MIND ERASER, NO CHASER
What a genuinely bizarre weekend in Toronto.
Amid the chaos brought by rain, indecision and a lack of information on Saturday, folks returned the following day for two rounds of the Verizon IndyCar Series action where teams, drivers and fans did their best to deal with a pair of shortened races crammed into a tight schedule.
Sebastien Bourdais and the smaller-than-you-think KVSH Racing team pulled off a shocker by earning pole position Saturday morning, and then spent the next 24 hours waiting to turn their qualifying achievement into a trip to Victory Lane. Leading 58 of the 65 laps, the old SeaBass was back and based on his dominating performance, we have every reason to believe KVSH is on the road to becoming a serious contender with Bourdais leading the charge.
Then we had what felt like Iowa 2.0 in the afternoon as a mad scramble to jump from Firestone wets to slicks jumbled the running order over the final laps – but only after a red flag was thrown. Starting 11th, Mike Conway and Ed Carpenter Racing stunned the field after gambling by taking Reds on lap 43 and Conweezy then went on a passing spree, racing his way from 18th to first in seven laps!
Taking Saturday’s oddities into account and how Sunday had everything but snow to deal with, I doubt I’ll come across another race weekend like the one we had in Toronto.
MONSTERS IN THE PARASOL
For those who weren’t at the track on Saturday, the rainfall wasn’t heavy, which most likely led to the popular belief that the race should have been held. And that’s where the first bout of confusion was created at Toronto: The conditions didn’t look that bad, so how could that lead to the race being postponed? The visuals didn’t match the call by Race Control to delay the start – we didn’t need Noah’s Ark to escape with our lives, so why couldn’t the drivers couldn’t go out and do their jobs?
I was wondering the same thing before I heard some of the driver feedback over the radio while they circulated behind the pace car. Having stood outside Turn 1 prior to the start, and through the two hours of relative inaction that followed, an umbrella was never required, nor did my clothes get doused with what was falling from the sky. But as the drivers soon illustrated, the light drizzle, combined with the spray and mist that came from the field of 23 Indy cars circulating behind the pace car, left those drivers running blind at low speeds.
Add Firestone’s curious rain tires to the mix – ones with a tread pattern closer to something on a passenger car than anything we’ve seen in racing that pumps high volumes of water from the track – and lapping at anything more than a crawl came with unreasonable risks.
One final variable also came into play on Saturday – and again on Sunday when rain fell during Round 2 – and that was the surface conditions throughout the 1.7-mile circuit. As we saw with a few pileups, including Mikhail Aleshin’s submarine routine beneath Juan Montoya’s car at Turn 8, corners with concrete patches were like big Indy car Slip-N-Slides.
While the rain fell during Sunday’s race, Turn 3 at the end of the long back straight became a single-file corner thanks to the big concrete patch at the apex, forcing drivers to go an extra few car lengths, hug up against the tire barrier, and then hang a right to use the asphalt’s grip to accelerate up the hill. There was no real racing taking place in Turn 3 – it was a case of drivers tip-toeing over the one portion of the corner that wouldn’t send them into an uncontrolled spin.
And that’s my main takeaway from the rainy portions of the 2InTO event: Professional drivers are often willing to put themselves at great risk in order to earn a better finish, but when their ability to stay tethered to the earth is taken away by rain, rain tires, and the track surface itself, that loss of control should come with a sense of understanding by those who aren’t Indy car drivers.
Just as we don’t expect pilots to take off or land when they can’t see the runway due to dense fog, it seems silly to expect drivers to race when they can’t see the road ahead and can’t control their cars at pace car speeds. And while I’m sure Saturday’s race could have been run, who wants to see an IndyCar event where the drivers cruise around in first gear for 85 laps?
Some have questioned the bravery of the drivers, suggesting they lacked the balls to go out and put on a show for the paying fans. Coincidentally, the majority of those I heard or read making those comments have never driven an Indy car, much less strapped into one while blindfolded on a slick and narrow street course.
It’s convenient to suggest the race could have been held, and romantic to think that old-school racers would have buckled in and gone for it – danger be damned; but we no longer live in an era where safety concerns are ignored and racing fatalities are commonplace. And that’s something we should be thankful for.
Simply put, the conditions on Saturday took skill and experience out of the equation, and at that point, all the talent of a Will Power, Ayrton Senna, Mario Andretti or Juan Manuel Fangio would have been rendered useless.
Although the weather didn’t force anyone to run for cover, it helped create a perfect storm that made racing a risk that was too great to accept. As hard as it might be to reconcile, and despite the absence of flooding and thunder strikes to make their decision a no-brainer to all involved, IndyCar made the right call to postpone the race.
“I was third behind the pace car and couldn’t see it or the car in front of me,” said Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. “At that point, you’re not really driving; you’re just praying something doesn’t go wrong in front of you because you wouldn’t see it happen.
“The dangerous part was the back straight. Whatever they did that was new there made the water sit on top of the surface and it wouldn’t drain. Maybe they sealed it with something, but it was like driving on ice and because of the spray, you couldn’t see. And then if you touched one of the concrete patches, your car took off. We were just along for the ride at that point. That’s when it stops being racing, in my opinion.”
I APPEAR MISSING
If IndyCar deserves praise for putting the safety of its drivers, crews, safety team and trackside volunteers ahead of the perceived need to race in unsafe conditions, it lost points for the confusion that blanketed the event on Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, and even Sunday morning.
Without rehashing a myriad of concerns and issues, Saturday’s race never actually started – the green flag never waved, and from there, a series of decisions that befuddled many of those on pit lane began to snowball. Some drivers crashed on their own (Will Power and Ryan Briscoe) and were allowed to have work done under a red flag (also known as a “Red Condition” in the rulebook), while others were not allowed to effect repairs when Sunday’s first race went red for a track-blocking multi-car crash.
Everyone received instructions Saturday night that Sunday’s first race would be gridded based on the qualifying order from Saturday morning, meaning the crashed-and-repaired cars of Power and Briscoe would not start at the back, and would return to P2 and P10, respectively, to take the start based on their original qualifying positions.
Whether it was from pressure applied by team owners and drivers, an internal change of heart, or a combination of the two, we arrived Sunday morning to learn IndyCar reversed its decision and the first race would use a grid based on a race that never took place on Saturday. Power and Briscoe went to the back, as did Juan Montoya who had work done to solve an electrical problem under Saturday’s red condition.
Is any of this making sense?
It reminds of when a play is blown dead in the NFL, yet the players play through the whistle. A quarterback might throw a touchdown, but the play didn’t count so the team doesn’t get to keep the points. A player could sack the quarterback, but they don’t get to keep the yards they gained. It might be unfair, but technically, the plays were never live and won’t go into the record books. Power, Briscoe and Montoya had problems, yet those problems happened when IndyCar’s version of the play was dead and didn’t count.
Somehow, overnight, IndyCar decided the play counted and adjusted the qualifying order to reflect something that never officially happened on Saturday.
Granted, it’s their series and their choice to do as they please, but just consider that with questions already mounting over the “who can or can’t work on their cars during a red flag” situation, waking to find IndyCar overruled itself and shuffled the grid only added to the notion that its rulebook was being used sparingly.
“I’d love to comment, but I can’t afford the fine,” one team owner told me, and he wasn’t alone.
We also had the announcement from IndyCar on Saturday night that both races would be 75 laps in length. About an hour later, I received a text from a driver stating it had been changed to 2 x 65 laps, which IndyCar soon confirmed.
At 75 laps, and provided it stayed dry, both races would be flat-out affairs, but at 65, both would become fuel economy runs as teams tried to turn them into one-stoppers. Luckily we had weirdness in both races that kept them from being exercises in fuel saving, but the frequent flip-flopping on grids, distances and lack of thought as to fuel windows made IndyCar look like they weren’t entirely in control of the situation.
That’s not to say what IndyCar faced was easy, but in the absence of clarity, taking time to hatch a solid plan, bounce it off of drivers, owners and even a few race strategists could have turned what seemed like decisions being made in the dark into a series of cohesive and well-executed plans.
NO ONE KNOWS
To add insult to injury – and this isn’t IndyCar’s domain – the last people to know what was going on at the end of Saturday were the fans. After standing outside Turn 1 until just after 6 p.m., the only way we knew to pack up and head back to the media center came from a Holmatro Safety Team member who confirmed the race was off.
During the short walk back, I must have been stopped by 10 fans asking if I knew what was happening. Surprised at their question, I asked each one what they were referring to – I figured those of us far from the pits were the last ones to get word of the postponement.
Turns out it was the exact opposite. Those fans, who had seats in the stands behind pit lane, were told nothing.
“The only way we knew we should go is because the starter climbed down from the stand and started walking away,” one fan told me. “They didn’t say anything over the speakers and no one knew what to do, so we left.”
Again, we all acknowledge Saturday was more than chaotic for the series and the circuit officials, yet picking up the microphone to tell the crowd the race was off seems like the first thing you’d want to do.
Information as a whole was treated like a precious commodity on Saturday. Teams were in the dark about rules, precedents, and what served as a punishable offense during the red flags, and Toronto’s incredible race fans weren’t given the kind of basic information and respect they deserved after sitting in the rain to watch no racing take place.
Yes, the track made good by allowing Saturday’s ticket holders to return on Sunday for free, but that doesn’t diminish the failings that took place. Their patience should have been rewarded with something better than being ignored.
As IndyCar looks to reassure its teams that the rulebook is written in ink, not pencil, and its governance style is more fixed than fluid, it would also be worth reviewing the procedures required to keep its fans up to date and engaged when curveballs are thrown.
FEEL GOOD HIT OF THE SUMMER
Team Penske leads all IndyCar teams with four wins this year. Andretti Autosport is next with three, and they’re tied with…Ed Carpenter Racing. That’s right, the oval specialists who’ve now won two street course races, not to mention Ed’s oval win at Texas. Without overstating the obvious, that’s Penske, followed by a tie between Andretti and ECR. What’s not to love about the always unpredictable IndyCar Series?
After Andretti and ECR, the only team with multiple wins is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which has two with Simon Pagenaud. Combine the wins from ECR and SPM, and two teams outside the Big 3 have earned one out of every three victories through Toronto. Include the win by Dale Coyne Racing’s Carlos Huertas at Houston, and six of the 14 races held have gone to teams working from relatively modest means. And knowing how thin the margins are at KVSH Racing, we should also include Bourdais’ win, taking the number to seven of 14 – an even 50 percent.
I’d be lying if I said the economy was perfect to start an IndyCar team right now, but looking at how well teams that aren’t owned by Penske, Andretti and Ganassi happen to be doing against the titans of open-wheel racing, the time is right to join while the playing field is so level.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY
Ever had a situation where someone tells you something with a straight face, but it’s so silly you assume they’re joking? I had that happen with IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield in the paddock on Saturday when he pointed at a crowd that had gathered about 50 feet away and said, “You should go say hello to Rob Ford.”
I laughed, began walking away, and out of curiosity, glanced to my left and noticed Ford’s unmistakable melon amid a throng of Torontonians jockeyed to take selfies with their infamous mayor. Turns out he’d just finished taking a lap of the track with Paul Tracy, and emerged from the Honda pace car to find a battery of cell phones awaiting him. Never one to turn down a photo opportunity, I grabbed my own phone, snapped a shot of Mayor Ford posing with two kids (ABOVE), posted it to Twitter and went on my way.
A few hours later – and you can’t make this stuff up – I received a text from Indy car driver-turned-ABC commentator Scott Goodyear who informed me the kids in my photos were his two sons!
Did I mention Toronto was a bizarre weekend?
Toronto presented the opportunity for one or more of the championship contenders to gain some ground in the standing, yet they all took turns recording at least one bad result during the double-header.
Championship leader Helio Castroneves held a slim nine-point lead over Penske teammate Will Power coming into Toronto, scored an excellent second in Race 1 and backed it up with a forgettable 12th in Race 2. Power went the opposite direction, opening with a ninth in Race 1 and a third in Race 2. Although Power averaged a better finish across both rounds, Helio increased his lead to 13 points due to the higher finish in the first race.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had a miserable weekend, recording finishes of 21st and 14th when he needed to draw down the gap to Castroneves. With his win in Iowa, RHR was only 32 points behind HCN and holding strong in third, but after Toronto, the point deficit has more than doubled to 69.
Simon Pagenaud epitomized the one good/one bad result dynamic at Toronto, capturing fourth in Race 1 after being spun by Luca Filippi on the opening lap. Race 2 was a painful affair for Pagenaud as his twin-turbo V6 Honda struggled to fire all of its cylinders. By the time a fix was made, Simon was almost 10 laps down and would come home 22nd. 50 points back from Castroneves after Iowa, Pagenaud is now 71 markers behind and losing ground in fourth.
The biggest loser at Toronto was Juan Montoya who joined RHR in securing two miserable results. With an 18th and 19th in the books, Penske’s Pocono winner went from 66 points behind Helio to 105.
The biggest movers of late have been the red Target cars piloted by Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Dixon has finished inside the top-7 at every round since Houston, and TK has three consecutive podiums to his credit. Dixie, now sixth, and TK, in eighth, could leapfrog a few more spots as they head to tracks where they’ve done well in the past.
Andretti’s Carlos Munoz continues to impress during his rookie season, but he’s also in the midst of an end-of-term slide. After running as high as fifth in the championship, a pair of 17ths at Toronto has the young Colombian clinging to seventh.
250 points are up for grabs with four races remaining, and for those with championship aspirations, there’s no time to recover from bad days at Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee, Sonoma or Fontana.
THE LOST ART OF KEEPING A SECRET
I managed to start a minor ruckus while waiting for the race to start on Saturday. Some of us intending to shoot the start from Turn 1 – just on the other side of the barrier behind the fence – noticed the corner where we had assigned spots to shoot from also featured fencing that sat atop the barriers and were barely affixed to those barrier.
One corner of the fence was nearly falling off of the top of the barrier, and other than a few poles that were interspersed to hold the fences up and add some rigidity in the event a Houston-2013-like crash took place, it looked primed to make photographer pancakes out of anyone trapped between the fence and archway behind us.
The organizers claimed it was safe, passed inspection and, the following day, said some poles had been removed, creating the unsafe conditions on Saturday. One person even suggested we had removed the poles to manufacture controversy. That was pretty funny.
My suggestion to move photographers out of the corner to a rearward position in the runoff area was taken for Sunday, and after shooting the Round 1 start shot, I walked to Turn 2, shot for a few minutes and then proceeded all the way down to Turn 3. Interestingly, the entire stretch from Turn 2 to Turn 3 was lined with traditional barriers – poles sunk directly into the barriers with interconnected fencing, a la Houston 2013.
The fencing and posts weren’t sitting atop the barriers like in Turn 1, yet they lacked the steel cabling that the Houston track has implemented to prevent the fencing from flying off the poles as we saw with Dario Franchitti’s career-ending crash.
Fences atop barriers, fences affixed to barriers through poles without cabling, fences affixed to barriers through poles with cabling in place to assure the fences don’t go flying… Would it be crazy to suggest that IndyCar, with eight of its 18 rounds held on street courses, needs to come up with a single specification of approved barrier construction and require those barriers to be used wherever it races?
I know track construction and safety measures are subject to FIA jurisdiction and approval, but that doesn’t release IndyCar or any other series from requiring tracks to meet or exceed its own safety standards. IndyCar teams are required to pass a series of stringent technical inspections before they are allowed to race; maybe the series should holds its promoters to the same level of accountability.
QUICK AND TO THE POINTLESS
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Luca Filippi is wickedly fast. The Italian has proven that fact every time he’s driven an Indy car, and after completing his four-race deal with RLLR at Toronto, he also reaffirmed his inability to finish races.
Along with four appearances last year, Filippi’s best result from eight races is a 10th at Houston last year with Bryan Herta’s team. Most of his other races ended in contact with the wall, or other cars, and as we witnessed last weekend, it hasn’t happened due to a lack of talent or effort. If anything, it’s the exact opposite.
With a brief window to showcase his capabilities, Filippi drove like a man possessed at Toronto – like he had everything to lose – and unfortunately, it showed. Rather than drive from a place of purity, his desperation was obvious, leading to a lot of torn-up equipment and nothing to show for his efforts.
As easy as it might be to write Filippi off as a rookie with more balls than brains, I actually think he’s a perfect project for anyone willing to do a bit of grooming. With a bit of security around him and the knowledge that he doesn’t have to set the world on fire, I have a feeling Filippi would settle down, show the same excellent pace, and convert some of those amazing qualifying performances into strong finishes.
With his four-race deal concluded, the question now is whether anyone will give him that chance.
I might be the last of the holdouts to defend IndyCar’s rear wheel guard concept, and I’m finally ready to admit defeat. We watched as JR Hildebrand drove over the back of Will Power at St. Pete in 2013, scaling the right rear wheel guard as if it wasn’t there, and we’ve now seen Mikhail Aleshin drive under Juan Montoya’s car as the nose and left-front wheel of his Dallara DW12 went beneath JPM’s right rear wheel guard.
The rear wheel guards serve a purpose as bump and rub deflectors, and have definitely reduced the magnitude of wing breakages since their introduction, but that’s where their value starts and ends.
From eight races in his native land since joining the IndyCar Series in 2011, James Hinchcliffe has grown accustomed to disappointment. Finishes of P14, P15, P22, P12, P8, P21, P8 and P18 at Toronto and Edmonton have been unkind to IndyCar’s kindest driver, and for a nation of Canadian open-wheel fans, Hinch’s humbling home results haven’t gone unnoticed.
“If you see Hinch, tell him he better ****ing win,” said one supporter who’d enjoyed a few too many beers. I suggested it was a bit unfair to place the expectations of an entire country on one driver in a field of 23, but that didn’t seem to matter. Even with the odds stacked against him, the Mayor of Hinchtown takes his fans’ eagerness in stride.
“Despite poor results here, year in and year out, they never waver in their support, which is immensely flattering,” said Hinch.
My first suggestion was to rename the track to something other than Toronto – maybe that would break his streak of bad luck, and of course, Hinch had an answer.
“We could temporarily call it ‘Hinchtown,’ and not just for the obvious reasons,” he added. “If you Google Map Hinchtown, someone has placed it right on the Direct Energy Centre, so technically, the track kind of falls within the borders of Hinchtown.”
After suggesting Mayor Rob Ford would likely rename the city “Hinchtown” for a $100 bill, Hinch seemed open to the idea of making it official – at least for the weekend.
“That would be an interesting PR opportunity,” he said. “I think we have to do it…”
Chevy locked out the top-6 at Iowa until the final minutes of the race when Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden rocketed to the lead and scored a 1-2 for Honda. The Bowtie had revenge in mind at the Honda Indy Toronto, serving up a 1-2-3 in Round 1 and a 1-2-3-4 on Round 2 to send a message at the event sponsored by its rival.
“It was an exciting weekend for Chevrolet on the streets of Toronto to capture four of the top-five finishing positions in Race 1, and the top-four in Race 2,” said Jim Campbell, Chevy’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “The credit for the results goes to the drivers and the teams. In addition, all four of the Chevrolet partner race organizations – KVSH Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing – contributed valuable manufacturer points in both races.”
· Despite missing all four oval races to date – including a pair of double-points events at the Indy 500 and Pocono – Mike Conway is only 11 points behind KV AFS Racing full-timer Sebastian Saavedra, and 16 behind A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato, who replaced Conweezy in 2013.
· It was great to spend a few minutes with Holly Wheldon, the late Dan Wheldon’s younger sister, who recently turned 21 and had some humorous tales to share about hitting the milestone number.
· The Pirelli World Challenge series also held a double-header in Toronto and put on two amazing races. The best news came in the size of the PWC GT grid. With just eight GT cars in the field last year, the number exploded to 23 in the span of 12 months. As I’ve said and written, PWC’s move as the first to embrace the FIA GT3 formula was not only smart, but has turned the series’ fortunes around.
· Pro Mazda standouts Spencer Pigot and Scott Hargrove drove in the Canadian Porsche GT3 Cup races at Toronto, and the little ass-kickers managed to live up to their reputation. Hargrove, from Canada, won on Saturday – his fourth victory from five rounds this year, and Pigot took his breakthrough GT3 Cup win on Sunday.
· Another Canadian PWC note from Toronto: Sunday’s race saw Canada’s Kuno Wittmer score the GT win in his SRT Motorsports Dodge Viper and his countryman Mark Wilkins take the GTS victory in his Kia Motorsports Kia Optima. Add in Hargrove’s Porsche GT3 Cup win, and there were plenty of Canadian flags being waved in Victory Lane.
· John Meehan, who produced the original Jeff Krosnoff “Stay Hungry” memorial stickers back in 1996, made an amazing gesture by printing a new batch of those originals and sending them to Toronto. The 50 stickers he sent were soon gone as drivers and members of the media who were at the race in 1996 or have a regard for the late Indy car driver wanted to have a keepsake.
· After finishing third at the Indy 500, Marco Andretti has failed to finish better than eighth in nine consecutive races. Two of those eight can be attributed to Honda engine failures, but with the other unremarkable runs, Marco’s sinking fast and in jeopardy of falling out of the top-10.
· Longtime Team Penske photographer Steve Swope has shot every Toronto Indy car race since its inception in 1986 – very cool.
· While he’s no Swope, Will Power turned into a photographer during Round 2’s post-race celebrations as he pulled Tony Kanaan and race winner Mike Conway in for a selfie. Not a bad marketing ploy, Verizon Boy.
· My favorite photo of the weekend was taken on Friday when a Hinch supporter riding a Rascal scooter posed topless with the United Fiber & Data girls. Despite his age, we know his hearing is perfect – he was the only one to respond to the crowd’s calls to “take your shirt off”…