By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
Now that the Verizon IndyCar Series season has finished up at Road America and raced just past the halfway mark on the season, it’s time to examine how 2016 has shaped up thus far.
The season has proved to be relatively competitive with six winners in nine races, but there have been many facets to the season that has made it one of the most interesting or in some cases one of the weirdest IndyCar seasons in recent memory.
Will Power’s recovery
2014 series champion Will Power started his season in a hole when he was forced to sit out the season opener at St. Petersburg due to a misdiagnosed injury. He soon proved that that sitting out the race was not going to be a setback for him as he finished third in his first race back at Phoenix and went on to score a seventh place at Long Beach and fourth at Barber.
The Aussie did fall into a slump starting at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis where he had three straight finishes of 10th or worst, but broke through with a quick pitstop at Detroit Race 2 to take his first win of the year and pulled off a dominating performance at Road America to take his second win of the year and propel him to third in the championship.
He is still a distant 82 points out of points leader Simon Pagenaud, but with seven races remaining and a double points round at the season finale at Sonoma, a championship is not completely out of reach for Power.
Simon Pagenaud’s early season dominance
Right from the start of the season, Simon Pagenaud has established himself as the man to beat. The Frenchman has clicked off some of the most impressive stats in recent memory with six finishes of second or better including three straight wins (Long Beach, Barber and Indy GP). That dominance has propelled him to a massive points lead that nobody has been able to catch.
Every race of the season, Pagenaud has either been the car to beat or ran among the front runners. He has had a few poor finishes recently at Indianapolis where he finished in 19th and Detroit Race 1 and Road America where he finished in 13th both times. Those poor finishes really can only be attributed to power issues, not of his own making
Pagenaud’s first season at Team Penske could be seen as a disappointment as he only scored two podiums and finished 11th in the championship. However, Pagenaud noted he took the year as a year to learn everything about the team and work out all of the nuances in order to develop a stronger program.
So far, that has proven to work in The Frenchman’s favor as he leads the standings by 74 over Scott Dixon with seven races remaining.
Alexander Rossi’s win from left field at the 100th Indy 500 (Well not really)
Alexander Rossi’s win at the Indy 500 could be taken as a shoker win given how America’s most recent Formula One driver had never driven on the 2.5 mile oval, let alone any other oval before. Right from opening day, Rossi was quick and grabbed a hold of the challenge with open arms. A late sponsorship deal with NAPA Auto Parts gave the team a little boost heading into qualifying, where he solidly put the car in 11th place on the starting grid.
Throughout the race, Rossi drove cool and steady, riding around the bottom half of the top ten for much of the day. As time went on, brilliant coaching by team co-owner Bryan Herta allowed Rossi to save the precious fuel that he needed to put himself in position to win the 500. As the laps clicked away and the leaders stopped one by one for fuel. Coming off the final corner with the engine running on fumes, Rossi coasted across the Yard of Bricks with no close threat in sight.
In the opening stint of the race, Rossi went longer than anybody else on fuel, 37 laps to be exact. How many laps did he go at the end of the race? 37. Oh, and Rossi also set the fastest lap of the race.
Conor Daly’s impressive rookie campaign.
Alexander Rossi may be leading the rookie championship, but Conor Daly has been just as impressive. Driving for Dale Coyne Racing, Daly has exceded the expectations for the small team out of Plainfield, Illinois, although the numbers do not fully show the talent.
The IndyCar rookie got to the front at St. Petersburg on strategy and managed to lead 15 laps but was robbed of a top five finish when he made contact with another car and an overheating problem hindered his efforts even more. His best showing arguably came at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis where he disposed of Helio Castroneves on a restart and jetted away from the pack, pulling away by as much 3.5 seconds. His chances for a top three finish dithered when his Honda engine hit its peak on mileage began to falter late and he ended up in sixth place.
An even better run came for Daly at Detroit, when in race 1 he made the most of team owner Dale Coyne’s strategy call that moved him up into the top five and in the fight for the win and he eventually came home in second place. His second race started in a hole as he had a potential top five starting spot taken from him in qualifying but he took it like a man and drove through the field to finish in 6th place.
At Road America, Daly recorded his best career start and qualified ninth and ran inside the top ten the entire day before a suspension failure caused him to crash in Turn 1 late in the race. He initially noted that he felt that Ryan Hunter-Reay had contacted him which send him off the track, but after seeing the replay that it was a part failure, he did the right thing an apologized for calling him out.
That kind of candor and honesty is part of what has made the 24-year-old one of the next best things to come into IndyCar.
All things being considered, Daly and Dale Coyne Racing have punched above their own weight and Daly has proved his worth multiple times throughout the season. A first win for the Noblesville, Indiana driver could be just around the corner.
Drama in Boston but good tidings for Watkins Glen.
Almost right from the moment that the Boston Grand Prix was announced for Labor Day weekend in 2016, there seemed to be a lot of local opposition to the event. The local public was very skeptical and the organizers had many hoops to jump through in order to get the race ready for its debut as the penultimate round of the championship. An organization, No IndyCar Boston, didn’t just stand around saying we didn’t want the race, they lawyered up and did everything they could to prevent the race from happening. Read more about the issues in Boston here.
Come April, the race organizers were faced with another unexpected obstacle as the No IndyCar Boston threw out that part of the circuit was in a state protected wetlands area and a special permit would be required. That proved to be final straw and the organizers canceled the event.
Adding to the grief, the organizers told the local media that the race was cancelled before contacting IndyCar, and IndyCar was left with the challenge of not only trying to fill a gap in their schedule and trying to maintain their reputation.
Despite the fallout in Boston, IndyCar managed to steer into the slide and land what is easily a net win – return to Watkins Glen International for Labor Day weekend. Talks were already in place with track president Michael Printup for an IndyCar return to the 3.40 mile road course in upstate New York, but with Boston being cancelled, both parties managed to make a deal happen in a span of just two weeks.
While IndyCar has not visited The Glen since 2010, there is much optimism from both parties of this race being a smash hit. Printup noted at the announcement that the timing of the event was key in getting the deal done.
“It’s (Labor Day weekend) definately a great weekend!” said Printup. “If Jay Frye (INDYCAR vice president of operations) would have called me up and said we want to do Fourth of July, that would have been a no right off the bat. I think with this opportunity in September, October, it does lead to our traditional open wheel experience that had been there for decades.”
“That’s what is leading the credence to September and October. They are great racing months in upstate New York.”
The soap opera in Boston continues as the race organizers are behind on paying spectator ticket refunds which has led to INDYCAR filing a lawsuit against the now defunct organization in order to insure that those payments are made, which has also drawn the attention Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey who stepped in to assist INDYCAR and hopefully bring an end to the drama.
Murphy’s Law was in effect when the series made its annual trip to Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month.
Battling powerful thunderstorms and a track surface that proved to be very difficult to dry on Saturday which moved the race to Sunday. After being delayed until Sunday, the race only managed 72 laps until the weather returned. Before that point, a frightening crash between Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden occurred on lap 42. Newgarden thankfully walked away from the accident with a broken clavicle and hand while Daly walked away unscathed.
Both Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage and INDYCAR Vice President of Operations Jay Frye then agreed that rescheduling the remaining 177 laps was the best option and the race will now be completed on Saturday August 27th.
Despite bad luck with the weather, it was not a waste for the fans my any means as several IndyCar drivers did the ultimate grand gesture by hosting a spontaneous autograph session at the bottom of the grandstands under the rain delay.
Road America – here to stay
There are many stories to come out of this last weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix including Will Power’s dominating performance that has vaulted him back into the championship hunt, Josef Newgarden’s spirited drive from the back of the field to finish eighth, Spencer Pigot’s come from behind drive to score his career best finish to date in ninth place, Tony Kanaan making Power fight for the win and nearly pulling it off if he would have had one more lap and the abundance of great racing behind the leader.
Probably the biggest story from the weekend was the massive fan turnout and fan support of IndyCar’s return.
Everything about the weekend just felt right. From the track’s layout which sets the stage for good racing, to the famous Johnsonville Bratwursts served by the St. John Baptist church and to the 60,000 fans that turned out in droves, this was a weekend to remember.
The spirit of the fanbase was just as refreshing to see and the comradely between both the drivers and fans after all these years. The fan turnout showed the respect for the series and the series payed it forward with the show on Sunday. Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya noted that Road America is a must see event on the calendar.
“It was so exciting to come back to Road America. This place is incredible. It’s just amazing,” said Montoya.
“If anyone complains about the racing today, then they should go watch horse racing or something.”
With Road America already being confirmed for the 2017 season, it is safe to say that things have moved in the right direction.
Overall, the storylines of the 2016 season have been nothing short of compelling. With seven races remaining, the intensity and drama is sure to pick up as the drivers make a final push to the IndyCar crown.