Elevation changes, heat and right-hand turns are in store as the IZOD IndyCar Series resumes on the road and street courses for the next three races, starting with this weekend's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway.
“If you have any doubt on what an IndyCar can do, just go see them go through Turn 1 at Sonoma and you'll understand what I'm talking about,” says Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports. “It's a track with fast corners that allows you to take the IndyCar to another level.”
The series looks to move past the controversial ending and protest that clouded the last race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which was settled on Wednesday when the original results were reaffirmed.
Twenty cars tested at Infineon last week and Will Power led the field with an unofficial lap time of 1:19.04 around the 2.303-mile, 12-turn course. The Team Penske driver led Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti by four and six-tenths of a second, respectively.
Power's “double-barrel salute” to race control at Loudon vaulted him into a new stratosphere of notoriety, but he'd rather be talking about another win and continuing to catch Franchitti in the title chase.
A sense of normalcy returns as Franchitti is back in Target colors for Target Chip Ganassi Racing for the first time since Edmonton. Power, who last won at Edmonton and enters Sonoma as the race's defending champion, closed to within 47 points of the Scotsman in the overall standings and is 28 down in the less-heralded road course standings.
Those two are among the six winners in six previous IndyCar events at Sonoma. Dixon won at the circuit in 2007 but has finishes of 12th, 13th and second at the track since.
Dixon has closed on Power for second in the standings and pulled away from the pair engaged in a battle for “best-of-the-rest” status, Oriol Servia and Tony Kanaan, behind the Ganassi and Penske drivers.
Both of them have extra motivation heading into Sonoma. Servia looks to go one better after coming up on the short end of the protest at Loudon, while Kanaan enters the race with new engineer John Dick on the timing stand. The Brazilian and respected engineer Michael Cannon parted ways after Loudon.
“We talk about some tracks having elevation changes. Well, Infineon would earn the ‘Six Flags' denomination of all racetracks,” Servia said. “Not only are there ups and downs but the many blind corners make it a layout full of strong emotions.”
In the last four races, no driver's been hotter than New Hampshire winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose midseason surge has lifted him from 23rd to eighth in points. The Andretti Autosport driver looks set to eclipse a best finish of eighth at Sonoma in four prior starts.
Contrastingly, Graham Rahal's luck at road and street courses this year has been nothing short of abysmal. Brazil marks the only such race the Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing driver hasn't had contact with anyone else, and altogether, it's been since Milwaukee when Rahal finished second that the American has turned pre-race speed into a result.
Nine rookies make up the 28-car field, although J.R. Hildebrand and Giorgio Pantano (RIGHT) each have a prior start at Sonoma to their name. Hildebrand deputized for the injured Conway last year at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, starting 19th and retiring with suspension damage. Pantano made his IndyCar debut for Ganassi in Sonoma in 2005, then in a Panoz-Toyota, starting 13th and finishing 14th.
In an ironic twist, Pantano returns to the series for the first time since 2005, and fills in for an injured driver at Dreyer & Reinbold, Justin Wilson. Few can match Wilson's speed on these courses, but Pantano's record in Europe stands out and some drivers rate him fairly high. He is the wild card of the weekend.
Hildebrand will drive his home race with a special set of San Francisco Giants-embroidered gloves and shoes from Sparco, and seems primed for a breakout road course race. He leads James Hinchcliffe in the Rookie of the Year standings by 17 points. Hinchcliffe may have to make up more ground in the next two races, as his status for the event in Motegi is still a work in progress.
“Realistically, I've tried to not think about it,” Hinchcliffe said about the chase. “Just thinking about catching one guy loses the focus. We just have to do the best job we can week in and week out.”
Elsewhere, Sam Schmidt partners with AFS Racing to provide Martin Plowman his second series start, and with Dragon Racing to give Ho-Pin Tung his first. Tung, Dutch-born but Chinese-licensed, showed flashes of speed before crashing during his qualifying attempt for this year's Indianapolis 500.
The IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma airs Sunday, Aug. 28, live on Versus at 4 p.m. EST.