2018- Passing Grade for New Aero; Close Points Battle; Talented Rookies

St.Pete set the tone. The racing was going to be better with the new kit. It was going to be a competitive season. A rookie star emerged and would captivate fans. 2018 was all that. That rookie, Robert Wickens, unfortunately didn’t get to complete the year.  Younger stars made a bold statement that they arrived, but the established stars rose to the top at the end, It was one of the most enjoyable seasons. I’ve seen.

Midohio18 045
Robert Wickens at Mid Ohio. He finished second in what would be his last complete race of the year.

The Meteor

Robert Wickens stole the pole at the opening race in St. Pete and dominated the race until a lap 108 collision with Alexander Rossi knocked him out of the race. Indycar fans suddenly had a new star to root for. Wickens followed up with a second place finish  at Phoenix after leading the late stages of the race. Five consecutive top tens, including three top fives followed. Then everything came to a horrendous halt in the accident at Pocono. Whether Wickens gets back into a car again is still undetermined. He may miss the entire 2019 season. Despite missing the final three races, Wickens still finished tied for tenth in points and won Rookie of the Year. One of the highlights of last Sunday’s Sonoma finale was seeing a video of Wickens talking to the fans.

The New Aero Package

Two goals of the new aero package were to improve the racing and put the car back in the hands of the drivers. It definitely accomplished the second aim. There was better racing for the most part. Ovals definitely need some more work. Street courses showed the most improvement and road courses had more passing than last year. There is still an aero wash that needs to be tweaked. It’s fun seeing the cars slide through the corners.

A Tight Title Fight

Six different drivers swapped the lead eight times through the Texas race. Scott Dixon took the points lead with his win at Texas and led the rest of the way. His lead ballooned to 62 after Toronto but shrunk to 26 after Gateway. Alexander Rossi was third after Toronto, 70 points behind, but won two in a row at Mid Ohio and Pocono to cut into the lead. Rossi’s last chance to catch Dixon ended in the second turn at Sonoma when he clipped Marco Andretti, cutting a tire and damaging his front wing.

While Dixon’s 57 point final margin seems large, it was not an easy title to win. Dixon, Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power won three races each, and Ryan Hunter-Reay won twice. This concentration of big points days among a few drivers kept things close.

Dixon’s fifth title puts him into rarefied air. Only A. J. Foyt with seven championships has more than Dixon.

It was a strange route to the championship. Dixon did not win a pole and didn’t lead a lap until the first race in Detroit in June. He had the fewest bonus points of the four main contenders. Dixon dodged two bullets late in the season. He narrowly missed the spinning tub of Wickens’ car at Pocono. At the start of the Portland race, Dixon was involved in a scramble with four other cars, but he suffered no damage and fought back to a fifth place finish.

New teams

Carlin and Harding Racing joined the series full time. Meyer Shank Racing and Juncos Racing had part time entries. All four new teams will return next year with expanded programs. The biggest change for 2019 will be Harding, now Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Carlin is planning on adding a third car. Meyer Shank hopes to participate in ten races next season. Juncos bought a second car but is unsure if it will race during he season.

I will talk about the Harding Steinbrenner team in a post next week.

Rookies Impress

In addition to Wickens, Zach Veach had a string of four consecutive top tens at Toronto, Mid Ohio, Pocono, and Gateway. Veach had run well at times in other races but was plagued by mistakes. He was instrumental in setting up the Andretti cars in testing.

At Sonoma, Indy lights champion Patricio O’Ward got his first Indycar ride with Harding Racing. He got people’s attention with the third quickest lap in Friday’s second practice. He backed that up by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth in the race. O’Ward and Colton Herta will be full time next year for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Final Thoughts

IMG_1465 (2)
Alexander Rossi at St. Pete. He showed amazing ability to pass anywhere and also had some controversial moments.

Rossi put some spice into several races this year with his charges from the rear. He started 32nd at Indianapolis and finished fourth. At Phoenix he went to the back because of a penalty and came back for a third place finish. At Sonoma he used a timely caution to fight back to seventh and keep second place in the final standings.

Rossi also created some controversy with some moves where contact was involved. the most notorious was was his collision with Wickens at St. Pete. I liked the way he didn’t apologize and just went on driving. Rossi has an old school attitude I really enjoy.

I admire Mike Harding for fielding a team all season on a limited budget. Next year the team should be stronger with added resources.

Thanks to Verizon for their series sponsorship the last five years. I appreciate that unlike other series sponsors, they completed their entire contract length.

Finally, I will continue to send good healing thoughts to Robert Wickens. I hope to see him race again.

 

 

Quick Thoughts on Sonoma Qualifying

Hunter- Reay may have won the pole but Pato O’Ward was the star of the show. What a great job in his first Indycar weekend.

A non title contender winning the pole helps Dixon and pretty much knocks Power and Newgarden out of contention.

This was Dixon’s best road course qualifying of the year and only his second Fast Six on a natural road course. He could win the championship without winning a pole.

Power regrets not running another lap.

Wind will be a significant factor in the race tomorrow.

 

 

 

Hunter-Reay, Newgarden Lead Day 1 at Sonoma

Ryan Hunter-Reay had the fastest time of the opening day of practice for the Grand Prix of Sonoma. He lead the first session with a lap of 1:17.5742. Josef Newgarden had the quick time in the afternoon session of 1:17.8156. Seven of the ten fastest times of the day were turned in the morning session.  This doesn’t happen often since the red tires are allowed in the afternoon. Newgarden did not turn a lap in the morning session due to a fuel system isdue.

Several drivers talked of high tire degradation, getting just two good laps out of their tires. Shifting winds also factored into the lap times.  No one was overly concerned about today’s times.

The biggest surprise of the day was rookie Patricio O’Ward with the third fastest time in session 2 of 1:18.0073. He set the time early in the session on black tires. It was the sixth best time overall.

Besides Newgarden, the other championship contenders ended the day on the combined charts third (Scott Dixon), fourth (Will Power), and eleventh (Alexander Rossi). Rossi was sixth and eighth in the two sessions.

Power Wins Iowa Pole; Newgarden Completes Another Penske Front Row

Their  positions from Road America are reversed, but the Team Penske duo of Will Power and Josef Newgarden again grabbed the front row spots for tomorrow afternoon’s Iowa Corn 300. Power won his 52nd career pole with an average of 182.371, edging Newgarden  by 0.24 seconds.  Only the top four qualifiers topped 180 mph.  Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third and Simon Pagenaud starts fourth.

In a qualifying session that pretty much followed expectations, the biggest surprises were the performances of Spencer Pigot and Marco Andretti.  Both were in the top ten in morning practice, but huge second lap drop-offs have them starting 18th and 19th respectively. Zach Veach, another front runner in the morning, will start 14th.

Notes

The top five in points will start in the top six positions. Pagenaud is the only top six starter not in the top five.

For the second race in a row, the fifth place driver in the standings won the pole.

Points leader Scott Dixon starts sixth. He has yet to win at Iowa Speedway.

Observations from Final Practice

Alexander Rossi put on quite a show passing lots of cars. he would stalk them for a few laps, then was able to pass on either side. His best pass was on Simon Pagenaud. he chased the Penske driver but quite the run he needed. When the pair came upon the slower car of Matheus Leist, Rossi got Pagenaud to end up directly behind Leist, slowing him enough for Rossi to dart around him. It was a thing of beauty.

Zach Veach looked very good, passing cars and running a consistent line.

Pagenaud lost an engine with less than 10 minutes left in the session.

 

The Dixon Domino; Other Thoughts

Silly Season began early with talk of new teams, especially McLaren, working with established teams. Now the first driver name has emerged as possibly moving to a new team. To the surprise of many, Scott Dixon’s name came up as the possible diver of the full time McLaren entry should Fernando Alonso only want to do the 500. The story seemed odd at first, but Dixon has confirmed that he has talked to Zak Brown’s team. he has also had talks with Andretti about next year. While everyone assumes McLaren will, partner with Andretti, that may not necessarily be the case.

Honda wants to keep Dixon as one of their drivers. Is Honda completely okay with  McLaren?  Although HPD, the U. S. arm of Honda that provides the engines for Indycar, would be welcoming, is the parent company okay with McLaren and Alonso after the Honda/McLaren debacle in Formula 1? Zak brown has had talks with Chevrolet as well, looking for the best fit for his Indycar team. I think they will definitely be at the 500, but the rest of the season is still a long way from being settled. What Dixon does will determine all other driver movement in the offseason. If Dixon stays at Ganassi, there shouldn’t be a lot of changes in the driver lineup.

There likely will be more intrigue with new teams and this year’s part time teams than with drivers heading to 2019.

An Andretti F1 Team?

Rumors flew the weekend of the Canadian Grand Prix when Michael Andretti and one of his team principals made an appearance. He spent a lot of time with McLaren and Alonso, but there was talk that he was also looking into buying the beleaguered Force India team. Somehow, the conversation turned to Andretti trying to buy McLaren.

I don’t think  buying McLaren is even a remote possibility. Purchasing Force India is probably not happening either. I don’t see how Andretti could swing that deal. The F1 team has huge debts that the new owner needs to assume. Andretti would be better off starting an IMSA team than drowning in the red ink of a Formula 1 entrprise.

The 2019 Schedule

A great weekend at Road America got even better with Sunday’s announcement that the Kohler GP will return for three more years. Next year’s event will be on the same weekend, June 20-23. The race has rapidly become the Crown Jewel of Indycar’s  road course races.

Speculation that Homestead will replace Phoenix as next season’s second race continues to grow. Homestead had the same attendance issues that caused Phoenix to be dropped. It would be putting an oval on the schedule just to replace an oval. Indycar might be better off finding a road course replacement until an oval venue that will be viable is found. The season doesn’t need to begin with two street races.

No word on where next year’s finale will take place. There is strong sentiment for Gateway. If the season ends in St. Louis, where does Sonoma go? It would be difficult for the tracks to just swap places. Does the series go down to just one race in California? I think that would be a mistake.

Bonus Point Watch

Apparently I had way too much time on my hands this week. I have compiled totals of each drivers’ bonus points for the year. I did this as a means to see how the bonus points affect the championship. The maximum bonus a driver can earn at the Indianapolis 500 is 12, nine for the pole, one for leading a lap, and two more for leading the most laps. In all, other races, the maximum is four, one for pole, 1 for leading, and one for leading the most laps. For Detroit’s races, a point also goes to the driver who led the qualifying group that did not include the pole winner. At Indianapolis, the fastest nine qualifiers receive points, with the polesitter getting nine points then one point les for each position.

In the ten races to date, a driver has earned the maximum bonus points eight times. Phoenix and Texas are the only times no driver received all bonus points possible. Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden have earned four bonus points twice, Rossi at Detroit Race 2 and Long Beach; Newgarden at Road America and Barber. Below are the top eight in bonus points through Road America:

Newgarden                       20

Will Power                         16

Rossi                                     13

Sebastien Bourdais          12

Ed Carpenter*                    12

Simon Pagenaud               11

Robert Wickens                  10

Dixon                              9

*Carpenter’s points all earned at Indianapolis 500

Dixon’s first bonus point was qualifying ninth for the Indianapolis 500. Newgarden has earned bonus points in seven races. Bourdais, Rossi,  and Ryan Hunter-Reay  in six each.

While bonus points may be important, consistent finishes lead to championships. They are the reason Dixon leads the championship at the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honda Sweeps Doubleheader; Race 2 and Weekend Thoughts

Above: Ryan Hunter-Reay just after taking the checkered flag to end his three year winless streak. Photo: Mike Silver

Another drought ended yesterday as Ryan Hunter-Reay chased down teammate Alexander Rossi, forced him to make a mistake, and won for the first time in 42 races. On Saturday, Marco Andretti ended his five year pole drought and Scott Dixon won his first race in nearly a year. Honda won both poles and both races in the home games for Chevy in Detroit.

Unlike Saturday, drama started in turn 3 of the first parade lap, when GM Vice President Mark Reuss spun the Corvette ZR-1, slammed head first into the wall, and bounced back in front of the field. Pole sitter Rossi was the only car able to get past wounded pace car. The others later returned to pit lane after the car was cleared. Rene Binder stalled the engine and needed a tow back to the pits. After a 30 minute delay, Oriol Servia, in a backup pace car, led the field to the green flag.

Sunday’s race looked a lot like Saturday’s event. teams used  different pit strategies with some cars opting for a three stop race. Ryan Hunter-Reay was one of the first to pit. meanwhile, Rossi was running away from the field. Rossi and Hunter-Reay exchanged the lead on pit stops. Rossi, on a two stop schedule, took the lead when Hunter-Reay pitted on lap 53. A 63. second stop put the deficit to Rossi at 10 seconds. Hunter-Reay’s DHL car had a lot of speed on fresher tires. Rossi had made his last stop six laps earlier. The lead gap slowly closed until on lap 64, Rossi missed the turn with a huge brake lockup. Hunter-Reay zipped past and took the checkered first. Rossi shredded a tire and after a quick replacement, he ended up twelfth. The mistake not only cost Rossi the victory, it also cost him the point lead that he had just gained on Saturday. Rossi is now third in points behind Will Power and Scott Dixon.

Overall, Sunday’s race was a better than average Detroit race. There were battles for position throughout the field and a fight for the win at the end. Belle Isle will return to the schedule next year.

Notes

I hope Sunday’s pace car incident leads to the end of celebrity pace car drivers. While Reuss does have experience driving high performance cars, he does not drive professionally. The drivers in this series deserve professional in all phases of the race. I have opposed this practice for a long time. I feel the same way about celebrity flag wavers. Professionals should controla race from the command to start engines on.

Sunday changed my mind about the new car racing at Detroit. It was amuch more competitive show than Saturday. This package needs a little tweaking. Texas next weekend will show how much adjusting needs to be done.

Zak Brown, principal at McLaren, and Gil De Ferran were at Belle Isle this weekend talking to teams about entering the season next year. DeFerran is helping facilitate McLaren’s entry into the series. Nothing has been confirmed.

Will Power’s runner-up finish yesterday was the only Chevy on the podium all weekend. Andretti had three of the six spots and Ganassi had two.

ABC/ESPN televised its final Indycar race for the foreseeable future. NBC Sports takes over television duties next weekend at Texas and all of the next three years. ABC at one time was the go to network for Indycar, but at the corporate level seemed to have had a waning interest in the sport the last few years. I appreciate the hard work of all the people I’ve met who work for ABC and hope many can catch on with NBC next year.  Some great people may not be back next year.

What is the Ceiling for Dixon?

Now that Scott Dixon has tied Michael Andretti with 42 career wins, how many more can he get before he retires? Someone asked me Saturday if I thought he could get to 50. I think that may be a stretch given his age and how difficult it is to win in today’s Indycar series. On the other hand, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that he can reach the 50 mark.

Thursday at IMS- Some Photos to Start the Day

Good morning, Race Fans!  Here are some more photos from yesterday to start off the day.

Later on I will have a story about the Dreyer and Reinbold team with owner Dennis Reinbold and drivers Sage Karam and J. R. Hildebrand. Look for a piece about Cara Adams from Firestone in the late afternoon. Tonight my daily wrapup will be on Wildfireradiosports.com.

Pit Lane Parley will be doing a podcast bat the track tomorrow night. More details to come. Catch up on earlier episodes at wildfireradiosports.com or Podbean.

Enjoy the photos.