More details of Michael Andretti's successful Saturday at the Milwaukee Mile can be found here, but in a nutshell, the transformation of the event from 2011 to 2012 was very much evident,. Even if the crowd numbers still weren't stellar, they made for a major improvement year-on-year. Icing on the cake came with the success of Andretti Autosport's drivers in Saturday's race, as Ryan Hunter-Reay won and James Hinchcliffe finished third. More now on the eighth round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season:
RHR'S REDEMPTION – Hunter-Reay has won the series' last two races on a one-mile oval. There was some coincidence in that RHR was the victor at a race also rain-affected, last year at Loudon, when the call was made to go green on a wet track by previous IndyCar president of competition, Brian Barnhart.
From the Milwaukee and 2012 season standpoints, though, Hunter-Reay needed this result. A solid start to the season saw him 12th or better in the first four races, with two podiums and a third he would have had at Long Beach before being penalized for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato on the last lap. But in the prior three races, Hunter-Reay had two DNFs, and fell to seventh in the championship standings after coming out of Brazil fourth, only just behind teammate James Hinchcliffe.
And then there was the small matter that last year at Milwaukee, his race lasted as long as the first corner on the first lap…
“I know, right?” he sighed, relieved at the change year-to-year. “It's huge. We won at New Hampshire last year, too. Every driver that drives the Milwaukee Mile knows you can't do it without a good racecar.
“I enjoy short-track racing. Places like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, they're very challenging. The car changes so much through a stint, it's just a really challenging, different type of racing. I really enjoy it.
“But you're no better than the team you're with. They've certainly given me a great opportunity here and I have them to thank for it.”
Hunter-Reay's second half of the 2011 season was among the best results-wise in the series, and a similar run from Iowa onward can propel the American back into championship contention.
THE ABNORMAL TOP FIVE – From the obscure stats department, Milwaukee marks the second race in a row where Watkins Glen 2008 comes up as a comparative race after the final box score. Texas was the first race since the Glen that Dale Coyne placed two cars in the top 10, while Milwaukee marks the first race since the same race that no cars from Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi Racing finished in the top five. Hunter-Reay won that race, as well!
It's weird to think of Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Hinchcliffe, Oriol Servia and E.J. Viso as “underdogs” – all are top-flight drivers – but it does show just how difficult it is to break through the barriers of the two top teams, and it's rare to see them all buried down the order.
Kanaan's always been great on the short ovals, having won at Milwaukee twice, but KV Racing Technology teammate Viso was particularly impressive to me this race. The Venezuelan was frustrated with only qualifying fifth, then emerged as the leader after the first round of pit stops on lap 72. In clean air, Viso led the next 27 laps before the next yellow flag period. Later in the race, he engaged in a dice with Hinchcliffe, and didn't find the Canadian's driving tactics all that impressive.
“I'm a bit upset at the race, actually, because we could have won or finished on the podium as a no-brainer,” Viso surmised. “Once again, I'm pretty confused with the rules in this category in the series. I don't understand why Hinchcliffe was not penalized for anything that happened to him. He was blocking me like an animal.”
Naturally, Hinchcliffe thought otherwise: “I guess the race director disagrees. In the last stint there, he had a couple runs coming off of Four. I saw him coming, so I moved to the middle of the racetrack, which I have the right to do. As long as I move before him, leave a lane if he chooses to go for it. I put it in the middle every time. One time he tried to go high, one time low, couldn't make it work.
“It certainly wasn't my intention, and I wasn't trying to block. I was trying to, as Tony said, drive to the rules. The race director thought it was OK. I guess I'm cool with it.”
Finally, yet again, Servia drove another race where he started poorly (20th in his Panther DRR Chevrolet), stealthily passed cars throughout the race, was missed by the TV cameras, and before we knew it he was in third. It was only when his tires fell off in the last stint that he dropped to his eventual fourth place. Ho hum.
“They didn't show it again? I'm the ghost driver! My new nickname is ‘the ghost driver!'” Servia said when he heard his run was, once again, largely overlooked by the ABC/ESPN cameras. “We didn't have a great car after qualifying, we had to change everything. I tried to defend the podium, but I couldn't do it. Moving high risked getting a penalty as I moved to the inside. He just had more pace. If I went low, he'd go high, if I went high, he'd go low.”
A shout-out also has to go to the third member of the KV triumvirate Rubens Barrichello, who ran in the top five most of the race before falling to tenth on the last run of the race. After two consecutive non-starts in Detroit and Texas, Barrichello clearly had his most competitive weekend in an IndyCar thus far.
DIXON'S PENALTY CALL – One part of the reason the Penske/Ganassi juggernaut came unglued in Milwaukee was a penalty assessed to Ganassi's Scott Dixon, who was ruled to have jumped a restart on lap 103.
The crux of the issue was that while there was some agreement – after initial confusion – Dixon had committed a violation, the fact the restart was waved off should have served to nullify the penalty. It took until the next restart some 20 laps later before the penalty was announced, and the infraction had actually occurred on the aborted restart.
Dixon's luck with officiating has been less than stellar this year. It's easy to forget, but at Long Beach, his car was pulled off the track when it was stopped prior to Turn 8, and was never towed back to the pits. Between that and Milwaukee, Dixon and team could certainly feel shorted.
The penalty assessed was a mistake as admitted by IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield. He addressed the assembled media after the race to explain the situation, and did so in great detail. He admitted the mistake could make him and his fellow officials in race control rather “gun-shy” going forward.
Last year, Barnhart had told AUTOSPORT's Mark Glendenning and I in Baltimore that, “Officials can be right 98 percent of the time, but the 2 percent they're not, they'll get called on it.” I think this is a case where it's an instance that the mistake was made, admitted, and worthy of “getting called on it.” I just hope it doesn't damage Dixon's championship chances for the remainder of the season. At least at this point, Dixon has eight races to make up the difference – rather than a penalty occurring at a later stage in the year.
ABC'S GOODS AND BADS – ABC had a few more highlights with its Milwaukee broadcast although there were the usual moments of frustration. The main one, of course, was a second straight shuttling off to ESPNEWS after rain delayed the start, although Milwaukee ABC affiliate WISN stayed with the race through the duration.
When the race actually got going after ABC filled the hour-and-a-half delay with various interviews (hitting both Dale Coyne drivers, Josef Newgarden and Katherine Legge showed how far back in the field they got) and packages, at least in Milwaukee, ABC did not show a commercial until after the first 69 laps at the first caution flag. Considering ABC has been widely panned for having too many ad breaks, it was a refreshing change.
ABC also did well to capture Justin Wilson's outside pass of Simon Pagenaud in real time on lap 58. While it may seem pointless to give credit for something which should be expected, often times a move like that gets missed live and is shown on replay.
Invariably there were missteps – the biggest one to me was the positioning of the running order bar across the top of the screen. The picture to the right is about an accurate depiction. At most tracks this makes little difference, but at Milwaukee, with the way the camera angle showed the front straight below the bar, you could see far more empty seats than fans – a greater majority sits in the 300 and 400 sections of the grandstands, which are higher up.
GETTING THE SPEED SENSATION BACK – From a pure visual perspective, the new Dallara DW12 looked better on track at Milwaukee than the prior Dallara IR03, and sounded better, but it didn't look particularly fast. Considering this track has seen speeds averaging well north of 170mph in the past, with the all-time mark a full 185.500 set by Patrick Carpentier in another turbocharged Champ Car in 1998, the cars at no point seemed like the rocketships they should be around the track.
“I still think there's too much downforce here,” Will Power opined after qualifying. “We had a good start taking it off at Texas. I definitely think we need the road course horsepower and to take some more downforce off.”
Similarly, Wilson said his car felt good in practice, but still felt relatively “slow.” That was before his explosive blow-up before the 100-lap mark...
Race speeds averaged in the 150mph range, with the fastest lap a 159.293 by Hunter-Reay on lap 205. Franchitti's pole speed was only 168.737 over two laps.
OTHER TIDBITS – Tony Kanaan may not want to return to the yellow and green livery which he ran in the first two races. He entered Long Beach last in points; in the five races he's driven a blue car (either GEICO/Mouser Electronics, No. 11, LEFT, or just Mouser) since, he's finished 11th or better with four top-six finishes.
The top Honda runner at Milwaukee, Alex Tagliani has now also improved his finishing position in each of the four races he's driven back with the manufacturer, and climbed from 26th to 19th in points.
Marco Andretti has completed the first half of the season without a top-10 finish, and Takuma Sato now has four consecutive DNFs since being a lap away from possibly winning the Indianapolis 500. They both need a turnaround to start this weekend at Iowa. Both had success there last year, with Sato recording his first career pole and Andretti his first win in five years.
Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter and Simon Pagenaud have made it to the finish in each of the first eight races. Carpenter posted his best result of the season Saturday at Milwaukee, an eighth place from 22nd on the grid for his first-year team. Considering there's been a handful of races where Carpenter has run better than he's finished (Brazil, Indianapolis, Texas come to mind), this was a just result.
IndyCar's marathon stretch of five races in five weekends, after the month of May, concludes this Saturday night in Iowa.