110 at Fontana.

Wilson got loose in his Dale Coyne Racing Honda, catching two slides before the third sent his Boy Scouts of America Dallara DW12 spinning out of Turn 2. Vautier, with limited evasive options in front of him, center-punched Wilson’s car, striking the sideways Brit parallel with the steering wheel.

By chance, the crash took place at one of the few areas on the tub where it’s fully exposed and has no crushable structure in place to dissipate kinetic energy. The DW12’s Zylon composite anti-intrusion panels, which run alongside the cockpit, did its job when the nose of Vautier’s car drilled the right side of Wilson’s car between the rear leg of the upper A-arm and the leading edge of the tapered sidepod.

While the nose of Vautier’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car was prevented from entering the cockpit ” just as the Italian racecar manufacturer had intended ” the blunt-force of Vautier’s nose was enough to push into the Zylon and break the carbon fiber/aluminum honeycomb material behind it.

Wilson, whose hands were on the steering wheel, had the inner wall of the tub separate ” a bit like a pair of saloon doors being pushed open from the middle ” and traveled far enough inward to cut the back of Wilson’s right hand through his Nomex glove. That distance ” about three inches, according to Wilson ” is worrisome.

Wilson had scrubbed off a lot of speed at the time of the impact, but was far from being at a standstill. Data provided from both teams reveals an alarming fact: the crash took place with a surprisingly small speed differential between both cars. Wilson’s data system, due to his sliding sideways at the time of the impact, was unable to record his exact speed (if he was rolling forward or backward, it wouldn’t have been an issue), but the DCR team narrowed it down to between 90 and 115mph.

Vautier was traveling at 125mph when he struck Wilson, and once Wilson was hit and had his car point forward momentarily, a speed of 93mph was captured. It makes the lower number of 90mph seem like the more accurate figure to go with. Mind you, this is based on approximations, not to-the-decimal-point accuracy, but it appears the tub damage was done with a differential of just 35mph.

Conversations about Wilson’s injuries and the relatively exposed nature of the cockpit sides spilled into Sunday evening’s IndyCar banquet, and this writer participated in more than one driver-led discussion on the need for more crushable material on both sides of the tub.

The most common suggestion has been to adopt the traditional Indy car sidepod arrangement ” to move the radiators and their associated carbon fiber ducting forward to act as a first line of defense when the next nose-to-cockpit impact takes place. The DW12 has a wide carbon floor that extends outward just past the wheels, but with the almost total lack of sidepod structure protecting the first 40 percent of the cockpit, anything that travels over the top of the floor in that region, just as Vautier’s nose did on Saturday, leaves the tub to handle the blow all by itself.

Sebastien Bourdais experienced a nearly identical situation at Sonoma last year when he impacted the back of Josef Newgarden’s gearbox with the left side of his tub. Bourdais’ impact took place about a foot farther back on his car ” closer to his upper torso ” and he dealt with the pain from a massive blow to his ribs for months afterward.

Wilson received significant fractures, internal bruising and had his right thigh absolutely pummeled in the crash. Beyond the healing time required for his pelvis, he’ll need to stay off his feet for up to eight weeks. Although Wilson, like his good friend Dario Franchitti, was well-protected in a scary crash, this is yet another instance of the lessons learned from an accident needing to be met with action and revisions.

The cockpit of the DW12 held up remarkably well in both instances; cracking and inward folding took place at the intersections where the cockpit sides meet their respective bulkheads, but it’s hard to ignore the merits of developing and mandating revised sidepods that will greatly reduce the chances of a nose or gearbox causing the cockpit to collapse in on its driver.

Simply put, the Dallara DW12 chassis has proven to be a marvel of safety, but do we want to keep sending heavy objects at the side of the cockpit until we find its breaking point?

The DW12 was designed with its dart-like sidepods in the name of aerodynamic efficiency ” to cheat the air and compensate for the lower horsepower figures the series called for when the 2012 IndyCar concept was being formulated. Aero kits from Chevy and Honda are on the way in 2015, and they could include sidepods that protect more of the cockpit, but there’s no need to wait for 2015, or to hope those kits increase driver safety.

With a long winter ahead, IndyCar has the time to work with its partners at Dallara, and its aero kit manufacturers, to come up with a solution for 2014 that can also be incorporated into whatever designs Chevy, Honda and others have been developing.

Going into next season without a sidepod safety update isn’t an option. We have enough injuries and plenty of hindsight to know what needs to be done.

FUZZY WILLY

As my friend Mark Glendenning from AUTOSPORT remarked on Saturday night, a mildly inebriated Will Power closed the season in style in the media center during the post-race press conference.

Asked if he was still feeling the effects of the big swig of Fuzzy’s Vodka he took on the podium ” all while dehydrated and on an empty stomach ” an incredulous Power fired back with, ?What are you talking about? I’m high on life!? before making the ?W’ sign with his right hand and firing off a ?Westside!? as he rose from the podium. Brilliant.

DUST IN THE WIND

Sand, dirt, visor tear-offs, tire rubber and every other form of radiator-clogging material ended up playing a central role during IndyCar’s season finale. The problem worsened as the race went on, and just as the lap count increased, engine temperatures went up at the same rate for many drivers. For some teams, the gamble to stay out and deal with the critical temps did not pay off as multiple engine failures took place.

For others, the practice of making unscheduled stops to remove the engine cover and blow compressed air from behind the water radiator to dislodge debris that packed the cooling fins was a common sight.

Between the two manufacturers, Honda suffered the most, with just one of its cars ” driven by champion Scott Dixon ” surviving at half-speed. Dixon was forced to nurse his turbo V6 to the finish line as he prayed for the 2.2-liter unit to hold together.

Chevy was more fortunate. Eight of the nine runners who made it to the finish used their powerplant, and with that reliability came the 2013 Manufacturers’ championship, but many of their drivers dealt with elevated temperatures as the night wore on.

With the progressive clogging issue affecting the outcome of the race ” nearly 20 percent of the field fell out with heat-related failures while others lost multiple laps as they sat on pit lane as debris was cleared from their radiators, solutions are required for next year’s Fontana season finale.

To start, the high line around the 2.0-mile oval needs to be vacuumed prior to the start. The practice of using a jet blower to move debris down the track to the infield is fine, but it doesn’t address the material that rests on the upper most portion of the track, which many drivers use during the race at Fontana.

Photographing the start from outside Turn 3, this writer and the three others who were within inches of the fence were blasted with a wall of sand and whatever else was sitting on the outer lane as the field swept by. That phenomenon continued well after the start.

(The speed and force of the material was enough to pit the glass on one of my lenses, peppered my eyes to the point where I could barely see, and after 10 laps or so, my hair felt like it had been washed with a slurry of sand and dirt. Imagine the volume of garbage being sucked into the radiators lap after lap.)

Using something to extract and capture the small bits sitting on the track needs to happen before the start, period. Another smart move for IndyCar to consider is the use of Le Mans-style screens in front of the radiators.

With 24 hours of racing to cover and plenty of dirt, sand, tire rubber and leaves to contend with, LMP1 teams like Audi and Peugeot came up with quick-change fine-mesh screens for the 2011 event that could be extracted and replaced with fresh units during pit stops. Rather than lose time by taking the engine cover and sidepods off to deal with the issue as IndyCar teams were forced to do, P1 teams went for something far more simple and efficient, creating a cartridge that could be undone with a few screws and pulled upward and out of the way while as a new cartridge was dropped in and secured.

A bit of work was also done to the internal sidepod airflow to divert larger debris to the outer edges of the radiators, keeping the majority of the cores clear from all but the smallest items.

If the series does the right thing and comes up with the aforementioned sidepod revisions, there’s no reason to leave a replaceable screen solution out of the update. Add in the merits of having a replaceable screen at Indy and other tracks where temperatures rise and it makes plenty of sense.

Next year’s event is due to be held in late August, where the temperatures will likely be at least 20 degrees hotter, making a fix an absolute necessity.

FUN WITH STATS

Scott Dixon’s first title came with Toyota power ” the engine to have in 2003, and he stood on the podium in 50 percent of the 16 races run. 13 podiums during 2008’s 19-round championship and six wins ” including the Indy 500 ” secured Dixie’s second title as the entire field used spec Hondas. And then we get to the rather strange manner which the 33-year-old Kiwi earned his third IndyCar crown on Saturday night.

Through the first 10 races ” from St. Pete to Milwaukee ” his main rival Helio Castroneves made the most of the slow start recorded by the Ganassi team and its engine partner Honda. The Brazilian scored 332 points to Dixon’s 240, giving him a 92-point advantage.

Four of the season’s six ovals were run during that span, and the Team Penske driver capitalized on the opportunity, taking a win at Texas and amassing 162 points along with an average finishing position of fourth from Indy through Iowa. Dixon averaged 15th on those four ovals, earning just 75 points as Castroneves and Chevrolet began to look like runaway favorites for the championship.

The well-documented Sebring test conducted by Ganassi ” one that paid major dividends in damping ” was rewarded with a new engine specification from Honda at Pocono. Dixon’s title run essentially began there in Pennsylvania on July 7.

92 points behind Castroneves with nine races remaining, his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team did the unfathomable in Ganassi’s home state, scoring a 1-2-3 as Dixon came home in first place.

With only 240 points from the first 10 rounds, Dixon tacked on 156 more in a span of seven days as he extended his winning streak to three the following weekend during the Toronto double-header. Once he was done in Canada, any memories of the poor start to 2013 had been erased.

Dixon’s charge came to a grinding halt at Sonoma and Baltimore, while Castroneves evened things out with a horrible weekend in Houston, and their differing approaches to the season played out as Dixon entered the Fontana finale with an advantage and the need to keep the pressure on HCN.

Castroneves withstood the pressure at Fontana, but was powerless to overcome the tidal wave of points Dixon amassed in the second half of the season. Dixon would score 337 points over the final nine races, while HCN brought home only 218. Dixon closed the year racing like he had to win every race, while Castroneves, more often than not, raced like he was trying not to lose the points lead. With the caliber of talent that’s in the field, that method was always going to have limited returns.

In contrast, Dixon’s attacking approach to the 2013 season is highlighted through his top-10 results. From 19 races, he finished outside the top-10 on seven occasions ” something that would normally stifle a championship bid ” but he was so effective elsewhere, it masked the bad days and DNFs he encountered.

Castroneves’ season tells a different tale. 16 top-10 finishes showed incredible consistency on his part, and with just three finishes outside the top-10, the numbers would indicate he’d followed the perfect recipe to earn the title.

Dig deeper and you’ll find 10 of those top-10s were finishes from sixth to 10th. Only six of his top-10s were from finishes of first to fifth, including a single victory.

Dixon, with his team/engine missing the mark through the first 10 rounds, still managed to secure 12 top-10s. He had 10 finishes of first through fifth, with four of those being wins.

Where HCN had 10 top-10s where he finished from sixth to 10th place, Dixon only had two. More than any other points-related stat, that disparity alone tells you everything you need to know about their differing styles. Add in the extra points Dixon earned from winning four races to the one scored by Castroneves, and the unrelenting nature of the Kiwi’s methods was rewarded in the final standings.

To go one step further, Dixon’s two top-10s from sixth to 10th were actually a sixth and a seventh. The easiest way to characterize Dixon’s season is that when he had a decent finish, it was inside the top-7 and paid a lot of points. When things went wrong, which they did more than twice as often as HCN, he was outside the top-10.

Castroneves had good fortune on his side, and was amazingly precise across all 19 rounds, but despite the high number of top-10s, too many of them came in positions that paid a lesser amount of points. The 12 times Dixon landed inside the top-7, he made it count.

Because of those efforts, he also has a million dollars to count after Sunday night’s championship celebration.

MISCELLANEOUS

? IndyCar needs to make sure Ed Carpenter has an in-car camera on every oval next year. The two-time race winner does things on ovals that defy physics, gravity, space, time and everything else he commands to keep the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy pointed in the right direction. If you have the MAVTV 500 saved on your DVR, go back through and look for instances where the popular Hoosier is in the frame while cornering. His lightning-fast reflexes prevent some of the big moment from becoming bigger, but every now and then, a holy-sh*t-I-can’t-believe-he-held-onto-that instance sneaks through. It’s amazing stuff. For all of the praise this writer heaps on Dixon, Power, Pagenaud, Wilson, Conway and a few others for their cross-handed street course skills, Carpenter is owed the same hero worshiping for doing the same at 200mph and above.

? Goodbyes for Tony Kanaan from KV Racing, Sebastien Bourdais from Dragon Racing, Ryan Hunter-Reay to his hard-earned No. 1, along with farewells to sponsors Go Daddy and Hewlett-Packard.

? Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s James Jakes didn’t make it past the big lap 110 crash, but continued to show people that he’s not afraid to mash the throttle pedal. Like Charlie Kimball, you didn’t always know Jakes was in the field from 2011-2012, but came alive this year ” even if he didn’t factor in the final standings.

? A questionable pit lane violation assessed to JR Hildebrand stifled the final run of the year for the in-transition Barracuda Racing team. The former Panther Racing driver used his favorite spot at Fontana ” up on the high line ” to find speed, and after overcoming a drive-through penalty, worked his way up to second when his Honda engine expired minutes away from the finish. It was a tough end for Hildebrand and the Bryan Herta team, but left people with a reminder of what both are capable of.

? Alex Tagliani’s one-off with Target Chip Ganassi Racing was almost perfect. He was holding a fighting fifth when he spun on lap 209, but based on the flowery prose from his temporary boss the following day, it’s clear the French-Canadian made a big impression on the new IndyCar Series champions.

? Simon Pagenaud took a wild ride on Saturday night. He was the first to stop, taking on a new set of tires which put him a lap down, and proceeded to get his lap back and work his way up to ninth by lap 102. He’d rise as high as fourth two different times, fell back as overheating issues struck, climbed back, then finally parked his No. 77 Honda when the engine fell silent on lap 217. Based on his spirited drive, Pagenaud’s another one who looks ready to win on an oval.

? The championship celebration had a few touching points during the evening at the Globe Theatre at Universal Studios. Chip Ganassi wiped away a few tears as he dedicated Dixon’s championship to his late father Floyd, and his driver did the same during his speech. Dixon also, in a show of genuine humility, apologized to Helio Castroneves on two occasions for winning the title. The Brazilian came so close to capturing his first title, just as he did when he finished second to Dixon in 2008, and with Dixon recognizing his rival’s in the twilight of his career, it was a classy and heart-felt gesture.

? Graham Rahal’s season ended in fitting style as he qualified toward the back, struggled throughout the race and had his Honda break on lap 200. Things can only get better in 2014.

? MUNOZ! Carlos made the No. 5 Andretti Autosport Chevy fly at Fontana. He was overly abusive with his tires and paid the price, but the kid only thinks about passing and will make a strong addition to a series. Extreme aggression continues to separate the winners from the also-rans, and the Colombian only knows how to attack.

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8

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