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.
RESULTS DON'T MATCH RUN FOR COYNE – Ordinarily, a run that ended 10th and 11th – especially after the team's first two races of 2012 – would be cause for celebration for perennial hopefuls Dale Coyne Racing. Unfortunately, the end result showed that in order to maximize results, the combination of pace, persistence and strategy must be perfect.
Both cars ran in the top five throughout the race, and Justin Wilson was on course for a podium if not a win if all the cards fell right. He shot to the lead in the early stages after the first restart, with a slingshot move past Simon Pagenaud and around Dario Franchitti into Turn 1. Wilson had steadily extended his lead to more than 7sec before the second yellow on lap 20 began the inexorable run to a demoralizing ending.
“Unfortunately, the strategy was all wrong,” he surmised. “When we pitted on lap 20, we put ourselves in a tough spot, but it was still possible to recover from that – we saw that Simon did.”
The bigger issue for Wilson's No. 18 Sonny's BBQ car was its second stop on lap 52. At 33 laps to the flag, Wilson would have needed some yellow-flag running to make it without another stop, or pulled the same move as Pagenaud in running flat out to a third stop and building as much of a gap to offset the time penalty for pitting.
“Initially, the software that we use was showing a fuel target which was close enough to what we'd been running earlier in the race, so we should have been fine to two-stop,” Wilson explained. “Then the target jumped higher and when we double-checked that it was clear we had a problem. But by then it was too late to do what Simon had done and build up enough of a gap to pit again and come out near the front.”
A final stop on lap 81 dropped Wilson back to 11th, and it was only thanks to the penalty handed to Helio Castroneves for the hairpin incident on the last lap that Justin was promoted to his second 10th place result of the year.
Jakes, meanwhile, had quietly moved up the order and consistently ran in the top five. It was only when Power passed Jakes that everyone realized the second-year Englishman was there on merit, and running competitive lap times.
His race went awry in the late stages when he had both an off at Turn 1, and then followed his teammate's lead in a late pit stop for a final splash of fuel. That dropped him down the order into a result unrepresentative of the run he had produced, although it still marked a career-high finish.
The upside of a frustrating ending was that the team continued to improve its setup, and knowing Wilson's natural pace, a result to match should be in line soon.
“We've now got a better understanding of the philosophy of this car,” he said. “Some of that came from Indy, where the car drove fantastically in the test. The driveability was great and it was reasonably quick. We're relieved to be back on the pace, because for a while, we struggled to find it.”
NEWGARDEN'S OFFICIAL ARRIVAL – In 16 years watching races at Long Beach, I know Turn 1 accidents are common. Most of them tend to be as a result of stupidity. Few have been as a result of bravery where it basically worked save for about a foot.
I'd count Josef Newgarden's in the latter, marking his official arrival to IndyCar.
Newgarden is only 21, but mature beyond his years. In three races this season, Newgarden has taken blame for not advancing in qualifying, always credited his crew, and remained calm and poised despite not getting an engine until the 11th hour.
On Sunday, he took advantage of his front row starting position to go for the lead on Dario Franchitti's outside at Turn 1. Depending on who you talked to, there was or was not contact, but regardless, the end result was Newgarden smacking the end of the tire barrier and contacting the wall.
His race was over, but the statement was made.
As could be expected, rather than attempt to pin blame on Franchitti for punting him, Newgarden said he almost expected a first-corner incident, and added that since he's not an official, it wasn't his place to comment on whether Franchitti should have been penalized.
More than that, this was a 21-year-old kid attempting a move, and nearly making it, around the three-time defending and four-time series champion, as if to say, “I'm here, Dario. And if I make this move stick, I'd like to think I'm worthy of a spot on your team.”
By the way, his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team does not have a full-time sponsor yet...
RAHAL VERSUS ANDRETTI(S) – SPEED's Robin Miller has said “hate is great!” before, and has also mentioned it's imperative for IndyCar to have both Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti consistently winning races. The rivalry almost took off (pardon the pun) after their accident during the race, and led to the Ganassi driver being placed on probation Tuesday afternoon (CLICK HERE for story).
Their coming together during the race was one of the most highlighted aspects of the day. The physics of the accident and the dynamics of Andretti's car as it took off after hitting the rear-wheel guard merit a further investigation on its own.
About a day and a half of “Twitter wars” ensued before cooler heads prevailed publicly. The issue started when a quote Rahal gave to the Associated Press added fuel to the fire rather than doused the flames, when he said, “What's Marco's last name? I've said enough.”
It turned out Mario Andretti took offense to that, saying Monday on Twitter, “What is your problem with me? Your quote to AP says Marco is an Andretti so enough said. That insult includes me. You insulted me to the world & I responded.”
Rahal responded, “I'm not going to argue with you. If you want to discuss this and my quote you can call. Thanks.” He later added, “I'm very surprised ur not callin and bringin it up here. Actually respect u tremendously n admire u. If u want to talk call!”
He tweeted Monday evening he'd already talked with Marco Andretti and would call Mario Andretti thereafter. All was well officially when come Tuesday morning, Mario Andretti tweeted, “Thank you for the call @GrahamRahal. All is well between us. Now lets go win some races.”
To put the checkered flag on the minor dust-up, Rahal responded, “@MarioAndretti great speaking with you. We will get some wins no doubt, see you in May!”
BRIEFLY – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's aspirations of a third car at Indianapolis appear less likely by the day, thanks to either available engines or large enough budgets. It now seems an either/or situation for Michel Jourdain Jr. and Luca Filippi, rather than both as has been previously rumored. Fellow Honda squads A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports should announce drivers of their second cars this week.
Tony Kanaan's fourth-place finish vaulted him from 26th to 11th in points. All three KV Racing Technology drivers now rank in the top 12, a spot ahead of Franchitti in 13th.
Give credit where it's due to Ed Carpenter, who has finished each of the first three road and street course races of the year for the new ECR Indy team, led by team manager Derrick Walker and engineer Michael Cannon.
The points standings fall into three tiers at the moment. Will Power's 127 is 24 points clear of Helio Castroneves in second. Castroneves at 103 to Ryan Briscoe, seventh at 73 points, have that 30-point margin. Meanwhile, Graham Rahal's 62 for eighth place is just 26 clear of Simona de Silvestro, who along with Katherine Legge has scored the fewest points so far. There's still potential for a lot of shuffling in the middle to back of the standings, even as some of the leaders are starting to emerge.