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.”
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.”
HONDA'S RISES, DEMISES AND SURPRISES
This one defies the odds in every conceivable way. Honda led two out of the three practice sessions at Baltimore, took the pole and five out of the top-6 spots on the grid and won the race, earning a 1-2 with Pagenaud and Newgarden.
Yet Honda also led the engine-change battle with Dario Franchitti experiencing a kerblammo after four laps on a new engine in the pre-race warmup, Takuma Sato losing a high-mileage engine a few laps into the race and Luca Filippi climbing from a flaming Dallara DW12 minutes later. The Italian's engine was also due for a rebuild after the event, giving at least some indication as to why he and Sato found trouble with the 2000-mile threshold in sight.
In contrast, Dixon's engine, which had won three straight races and took the pole in Baltimore, quietly hit its rebuild window and mileaged out after qualifying. The engine that came out of Franchitti's car after he qualified 15th was closing in on its mileage limit and was replaced as a precaution. He served a 10-spot grid penalty for the Saturday night engine change and will have another 10-spot demotion waiting when the lights go out for Round 1 at the Houston double-header.
Leaving Baltimore, if you're looking for a common issue among the explosions, there wasn't one, which must be a cause for concern at Honda Performance Development. It's a rarity for a manufacturer to have so many unrelated engine problems while simultaneously dominating an event, but that's exactly what Honda did. It's worth stating for the umpteenth time: it was a bizarre weekend for almost everyone in Baltimore.
JNEW DEFYING EXPECTATIONS
Josef Newgarden had every opportunity to show his youth and inexperience on Sunday, but defied this writer's expectations and raced his way to a second-place finish. The Tennessean's career-best IndyCar performance came after putting on three days of aerial displays. If he wasn't flying over the chicane, the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver was playing catch-and-slide in the corners, dealing with locking (or failing) brakes and kissing the wall with his rear tires on occasion.
What looked like a controlled, 75-lap crash during the race was actually Newgarden's most mature drive as an IndyCar sophomore, and provided he can maintain his high wire act at Houston, we could be seeing one of America's most promising young open-wheel drivers moving into the deep end of the talent pool.
We can't say goodbye to Baltimore without acknowledging that Helio Castroneves might be a distant relative of Michael Myers. Like the central character in the Halloween movies, Castroneves might be impervious to attacks and misfortune. Hinchcliffe and Andretti tried to pull a Malachi Crunch on him at Sonoma, yet he survived, finished seventh, and managed to extend his points lead after Scott Dixon looked like he'd cut the gap in half.
In Baltimore, HCN could have been accused of looking for ways to test his impervious nature, destroying his front wings at a steady pace – he ended the race with one of Will Power's nose assemblies, after wrecking his primary and spare. He had a pit stop that could have been confused for a Benny Hill Show skit, earned a drive-through penalty, fell to the back of the field and once again, right when it looked like Dixon would capitalize on his mistakes, the Ganassi driver was in the wall and Castroneves was picking his way through most of the restart crashes. In the end, he stretched his lead over Dixon and RHR by taking a ninth-place finish.
He also has 12 straight top-10 finishes to his credit, a first in his 16 years in Indy car competition. Whether it's divine intervention or the DNA of Michael Myers, something bizarre is going on.
“I believe right now it's just a combination of a lot of things,” Castroneves told RACER when asked if he could pinpoint the supernatural origins behind his recent results. “I have to say we are doing our thing – we're not worrying about other people. I try to eat my Cheerios and be nice to everyone…and maybe that's what's bringing the luck around. Houston will be very important and if the good things continue happening, it could be big for us in the championship.”