Look for Justin Wilson, Alex Tagliani and Ryan Hunter-Reay to take the fight to the big guns at this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, says David Malsher.
To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, spring is here and the time is right for racing in the street. Yup: It’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach time again. North America’s most famous street race is also North America’s second biggest open-wheel race, so if you’re in SoCal make sure you’re there.
Here at RACER
we couldn’t be more excited. For one thing the race is almost on our doorstep; according to Google Maps, our office is located precisely 25.2 miles away from the Aquarium around which this 35-year-old course circulates. Secondly, this is the first time since 2001 that the race has featured all of the top open-wheel talent in this continent. (Remember, last year’s edition was the final hurrah of Champ Car, so the likes of Justin Wilson, Will Power and Paul Tracy were here, while the IndyCar Series stars were racing in Motegi.)
But the third reason to be revved up is that IndyCar’s opening round, at St. Petersburg, promises a season of surprising victory contenders, at least on circuits that involve right turns. The ovals, almost by definition, will feature close racing, but with the exception of Milwaukee, these are a near closed shop to anyone outside of Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Green Racing. The best chances for anyone outside of the Big Three come on street courses and, to a lesser extent, road courses.
The likely Small Three at Long Beach made themselves apparent at St. Pete. Yes, a Penske won, but it was only a bad restart by the leader that gave Ryan Briscoe the perfect chance to slip through. That leader? The Dale Coyne Racing car of Justin Wilson. The lanky Brit qualified second and led 52 laps.
Wilson is as fast a driver as you’ll find in the IndyCar Series, and he took pole at Long Beach last year for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, though sadly the car broke near the start. The evidence for a repeat pole-winning performance this weekend is strong.
As for the race… Well, Wilson’s race engineer, Bill Pappas, is not only great at his job (as previous series champs Juan Montoya and Gil de Ferran will attest), his employment by DCR is also symbolic of a renewed sense of purpose from team owner Dale Coyne. Dale has been criticized in years past for having hired guns on wheel guns – his drivers would complain about losing hard-earned track position during pit stops. Well, if St. Pete is anything to go by, that’s no longer an issue. At their final stop, the DCR crew was so slick, it leapfrogged Wilson ahead of Briscoe and back into the lead.
One of the other big surprises at St. Pete was Ryan Hunter-Reay’s performance for Vision Racing. That’s not to knock the team, but the last time a Vision-owned car went that quickly on a road/street course, it was courtesy of the Paul Tracy-piloted, Walker Racing-run machine at Edmonton last year. As for Hunter-Reay himself, yes, we know he’s talented, but his build-up to the season was less than ideal, as he got just 50 laps of testing (with HVM Racing). Less than 10 days before St. Pete, this American-born, IZOD-backed driver of proven talent and race-winning pedigree landed the ride at Tony George’s team.
Starting 14th didn’t look promising, but by Sunday, Ryan and Neil Fife – who came with RH-R from Rahal Letterman Racing – were getting their act together and he inexorably rose up the lap charts. The driver was swift, smart and aggressive, the team ran a canny strategy, and when Wilson bobbled, Hunter-Reay was able to convert a podium finish – already something of a miracle, given the background circumstances – into a runner-up position.
Given that Vision hasn’t raced at Long Beach before and therefore has no baseline car setup, it’s tough to envisage a similar result this weekend. But on the plus side, Ryan himself is fired up and he’s also become a more ballsy racer over the past couple of years. He’s also very good at defense – he doesn’t get distracted by what’s going on in his mirrors, and will rigidly hold his racing line, leaving it to the attacker to find a way past.
The other people who truly punched above their weight in St. Pete, and can be expected to fly at TGPLB, are Alex Tagliani and Conquest Racing. Look behind their unfortunate result (10th, one lap down) and you’ll see another story of overachievement. Like Hunter-Reay, Alex was only confirmed at the last minute. Unlike Hunter-Reay, Tag didn’t do any
testing at all in the off-season, and Conquest could only afford to do the Homestead test (with Jaime Camara). Also, given that Tagliani had been a Champ Car driver, he hadn’t raced at St. Petersburg since 2003. Oh, and he had only made three starts in a Dallara-Honda, finishing a fighting fourth in the last of these, at the non-championship Surfers Paradise race.
And yet Tag and Conquest race engineer Brandon Fry, as in Surfers, worked miracles and qualified seventh in St Pete. That meant the Rexall Edmonton Indy-sponsored car outqualified Ganassi’s reigning champion, Scott Dixon as well as three of the four Andretti Green machines. On raceday, Graham Rahal’s spinning car obliged Tagliani to take to the infield where he rode over the wing of the polesitter, and rejoined in 10th. Later on, an assault from behind by Vitor Meira’s A.J. Foyt Racing machine punctured the Conquest’s car’s left-rear and the consequent pit stop put him a lap down. But that didn’t prevent him from recording the second fastest lap of the race…
So at Long Beach, look to the Tagliani/Conquest combo to claim yet more prestigious scalps. Alex qualified on the front-row for Walker Racing here last year and kept lights-to-flag leader Will Power under pressure for 80 percent of the race. If you can get out to the Esses at the back of the circuit, you’ll also see what makes him so damn quick around here: he appears fearless. Given that Eric Bachelart’s squad is living race to race at the moment, despite having shrunk from a two-car to one-car operation in the off-season, a win is no less than the team or driver deserves. The fact that it’s a real possibility says everything about the quality of team and driver, and that's why RACER.com will carry Alex's diary this weekend and is delighted to sign him up as a columnist for 2009.
It would be dumb to expect these three underdogs to have it their own way: let’s face it, there’s no weak spot in the Ganassi or Penske driver lineup, and Tony Kanaan (presently the only one of AGR’s drivers who shines on street courses) showed in St. Pete that he’s still an ace. And out of deference to Graham Rahal’s own strong views on the subject – check out his column on this site – (click here for story)
, I’ll say he is an expected
contender for victory, rather than an out of left field one. His point is that, given the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team’s quality and off-season progress, he should be regarded as one of the favorites.
The IndyCar Series has quite a collection of marks in its deficit column – excessive driver rotation, not enough marketing, low TV ratings, cars that need another 150hp at least, and a dreadful points system are the first things that spring to my mind. But the series’ heartbeat – the racing – is getting stronger, and that, combined with the increased prominence of Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay, should aid recovery.
But its other attraction is the increasing number of potential victors at any given race. We want to see the open-wheel branch of U.S. motorsport recapture the imagination of the American public by producing great performances from unpredictable sources. We want to head to events knowing there are a dozen possible winners that weekend. We want to see races where a team with one-fifth of the budget of Penske can still take on Captain Roger’s armada.
This weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach should be another of those. With Justin Wilson, Alex Tagliani and Ryan Hunter-Reay and their respective teams in the form they’re in, we may have the first IndyCar top-three since Motegi in 2003 that’s lacking a representative from Ganassi, Penske and AGR. But hang on – have I just ruined the surprise?David Malsher is the Editor of RACER magazine