By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The 42nd annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now in the books. Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud took the win, followed closely by Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon. He are five takeaways from the latest edition of one of IndyCar’s crown-jewel events.
1 ) Simon sez
After a decidedly lackluster first season with Team Penske, that left him 11th in the final standings, Simon Pagenaud is off to a ferocious start in 2016. His two second-place finishes, combined with today’s victory, is the best start to a season for a Penske driver since 2012 when Will Power finished 7th in the opener and followed it up with three straight wins.
With that being said, it remains to be seen how the rest of his season will play out with three teammates with title aspirations of their own. Roger Penske has had a long standing policy of allowing his drivers race one another, and never using team orders.
While it is indeed good policy to let racers race, a quick look into the record books will show that Team Penske has captured only two driver’s titles since moving to the IRL in 2002. During that same time frame, Chip Ganassi drivers have taken seven.
In the 2015 season-finale at Sonoma, we saw Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, both with a title on their mind, collide with one another, opening the door for Ganassi’s Scott Dixon to snatch the championship right out of their hands.
Ganassi has a much more team-centric approach, built around a spirit of collaboration with the larger goal on mind. And, it has worked. Don’t get me wrong, Ganassi drivers do race one another, and I am NOT advocating team orders.
Through all of the championships we’ve seen from Dixon and the now-retired Dario Franchitti, not once did we see one of them pull a Reubens Barricello, and hand the lead to their teammate. At the same time, you won’t see one Ganassi driver race another hard enough to put him off the track when the title is at stake.
What you will see, however is Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball or Tony Kanaan racing hard to take points away from their competitors, and not one another.
Certainly it is much too early for the coronation of Pagenaud as team leader, especially considering the illustrious careers of his teammates. However, if Simon continues this streak, taking a page or two out of Chip Ganassi’s playbook may be a worthwhile venture.
2 ) New steward system is a miserable fail
IndyCar’s new three steward system, comprising Arie Luyendyk, Max Papis, and Dan Davis, had its first big test of the year. In my mind, they failed miserably.
And, this is not because I thought that they blew the call with Pagenaud, but rather due to the ambiguities in the rules and procedures that allowed the controversy.
Exiting the pit lane on his final stop, intent on getting ahead of Scott Dixon, race-winner Simon Pagenaud clearly crossed the blend line when rejoining the track. Six to eight laps ticked off before Race Control announced that the Penske driver had been issued a warning.
IndyCar issued the following statement in explanation:
Simon Pagenaud’s actions during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach were deemed an infraction per Rule 126.96.36.199. “Lane Usage” of the INDYCAR Penalty Guidelines: Failing to follow designated procedures entering or exiting the pit area, including the proper use of the acceleration and deceleration lanes. The penalty for this infraction ranges from a warning (minimum), putting the driver to the back of the field (mid) and drive-through or stop and go/hold (maximum). INDYCAR race stewards determined his actions were not severe enough to warrant a harsher penalty than the warning that was issued.
Now, here is the issue. Both Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, and team manager, Mike Hull stated that they were under the impression that, under the new system, there would be no more ‘warnings.’ This was a common belief through the paddock, and among the media. Supposedly all the grey area was to be removed, and if an infraction was deemed to have taken place, then a penalty would be issued.
So, if this is not the case, and the ‘warning’ still exists, then, why was misinformation communicated to the teams regarding the new system?
And furthermore, defining the severity of a blend-line violation seems like a slippery slope. An infraction like ‘avoidable contact’ could certainly have room for discussion or debate, whereas in this case, a car is either over the line, or it is not.
3 ) Life after Toyota
Highly successful race events have a few things in common. One of those is the unwavering support of a wonderful title sponsor. The Long Beach Grand Prix has been blessed with Toyota as a fantastic partner for 40 years. Even though Toyota no longer has a presence in IndyCar as an engine manufacturer, they have continued with this event, largely due to the close proximity of their headquarters in Torrance, CA.
With Toyota packing up their operation, and moving it to Texas, the first shoe to drop was the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race. The popular event that pits professional race drivers against Hollywood celebrities has raised millions of dollars for the charity “Racing for Kids” over the years. 2016 was announced as the last with Toyota unable to provide support going forward.
The title sponsorship for the Grand Prix is secured through 2017, and it is uncertain at this time of Toyota would have any interest in continuing once they are fully moved out.
A high profile event like Long Beach should not have difficulty finding a title sponsor in years to come. However, if Toyota does pull the plug, whoever comes in will have enormous shoes to fill.
4 ) Begging for the yellow that never came
The nature of a street or road race will sometimes produce a surprise winner. This is largely due to the track position that can be gained with an off-cycle pit strategy. To pull this off, one needs to find the caution periods fall at the most opportune time to capitalize. There are occasions when it plays out to perfection, and others where it blows up in your face.
Here’s how in works: Make your first stop early. Then lay down the fastest laps you are capable of, and hope it stays green. Once the leaders pit, you cycle to the lead, and then pray for a yellow before your pit window expires.
The yellow comes out, stop with everyone else, and BAM! you’re back on the same pit cycle, and hopefully still out front.
If you don’t get that yellow, then you are doomed to make one more pit stop than the others.
Most street races can guarantee at least one yellow, and Ganassi Drivers Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton, along with A.J. Foyt Racing’s Jack Hawksworth were counting on that when they all made an early stop.
Kimball, although he qualified poorly, realistically had a car that was capable of contending for the win. Kimball actually set fast lap of the race clocking a 104.702 mph in the early going.
As it turned out, the race ran without caution setting a Long Beach record for the quickest race run in its history. The average speed of the race was 100.592 mph. Without a caution, Kimball’s strategy went in the toilet.
“We rolled the dice on strategy today and we were really hoping for a yellow at some point to make the strategy a little healthier.” said Kimball. “I can’t say I’m happy with an 11th place finish, but I know we were fast enough to be in the top five and it’s a good recovery after our qualifying yesterday”.
5 ) Forgettable weekend for Andretti
One of the names synonymous with Long Beach is the name Andretti. It all began when Mario took a high-profile win here in 1977 when it was a Formula One Race. It was the first and only time that an American driver had won an F1 race on American soil.
During the CART years, Mario took three more Long Beach wins, and Michael won twice. Michael has also won the event twice as a car owner with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway behind the wheel. Long Beach is certainly a race date that the Andretti’s put a star next to on the calendar.
The Andretti AutoSports Team’s 2016 began on a hopeful note when Ryan Hunter-Reay took a podium at the season-opener, and there was optimism heading out to Southern California.
By the end of the weekend, the entire Andretti team is left bewildered, putting up one of the poorest showings the team has even seen. Marco Andretti, starting dead last on the grid, had his engine lose power on the opening lap, the result of a stuck throttle sensor. He was able to cycle through the electrical systems and get going, but the rest of the field was gone. He never recovered the lost ground and finished 19th.
Teammate Alexander Rossi had an even worse showing, coming home 20th after stalling his car in the pit. He lost precious times as the engine was slow to fire back up.
Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered handling issues all day and found his car to be nearly undriveable, forcing an extra stop for an adjustment. Hunter-Reay came home 16th. Carlos Munoz put up the best result for the team, a lowly 12th place. Contact on the opening lap snapped off a portion of his front wing.
“A really disappointing race.” said Munoz, summing up the frustrations of the entire team. “I ran the whole race with a broken wing, that didn’t help …. I don’t know what we’re doing. We’ll have to have a look at our car. I am a bit disappointed in 12th, we will see where we’ll go. I don’t know what to think about Barber (the next race on the schedule), but here we were not strong at all.”
Image: Chris Owens/INDYCAR