By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
Will Power took his third victory of the year in the No. 12 Verizon Penske Chevrolet yesterday on the streets of Toronto. In doing so, the points battle at the top of the order in the Verizon IndyCar Series has tightened considerably. Here are five takeaways from this weekend’s action.
1 ) First to Worst
Just seven days ago, Tennesse’s Josef Newgarden was the talk of the town, having thoroughly trounced the entire field in Iowa. He earned high praise, considering the fact that he is driving injured. The win vaulted him into second in the points standings, leapfrogging ahead of Power and Castroneves. The Ed Carpenter Team entered Toronto filled with optimism, given the fact that Newgarden had won this race a year ago. Mike Conway took 2014 the win in a Carpenter Car, and the team was looking for a three-peat.
Fast forward to Sunday, and all that optimism has turned into disappointment after Newgarden, along with teammate Spencer Pigot, both had a forgettable weekend. Newgarden failed to advance into the fast six in qualifying and started eighth. Trouble started early when his rear wheel pod was damaged, courtesy of an aggressive Juan Pablo Monyota, dropping him down the order. Later in the race, after fighting back hard, he popped the curbing in turn five and made hard contact with the wall. The resulting damage ended his race and he finished in the 22nd, and final, position
“I hate to blame it on an injury, but I hit the curb too hard and lost the wheel,” said the driver of the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet. “I couldn’t hang on to the wheel. I didn’t have the strength to hold on to the wheel. I feel terrible for our guys. We had a good race going. We were fighting back.”
The last-place finish saw him tumble to fifth in the season standings, 88 points behind the leader. When the interrupted Texas race runs to completion in August, Newgarden will collect another last-place having crashed out of that event. While he is not yet mathematically eliminated from the Championship, the dream is fading away quickly.
Meanwhile, his young teammate Spencer Pigot, battled a number of problems including a broken front wing, and an additional pit stop for tires en route to 19th place.
2) Yellow Fever
There was a time, not so many years ago, when the timing of yellow flags on a road course did not have the devastating effect on someone’s race as it does today. Cars would dive for the pits the moment the yellow flew, and not lose as much track position. This day and age, the pit remains closed until the field has bunched, thereby putting a car in a bad situation if their rivals had already completed pit service prior to the yellow.
The losers on the yellow flag timing in Toronto included Scott Dixon, who dominated the early laps and had the car to beat, and Simon Pagenaud, who lost a big chunk of his points lead as a result. Stretching out your fuel to maximize a stint, and running a few more laps than your rivals, is a standard practice, but it is at that point that a car becomes vulnerable if a caution happens to come out during those laps.
Along with Will Power, Helio Castroneves was the benefactor on Sunday having pitted just prior to the caution. Castroneves, however, was on the losing end of the deal in Detroit last month. This situation seems to penalize the guys that are doing a good job.
With that being said, is this an issue that need a fix, or does it just need to be an accepted part of the game?
Will Power had recommended the use a a Formula One-style virtual safety car to maintain gaps during caution periods. In my mind, at least, the bunching of the field for a restart is one of the more exciting aspects of the race, and a VSC is a horrible idea.
The CART Series tried mandatory pit windows many years ago, but this only serves to rob teams of potential off-sequence strategies. And, opening the pits before the track is cleared poses a safety issue, so that rule cannot go away.
What we are left with is what we have. When you roll the dice, sometimes they come up snake eyes. That, my friends, is racing.
3 ) Heroes of the Day
Other than the aforementioned Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who delivered a 1-2 finish for Team Penske, there were a few drivers very pleased with their weekend. None were more pleased than James Hinchcliffe, driver of the Arrow SPM-Honda, who took the third spot on the podium. Hinchcliffe, who grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, had never finished higher than eighth in his hometown race, and was absolutely ecstatic with the result.
“Coming to the last restart, I saw everybody in the last section get to their feet and I was just hoping I didn’t screw it up. It was obviously a great day to have a good day and for once we caught a lucky break in Toronto,” said Hinchcliffe. “There’s going to be a party tonight in Hinchtown for sure.”
Hinchcliffe’s teammate, Mikhail Aleshin, was also pleased, coming home sixth after starting tenth, capping off a great weekend for the Schmidt-Peterson Organization. Takuma Sato, in the A.J. Foyt car, has struggled mightily all season long, and a hard fought fifth place after starting 20th was a just reward.
Marco Andretti took some solace with a tenth place finish after struggling in qualifying and starting dead last. In cracking the top-ten, Andretti still admits that the team has a lot of work to do.
“Considering where we started, we made up some ground, but we’ve really got to get better as a whole,” said Andretti. “It’s definitely been a frustrating weekend when it comes to pace. We have to improve mechanical grip to make it easier on the driver.”
4 ) A Statistic that Simon Cannot Ignore
Having put up three wins and one second place in the last four events, Team Penske’s Will Power has matched his teammate, Simon Pagenaud in the win column and closed to 47 point behind. Another 27 points behind Power is another Penske driver, Helio Castroneves who is eager to join the fight.
Nine points behind Castroneves lurks Scott Dixon in the Target Chip Ganassi car. Dixon is historically a strong closer, and he has won on all five of the remaining tracks on the schedule. Pagenaud’s once seemingly unassailable lead is now in real danger as the season enters the final third.
One statistic that seems to jump right off of the screen is the fact that, in his four full-time seasons prior to 2016, Simon Pagenaud has never finished higher than 13th in the season-ending race. Perhaps it is an anomaly or coincidence, but it is an alarming trend when one considers that the title has gone down to the last race of the season every year dating back to 2006.
It is also a statistic that Will Power shared when he came up just shy of the Championship in three consecutive seasons between 2010 and 2012. In 2013, he broke that jinx, and won the Championship in 2014. Dixon, on the other hand, has finished in the top-five in the season finale every season dating back to 2002 and has four championships to show for it.
5 ) Great Event, can’t say the same about the track…
The Honda Indy Toronto is a great event for a couple of reasons. The City of Toronto ranks as one of the cleanest, most inviting, and culturally diverse cities on the planet. That reason alone makes for a wonderful event. Throw in a street festival atmosphere, a knowledgeable fan base, and beautiful architecture surrounding the race course, and there you go!
The track, however, seems to get worse every year. Several rough transitions from concrete to asphalt, the numerous manhole covers, and patches of crumbling surface make it a nightmarish challenge for the drivers. For all the positives offered by the City of Toronto, it appears that the general upkeep of city streets is not high on the list of priorities.
A number of drivers struggled with unusual tire wear, and an ability to get tires properly warmed up. The surface caused a few drivers to find the wall during practice and in the race, most notably Juan Pablo Montoya who sustained heavy damage to his Penske Chevrolet.
All large metropolitan areas are prone to construction zones, along with wear and tear on the highly trafficked streets. This year, a new hotel in the vicinity forced the pit lane to move from its traditional location, resulting in a twisting pit lane with two tuns in it. This created another set of circumstances entirely. This year’s event also saw five laps of caution to repair curbing that was coming apart in turns one and five.
It’s time for both IndyCar and the Toronto City Council to work together toward something more palatable in the future. A street race will never produce a perfect race track, but what we have now can certainly be improved tenfold with some work.