Iowa is in the books as the ninth of now 15 races on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. A rather abnormal race featured a spate of retirements but a substantial amount of action throughout the 25-car field, ending with Ryan Hunter-Reay's second win in a row.
ANDRETTI, RHR ON A ROLL – Hunter-Reay called his second win in a row, the first back-to-back in his near-decade long open-wheel career, a “game changer.” More accurately, it was a blast to the past when Andretti Autosport – then called Andretti Green Racing – was as on form as it is now.
The last back-to-back period of wins for the team came in 2007 – its last title season with Dario Franchitti – when Tony Kanaan and Franchitti won the last two races of the year in Detroit and Chicagoland. The team had nine wins in 17 races that year including three sets of back-to-backs, and the first came at Iowa when Franchitti won the inaugural Iowa Corn Indy 250 and then at Richmond a week later.
The team was nearly in a position to secure a podium sweep had it not been for James Hinchcliffe's accident in the waning moments. Nonetheless, Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti mastered the treacherous 0.875-mile Iowa oval. Marco, in his first 2012 race sans facial hair, secured his long overdue first top-10 result of the year.
With a top five of Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, IndyCar only just missed a second successive race with a top five not including a Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Dixon's fourth put pause to that possibility.
PAGENAUD STEALS THE SHOW – The bad out of the way, first – IndyCar has again confirmed a penalty for another feel-good story. The major technical gaffe that was missed on Justin Wilson's winning car in Texas supersedes a fuel tank size issue which was announced Tuesday on Simon Pagenaud's Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports' car. It brought the team a $5,000 penalty, but IndyCar ruled that the tank size had no bearing on Pagenaud's race or the result.
That's fortuitous considering Pagenaud was arguably the star of the night. From last on the grid, following both an ill-handling car in the heat races and a 10-spot grid penalty (essentially nullified by the poor heat result), Pagenaud sliced and diced his way to a top-five finish in only his fourth ever oval race. Add to it the loss of a close family member, and the result was all the more remarkable.
“I've never started last before! When I saw everyone in front of me at the start, I couldn't believe I was back there,” Pagenaud offered. “I was sitting in the car before the race and thinking about my girlfriend's father, who passed away this week. We were very close. He watched every race of mine, and I felt like he was watching me still tonight.
"My thought process starting the race was ‘just move forward.' It was really difficult at the beginning. We were already a lap down before I got confident with the car. Something just clicked, and everything unlocked and we started moving forward. I'm really starting to enjoy the ovals. It's close racing and it's fun.”
ATTRITION CITY – It rained in the lead-up to the Iowa Corn Indy 250, as it did a week ago in Milwaukee. You have to wonder if some stray banana peels or mushrooms you might see in “Mario Kart” were somehow included, because it seemed more cars were spinning, crashing and retiring in Iowa than there have at any point this season.
To start, there was polesitter Dario Franchitti's engine blow-up before the green flag even took place. Formula 1 stat guru Sean Kelly noted on Twitter this was the first such instance of a polesitter being sidelined for that reason since Michael Schumacher at the 1996 French Grand Prix – different series, but still the same level of “seriously?” shock that came with it. A diplomatic Franchitti at least served out the duration of the race providing insights and witticisms from the commentary booth.
This segues perfectly into the next major “seriously?” moment of the race – when Franchitti's championship arch-nemesis Will Power crashed out with E.J. Viso, a move Power later admitted was entirely his fault. It was funny to hear Franchitti's take on Viso blaming Power for the accident – as he noted, “That's a bit rich coming from Viso, considering he's hit everything but the pace car.” Good on Power for owning it.
In another “good on ya, mate,” moment, cheers to Power's Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe who took the high road in his post-race interview after retiring from contact with Josef Newgarden. Rather than throw the rookie under the bus, Briscoe just admitted it was an unfortunate occurrence while thanking the fans for waiting out the rain delay. More on Newgarden in a minute…
The high attrition also took its toll on Hinchcliffe, the Canadian failing to capitalize on what would have been a huge points night both in the overall and oval championships after a rare unforced error. Oriol Servia was sidelined again, as in Texas, thanks to a freak mechanical issue outside both his and the Panther DRR team's control, while Alex Tagliani and Mike Conway (mechanicals) and JR Hildebrand and Katherine Legge (contact) also failed to make the flag. The 14 finishers from 25 starters represents a season low in IndyCar this year.
HEAT RACES CLEAN, BUT “MEH” – The trial run of IndyCar's new heat race system went off to mixed-to-positive reviews, with the most commonly held sentiment that with little incentive, there was little to race for. While I preferred it to setting the grid rather than just single-car runs, it still wasn't overly interesting.
It didn't help matters much that two of the three winners – Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan – would drop 10 places anyway due to unapproved engine changes. The same, fortunately, didn't need to be said about Franchitti, except his then went “kablammo” at an unexpected and inopportune moment.
With three heat races down and no wrecked machinery to begin with, IndyCar can count itself fortunate that the first try at something went off safely and cleanly, without much drama. A couple suggestions to improve: Perhaps a point to each winner of the preliminary heat races as well as a transfer spot into the main, and a cash and points bonus (say maybe 3-2-1 or 5-3-1) for the top-three finishers on the final heat race.
NEWGARDEN'S RESULTS CONUNDRUM – With Marco Andretti finishing second, the black cloud of “when will they get their first top-10?” now falls squarely on Newgarden. It's a dilemma because of both the promise and he his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team has shown, but also compared to the results achieved by everyone else.
In nine races, Newgarden has qualified in the top 10 five times, but has yet to get a representative result. It's an ignominious statistic that only he, Katherine Legge and Simona de Silvestro are yet to end a race among the top-10 finishers, and correspondingly have the three worst average finishes in the field. For most of the year, the female drivers have been saddled with the Lotus engine while Newgarden and SFHR got a reprieve with a Honda lease at the 11th hour.
While some may look at this as sincere disappointment – not least Newgarden himself, who has particularly high standards for himself – the expectations, realistically, shouldn't have been that high for this group to begin with. Everything about the team has been an underdog effort, tight knit as they are, but stacked with a total rookie driver in an unsponsored car (save for Indianapolis), in the team's first full season, in what's one of the deepest fields in years.
If anything Newgarden overachieved from a results standpoint with 11th on debut at St. Petersburg, and showed his mettle with his passing attempt on Franchitti in Long Beach and qualifying run at Indy. I'd put his contact with Briscoe in the “mistakes” column thus far, and with the first half-plus of the season out of the way, it would not surprise me to see a couple breaks and results come his way on one or two of the road/street course races the rest of the way.
And, to be fair to him, Franchitti's first nine starts in IndyCar weren't much better; his 1997 season produced only one top 10 and three accidents in the first nine events. The 2011 rookie class featured Hinchcliffe with four top 10s, Hildebrand two and Charlie Kimball one through nine races. Is the pressure on him to improve? Yes, but he knows it better than anyone.
OF NOTE – Props to Ed Carpenter on a second successive eighth-place finish, again fairly quietly, after getting back on the lead lap midrace and then driving forward from another poor starting position. Carpenter reckoned he had to work “too hard” for the result and could have conceivably finished in the top five with a better grid spot.
Takuma Sato finished a race for only the second time this season (P12), and Viso's contact meant he failed to finish for only the second time this year. Go figure.
Under-the-radar series sophomores Charlie Kimball and James Jakes are, naturally, quietly improving their finishing records. Kimball's 11th gives him five top-11 results out of six finishes in the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing car, while Jakes' 13th keeps his streak alive of finishing no worse than 16th the six races he's seen the flag for Dale Coyne Racing. Jakes only once finished better than 15th in 2011.
Franchitti earned full points for his 25th-place finish as his car was running at the time of the official start, before his engine failed. By contrast, Rubens Barrichello and Simona de Silvestro were not active at the official start at Texas, and therefore received only half points, as confirmed to RACER.com by IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield.
The series takes a well-earned and much needed off week this weekend before resuming July 6-8 on the streets of Toronto.