Where should we begin? By the end of the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT, a few of us in the media center had the look of deep confusion, unable to figure out where to start or how to describe what had just taken place. To be honest, things haven't improved much, two days on. It was an unbridled crapshoot, and seemed like a perfect bookend to Saturday's American Le Mans Series race, which was also a crapshoot of the highest order. Here's a brief rundown of my notes (updated with reasons) as the race went into a 75-lap tailspin.
1. Points leader Helio Castroneves is nudged from behind by Tristan Vautier and then hits the back of Josef Newgarden on the opening lap, damages his front wing, needs a replacement. Vautier also has wing damage.
2. Third-place points man Ryan Hunter-Reay gets caught up in the Helio/Newgarden bump-and-grind, his car's anti-stall does everything but prevent his Chevy from stalling, falls from eighth to 21st.
3. Dario Franchitti takes a final blow from the cartoon anvil as his brake system decides he doesn't need to have both master cylinders working at the same time.
4. Newgarden, Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia are passing cars with abandon. Justin Wilson is dropping like a rock.
5. Castroneves is mired in 18th after his wing change, isn't making up much ground. Championship standings could undergo a big change.
6. Ed Carpenter locks up, nerfs the tires and stalls. First yellow of the day.
7. Luca Filippi experiences his first IndyCar engine detonation, climbs from a smoky Barracuda Racing Honda before getting a chance to show if he has street course skills. Cue an extended yellow flag for a cleanup.
8. Green flag and Simon Pagenaud gets Scott Dixon for second. James Hinchcliffe and teammate Marco Andretti look they like want to crash into each other.
9. Newgarden runs wide, nearly clouts the Turn 12 wall, falls back.
10. Now Wilson's picking up again.
11. Will Power is decimating the field on red tires, pulling out a second or more per lap. Simon Pagenaud isn't nearly as fast on them in second, is backing up the field, finally stops for fresh Blacks. With Power's pace, and without a bunch of yellows, the race could be over and we're not even at the halfway point.
12. Well, hold on. Power pits, slides long in his stall and is too close to the wall. Stop takes forever, Sebastien Bourdais takes over the lead.
13. Bourdais pits, Stefan Wilson grinds to a halt and out comes the yellow.
14. Castroneves pits, slides long in the box, hits one of his crew members which sends his right front tire tumbling a few feet. His car is also dropped before the right front tire is installed. Car is put back up in the air for the final tire to go on. His day has gone from bad to worse. Must be a penalty coming.
15. Hunter-Reay's day has also gone to Hell. Car stalls on the track, is stuck in gear and can't be re-fired, extending the yellow while the car is lifted and taken back to the pits. This race is becoming rather strange.
16. Back to green and Bourdais leads. Dixon is spun by Graham Rahal, cue a traffic jam in Turn 1. Sebastian Saavedra, Hinchcliffe, Pagenaud, Vautier, Servia, Newgarden and Castroneves do their own bump-and-grind trying to avoid contact. Charlie Kimball diverts at the last second – goes left to use the bypass and motor past the logjam. No penalty for Rahal? Curious.
17. Green flag and Dixon pops out to… Now that's not good. Power attempts to pull out and pass Bourdais and doesn't see Dixon, the two slam the wall hard. Yellow once again.
18. Power makes it back to the pits for repairs. The series won't return Dixon's car to the pits. Cue an angry Kiwi who wants to know why.
19. Green flag, Rahal leads, locks up and slews to the left over the bumps in Turn 1, Servia hits Bourdais in second, spins him. Cue another logjam with Servia parked in the tires, E.J. Viso parked up the backside of Servia, Saavedra parked up Viso's backside, Vautier is into the back of Saavedra, and birthday girl Simona de Silvestro stopped behind them all.
20. Kimball, who must have some kind of special pass with the racing gods in Turn 1, avoids all contact, selects reverse, backs out, and uses his own personal bypass once again to rejoin without incident.
21. With all of the greens immediately going yellow, Castroneves hasn't had a chance to serve his drive-through penalty for the pit safety violation. How crazy is the race today? It takes Helio 20 laps – as Race Control waited for a green stretch that was long enough – for him to serve his penalty. Silly.
22. Green, Bourdais spins Wilson at the hairpin. No penalty. Curious. Rahal and Hinchcliffe play bumper cars while trying to accelerate away after getting by the sideways Wilson. Bizarre. Cue another yellow.
23. Green, Andretti leads while missing 25 percent of his front wing assembly, Pagenaud gets by as the two lock up heading into Turn 1. Pagenaud, who locks up less, gets the position.
24. Bourdais passes Andretti, takes off after Pagenaud, tries a never-been-done-before pass on the outside of Turn 8, the two make contact, Seb slides wide, Pagenaud takes back the lead. Cue a lot of merde-talk inside their helmets.
25. Newgarden takes second from Bourdais, Simona passes Kanaan.
26. Pagenaud stretches his lead as Newgarden fades but Josef keeps Bourdais at bay.
27. Kanaan into the Turn 12 wall, checkered flag. Pagenaud wins his second race since June as Baltimore race fans are treated to their second crash-filled race in two days.
Add those 27 Baltimore bullet points (and there are at least 10 more that were missed) to the slugfest at Sonoma, and the IndyCar Series is coming off of two consecutive rounds where contact and red-hot emotions ruled the proceedings.
WHY THE CARNAGE?
Opinions varied on the reasons behind the yellows-breed-yellows action that put plenty of miles on the pace car from lap 41-65.
Some thought the chicane would be the main source of mayhem, but it was all about Turn 1 and Turn 3, with Turn 1 looking like replay of the crash scenes from Smokey and the Bandit where police cars continually stove into the back of each other.
Team Penske's Will Power broke down the real reason why Turn 1 was such a nightmare to navigate without a few dents and dings after a caution period.
“You're out there circulating, your tires are cold, but there's a lot of debris and tire rubber on the track that your tires are picking up, and when it goes green, you get down to Turn 1, which is already the bumpiest part of the track, you've got no grip, you're bouncing all over the place and it's just a nightmare to get your car stopped,” he said. “And if everyone else is dealing with the same problem, you're going to have those kinds of lockups and people hitting each other down there.”
Traction issues contributed to a lot of the problems that surfaced in Turn 1, but there were also a few errors in judgment that led to drivers spinning each other at the apex. As IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker intimated, would going away from double-file restarts at a place like Baltimore (where Turn 1 actually narrows, unlike Long Beach, where T1 opens up) possibly help the situation?
“Absolutely, I do think starting double-file has everybody arriving down there packed up and filling the track,” Power agreed. “We keep having this problem, and doing away with the double-file starts would fix a lot of it, I'd say.”