HELIO'S SHORT-LIVED HIGH
Helio Castroneves scored his 38th pole position in Indy car racing, by leading a Penske 1-2 in Heat 3, but in the press conference seemed distracted and not quite his effervescent self.
“It's nine points right now – it's really welcome, to be honest,” he said. “Yes, I'm very excited what we achieved; everyone on the team did a hell of a job. The car is really good. So this weekend it seems that we are making the right choice on the changes to the car.”
But when asked why he seemed so anxious to leave the media center, he just said, “You guys are going to find out very soon what's going on. I might be overpowered, that's what I'm saying – so I want to make sure I get my voice heard. My opinion…it counts!”
With that, the championship leader dashed out. Intriguing…
“He's having an engine change,” confirmed Team Penske president Tim Cindric in the paddock afterward. “The rules say a driver has to use up the engine that was changed to fit the fresh engine for Indy, if that engine is reinstalled before the Indy engine has reached its minimum mileage. Helio's can't and that's a pity because we were hoping to get to Pocono before the change.
“Helio's not happy, but he made the best of the circumstances by finishing P1, so he only drops to P11, and that still leaves him ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay on the grid, and he's our main championship competition.”
Thus Castroneves leaves teammate Will Power to carry the torch for Penske at the start of the race with Hinchcliffe starting on the outside (Hinch's preferred option). Power dropped to fifth at the start of heat race 3, but then carved forward, passing Iowa's traditional stars Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, as well as Hinch. He then rapidly closed in on Castroneves, but was eventually forced to concede after having an alarming moment on the exit of Turn 2, as he lapped Graham Rahal. Power's speed on that lap dropped to 166mph compared with his previous 174s and thereafter he decided caution was better than valor.
“That was fun, but man, it was physical. We have a lot of downforce so the steering effort was very high. Five lots of that [50 laps] tomorrow? That's gonna be very, very tough.”
He missed a lot of track time in free practice this morning as the Andretti Autosport No. 1 entry received rear suspension adjustments, but reigning IndyCar champ Ryan Hunter-Reay couldn't have predicted he'd finish one-by-one qualifying in a lowly 22nd, almost 8mph off pacesetter Helio Castroneves.
“Missing that track time in practice meant we never got a shot at a real qualifying simulation,” said Hunter-Reay, who scored his best win (up to that point) here at Iowa last year. “When I got to Turns 2 and 4, the front just washed up the track on the exits. The heat race will be a very crucial chance to work some more on setup.”
When asked about his chances of making it to Heat 3, and he found out only the top two would transfer, he said, “Oh boy, we've got a lot of work to do.”
In fact, he made a good job of it, rapidly climbing to fourth in his heat, but that leaves him only 12th on the grid for tomorrow's race.
HEATS WITH (A BIT OF) HEAT
Graham Rahal won Heat 2 like a boss, but his actual boss, his dad Bobby, was left with mixed feelings when the other Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car, that of James Jakes, spun into the wall with two laps to go. That brought up the question of whether the heat races were a good or bad idea. Yes there were points on offer (an unhealthy amount, as mentioned here), and I was forced to agree when Will Phillips said, “Now you've got to admit, that was more exciting than one-by-one qualifying.”
But it was a lot of work for the crews of the top two finishers in Heat 1 (Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato) and Heat 2 (Rahal and Ed Carpenter), because those cars had to be turned around for Heat 3. And then there was the risk of tearing up cars…
“I'm still assessing this format, to be honest,” said IndyCar's president of competition and operations. “It's quite high risk, and I'm not convinced it brought any more people to the track. The Iowa crowd traditionally come out to watch the Indy Lights race anyway, so I think three small IndyCar races didn't really add anything to the grandstands.
“And then we have to consider the crews. Those guys work long hours anyway, and this didn't do them any favors.”
Dixon, meanwhile, did a great job to win the Heat 1 race and move up to fifth in Heat 3, but like Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Jakes, he'll drop 10 places on the grid for his early (pre-2000miles) engine-change penalty.
JR ON THE LOOKOUT
Following the news that his former engineer, David Cripps, had been let go by Panther Racing, the currently jobless JR Hildebrand's presence in the Iowa paddock was ironic or apt, depending how you looked at it. The former pilot of the No. 4 Panther car didn't want to comment on the record regarding Cripps' fate, but instead re-emphasized how much of a difference engineer Tino Belli had made to the team.
“Tino gave us a fast car at Long Beach and Brazil,” said Hildebrand “and there's always a paper trail to show how we got the setup we did. I'd say with Tino around, they're going to start finding a lot of consistency now. I had high hopes,” he shrugged.
A couple hours later, Oriol Servia gave the National Guard a guaranteed slot in Iowa's qualifying Heat 3 by clocking sixth-fastest time in one-by-one qualifying. In the mean time, Hildebrand was trawling the paddock, “just making the rounds,” but he was under no illusions that it was going to be easy to find another outlet for his talent.
“By the end of this weekend, I hope to have spoken to representatives from all the teams,” he continued. “The long and short of it is that, at this stage, I think it's about trying to convince a team to run an extra car which is obviously going to take some funding. So when I'm not at the track speaking to the teams, I'm on the phone trying to make deals.
“What I'm looking for is not just to race a couple of races this year for the hell of it, but to do them at a team that has a genuine and realistic interest in running me full time next year.”
Hildebrand is a realist and recognizes that a driver whose team lets him go for non-commercial reasons is inevitably tainted in the eyes of some. This has affected his approach with the teams.
“No secrets,” he said. “The only way to be is completely honest: take responsibility for the incidents that were your fault, and also explain the circumstances in the past couple of years. Then it's up to that person to believe you or not.”
He shrugged: “Hey man, this kind of thing happens to a lot of drivers. I'm not the first, I won't be the last.”