IndyCar has its annual stop at Mid-Ohio in the books. Although the battle up front was rather uneventful, there was a wealth of passing throughout the field – a good number by Mid-Ohio standards. Some notes from the day's action:
A FAIR RACE BY MID-OHIO STANDARDS – With passing throughout the field, and a relatively eventful first half of the 85-lap Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the race was far from the drudgery in years past where nary a move happened and the only action was in the pits. The DW12 was fairly racy, but didn't quite stack up for as good a race as Barber.
The quality of the Barber race was enhanced by a wider gap between the two Firestone compounds, the primary blacks and alternate reds, than it seemed to appear at Mid-Ohio. Additionally, the passing at Barber was purer than at Mid-Ohio, as Barber didn't have push-to-pass on offer whereas Mid-Ohio did. Like at Toronto, push-to-pass was present but not one of the main talking points, as it had been at Edmonton.
Either way, for as close as Scott Dixon and Will Power were all race, they needed to stay inch perfect for the duration, and that they did – with Dixon's TCGR pit crew making the difference at day's end.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION – Top rivals to the Penske/Ganassi juggernaut this weekend came from the series' two Frenchmen, Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais, at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports and TrueCar Dragon Racing, respectively.
Bourdais, who was frustrated at not making the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday, employed a bit of reverse psychology where he wound up passing people early in the race after saying Saturday it would be difficult to pass. Moves on Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden in his first stint brought him to fifth, and he exited both of his pit stops from third.
It was Pagenaud that did the business later in the race, as Bourdais ran wide at Turn 4 and Pagenaud made it through to capture third place. Had Bourdais stayed P3 he would have been the 16th different podium finisher this year; as it is, he's the 20th different driver with a top-five (those who don't of the full-timers: Rubens Barrichello, James Jakes, Ed Carpenter, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden).
“There was a lot of fuel saving, but we're pulling it off,” Bourdais said. “I think we could have dared it a little bit more. Both times we could have made it a lot further, and I think that would have been the hot ticket. But, you don't want to be the last one out there if they pull out the yellow and close the pits for any reason. We needed the points finish. As much as I wanted to be on the podium, we will take P4 any day."
Pagenaud's podium was his third of the year, and all, coincidentally, have come in races where he had prior American Le Mans Series race experience (Long Beach, Detroit).
“I didn't think he (Bourdais) would be that close actually on the braking but I went in really deep and he couldn't make it so it was just enough,” Pagenaud said. “We were close on fuel. I was saving heaps of fuel on that last stint to finish the race.”
Either would be a good upset pick on the next two road/street races to record only the second win of the year outside the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams.
NO YELLOWS, GOOD! – Perhaps the funniest tweet I saw during the race came from Ross Bynum, an IndyCar contributor for Queers4Gears.com, who opined regarding the lack of yellow flags, “That sound you hear is Dallara ratcheting up spare parts prices due to the lack of racing carnage.”
So much of watching a race with Twitter as a compendium to at-track or TV coverage, plus timing & scoring, largely lends itself to snarky, sarcastic commentary (and yes, I'm very much guilty of that at times – including Sunday). Yet for two races running, the IndyCar drivers have behaved so well and so clean, and it's rather stunning.
Passes were made (mostly) cleanly, while the small handful of off-course excursions ended with saves and recoveries (Justin Wilson restarted on his own after his spin, and Ryan Hunter-Reay avoided getting stuck in the grass at Turn 4) that showcased the professionalism of the drivers to get going without causing a full-course caution.
This is the first time in my lifetime IndyCar has gone successive races without yellow flags, with the last having occurred in 1987 when the final two races at what was then called Laguna Seca Raceway and Tamiami Park in Miami ran without yellow interruption.
Add in Toronto, which was clean for roughly 75 of its 85 laps before the usual “all hell broke loose” routine in the last 10 circuits, and it's been very refreshing to see the field act like professionals and not cause rather dumb incidents.
Sonoma, for what it's worth, ran the first 65 of 75 laps without yellow last year before Ho-Pin Tung had an incident on the 66th lap. It's not inconceivable IndyCar could have a three-peat of races without a single yellow flag, which is funny to consider when just two races ago there were some calling for “green-white-checkered” finishes after successive races at Iowa and Toronto ended under yellow.
Naturally, that's meant no restarts and denied drivers and fans alike a chance for more potential passing opportunities. But if being “too clean” is a problem, for once, it's a good problem for IndyCar to have.
THE POWER OF THREE FOR HINCH, TK – Depending on how far back you started, it made sense to go for a three-stop strategy rather than two, for Sunday's race. The two-stoppers invariably would need to do a bit of fuel saving to hit their numbers, while theoretically a three would allow those runners to run full tilt at breakneck speed and make up the difference in pit time with a series of fast laps.
Chiefly successful of the three-stop brigade were James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan, who utilized the mix of strategy and speed to climb from 15th and 18th to fifth and sixth, respectively. Given the results were achieved on a track where passing is notoriously difficult, they were impressive finishes.
“That was probably the toughest race of the year running flat out every lap at this track,” said Hinchcliffe. “I think I had more fun than anyone but (Scott) Dixon. It was like a qualifying lap every lap. We ran some good lap times and I'm just happy to bounce back after what happened in qualifying (qualified 16th).”
“We went with a three-stop strategy and despite no yellow flags we made it work,” said an exhausted Kanaan, who was under the weather all weekend. “It was a very physical race with no cautions.”
FINISHES DON'T MATCH RACE PACE – The underlying and perhaps surprising pace from two of the series' more underdog teams Sunday was not rewarded with great finishes. Indeed Justin Wilson, James Jakes and Josef Newgarden – the first two of Dale Coyne Racing and Newgarden at Sarah Fisher Hartman – each should have had a shot at a top ten based on their efforts, but all ended 12th or worse.
Wilson's race never got started after being tapped into a spin following contact from Rubens Barrichello. No matter, though, as in the next 14 laps before his first stop, he'd climbed 11 spots from last to 14th, before it all went awry on the stop with a slow right rear tire change. And Wilson made up all those spots, but one, on-track rather than via pit stops.
Jakes (laps 25, 51, 76) and Newgarden (laps 25, 52, 68) ran three-stop strategies and although they each ran in the top ten for a sizeable portion, their final pit stops dropped them out of it.
Newgarden's 12th continued his unfortunate streak of races without a top ten finish, and the same for Simona de Silvestro in the HVM Lotus. She made some impressive laps early but was down on power, pace and fuel mileage and had to commit to a three-stop strategy on principle, rather than by pace. She ended two laps down in 23rd. Ed Carpenter finished again for the 12th time in as many races, but remained even off de Silvestro's pace in qualifying.
DIFFERENT LIVERY FORTUNES – Five drivers were racing in abnormal liveries this weekend, and had mixed results. While Ryan Briscoe (PPG blue and white, LEFT) and JR Hildebrand (pink camouflage on the National Guard car) finished in the top ten, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay (Pelotonia, LEFT) and Oriol Servia had forgettable afternoons.
Franchitti's charge ended when colliding with Hinchcliffe in making a passing attempt on the backstraight. That required a front wing change to his reliveried GE Reveal car and left the Scotsman outside the top 10 for the fifth time in six races, all of which he's started on the front row.
Hunter-Reay and Servia, of course, were second-to-last and last with varying mechanical issues in their Pelotonia green/white and Mecum black/yellow cars. RHR's slow engine failure was painful to witness, while Servia's race never got going with gearbox issues bringing him into the pits on the first lap. It's been these two that have borne the brunt of mechanical issues from the Chevrolet perspective this year; Servia's came after his first race advancing out of his first round group, and ended a string of four straight top-five finishes in races on ABC.
PANTANO STARS AGAIN – More on Giorgio Pantano's exploits at Mid-Ohio can be found here, but in a nutshell, it was business as usual for the Italian in his sixth career start, all of them coming in substitute roles.
After shading more heralded teammate Graham Rahal all weekend, Pantano followed Rahal through the pack from their 21st and 24th starting positions as they both could run flat out on three-stop strategies. In the process, Pantano set what was the race's fastest lap for most of the day before Oriol Servia eclipsed it late in the day.
It may turn out to be his only start of the year deputizing for Charlie Kimball, but, it was another impressive outing for the 33-year-old Italian who hadn't so much as sat in a Dallara DW12 before opening practice on Friday.
GOOD COVERAGE, BAD RATING ON TV – For as much flack as ABC has taken for its treatment and coverage of IndyCar races in recent years, particularly since 2009 when it's been reduced to a bit player in the schedule with only five to six races with the rest on the NBC Sports Network, credit must be given to the network for its cooperation with NBCSN and its handling of the race on Sunday.
Knowing that most of its IndyCar crew would be on respective NASCAR duties in either Pocono for Sprint Cup or Iowa for Nationwide (crew was distributed both places), ABC could have produced a half-baked, far from satisfactory broadcast with replacement talent. Luckily, through cooperation between the two networks, ABC was able to bring in the NBCSN talent and crew, and didn't miss a beat.
Once you got past the awkward vision of the NBCSN crew in ESPN gear and microphones, the broadcast was smooth sailing. The subtleties of a race at Mid-Ohio – usually one that's fairly dull – were brought to the surface in great detail. If teams were on two- versus three-stop strategies, plus the balance of knowing the gaps or delta times needed to hold or change position on pit stops, was presented in great detail.
At times it almost seemed an information overload – Kevin Lee's lap 13 report about Graham Rahal possibly still staying with Ganassi for 2013 even as his contract expired, but noting the team still plans to stay at four cars, came in the middle of the first sequence of pit stops for those teams opting for a three-stop strategy. Still, it was a case of better to have too much information rather than not enough, and for that a major tip of the cap needs to be offered to all.
From a nostalgic perspective, with this set to be his last year full-time in the booth, it was great to see Bob Jenkins on ABC one last time. Jenkins was a stalwart of ABC and ESPN's NASCAR and early IRL years for several decades.
The downside – an overnight TV rating of 0.6 on ABC is the lowest rated of six ABC races this season, if higher than all NBCSN broadcasts.
ALSO OF NOTE – Alex Tagliani recorded his sixth top-10 finish in eight races since he and the Team Barracuda-BHA team switched to Hondas at Indianapolis, and made the Firestone Fast Six for the fourth successive race. Tagliani was one of two drivers to incur a 10-spot grid penalty, but recovered well from 14th to 10th by the flag.
Marco Andretti (RIGHT) had his best weekend on a road or street course all season, with a start and finish of eighth. Knowing his desire to improve and challenge for wins, he will only push himself more for the final three races.
Outside of Kanaan's stellar run, the rest of the KV squad continued its struggles, with Rubens Barrichello and E.J. Viso joining TK in failing to advance from group one in qualifying, and finishing 15th (Barrichello) and 20th (Viso). Barrichello has not scored a top-10 finish on a road course since a tenth at Brazil in April.
Bourdais' fourth place took him ahead of de Silvestro by two points for 24th in the overall standings – despite Bourdais missing three oval races. If that doesn't sum up the plight of de Silvestro and HVM's season stuck with Lotus, nothing will.
Speaking of points, in the separate road course standings, Power leads Dixon by 63 markers and can clinch his third consecutive road course sub-championship next race if he maintains a gap of at least 54 points. Only four points from second to fourth in those standings separate Dixon, Castroneves and Hunter-Reay.
Pagenaud can clinch Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year honors, officially, next race as he currently holds an all-but-unassailable 137-point gap (311 to 174) over Newgarden.
The series is on a three-week break before the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, although there will be a test there on August 17.