PRUETT: Talking points from IndyCar's Austin debut

Image by Abbott/LAT

PRUETT: Talking points from IndyCar's Austin debut

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Talking points from IndyCar's Austin debut

By

Imagine that. Here we are, a few days removed from the inaugural IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas, and we aren’t talking about speed comparisons to Formula 1 or any other nonsense of great significance (I’ll get to Turn 19 and track limits later because it’s a non-issue of Texas-size proportions).

Lady Luck doubled down on polesitter Will Power at COTA. Alexander Rossi reinforced the fact that his hands and right foot summon otherworldly car control. Cars wiggled and snapped sideways. Grand passes were attempted and made throughout the field. Rookies delivered another statement. And the smallest team, operating on budgetary fumes, stole the show. IndyCar, without a shadow of a doubt, has something positive to work with in Austin.

COLT 45

Willy T. Ribbs was in attendance at COTA and quickly dubbed eventual race winner Colton Herta “Colt 45.” The teenager more than lived up to the gunslinger nickname as he stared down two of IndyCar’s best with polesitter Will Power and second-place qualifier Alexander Rossi in an extended duel that lasted more than an hour.

Herta’s declining pace as his final pit stop approached inspired the Harding Steinbrenner Racing team to call him in for fresh tires once the window opened, and from there, he capitalized on the decisions by Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. Opting to stretch the pit window for Power and Rossi, their plans ultimately went awry when the late caution period for Felix Rosenqvist’s crash emerged.

Of all the takeaways from his performance at COTA, I’ll remember how Herta’s No. 88 Honda looked like it was being driven by a 10-year IndyCar veteran. Under intense pressure, Herta never buckled or made a mistake. Three races into his IndyCar career, Bryan Herta’s son has told us he’s the real deal.

Image by Levitt/LAT

Sebastien Bourdais, more than twice Colton’s age, says the kid’s “stone cold” behind the steering wheel, and if this is the type of output we can expect, there’s no telling where Herta’s talent will take him in the coming months and years.

Without the yellow, Herta was destined for a podium. With the yellow, he moved the top step. Either way, this 18-year-old was going to be the main talking point of the event.

LOWERED EXPECTATIONS

As I wrote leading into the COTA weekend, holding low expectations for crowd size was the right move to make, and from that vantage point, I left the facility feeling rather impressed by the number of fans who came out on Sunday.

COTA did not, despite receiving multiple requests from the series, divulge advance sales numbers or total attendance figures, but RACER’s in-house crowd estimator, Robin Miller, believes somewhere in the range of 25,000-30,000 people turned up. My guess in the 20,000 range, and if that’s vaguely accurate, it still represents a healthy spike compared to any of the non-F1/MotoGP audiences I’ve witnessed.

Some grandstands were well-subscribed, and as a whole, it lacked the dreadful absence of fans that led numerous sports car series to drop COTA from its calendars.

Moving forward, there’s a ton of work that needs to be done to raise IndyCar’s profile in Austin for future events. Driving by a large billboard each morning less than three miles from the track featuring the April 12-14 MotoGP event was a bit precious, and offered a reminder of where the track’s interests fall. IndyCar will never be the cash cow of an F1 or MotoGP, but if COTA’s willing to make the promotional effort, there’s damn fine entertainment awaiting those who aren’t aware there’s a homegrown open-wheel series competing at the Texan F1 track.

Along with IndyCar, I’m a lifelong F1 fan. The F1 races at COTA have offered some thrills over the last seven visits, but I’m confident in saying the best open-wheel race the place has seen, from start to finish, went down on Sunday. Let’s hope COTA’s management team was paying attention.

CLEAR SKIES

I’m happy to report Wile E. Coyote was nowhere to be found at COTA. While the Roadrunner’s arch-nemesis acquired his favorite IndyCar target, Ryan Hunter-Reay, at St. Petersburg, he managed to strike out in Texas as cartoon anvils failed to rain down from above.

Image by Levitt/LAT

Unimpeded, Hunter-Reay finished where he started, and with that third-place helping to offset the miseries of St. Pete, he vaulted from 23rd in the championship to eighth. Provided good old Wile E. gives him a reprieve at the upcoming rounds, RHR could join Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi (fourth) in the thick of the championship fight.

FOND FAREWELL

Honda Performance Development president Art. St. Cyr completed his final race at COTA. He’s headed to a senior position within Honda’s corporate division, and will be succeeded by Ted Klaus after seven years of steering the Japanese brand’s American racing division. Herta’s timely win in the No. 88 HSR entry made for a perfect farewell to HPD’s genial leader.

THE KID CAME TO SCRAP

Lap 16 featured a Pass of the Year candidate between rookie Patricio O’Ward and Graham Rahal. It started at Turn 12 with a probing look down the inside under braking, continued through Turns 13, 14, 15, raged between 16, 18, and 18, and was finally completed into 19. The Indy Lights champ, going full Malcolm McLaren-style around the outside beneath COTA’s tower on Rahal, was breathtaking stuff.

As most of the IndyCar field can attest, it’s usually Rahal making the ballsy passes, which only added to the quality outcome of O’Ward’s efforts. Later in the race, Rahal would return the favor on O’Ward, albeit in a less thrilling manner, and kept motoring until he reached fifth at the checkered flag.

The Mexican, who received the loudest cheer during pre-race introductions, was among the most frustrated drivers following a hard afternoon of dogged competition. A delay in calling for first gear and first gear engaging at every pit stop left the No. 23 Carlin Racing Chevy sitting idle for a few seconds, and with hundreds of feet of track position given away on three occasions, the 19-year-old had plenty of lost ground to recover.

Late in the race, O’Ward was asked to go into extreme fuel conservation mode, which stifled forward progress. Altogether, he ran as high as fifth and did things in a Carlin IndyCar entry that haven’t been seen on a road or street course.

Team owner Trevor Carlin is fond of saying O’Ward’s veteran teammate Max Chilton performs best when he’s challenged. Provided that flame begins to rise in Max after Pato qualified eighth to his 13th, and finished eighth to his 21st, we might see two Carlin Chevys in the mix at little over a week from now in Alabama.

O’Ward, after a single race, sits 20th in the standings. Chilton, with St. Petersburg and COTA in the books, is 22nd. The challenge for No. 1 at Carlin has been made. How will Max respond?

NOT THE END OF THE WORLD

At the 1999 Vancouver CART race, the little Hogan Racing team I worked for performed five engine changes between our two cars due to quality control issues Ilmor was suffering with its Mercedes-Benz engines. It was a dire situation for the entire M-B contingent in the paddock, and with the alarming frequency of blown 2.65-liter turbo V8s, it was an all-hands-on-deck weekend where even the marginally talented folks like myself were asked to step out from the engineering office and help prepare new grenades.

Image by Marshall Pruett

After uncrating the second or third replacement engine for one of our entries, and removing the caps from the motor’s oil fittings, I stuck my index finger down the galley out of curiosity and pulled my finger back with a few attachments. I managed to lightly stab myself on a couple of metal shavings — almost an inch long apiece — that were waiting to circulate through the radiators and back into the motor after being run on the dyno. With the obvious signs of impending doom, the motor was re-crated and wheeled back to Ilmor without being used.

It’s the far extreme for reliability issues that come to mind, which makes the concern over Honda’s three kerblammos spread across St. Pete and COTA a lesser concern. We also listened to Will Power’s No. 12 Chevy fly by in testing at Monterey last month as his V6 engine lost a few cylinders and transitioned into the ethanol-scented afterlife. It happens.

Herta’s engine loss on Friday was the only one of its kind at COTA; the rest of the weekend, including the race, was completed without reliability hiccups for both brands. If the blow-up bug returns at Barber for Round 3, we’ll revisit the subject to see what the Honda teams are thinking

THEM STONES

Firestone’s primary and alternate tire compounds did not suffer the high level of degradation that was expected. The elevated ambient and track temperatures brought more life out of the tires, and in kind, a higher frequency of errors did not occur. But that’s not to say the 24 drivers were basking in the comfort of excessive grip.

On-board footage showed a steady diet of oversteer was on the menu all afternoon. Tires afforded enough grip to prevent dire handling scenarios, but didn’t cross the line into making passes and out-braking maneuvers a far-fetched probability for most of the field.

I’m sure Firestone will take everything it learned from COTA and take it into consideration for the tires it brings in 2020. Thinking of the show, first, I’d love to see Firestone temper its natural tendency to return with an improved product. The racing was great; it should be preserved.

TURN 19

For a handful of passionate social media warriors, a most basic difference might have been missed last weekend in regards to Turn 19 at COTA: IndyCar isn’t Formula 1. Never has been.

This simple note drives the fact that despite everything F1 fans have witnessed at Turn 19 since COTA opened in 2012, it holds no meaning when F1 isn’t at COTA. Like last weekend.

IndyCar chose to use Turn 19 in a different manner than F1. It informed its drivers in a meeting prior to the first practice session that Turn 19 could be navigated, without penalty, in the fashion demonstrated throughout the event. IndyCar drivers proceeded to use the track as instructed, and track limits were respected at Turn 19 in accordance to the series’ clearly-stated policy. End of story.

IndyCar put on an open-wheel show like nothing that had been seen before at $400 million facility. Opening up Turn 19 certainly didn’t detract from the spectacle; the racing only improved. For those who are convinced the opposite is true, let’s check back in after the USGP and see how the entertainment factor compares.

MORE RICKY

Ricardo Juncos is trying to find the sponsorship to make a return to the NTT IndyCar Series field this season. Speaking with the Argentinian on the grid last weekend, he said his Chevy-powered team does not have anything planned after COTA, where Kyle Kaiser made his first start since last May at Indianapolis.

Image by LAT

There’s hope, naturally, that both of Juncos Racing’s cars find takers for the Indy 500. He’s made a big investment in IndyCar; having those assets sit idle is a definite worry as April and May approach.

MISC:

  • It feels like Simon Pagenaud has gotten off to a rocky start this year with Team Penske, and being adrift all weekend at COTA didn’t help to change the narrative. But he’s 13th in the standings which, to my surprise, is far better than expected. Teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power are first and sixth, respectively.
  • On the topic of Newgarden, it’s great to see the Tennessean and his new race engineer Gavin Ward leading are locked in as a unit. If nothing else, it’s good indicator of what these two are capable of delivering while learning the subtleties and nuances that make them faster. If they’re this strong now, the rest of the series might be in for a headache by mid-season.
  • Zach Veach avoided hitting the ‘rookie wall’ last year with Andretti Autosport, but he appears to have found an early sophomore slump. The tack-sharp Veach struggled to connect with his better decision-making capabilities last weekend, tangling with Rahal on the opening lap and, later, while down a lap, made contact while trying to pass Scott Dixon. On rare occasion, skilled drivers have races that go from bad to worse, based solely on a downward spiral of poor choices. A distant 21st in points, Veach will look to forget COTA and start anew at Barber.
  • The most pleasant surprise after two rounds is Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey. Tied for 10th with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, Harvey and new MSR engineer Mike Colliver have been extremely solid to start 2019. A pair of 10ths have helped the part-time squad to mingle among the better full-time operations, and with MSR’s technical alliance with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in mind, Arrow SPM team leader James Hinchcliffe is only two points ahead of Harvey in ninth. Not bad for Shank’s crossover IMSA team.
  • Felix Rosenqvist reminded us he’s human during Sunday’s 60-lap feature. A blown start, struggles with tires and chassis balance, a half-spin, and the odd clash with Hinchcliffe left the Swede next to last at COTA. It was a most-un-Rosenqvist outing, which will make his response at Barber worth following.

More RACER
Home