The Honda Indy Toronto is in the books. The race featured predominantly clean driving, push-to-pass rarely discussed and not much of a factor, a surprise podium, and then the usual end of race “lose your heads” type driving that tends to infect Toronto more than elsewhere. For more explanation on the officiating aspects in Toronto, check out our Q&A with IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield – otherwise, the other stories of note from the tenth round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season are below.
FLYIN' RYAN, CHARGIN' CHARLIE - If the first two wins in this streak didn't assert Ryan Hunter-Reay as a legit championship contender, this one at Toronto did. Hunter-Reay's been good to begin with at Toronto for the last few years, if overlooked in the domination of the eventual winners and controversy that has been a major part of previous Toronto races.
Hunter-Reay leads the standings for the first time in his career by 34 points over Will Power. After Brazil, when Power had completed his own hat trick of victories, the Australian led Helio Castroneves in second by 45 points, and Hunter-Reay (fourth) by 59. Power has only one top-five finish (fourth at Detroit) since, and has now lost some 93 points to “RHR” over the last six races.
In this instance, Hunter-Reay got the lead on lap 49 and never relinquished it outside of one lap the rest of the way for his last pit stop. Hunter-Reay cycled back to the lead and put himself in the best position to survive the inevitable late-race chaos that was bound to break out.
Hunter-Reay then led through Turn 1 on the last restart, while Charlie Kimball's great run survived the final attack into the corner from Mike Conway. Kimball, stuck in the middle when Conway charged up the inside, skated into Sebastien Bourdais to knock him out of the race.
As he was able to avoid the dust-up, Kimball could count himself fortunate that his race didn't go for naught. Although he was a beneficiary of the first caution period that cycled the top seven cars back in the field once they pitted, Kimball by no means lucked into his first podium of his career.
In the balance of the race, Kimball was one of the more aggressive push-to-pass users (roughly the only time a graphic came up regarding usage, Kimball had used 18 of his allotted 100 seconds, while Takuma Sato in front of him had only used 8), but it seemed he was always hanging onto the car in front of him while legitimately in the top-10.
Once Simon Pagenaud and Tony Kanaan shifted into fuel conservation mode in the late stages, their push up through Turn 3 left enough room for Kimball to sneak through. It's a contender for pass-of-the-year, and it showed he could grab the opportunity presented to him.
He's still not a world-beater, but Kimball has been one of, if not the most improved drivers this season. To think that within 10 races, he's only one point behind his more heralded teammate Graham Rahal, has to be something of a surprise.
THE AMERICAN ATTACK ON THE PODIUM – Yes, I admit it. It would have been glorious to see an all-American podium, and the shame of the Pagenaud/Josef Newgarden contretemps at Turn 3 was that Newgarden got taken out of his chance. Still, back-to-back American 1-2 finishes is something that hasn't happened for more than a decade, and both Hunter-Reay and Kimball were basking in the glow of their results – as well as etching their names into the record books.
With RHR and Marco Andretti having been first and second last race at Iowa, this marks the first time in IndyCar since the IRL in 2001 that Americans have finished 1-2 in consecutive races. The last eight races of the 2001 IRL season, American drivers swept the podium.
From a CART historical standpoint, that drought of American 1-2s dates to 1996 – when Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal finished 1-2 in consecutive races at Elkhart Lake and Vancouver. Earlier in that season, eventual champion Jimmy Vasser performed the feat with back-to-back wins in Surfers' Paradise and Long Beach, with Scott Pruett and Parker Johnstone second in those two races.
Vasser (CART, 1996) and Sam Hornish Jr. (IRL, 2001, '02, '06) are open-wheel's most recent American champions. There have been several back-to-back American wins in this time frame, but none where an American also finished second in the second race. Had Newgarden made the podium, it would have been the first American 1-2-3 since Hornish, Marco and Michael Andretti in the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
PENALTY DISCRETION BEHIND THE TOP TWO? – Unfortunately, three of the best “surprise” results this season have come with an asterisk, now that it was announced Tuesday that third-placed Mike Conway's car had an illegal fuel cell. Conway's A.J. Foyt Enterprises entry has been penalized 10 entrant points and fined $15,000 as the car did not comply with Rule 14.7.2 – a tank that exceeded the 18.5-gallon maximum capacity.
Pagenaud's Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports squad also committed a fuel cell size violation at Iowa, but was deemed by IndyCar officials that the discrepancy in the size had no impact on the race result of the No. 77 car. Conway's, by contrast, was deemed to have had an impact – although the points penalty did not mean his actual result of third was altered.
“We felt the discrepancy in the size of the fuel tank was enough that it potentially could have provided a track position advantage and the penalty is reflective of that,” said Will Phillips, vp of technology, IndyCar, in IndyCar's official release.
Unfortunately there's another penalty that's happened as well. At Texas, Justin Wilson's Dale Coyne Racing team utilized an illegal sidepod top deck, and the team was fined $7,500 and docked five entrant points for not complying with the sidepod top deck aerodynamic element of Rule 126.96.36.199.
While credit should be applied for the transparency of IndyCar announcing the violations for these penalties, it wouldn't be out of line to suggest the technical inspection process could afford to be examined in the off-season.
ON THE PAGENAUD, NEWGARDEN DUST-UP – By IndyCar's standards outlined at the start of the season, both Pagenaud and Newgarden were deemed “rookies.” In truth, only Newgarden really merits the title – he's the only genuine first-year driver in the series. Meanwhile, it was beyond frustrating to hear several broadcast TV and radio mentions of Pagenaud as “making his first Toronto start” when in fact he'd driven there in Atlantic and Champ Car in consecutive seasons, albeit if it was five and six years ago.
That said, their dust-up at Turn 3 were both rookie-esque mistakes, in this writer's opinion. The easy and so far more popular opinion witnessed on Twitter and forums was that the accident was Pagenaud's fault. And in a greater percentage than not, I'd have to agree.
The issue was twofold, though. Pagenaud had pitted six laps sooner than Newgarden, and therefore likely would have needed a splash of fuel to make the finish if the race stayed green. Knowing this, from a strategic standpoint, the SFHR team would need to relay that information to Newgarden and note that he could ride there and get on the podium by default.
As for the move itself, yes, it was a definitive reactionary move by Pagenaud on Newgarden once he worked him down the track going into Turn 3. But, cannily, Pagenaud left just enough room to where Newgarden could in fact complete the pass. The problem was, by the time he did, there was no chance of stopping in time to make the corner, and the only place he'd go was into the tire barrier.
I'd rate the contretemps as 90 percent Pagenaud's fault per the block, and 10 percent to Newgarden for trying an ambitious move, that, like at Long Beach, didn't work.
Regular readers of these post-race analysis pieces will recall I praised Newgarden's Long Beach passing attempt on Dario Franchitti, but in this instance, I think it was a move he probably could have avoided making given Pagenaud's uncertain fuel situation. At this stage in the season, the team is still without a top-10 finish, and a genuine result – not just potential – was needed.
Given how the order was so jumbled to begin with, and with no disrespect to the eventual top finishers, this was probably the best chance for a result for that team this season. It even made team co-owner Sarah Fisher curse, and justifiably so. But, I would love nothing more than to eat crow on that one.
To his and the team's credit, it was a genuinely impressive run by Newgarden after fuel pressure related issues cost the team the entirety of Friday, and Josef completed all of zero full laps.
BOURDAIS, WILSON'S PARALLEL WEEKENDS – They were two of the best in the Champ Car days. They are still two of the best road and street drivers in IndyCar today, even if they're considered as not being with the best teams. And at Toronto, both Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson were in podium positions after bouncing back from being joined at the hip for all the wrong reasons on Friday.
It all started with the pit incident in Friday morning practice, Wilson stuck in gear and then careening into Bourdais' pits and hitting three of his Dragon Racing crewmembers. Despite the incident, none of the four crewmembers affected (three Dragon and one of Wilson's Dale Coyne guys) were seriously injured.
Come Sunday, starting from third and fourth on the grid (best starts of the year for both), they should have been in contention for the win. Unfortunately for Wilson – driving a car with a mended front wing after earlier incidents in the weekend – later had a mechanical issue that sidelined him. He was as high as second before the gremlins struck. Wilson explains:
“The Sonny's Bar-B-Q Honda was pretty good out there and we were having a strong race,” he said. “In that last stint I was just battling away to get on the podium and I thought we had a good shot at that. About half way round that last lap I started to lose power, but it was intermittent, so it would just die and accelerate, die and accelerate. Eventually I got to Turn 11 and it died as I entered. As I got to the apex suddenly it gave me full power back. It spun the wheels, the rear came out and clipped the wall and bent the suspension. So I'm very disappointed. We've found the part that failed which caused the power loss, and we'll just have to learn from that.”
For Bourdais, who had hung around the top 10 most of the day and suddenly found himself in third place on the last restart, he was in the unenviable position of being the outside car in a pinball-type Turn 1 situation. His initial comments pointed to Charlie Kimball being the guilty party although Mike Conway was the perpetrator.
“Too many idiots,” Bourdais surmised in his TV interview. “He shouldn't be standing on the podium. He doesn't deserve it.”
After seeing the replay, Bourdais adjusted the blame and clarified in a tweet post-race. Both drivers, though, could count themselves unlucky for another race where the results didn't match the pace.
PODIUM EXPLOSION – Kimball and Conway's first podiums of the year makes 15 the number of different podium finishers in 2012, which is a mark one greater than the entire 2011 season. The 2011 number was achieved in 17 races; 2012's in 10, with five races to go.
Kimball, Conway, and Takuma Sato are among those who've cracked the top three this year. Those who haven't include Oriol Servia (RIGHT), Alex Tagliani, Sebastien Bourdais, Rubens Barrichello, E.J. Viso, JR Hildebrand, Josef Newgarden, Ed Carpenter, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge. Realistically, at least three and possibly five of those 11 could accrue one later in the year.
OTHER TIDBITS – Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, collectively, haven't won in four straight races. The last season there was more than one race in a row without a Penske or Ganassi victory was 2008, when Tony Kanaan and Hunter-Reay won successive races at Richmond and Watkins Glen for Andretti Green and Rahal Letterman Racing, respectively. Earlier in the year, Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick had also completed that feat at St. Petersburg and Motegi.
The Target Ganassi squad's horrible race included Scott Dixon's early engine failure, and Dario Franchitti's first pit stop gone wrong where he missed his marks. Franchitti started on pole for the third race running, and has yet to finish better than 17th in that run. It's been as surprising as frustrating for them to see them mired in this current mini-slump.
Along the same parity lines, 10 different teams finished in the top-10 – and none were a Target Chip Ganassi Racing team. Down to 14th-placed Bourdais, 13 different teams were represented. The only one with two cars was KV Racing (Kanaan fourth, Rubens Barrichello 11th), and the only teams not represented were TCGR, Ed Carpenter Racing and Lotus HVM Racing.
Oriol Servia, in another ho-hum, “from nowhere to top-five” run, climbed from 14th to his fourth top five finish of the season. All have come on ABC-televised races, and all have come from 14th or worse on the grid.
Out of the spotlight, Helio Castroneves finished sixth – a career-best at Toronto dating to his rookie season in 1998. With his fourth consecutive top-10 finish, Castroneves has quietly snuck back to third in the standings, and his elusive first championship could be in the offing with another win and some luck affecting Power and Hunter-Reay in front of him.
Credit to James Jakes, the Dale Coyne Racing sophomore who ran quietly but consistently to a career best eighth-place finish.
The series has a week off before the second Canadian round of the season in Edmonton on July 22.