By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
Reigning Series Champion, Simon Pagenaud, finally has his first oval-track win in the Verizon IndyCar Series. During Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, the driver of the No. 1 Menard’s Team Penske Chevrolet was able to stretch his fuel longer than his competitors and pit later. A fortuitous yellow gave Pagenaud a one-lap advantage after much of the field had pitted under the green. From that point, he never looked back, leading the final 114 laps en route to victory 9.1028 seconds ahead of his teammate, Will Power. Let’s take a look at some of the storylines coming out of the weekend.
1 ) Reversal of Fortune
Team Penske’s Will Power was looking for a good weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, after a disappointing start to the season that had him mired deep in the points standings. Power qualified on the front row, led 59 laps on the day and set fastest lap on his way to a second-place finish. The podium finish leap-frogs the Australian driver up to seventh in points, 68 behind the leader. It’s still a steep climb to the top, but the Phoenix result was a shot in the arm for his title hopes.
Similarly, J.R. Hildebrand was looking for a great weekend, and he got one. Hildebrand, who has his first full-time ride in the Series since 2012, is determined to rejuvenate his career. After a solid, yet mediocre run to 13th in St. Petersburg, Hildebrand fared a little bit better in Long Beach running 11th, when he broke his hand in an off-track excursion on the penultimate lap.
After sitting out Barber with the injury, Hildebrand was able to break up the Penske party during Phoenix qualifying, taking the third spot in the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing. He remained strong throughout the race, proving that you can actually pass at Phoenix. His tenacity was rewarded with a third-place finish.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing had been the Cinderella story of the young season, entering Phoenix as the points leader. After qualifying a respectable tenth, he got caught up in a first-lap chain-reaction crash that started with SPM driver, Mikhail Aleshin, losing the rear end of the car. After being credited with 19th place, Bourdais tumbled down to fourth in the standings. For Bourdais, who suffered the worst damage in the melee, the incident will have a lasting effect as the team now finds itself minus one DW-12 chassis heading into the Month of May.
2 ) The Oval Problem
Many IndyCar fans make the mention that the schedule needs more ovals, but other than Indianapolis, the oval races do not draw a crowd. Saturday Night’s small crowd at Phoenix mirrored the dwindling audience at Texas and Iowa, but still looked a bit better than the nearly empty grandstands that we see at Pocono, and saw at Fontana in the past. At the same time, road and street courses like Long Beach, Road America, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio have produced impressive attendance numbers.
While some of the larger ovals produce exciting racing, the same cannot be said of the short-oval package. Last year’s races at Phoenix and Iowa were snoozers, and this weekend’s affair was not much better. There is no amount of promotion, gimmicks, or give-aways that will fill the stands if the product offered is suspect.
Despite calls by some participants, including Will Power, Tony Kanaan, and Team Penske President, Tim Cindric, to reduce the downforce and increase the horsepower, IndyCar’s answer was to increase the height of the z-wing and actually add downforce.
By Power’s assessment, the series had it right in the pre-aerokit era with the package they ran at Milwaukee and Iowa. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at all of the aerodynamic gadgets behind the rear wheels of these cars, and realize the amount of turbulent air that is kicking up in the wake.
With any luck, the 2018 aero package will improve the short oval racing, provided that IndyCar takes the right steps. Whether or not it brings back the spectators remains to be seen.
3 ) The Hits Keep Coming
Those who love Indianapolis, love the rallying cry, “Is it May Yet?”
Surely, nobody is anticipating May more than the Andretti Autosport organization. Their 2017 season has been, for lack of a better word, miserable. Phoenix was just another punch in the gut for a team looking for some positive mojo. This weekend marked the second time, in just four races run thus far, that all four of their cars failed to finish.
Marco Andretti was taken out in the first lap accident, Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi both found the outside wall during the running, and Ryan Hunter-Reay bent his suspension after tangling with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.
Andretti Autosport’s recent troubles date back to the beginning of the aero-kit era, when they shouldered the bulk of the kit development for Honda, falling behind on chassis development. With the aero-freeze, and positive development in the Honda engine, the Andretti camp was hoping for a solid start to the season, but instead has endured frustration after frustration.
Returning to Indianapolis, where the team has four wins, including the most recent running with Rossi, certainly will give the team something to look forward to give their 2017 season a boost.
4 ) Will Super Team Domination Continue?
Since 2003, every IndyCar Series championship has been won by either Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, or Team Penske. Incidentally, 2003 was also the first year we saw all three of those teams in the series full-time.
Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports came close in 2013 with Simon Pagenaud, and Graham Rahal was a late season contender with his father’s team in 2015, but neither of these smaller teams were able to seal the deal.
With 2017 starting off with wins by both Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt-Peterson Motorsport, I quietly hoped that this year we would finally see a team outside of the ‘big-three’ put up a serious challenge, and possibly win the title. While that still is a distinct possibility with thirteen races remaining, there are a few stats that are hard to ignore.
In four races run, Team Penske has taken all four poles, three fastest laps, six podium spots, two race wins, and now hold two of the top-three positions in the points standings. Sitting ever so quietly behind the points leader, Simon Pagenaud, lies Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon, who has yet to finish out of the top-five this season.
Dixon, who is a seriously strong closer, could really bring the battle to Penske while Schmidt-Peterson and Dale Coyne are left to fight for table scraps. At the same time, I firmly believe that Sebastien Bourdais or James Hinchcliffe have a true shot at crashing the party. It will be interesting to watch. Stay tuned.
5) Anybody Have a Red Flag on Them?
The start was, shall we say, messy. Proper formation was rather nonexistent, and I was surprised that the green waved. But it did, and chaos ensued.
Mikhail Aleshin lost the rear end of his Schmidt-Peterson Honda car, and spun from seventh place collecting nearly a quarter of the field in the process. Sebastien Bourdais, Max Chilton, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal all had their hopes extinguished before completing a single lap.
Whether or not Aleshin’s spin was related to the sloppy alignment is a moot point at this juncture, but why didn’t IndyCar abort the start, and give it a do-over? Instead, we sat through 21 laps of cars crawling around at reduced speed while the lengthy cleanup took place.
At racing speed, the laps at PIR click off so fast that it almost seems like a crime to rob the spectators and television audience of nearly 10% of the race. But, what do I know?
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to racing action on May 13th for the Indy Grand Prix to kick off the Month of May that will culminate with the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 28.