ANDRETTIS MISSING IN ACTION
Another strange element to the Baltimore event was the relative disappearing act by the four-car Andretti Autosport team. It has been a good long while since the Andretti Autosport team looked thoroughly out to lunch, and based on how their cars managed the bumps and the chicane, damping appeared to be the glaring deficiency that caused the team to miss the Firestone Fast 6 in qualifying. In fact, Baltimore marked the first time this year – a total of 11 road and street course races – in which that had happened.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was the best of the AA cars, securing eighth on the grid, but with James Hinchcliffe qualifying 11th, Marco Andretti in 18th and E.J. Viso in 22nd, their lot was cast.
“We don't have many weekends like those,” Hunter-Reay told RACER. “We kept trying to find the magic, but it just didn't happen. All I can say is that I know our team will be working flat out between now and Houston to get our edge back.”
Things barely improved when it came time to go racing. Hinch was the first Andretti car home in seventh, followed by his impromptu sparring partner Marco Andretti in 10th (how many times did they almost collide on Sunday? Three? Four?), Viso in 13th and RHR in 20th. Marco maintained fourth place in the championship while RHR fell from third to fifth. Baltimore 2012 was the turning point in RHR's championship season, but one year later, and thanks to a dead battery, it could prove to be the event that turned against him in his bid to win back-to-back championships.
Looking ahead, the Andretti team wasn't exactly brilliant at the last street race in Toronto, missed the mark at Baltimore, and with a double-header coming up on the streets of Houston, a late-season setup fix will be required if they want to stay in the title hunt.
PAGENAUD'S POWER MOVE
He was fifth in points coming into Baltimore and thanks to the off weekend for Andretti Autosport (and the crash that ended Scott Dixon's day), Simon Pagenaud's path to victory and jump to third in the standings was made easier, but like Will Power's victory at Sonoma, the win wasn't undeserved.
The Frenchman started third, got by Dixon for second on lap 19, lost contact with Power as his rear Firestone Reds started to surrender, dealt with fading brakes during the middle portion of the event, and once those obstacles had been overcome, he went on a charge to close the race on Firestone Blacks.
If you think of the Baltimore track like a filter that's perfectly suited to strain the brave and the bumbling out of the race before its conclusion, Pagenaud was one of few to think his way through to the finish during the final stages of the event. He wasn't perfect in that department – there were a few scrapes along the way, including the clash with Bourdais for the lead and a bit of contact with his teammate, Tristan Vautier – yet the Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports driver stood out as one of very few to take a big picture approach to the closing stages of the race.
To that end, Pagenaud played the snail to everyone's hare on a crucial restart and it set the stage for him to race his way to victory. As Pagenaud told RACER, the seas parted for him on the lap 56 restart where he vaulted from 11th to third.
“That restart was really bad, people were going three-wide and I had a bad feeling, so I sat back and waited,” he admitted. “I was going into Turn 1 with everybody, so when everything slowed down and people hit each other, I sat back and separated myself. They all sat there jammed together and I picked my way through on the inside and passed them all. I was being cautious on purpose and it paid off.”
Pagenaud's method of dealing with overheated brakes, an issue that struck a few competitors in the heat and humidity of Baltimore, also played a role in his win.
“My brakes were going away – it was going to the floor and I was running in a pack and couldn't get clean air to my brakes,” he said. “I've had this issue before in sports cars with carbon brakes and knew what to do, so I adjusted the brake balance and did some things behind the pace car to bring them back. If they hadn't returned like that, I don't think things would have ended like they did for me.”
The Honda-powered driver sits 70 points back from championship leader Helio Castroneves, and feels bullish about his chances with three rounds left to run. With both of his wins coming on bumpy street courses, a pair of races on the bucking streets around Houston's Reliant Park look like the perfect opportunity for the 29-year-old to chase down the Brazilian.
“I've gained 50 points on Helio since Mid-Ohio,” remarked Pagenaud. “I think I'm just doing the same thing every weekend. My car during the second race at Detroit was just as good as a Ganassi or Penske car. In Baltimore, we achieved everything we could and that win was the maximum possible. At Sonoma, we achieved the maximum and finished fifth, and that's what we must keep doing.
“Sometimes you don't have the car to win,” he continued, “but like Gil de Ferran told me once, if you can deliver when you're having a really tough weekend, that's what championships are about. This is what we're doing right now, and it's working. My engineers Ben Bretzman and Nick Snyder are giving me incredible cars to drive, and I'm ready to keep pushing the whole way until we finish at Fontana. No one is settling for second or third in the championship.”
WHY THE CARNAGE?, PART 2
Other than the high frequency of broken front wings, the Dallara DW12 has proven to be a car that can be used for repeated jousting – and as the occasional battering ram – without serious risk of race-ending damage. Sonoma's Turns 2, 7 and 11 saw every possible angle of impact come to light during the race, and Baltimore added Turns 1, 3, 4, 7, 8 and 12 to the list – yet few cars retired from either race as a result of the constant hammering.
It's hard to blame a car for breeding so much contact, but once drivers began to figure out how sturdy the Italian cars happened to be, making clean passes was no longer a requirement.
“The racing is becoming far more aggressive than it has ever been,” said Scott Dixon. “The cars are so sturdy it has become like touring car. You can bang wheels, hit the guy's sidepods, and you don't really have to worry so much about hurting the car. It's pretty rare at a place like [Baltimore] to go an entire race without being hit in the side or taking a shot from behind five or six times. You just expect it nowadays.”