The NTT IndyCar Series’ visit to World Wide Technology Raceway was perfect for few, punishing for many, and after the doubleheader was done, we have plenty to discuss.
Party at Chip’s house
With nine races completed in our shortened NTT IndyCar Season, Scott Dixon cemented the year-to-year change of fortunes for Chip Ganassi Racing by earning the team’s fifth win from nine rounds. Dixon’s four victories, along with teammate Felix Rosenqvist’s breakthrough win at Road America, speak volumes about CGR’s rise in competitiveness; in 2019, the team had two wins across 17 rounds, with both belonging to Dixon. That’s a win percentage increase from 11.8% to 55.5% in less than 12 months.
If we’re talking personal bests, Dixon took six wins in his 2008 title season, so he’ll need to make a few more happen at Mid-Ohio, the Indy road course, and St. Petersburg if he wants to match or exceed that record. Dixon’s new race engineer Michael Cannon’s best season in terms of wins came in 2006 with AJ Allmendinger at Forsythe Racing, where the duo captured five victories. Together, they’re chasing a title that could, with more wins factored in, move a few personal goal posts and maintain that big hike in winning percentage.
No Sato surprise
Within minutes of the checkered flag waving on Saturday, Bobby Rahal sent a fun note after Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato finished a fighting second: “Guess if anyone thought Sato couldn’t make it on fuel at Indy, today should have answered that question,” after the driver of the No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda stretched his last stop to lap 175 – well beyond the rest – and was rewarded for those efforts with another quality result.
Would you buy a car from this man?
Did you catch that Bommarito Automotive Group TV commercial featuring spokesman Santino Ferrucci? How would you rate the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan driver’s acting debut?
Turn it upside down
Bizarre stat after both WWTR races were completed: Of the full-time IndyCar drivers, three of the four at the bottom of the championship standings are from the winless (and luckless) Andretti Autosport. With five full-timers in the field, who would have predicted Alexander Rossi (P18), Marco Andretti (P20), and Zach Veach (P21) would be plumbing the depths of the standings (separated by Charlie Kimball in P19) after nine races?
Mr. Invisible—Round 1
Who was at the race, but not really in the race? Truly bizarre to nominate reigning champion Josef Newgarden for the Round 1 Mr. Invisible award after he hung around the top six for the first half of the race, but never looked like he was headed towards the front of the field. Throw in the strange ‘rain’ caution that tanked his strategy, and the Team Penske ace was never a serious factor in the race and ambled home to an unremarkable 12th-place finish.
The old chestnut about Indy 500 winners having a success-free hangover at the next round was nicely dispelled by Sato after finishing second on Saturday. Prior to his crash, he was also four laps away from taking seventh on Sunday, which would have been helpful in his title pursuit. Credited with ninth, Sato salvaged the situation and continues to hold fourth in the standings.
Where things got a bit wobbly for the RLL team is with Sato’s teammate, Graham Rahal, whose fine third-place at Indy was met by 500 miles of WWTR misery. With finishes of 18th and 20th, it’s possible the Indy hangover leapt from the No. 30 to Rahal’s No. 15 Honda.
Golden Bowling Ball Award—Round 1
Oliver Askew for the pre-green wipeout instigation, right?
Code Brown—Round 1
Felix Rosenqvist, and that sideways Lap 122 restart, right?
Crazy to think how heavily Pato O’Ward has defied the odds by coming close to victory on three occasions during the opening nine races. O’Ward’s talent was never in question, but in a highly reconfigured team which hasn’t lived up to expectations for many years, the young Mexican wasn’t expected to mount such a consistent challenge at this early stage in the season. Let’s go ahead and bury the notion he and the team will need more time to rise; a race without O’Ward in the podium mix between Mid-Ohio and St. Pete would seem strange.
In the last six races, O’Ward has finished second, fourth, 12th, sixth at Indy, and third to open the weekend at WWTR, and second on Sunday. The result is an amazing third in the championship behind Dixon and Josef Newgarden.
Quick sidebar: The kid has 17 total IndyCar races to his credit spread across three teams. Nine of those 17 have produced top 10 finishes for Harding Racing, Carlin Racing, and AMSP. If that isn’t among the most remarkable things to consider while reviewing his season to date, I don’t know what else to say.
Returning to IndyCar’s No. 1 ad man, a deservedly agitated Ferrucci was shown walking away from his DCR pit stall on Sunday after his race was, for the second time in 24 hours, derailed by pit stop errors. Add in the significant number of pit stop mistakes he endured with the team in 2019, and losing positions on pit lane has become a reasonable expectation for the Connecticut product.
There’s plenty of sports-related sayings we can roll out – they win and lose as a team, and so on – but it’s hard to watch the same mistakes strike the same entry with such frequency. Flip the scenario around, and how would the team react if they continually executed strong pit stops, helped Ferrucci gain positions on pit lane, and their reward was a constant string of crashes? Sitting ninth in the championship, clean stops will be a requirement if the DCRVS entry wants to stay inside the top 10.
Mr. Invisible—Round 2
We know his Saturday went awry before the green flag waved, but there was hope for Rossi’s Sunday with an 11th-place starting position. Granted, he lacked a full race of data to improve his car for WWTR Round 2, but we just didn’t know he was there after falling back at the start, hovering between 12th and 18th for most of the race, and settling for an anonymous 14th at the checkered flag. Barring a crash, Rossi is usually a ball of fireworks on the ovals. Sadly, a terrible Round 1 all but ensured a forgettable Round 2.
Obvious things to mention
- Nine races in, and Andretti Autosport has a single driver inside the top 10 (Herta, P5) and continues to chase its first win. This might be the weirdest aspect of IndyCar 2020.
- Simon Pagenaud was hot on Dixon’s heels leaving Iowa. Sitting second in the championship, a reasonable 49 points behind the leader, three nightmarish finishes later – 22nd at Indy, 19th at WWTR1 and 16th at WWTR 2 – has the 2016 IndyCar champion down in sixth, 179 hopeless points back from Dixon.
- The unending series of gut punches Ed Carpenter received after placing fifth at the Texas season opener came to a merciful end at WWTR. In the five ovals that followed Texas, IndyCar’s ovalmeister finished no better than 15th; from the second Iowa race through Sunday’s 250-lapper, Carpenter said farewell to his season with four consecutive runs to 20th or worse. Like Andretti’s year in IndyCar, Carpenter’s inexplicable closing results – while teenage teammate Rinus VeeKay posted finishes of sixth and fourth at WWTR – make no sense.
Code Brown—Round 2
It’s gotta be Herta’s post-contact efforts to keep from slamming the wall after the exchange with Rinus VeeKay, right?
Pass or fail
The fleeting thrills across two days of racing in Madison, Illinois, came from desperation passes like the one made by Takuma Sato on Pato O’Ward, and a small handful of other last-second moves entering Turn 1. There were a few passes that brought elements of danger and excitement on entry to Turn 3, as well, but the big takeaway from IndyCar’s final oval races for 2020 was the inability for most drivers to improve their positions without relying on pit stop strategy.
Saturday’s race, which was run after a single one-hour practice session on Friday, had more variables as teams made a few chassis setup gambles, and therefore, we had more action. By Sunday, with a full 250 miles of data to draw from, setups were near perfect, passing became a risky rarity, and in the worst instances, leaders were unable to get by cars at the back of the field.
Other than starts and restarts where the brave took the high line and were occasionally rewarded, it’s hard to look back at WWTR, and the Indy 500, for that matter, and say that IndyCar has nailed the aero configuration of late. It’s also worth mentioning that in this condensed season, the series has not been out conducting private tests to find the best tuning solutions with the new aeroscreen in place. Simply put, yes, there’s no doubt IndyCar can do a better job here, but there are some real caveats and restrictions in position this year that have contributed to the lack of recent thrills. Firestone’s exceedingly consistent tires also played a role as ageing rubber was not much of a liability at the end of long stints. Assuming 2021 is not run under the same COVID-19 limitations, better packages that promote more passing can be found.