Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach featured a wide range of storylines that developed during the race, where trying to follow them all during was made somewhat challenging. That said, the great mix of passes and strategies made for an incredibly entertaining race.
THE PAGENAUD FILE – In 2010, and driving his third different iteration of HPD prototypes in as many years, I witnessed Simon Pagenaud put on a clinic in comebacks when he closed several tenths to 1.5 seconds of a lap, per lap, on Adrian Fernandez for the overall win in the American Le Mans Series' race at Long Beach. On the final lap, Pagenaud pressured Fernandez into a mistake off Turn 5, and the Frenchman slipped past later in the lap.
Those who have followed Pagenaud's career over the past six years, from his 2006 championship-winning debut season in Formula Atlantic over such luminaries as Rahal, Matos and Hinchcliffe, to his sports car standout drives in HPDs and Peugeots, know he has a killer instinct and an ability to push at qualifying pace in the race, within a couple tenths of each other, almost every lap when he needs to.
Seeing him briefly in the paddock Sunday morning, Pagenaud had a winning swagger – he felt supremely confident in his car and both his and his team's ability, and he brought it once the green flag dropped.
It should come as no surprise, then, that his two stints before he needed to pit and then after making his final fuel stop Sunday at Long Beach showcased what kind of talent level he has when actually in the spotlight. Every lap, watching timing & scoring, it was 1:09.7, 1:09.6, 1:09.8, 1:09.7, 1:09.5, 1:09.6, and so on and so forth, where Pagenaud pulled the gap out as far as he could before visiting the pits – eventually 18.8 seconds.
After exiting 14.2sec down to Will Power, it came back down, as if an elevator ride, until it was 2.62 with two laps to go, 1.08 with 1…and then he hit ground level with Power emerging from the elevator first. Had there been one more lap, I'd bet a few dollars Pagenaud might have repeated his 2010 heroics – even if he was facing his former Team Australia Champ Car teammate.
HONDA'S DISAPPOINTING DAY – It was an unfortunate day for Honda, roughly an hour south of Honda Performance Development headquarters in Santa Clarita, Calif. A mix of different tire strategies and more mechanical maladies massacred their Sunday.
Spotted all of the top 10 positions except 10th on the starting grid, the Honda runners ended only second, eighth and 10th on a day when they could have, and probably should have, locked out at least four of the top five positions.
To begin the race, Chevrolet already had an advantage based on the starting tire strategies. While the Chevrolet runners all started on primary blacks, except for JR Hildebrand, the Honda runners started on the alternate reds. That meant, inevitably, the Hondas would need stellar first stints to open as much of a gap as possible over the Chevrolet runners, but once the Chevrolets were in for their first stops, they could run reds to the finish.
The Chevrolet teams, knowing they had their 10-spot grid penalties, had the option of saving their red sets in qualifying and instead running on blacks for one of the three knockout sessions. As it turned out, they'd still have the pace when they did use reds, and five of the Firestone Fast Six were Chevrolet runners.
Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti were the first of the “Bowtie brigade” to pit, and they could then, as Andretti said, “make hay” from there knowing they had a tire advantage in hand. As the Chevrolet runners shifted off strategy, the Honda runners played things relatively by the book.
That was, of course, except for Pagenaud and Takuma Sato. Pagenaud had gone off sequence with his earlier second stop and then pushing for his third stint of the race. Sato, meanwhile, had the similar advantage of the Chevrolet runners as the only Honda to start on blacks – a strategic call from the Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew that paid dividends in all but the final result.
For the final 15-lap sprint, the Chevrolets had slowly crept up the leaderboard to where they occupied either four or five of the top six positions as the Hondas fell by the wayside.
So what happened? Both of the Target Ganassi cars had mechanical issues, Scott Dixon retiring when the marshals took him off track at Turn 8, while Dario Franchitti struggled on restarts early, then made contact with Ryan Briscoe and lost time in the pits to replace a front wing. His later issue relegated him to 15th. Charlie Kimball quietly ran in the top 10 for 68 laps but he, too, had a late gearbox problem. Graham Rahal, of course, had his big contact with Marco Andretti (we'll get to that).
Mike Conway had a fire and retired, never able to replicate the prowess of his win a year ago. Both Coyne cars lost their great results after a strategic misstep (see next page), and Josef Newgarden ended his race with his first lap accident after a bold gamble gone wrong (also next page).
All in all, it was a disappointing day for Honda despite Pagenaud's heroics and Sato's impressive run. Chevrolet has scored a maximum 27 points, to Honda's 18 and Lotus's 12 in the manufacturers' standings as the order of best manufacturer has been Chevrolet-Honda-Lotus each time.