AN EVOLVING INSTITUTION
The 2 In T.O. IZOD IndyCar Series double-header in Toronto was a microcosm of all that's improved with the star-crossed open-wheel series in recent months.
In the wake of the controversial 25-second penalty assessed to Dario Franchitti by Race Control (which was rescinded within a few hours), and the late decision to give Saturday's aborted standing start a do-over in Round 2 (which had been scheduled for a rolling start), some fans, drivers and team members questioned what appeared to be a rather liquid approach to governance by the IndyCar Series.
The immediate frustration felt by the Ganassi team was understandable; if Franchitti's move was deemed worthy of a penalty, similar moves by at least half the field at various points on the track also deserved 25-second adjustments to their finishing positions.
And, with drivers already at the halfway point of the weekend, changing course on how the second race would start was rather unsettling. But after years of a strict, by-the-rules approach to the sport, the dynamic outlook taken by IndyCar's Derrick Walker and his competition team, along with the event's promoters, deserves nothing but praise.
Accuracy was championed on Saturday and pleasing the fans became a top priority for Sunday. In short, with a judgment error to handle and an entertainment issue coming out of Round 1, the series did something that broke from tradition and cleaned up both messes as quickly as possible.
“It was an attempt to do what's right for the teams and the fans,” Walker told RACER when asked about the refreshing tact taken by the series. “All of the officials and promoters involved were of the same mind. I didn't have to force-feed them. We shouldn't be afraid to say we're wrong.”
Walker also went into detail about how he expects to revise post-race procedures to better handle a scenario like the one visited on Franchitti.
“When I look at the Dario situation in hindsight, when have what you think may be a penalty, it makes me think we need to re-introduce provisional results,” he explained. “When he's up on the stand getting his trophy, the team and fans should know the results are unofficial at that point. Or if the car goes through technical inspection and there's a woefully obvious infraction, the fans and the drivers know it's unofficial and like most series, we still have our reviews and inspections to be done.
“Having a penalty awarded right after the checkered flag – especially when a guy is on the podium for all to see – maybe isn't the best process.”
Taking a few extra breaths before making race-altering decisions will also be met with new, yet-to-be-defined procedures to expedite data and information gathering once the checkered flag waves.
“At the time with Dario, it looked like he was weaving and we felt confident in that and ruled as such,” continued Walker. “But the ‘unofficial results' piece has maybe been lost somewhat in the rules in recent years because TV and everyone else wants a final decision immediately.
“I'm not laying the blame there, but the immediacy and want for everything to be set in stone has hindered us if we look at what took place at Toronto. Going forward, we need to grab the data from the cars immediately, get all the alternate views from TV, and if we have to rule on something, we can do a review pretty quickly afterward. That's what we should do if faced with a similar situation like that again.”
Walker, in conjunction with race promoters Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, also worked with IndyCar teams to look at the data as cars sat for Saturday's ill-fated standing start and saw that, to their surprise, the engine temperatures being encountered were lower than expected.
“There was a feeling going in that if it was necessary, and if the cars weren't adversely affected by sitting and running without air flowing through the radiators and such, that Sunday could be used as a fallback to make sure we got a standing start completed,” said Walker.
“It wasn't as if we'd wanted that to be the scenario, but with the series' very first standing start on the books for Saturday, of course you realize the chances of something going awry would be higher than if we'd done this three or four times already. In the end, I think the drivers did an excellent job to adapt on Sunday and got away cleanly. If the fans were happy, that's all that matters.”
Look for a few tweaks to the standing start procedure when it returns at Houston in October – possibly less time sitting idle once the grid is formed – among other improvements that were noted, according to Walker.
“Like everything else, we have some ideas on what to do better by the time we get to Houston, and we've already begun working through that list.”
Toronto also proved to be a showcase for the titanic, behind-the-scenes power struggle taking place between the series' biggest teams.
The most obvious takeaway from last weekend was that Scott Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti owned the event from start to finish, with Dixie scoring a pole and two wins and the Scot claiming pole and a podium finish for Saturday's 85-lap race.
Marco Andretti was the only Andretti Autosport to come away with a pair of top-10s as his teammates either suffered through one bad finish, or two, in the case of defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. Team Penske also left Canada with split results as championship leader Helio Castroneves continued his solid form with a sixth on Saturday and a second on Sunday, while teammate Will Power had a weekend to forget.
Finally, it ended up happening far later in the championship than expected, but after the Andretti team won five of the nine races to open the season, the tides visibly turned at Toronto in favor of the red Ganassi cars.
Ganassi entered Toronto with a 1-2-3 finish at Pocono, but the new-spec Honda engine, along with a bold call by the team to run a low-downforce package, played a decisive role in delivering that podium sweep for the team. At Toronto, the midseason work done by Ganassi's engineers to find the mechanical grip their cars had been missing was on full display, making it more of a drivers' race than one predicated purely by chassis setup.
Coupled with the series-leading midrange power offered by the Honda, the can't-find-their-ass-with-both-hands manner Chip Ganassi Racing started the season has now been replaced with a concern that the team could win every round from Mid-Ohio through Houston.
Thanks to the unpredictable nature of the 2013 IndyCar season, it's doubtful that will happen, but it's worth noting that at the exact time Team Penske and Andretti Autosport needed to find an extra gear, Dixon and Franchitti pulled ahead by a few car lengths.
With a short break until action resumes at Mid-Ohio, Ganassi's rivals won't be recharging their batteries after an exhaustive stretch of racing. If they want to overtake the red cars, more late nights spent on damper development and simulation will be required.
The drivers who pilot the machines might have time for quick vacations, but their engineers are nowhere close to slowing down.
The visuals were simply spectacular.
Crouched down on the exit of Toronto's Turn 1, peering between the small gap separating the Honda banner attached to the fence and the concrete slab it was mounted to, the once-in-a-generation driving skills of Scott Dixon played like a private screening for this writer.
The notoriously bumpy section at the end of the front straight makes braking in a controlled fashion a serious challenge. And turning right toward Turn 1 after dealing with those undulations only adds to the tricky sequence and timing required to apex as desired.
Once drivers dived for the inside of Turn 1, a new concrete patch – akin to a Teflon coating at the apex – left most drivers looking like they were putting on a drifting exhibition. Violent and bumpy on the way in, slippery in the middle and on the way out, Turn 1 was seemingly designed to reward drivers with supreme car control, and with Dixon atop that list, the Kiwi put on a clinic in both races.
“That's where he pulled out a gap every time,” confirmed Team Penske's Will Power. And watching how Dixon achieved it was incredibly revealing about the different driving styles in play.
To start, the two-time series champion avoided the one issue that hindered most drivers in Turn 1. With straightline braking completed, the majority of the field turned in, got their cars rotated to the point of satisfaction, and did their best to be gentle with the throttle to power out of the corner as their rear tires rolled across the concrete.
That mix of turning, adding power, and having that power hit while on the concrete led to plenty of oversteer…at the the wrong point on the track. Catching a slide while attempting to rocket down the longest straight on the track hurt – it increased the elapsed time exiting Turn 1 all the way to the braking point for Turn 3 – so Dixon came up with a convenient workaround.
Rather than deal with throttle-induced oversteer on corner exit, Dixon simply threw his Honda-powered No. 9 car across the corner earlier than the others, sliding over the concrete patch so that by the time he exited the turn, his wheels were pointed straight and full power was being put to the ground.
It was a minor adjustment; navigating Turn 1 happens in only a matter of seconds, but Dixon's keen awareness and amazing car control allowed him to solve a puzzle that left his competitors spinning their wheels while searching for a solution.
And now the series heads to Mid-Ohio, Dixon's personal playground, followed by two events that play directly into his fast-moving hands. The Ganassi team's resurgence could not have been scripted to come at a better time – just as the series hits a stretch where tracks that are perfectly matched to Dixon's talents are run in succession.
By the numbers, Dixon is due for another championship – he won the first in 2003, the second in 2008 – if the five-year span routine continues. Now it's up to the Andrettis and Penskes to try and break that trend.
FAMILIAR TERRITORY FOR RHR
July hasn't been kind to Ryan Hunter-Reay. A troubling run of bad results from Pocono (20th) through Toronto (18th, 19th) has the champ back in a familiar place as the series begins its final push to the season finale.
“I'm still third in points, but man, that was a brutal stretch of races,” he told RACER. “I got taken out from behind by [Takuma] Sato entering the pits at Pocono; that hurt us. I had a crazy wheel speed sensor issue in the first Toronto race – the car thought it was doing 70mph while I was sitting still during a pit stop, so that's why it freaked out and stalled. Then I was trying too hard to make up positions toward the end of the race and just messed up.
“And then in the second race, I was trying to make up positions on the last restart, [Sebastien] Bourdais closed to the door so I went to the outside in Turn 1, tried to go around Will [Power]. He got super sideways – completely crossed up – and hit me. It wasn't intentional; we all got sideways there, but that put us in the wall and my day was done. Not a happy two weeks for the No. 1 car.”
RHR also had a familiar sight in his rearview mirrors when his car came to a halt after the crash.
“Yeah, I looked back and saw Sato parked up the backside of the car again,” he said with a laugh. “But it wasn't his fault this time. He had nowhere to go, but yeah, seeing Takuma there two weekends in a row was bizarre.”
The ride to the infield care center also made for a mildly funny and somewhat uncomfortable situation.
“The three of us are sitting there kind of looking at each other but not sure what to say,” continued Hunter-Reay. “I made my feeling known about Pocono and what happened with Sato last week, so I didn't want to open that can again, and I felt bad about me and Power being in the wrong place at the same time, so we just kind of looked around and waited until the ride was over…”
Getting his championship aspirations back on track is all RHR says he's focused on after Toronto.
“It's similar to last year in a lot of ways,” he reckoned. “We were in a bit of a jam and had to execute at every race to score maximum points and we're going to Mid-Ohio feeling like that situation is here once again. The reality is that I can't have any more weekends like Pocono or Toronto.
“If Helio or Dixon have some bad races, sure, that will help our cause, but you can't count on stuff like that happening. Nothing really ever comes easy, and I accept that. Everything is a fight, a challenge, and that's where I tend to do my best. I'll tell you one thing – it's going to be exciting from here to Fontana.”