The second Grand Prix of Baltimore, the second-to-last round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, is in the books. A few of the key items to come out of the weekend in Charm City:
BALTIMORE YEAR-ON-YEAR – To be honest, Baltimore's successful first year (outside of the finances and later promoter issues) almost set it up for an inevitable, but slight decline in year two. It was a good weekend, but not great as largely was praised and opined a year ago.
Attendance was down a bit (officials estimated a crowd of over 100,000 for the weekend, after claiming 150,000 last year), there were a couple additional inconveniences (occasionally spotty Internet, longer walk between destinations) and photo holes were smaller and harder to find than a year ago. From personal experience at both, whereas a year ago you could barely move through the throng of people on Sunday morning, this year it was free-flowing. Aerial shots showed gaps of empty seats in the grandstands, whereas a year ago not an empty seat could be found.
Given Michael Andretti and the Andretti Sports Marketing group's amazing and quicker resuscitative effort at the Milwaukee IndyFest earlier this year, it would be hard to call Baltimore as great a success.
That's not to short-change it. The hot, sticky weather didn't help and the effort put in by Andretti, major backer J.P. Grant and the entire ASM staff was remarkable given the short time scale and issues that dogged the race after last year. The race also had a presenting sponsor – SRT – compared to last year when it didn't. Still, the scale of assembling an event at a one-mile oval and a downtown street race, with city officials, and for the assembled media, is a much larger task.
“I think Michael pulled it off, although it wasn't so much ‘pulling it off' because there was still a lot of planning that went into it,” IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard told RACER Tuesday. “I think that J.P. Grant, I'd give 100 percent of the tip of the cap to him, and kudos to him for what he did. That was really important when you pick things for the future. You need to have the right people in place to make a first-class event.”
HUNTER-REAY'S REDEMPTION – Ryan Hunter-Reay tweeted Sunday morning he'd switched his pre-race cereal choice to Lucky Charms. Perhaps its mascot, the magic leprechaun, brought his mojo back.
Since his midseason summer surge of three straight wins, RHR had three difficult races that saw victory chances go for naught through no fault of his own. An engine change after winning the pole dropped him to 11th on the grid in Edmonton, an engine failure at Mid-Ohio cost him the points lead, and getting tagged by Alex Tagliani at Sonoma erased a would-be podium.
But with his back against the wall, Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport team delivered in the clutch. Early progress from his 10th starting position got him in range, then the inspired call from Michael Andretti to stay on slicks when it was raining moved him up the order. Although he pitted shortly thereafter, he was then set up for a standard two-stop race – and was the only driver to run Firestone alternates the whole race after the rule requiring drivers to run both blacks/reds was waived per the rain.
“He said to me, ‘We are going for the championship,'” Hunter-Reay said of his boss. “‘If we are going to do it, it let's do it. Coming in fourth or fifth is not going to do anything for us.'
“I really look up to that. That's a pretty brave move and it worked out. I had to keep the thing off the walls as long as it was drying and when it started drying, I had a big smile on my face for sure.”
From there, RHR emerged head of the pack once the normal pit stop cycle resumed, although behind the off-sequence Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe, who'd had two excellent restarts while leading late at Sonoma, still felt short-changed by losing out on this occasion. Still, Hunter-Reay had to go for it, and the momentum carried from his launch out of the chicane helped him past.
It was an incredible moment where a driver and team needed a win in the worst possible way and came through completely in the clutch. Given his championship rival Will Power's inability to convert the title the last two years, Hunter-Reay has nothing to lose going into next weekend.
POWER SNAKEBIT YET AGAIN – If the title was decided on pace alone, Power would be a multi-time champion already. Yet for the third race in a row, Power qualified on pole, led the most laps and didn't win.
At a certain point, Power's luck will need to change. He's been unable to convert the victories not through any fault of his own but in fact has almost been the victim of his own success. A better pit position in Mid-Ohio ultimately cost him there, a final pit stop in Sonoma was done before the pits stayed open on a yellow, a situation that in years past would have vaulted him back to the lead, and this race, the decision to run the middle stint on wets on a dry track dropped him to 17th.
Power and team recovered nicely to sixth but the frustration was palpable in the post-race press conference when, at least half-jokingly, he slammed his hand and wrist down on the table.
His advantage over Hunter-Reay though, still, is twofold going into Auto Club next week. Obviously there's the 17-point advantage, which he was somewhat pleased with, and there's the fact he's been in a championship-deciding race each of the last two years. With Dario Franchitti out of the picture and Hunter-Reay in, Power's mental toughness should serve him well into the final weekend of the year – provided a black cloud doesn't strike again.
“It's actually not bad. The good news is, if I take Hunter‑Reay out in the last race, we crash out together, I win,” he joked.
DALLARA CHICANERY – No road or street course corner this season has eaten IndyCars quite like the man-made front straight chicane at Baltimore, or, as some called it over the weekend, “The Dallara Chicane.”
The need for one, for IndyCar, came first when Simon Pagenaud provided some spectacular aerobatics in Friday morning's first practice. But fascinating as it was to watch, it was apparent the weekend couldn't continue without one. The chicane began with two sets of tires on Friday (LEFT), with the tires then removed entirely on Saturday and on Sunday, one set put back in place as a compromise.
After Pagenaud, six other drivers had accidents at the chicane throughout the weekend. JR Hildebrand sat out qualifying after his Saturday morning, while in Round 2 of knockout qualifying, Ed Carpenter narrowly escaped from a higher hit of the curbs and Justin Wilson wasn't so lucky.
“I barely got my hands off the wheels in time,” Wilson noted. Carpenter's driver coach, former Atlantic series champion Lee Bentham, joked, “We used eight of our nine lives on that one!” as Carpenter's nose raised maybe four to five feet off the road before landing and not hitting anything.
Two things strike you as an onlooker at that moment. The first is the incredible ability of the drivers to flick their hands so quickly to have made it through the chicane. Most of the drivers reduced their speed, did the quick left flick before the corner then immediately cut back right as the car was rotating at the first apex.
The second was the different lines. Most drivers tended to hit the curbs flush at apex, while Power, fastest all weekend, reduced speed more then most entering the first apex then accelerated harder out of the second. Pagenaud also stood out, but by doing the opposite – hitting it harder through the first and bounding over the second.
The chicane also claimed Mike Conway, who qualified second but started 12th per an engine penalty, Graham Rahal (also in qualifying), Carpenter again and Simona de Silvestro. Only Carpenter's and de Silvestro's shunts came during the race.
Carbon fiber shards and front wings laying around have been few and far between of late, but the chicane ate its fair share over the weekend.
PAGENAUD'S MOVE OF BRILLIANCE – Pagenaud started the weekend with his “wow” moment on Friday, then topped it on Sunday with a restart that will goes onto the list of amazing restarts dominated by the likes of Tony Kanaan and Tomas Scheckter.
Restarting from sixth on lap 36, Pagenaud used his push-to-pass to rocket on the outside of four cars to second by Turn 1, then shift to the inside of Hunter-Reay to grab the lead on the exit of the left-hand Turn 2 kink. It was, by anyone's account, a candidate if not outright winner for “Move of the Year.”
“I should thank my fellow competitors for letting me by there,” he said. “I think I just timed it perfectly. My car was amazing in braking for Turn 1, so it made things a lot easier for me there and I made quite a few passes.”
THE UNHERALDED GOOD WEEKENDS – Conway, Carpenter and Charlie Kimball won't have gotten much press for their end results Sunday, but were quietly three of the most impressive performers of the weekend.
Carpenter has obviously struggled on the road and street courses compared to the rest of the field. That being said, knowing his status, he's been very adept and smart about banking an early flying lap in his group, with the hope that someday it could strike gold if a situation presented itself as it did Saturday in Baltimore.
Rahal's accident left several big names from advancing out of that group – Hunter-Reay biggest among them – yet Carpenter, Conway, Kimball and Bruno Junqueira all made it through to the next round. Eleventh on the grid for Carpenter became eighth when three grid penalties were assessed in front of him.
That had to have made it all the more frustrating when Carpenter, from a career best road or street course grid spot, then made his race mistake at the chicane. As he said on the radio at the time, he was mad at himself for throwing away a chance at a great result.
“Better to show improvement then run last and finish last,” he added, also failing to finish a race for the first time in the series' 14 races this year.
Conway – who speaks about as frequently as IndyCar had cautions at Edmonton and Mid-Ohio – came out of nowhere to qualify second. But dropping to 12th per his grid penalty, he was stuck in the mid-pack action early and a spin by Helio Castroneves dropped him down the order. He'd recovered nicely before his late-race accident, nudged into the tire barriers and on top of Wilson, at the well-placed Conway Street.
Perhaps Kimball's weekend was the most impressive of his career thus far, even more than Toronto. Although by default, Kimball was on pace to outqualify Rahal for the first time this year, and then nearly squeaked into the Firestone Fast 6, just outside it in seventh.
Like Conway, he started 10 spots worse but as he has done several times this year, steadily moved up the charts and ran as high as second and third. A late-race engine failure took him out of another potential top-10 result. After a fraught return weekend in Sonoma, this was a good bounce back weekend for the Californian.
DOUBLE-BARREL BRUNO – How refreshing it was to see Bruno Junqueira not only back in an IndyCar, but actually able to race the car after twice being pulled after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 of late (2009, 2011).
With modest expectations, Junqueira did about as expected for the fledgling Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing squad in place of injured rookie Josef Newgarden. The biggest headache, beyond switching back and forth between the IndyCar and his usual PC class car in ALMS, was figuring out debrief times. After his PC pole Friday he had to wait to complete the post-qualifying press conference before having a chance to debrief with his IndyCar engineer!
A very respectable 10th on the grid became 20th with an engine change done in advance of the weekend, and contact Sunday ended his race, although he had fallen out of contention from an early spin at the same time as Conway.
“I got hit from behind early in the race and lost a lap,” Junqueira related via Twitter after the race. “I had a good pace, passed some people and was set for a good result, but I brushed the wall in the chicane and after a few corners, the suspension broke and I had to go to the pits and the day ended for me. P19. I am mad for not finishing, but happy with my race pace. I was very competitive with some fast laps.
“This new car is much better then the old,” he added. “Compare Baltimore with San Jose, both are really bad and break the car. With the chicane as well, how many car crashed there? 15? Expensive!”
OF NOTE – Oriol Servia (seventh) and E.J. Viso (ninth) recorded their first top-10 finishes since Toronto and Milwaukee respectively (both were fifth-places). Rubens Barrichello's second straight top-five finish has brought him to 11th in points.
Takuma Sato was unlucky again. Another engine change, this now shifting onto his seventh after mechanical woes at Sonoma, left him high and dry in 24th on the grid. But his early pace coupled with great strategy vaulted him to the lead, ahead of Graham Rahal, before more mechanical woes struck in the last 25 laps.
Rahal was one of two drivers who attempting to regain lost track position under a yellow, as was Sebastien Bourdais, but was the only one penalized. Bourdais spun from second and fell to sixth, where he restarted on lap 17. Meanwhile Rahal had a mechanical glitch during a caution that dropped him from ninth to 15th, and was later assessed a drive-through penalty by IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield, who reported he had data on his gaining the position back without it being allowed. Rahal ultimately finished 11th.
Hunter-Reay's win masked the other issues for his teammates. Marco Andretti nosed into the tire barriers at Turn 1 and ended 14th, a spot ahead of James Hinchcliffe, whose 15th included a stop on track and loss of a couple laps. Since Milwaukee in June, Hinchcliffe has had only one top-five finish and fallen from second to seventh in points.
Beyond Conway, Carpenter and Kimball, James Jakes also had a surprisingly good weekend, and was particularly racy in his 31 laps before nosing into the barriers at Turn 4.
The field is back to California on Sept. 15 for the MAVTV 500, the 500-mile season finale where a new champion will be crowned.