Sure, engine competition, push-to-pass, alternate Firestone red tires and Will Power as the presumptive favorite are going to be common story threads leading into this weekend's Honda Indy Toronto. But all of them have to survive the one corner that promotes passing and controversy in partnership like no other on the IndyCar schedule: Turn 3.
It may not have the appeal or the allure of such legendary corners in Formula 1 like Eau Rouge, 130R or Parabolica, but Turn 3 at Toronto has carved an identity for itself as the corner where passes are made, attempted and often unsuccessful. They'll almost always end in spectacular fashion with opinionated drivers emerging whether they've succeeded or failed.
Last year at Toronto, six drivers ended out of the race via accident, all but one in Turn 3. Power's, of course, was the most prominent with his assertion about archrival Dario Franchitti at the time that “I always race him clean, and he always races me dirty.” As he continued in the rarified air of wry, dry wit, Power commented that Alex Tagliani – also involved in a Turn 3 dust-up in 2011 – was a “wanker” after the two had collided two corners up the road in Turn 5.
Franchitti went on to win, ahead of his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay. That background may help set the scene for the encore this year.
ALL THAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN – So, push-to-pass is back. IndyCar vp of technology Will Phillips stated in IndyCar's release this version will be “similar to what it was in the past because we know that model worked.”
The initial assumption I made when reading the basis of the regulations, that the regular turbo boost levels will be turned down to 150 kPa and then kicked up to 160 for the push-to-pass boosts, was that this was aimed at increasing reliability for the engines rather than increasing horsepower – which would seem to fly in the face of wishes from fans, media and drivers that the cars should have more power and grunt. However, the move made a bit more sense when considering the number of fresh engines each entrant has remaining for the rest of 2012.
Yet from talking to two team principals last week, the inclination was to say the push-to-pass element should help increase the show. If two cars are on the button simultaneously, it's going to be difficult for the trailing car to complete the pass – it doesn't appear push-to-pass will be implemented in the same way as Formula 1's DRS, where only the trailing driver can activate his system if he's within one second. We'll see how it transpires.
The other major bit to watch, and this goes back to Turn 3 as mentioned in the intro, is how IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield will rule on any possible controversial passing attempts at Turn 3. Toronto will mark the truest litmus test yet of the new blocking-versus-defending rule implemented at the start of the year. A driver can defend as a proactive move (picking either the inside or outside line), but if a driver moves as a reactionary move to a possible passing attempt from behind, it should be ruled as a block and earn a penalty.
“It's funny – when he took the job, we had a discussion about the Toronto race last year, and obviously specifically the incident with Will and I and how he saw that,” Franchitti said of Barfield. “I think Will was a little grumpy with the take on the whole thing!
“I don't expect – I don't think much difference – in any race so far. I think compared to Torontos in the past, obviously we talked about the defending rule. It's going to be interesting to see how that is interpreted. I think that's going to be one of the key things of the weekend.”
PRESUMPTIVE FAVORITES – Power, twice a Toronto winner, has been in a relative dry spell by his illustrious standards. He ranks only 17th in the oval standings, with an eighth place at Texas his only top-10 result. No one will be happier to see the return to the road and street courses than he is, and although he still has the overall points lead (by just three over Hunter-Reay) and the road course points lead (by 50 over Dixon), Power needs a result as much as he is expected to get one.
Hunter-Reay, of course, enters the race white hot from the back-to-back victories on the short ovals in Milwaukee and Iowa. It's been easy to overlook, but RHR has also been one of the best at Toronto. He's been third the last two years; prior to that, three top-10 results in 2004, 2005 and 2009 with only an 11th his first start in 2003 outside the top 10.
Franchitti, a three-time Toronto winner, and Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais can also count themselves as former winners at Exhibition Place. Although he hasn't won here yet, Dixon has four top-five finishes in five prior Toronto starts.
THE “BIG THREE” STREAK – Wilson (LEFT, racing Simon Pagenaud) and Bourdais are two drivers who have a legit possibility at ending the streak of races won on road and street course races by drivers from Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. In 28 straight races since mid-2009, each of these events has gone to someone inside the three power teams at the forefront of the field.
Wilson's won the last two outside that group – Watkins Glen 2009 for Dale Coyne, and Detroit 2008 for Newman/Haas. Bourdais showed flashes of speed in his first road and street course race with a Chevrolet engine for Dragon Racing at Detroit. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Simon Pagenaud, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani or any of KV Racing's trio (Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello, E.J. Viso) as possible threats to the establishment at the front.
MAYORAL VISIT HOME – I wonder how James Hinchcliffe is going to handle his homecoming this year. Last year, he was the promising rookie finally getting the chance to race on Sunday after four years previous on the undercard – twice apiece in Atlantics and Indy Lights.
He was unafraid to utilize the “chrome horn” during the race on one or two occasions, thereby doing the one thing he needed to do signal “intent of badassery” on home soil.
Tagliani's in the field too but with no Paul Tracy, and with no disrespect to Tag, the GoDaddy guy is the new face of Canadian drivers this year. It's been a meteoric rise this season as Hinchcliffe jumped to second in points based largely on consistency, but top-six runs in each race he wasn't taken out by the track (all but Detroit) in the first eight races. The rare unforced error in Iowa dropped him to fifth in points, and temporarily halted the momentum entering the race nearest to his hometown of Oakville.
A first win on the streets would be a major boon to the driver and the series, and especially to Canada as a whole; realistically, just getting a result after the DNF in Iowa will do wonders for the Andretti Autosport driver.
It will be rather weird to see a Toronto IndyCar race without PT; the last time it did was in 1991, when “Hinch” was all of 4 years old.
OTHER TIDBITS – Toronto will mark the debut of Lotus' engine upgrades, and for all her and her team's positivity in the face of an accepted down-on-power engine, Simona de Silvestro and HVM Racing are due a weekend where they're legitimately running in the midfield rather than mired at the back.
Bourdais is back after his temporary hiatus. While he's driven sports cars each of the last two weekends, he's in for Katherine Legge in the sole Dragon Racing Chevrolet. Bourdais won at Toronto in 2004 and finished sixth a year ago for Dale Coyne Racing, both team and driver's best result of 2011.
Last year's Toronto race marked the last top-five finish for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, a fifth with Vitor Meira behind the wheel. Outside of Barber when they made the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and finished seventh in the race, the Mike Conway/Don Halliday package has been mysteriously off the pace for most of the season.
Marco Andretti reprises Dr. Pepper colors on his No. 26 Andretti Autosport entry as he did in Toronto a year ago (RIGHT), with Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves in Hitachi and Penske Truck Rental liveries, respectively. The rest of the field is as is compared to Iowa, although Charlie Kimball's car is listed with the NovoRapid Flex Touch branding this race.
The points variance between overall and just road and street course races this season is staggering. Overall, the gap from points leader Power to sixth-placed Simon Pagenaud is just 40 points, and the top 11 overall are within 100 points. In the road and street course races, Power has 212 points, with 50 points back to Dixon in second on 162. Dixon to eighth-placed Dario Franchitti are separated by only 40, and there could be a big shakeup in both championships this weekend.
The IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy Toronto airs live, Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, on ABC.