After a three-week layoff from competition, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns with the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma to kick off its final three races. The permanent road course in Northern California is followed by the streets of Baltimore next week and the two-mile oval at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway two weeks after that.
The usual 25 regulars are joined by Katherine Legge (Dragon Racing) and Sebastian Saavedra (AFS/Andretti Autosport) in extra entries, and Charlie Kimball is set to return for Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing after missing Mid-Ohio.
TITLE SHOWDOWN – Of the four main title contenders, only Ryan Hunter-Reay has yet to record a Sonoma victory, with Will Power (seeking a Sonoma three-peat this year), Helio Castroneves (2008) and Scott Dixon (2007) all boasting a prior win on their resumes.
A year ago, Power and Castroneves went 1-2 to lead the Team Penske podium sweep; Dixon was fifth and Hunter-Reay recovered to 10th from 19th on the grid. Having lost the momentum after his blistering midseason, RHR needs a return to form in qualifying to stay in the championship picture, and for good luck to re-enter the equation after, like Dixon, enduring a litany of mechanical problems.
The fight for fifth between James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud and Tony Kanaan is also fairly intense – just nine points separate the three of them. Although with the top four covered by only 28 markers, and Hinch some 35 points back of Dixon, it would take a minor miracle for any of them to remain in legitimate title contention even though they are all still mathematically eligible.
CONCEIVABLY, BARRICHELLO'S BEST SHOT – He hasn't been officially classified as a rookie, but Rubens Barrichello's been at a distinct disadvantage this season in terms of learning, then mastering the tracks once he's arrived. After the season started, Barrichello was provided extra track time in practice one; even then, he still hasn't been entirely on the pace.
The KV Racing Technology driver's three best qualifying performances – top-10 starts on the Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Iowa ovals – this year have all come at tracks where he's had prior testing time ahead of a race weekend.
At no road or street course has he been afforded the same advantage of prior test time, except for Sonoma. Tests both in February (shown in teammate Tony Kanaan's car, RIGHT) and April, plus the full field test held last week, have provided Barrichello more track time at this circuit than any other that requires left and right turns.
For as much as was expected, Barrichello's gone the year without a single Firestone Fast Six appearance, and no top five finishes in any race. That would probably be due to a combination of inexperience and setup struggles, and Barrichello didn't dismiss that assessment in noting the KV squad's recent qualifying woes on road and street courses. Still, if Barrichello can find the magic in the Fast Six, it's very likely he'll have a shot at his best finish of the season given the general lack of passing that seems to take place at Sonoma.
SPEAKING OF TESTING – The whole field had its chance to test at Sonoma last week but those who tested in February and April should have a built-in advantage with more data available for use on the DW12. Granted, the spring test versus last week featured Sonoma in two different configurations, but the majority of the circuit was still unchanged enough to provide accurate setup info for this week's race.
Those who had prior track time from either or both of the February and April tests include: the trios from Team Penske (Power, Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe), KVRT (Barrichello, E.J. Viso and Tony Kanaan) and Andretti Autosport (Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti), all four Chip Ganassi Racing team cars (Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball) and Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand.
ON THE TRACK CHANGES – Three big tweaks – tightening Turn 7 and making it a hairpin, extending the exit at Turn 9 and creating a longer distance before entering Turn 11 – should make for big improvements.
“It early days, but so far it seems really good,” said Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson. “It allows the track to drive better and the chicane is a big improvement. It's still going to tough to overtake, but Turn 7 is a lot better. Down in Turn 11, it's going to be a lot of slipping and sliding. It's tough, but I like it a lot.”
TONGUE TWISTERS – Prepare for some possible comedic moments this weekend, as four of the 27 drivers entered have somewhat similar names both as each other and as the track, Sonoma.
There's two Sebastians for only the second time this season, as Saavedra returns in a one-off fourth car for AFS/Andretti Autosport. Of course there's also Sebastien Bourdais – different spelling – in one two Dragon Racing entries. Add in Simon Pagenaud and Simona de Silvestro to the equation, and there's a load of potential combinations of unintentional butchering.
The key here is to try saying “Simona, not Sonoma, at Sonoma, but not Simon or Sebastian or Saavedra” five times consecutively without getting tongue-tied…
PANTHER DRR'S RED ALERT – The first look at the new liveries for the Panther DRR pair for Sonoma sees the team shift from its usual black to two red schemes, each with out of the box thinking.
JR Hildebrand's car honors Panther minority owner and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh – fittingly No. 4, Harbaugh's number during his playing career – and will also see the Sausalito native in an 49ers-esque driving uniform throughout the weekend. Although all 32 NFL teams were on display old IndyCars as a part of last year's Super Bowl festivities, this will mark the first time an NFL livery will be present in an actual IndyCar race.
Meanwhile, Oriol Servia's No. 22 car will sport a very different look thanks to team sponsor TranSystems, which will be the primary sponsor of the car at Sonoma. The car's sidepods feature the same self-portrait of Salvador Dali that the Spanish driver uses on his helmet.
“That was a nice bonus from our sponsor TranSystems,” Servia said. “They know how much I like Dali and having his face. They were smart to put it there. It definitely gets your attention and a little bit of craziness is always welcome.”
OF NOTE – Alex Tagliani goes for his fifth straight Firestone Fast Six appearance of the year in his Team Barracuda-BHA Honda. He's one of only three drivers this year (Power, Hinchcliffe) to reel off four in a row.
Bourdais' sixth place last year – inherited after Giorgio Pantano was demoted post-race for blocking – was the highest finish outside the Penske podium sweep and Target Ganassi cars in fourth and fifth. The top five last year finished in the same order as they started, as well.
Both Bourdais and Legge tested in the white and blue TrueCar/Virgin livery, although it's unclear whether Bourdais' car will shift back to the McAfee primary black and silver livery which was run at Indianapolis (RIGHT).
Pagenaud's trip to Sonoma this year is, like Mid-Ohio, actually planned rather than a last-minute mad dash cross-country or across continents as a substitute, as he did for de Silvestro last year. He has a fifth and a third on his scorecard at Barber and Mid-Ohio, the first two races he drove this year that he also drove in last year.
With two straight caution-free races, IndyCar can now equal a mark last set in 1986 if the field completes the trifecta at Sonoma. The series came close to a caution-free race last year, the first 65 laps green until Ho-Pin Tung spun off course on the 66th of 75 laps.