The land of the rising sun features more sunsets for the IZOD IndyCar Series at this weekend's Indy Japan Final. The series bids farewell to Japan, the current generation Dallara chassis runs its last road course race, and either Will Power or Dario Franchitti will secure the 2011 Mario Andretti Road Trophy.
An added degree of unpredictability comes into play with the first time in IndyCar's history of going to Motegi that the series runs on the 2.983-mile road course rather than the 1.5-mile egg-shaped oval.
The longest course IndyCar runs all year, Motegi's road course features a mix of long straights, double-apex right and left-handers, sweeping fast turns and tight hairpins.
For a comparable open-wheel time, look no further than Swift-built, 600hp Toyota V8-powered Formula Nippon cars that run at Motegi. Series champion Joao Paulo de Oliveira, who debuts this weekend for Conquest Racing, set the pole time of 1:35.012 this year.
“Last year when I was there, I walked the track and always saw the road course, and thought it must be cool to drive,” said HVM Racing's Simona de Silvestro. “I think it's an advantage for us – it should be like Baltimore with a level playing field.”
Optimism springs eternal for those not in the Penske and Ganassi camps at this circuit, but if history is any indication, Power is set for a three-peat this weekend after winning the last two rounds in Sonoma and Baltimore.
Power and first-time events have gone together like bread and butter of late. He won Baltimore's first race two weeks ago, Edmonton's revised course in July, Brazil 2010 and Las Vegas' street course in 2007. Another win would guarantee Power the road and street title in 2011, his second in a row, and would vault him ahead of Franchitti in the overall championship.
The oval proved a bit of a bogey track to Franchitti, who never won there in 11 prior starts. His best finish was runner-up on three occasions. Although Franchitti's lead over Power has shrunk from 62 to 5 points in the last three races, if he isn't too far back coming out of Japan, ovals the last two races should set him up better on paper.
For Power's two Team Penske teammates, the balance of wanting their first win of the year must be tempered by supporting Power's championship charge. The trip to Japan marks a year since Helio Castroneves last won. Ryan Briscoe's memories of Motegi can't be particularly pleasant as contact exiting the pits two years ago dented his own title aspirations.
For the others in the Ganassi camp, Scott Dixon's focus can be entirely on the race as his new daughter Tilly entered the world late Saturday night – he and wife Emma's second.
In the second Ganassi squad, Graham Rahal gained that rare entry into Power's zip code all weekend in Baltimore and would have scored a podium had it not been for pitting too early after a mid-race restart. Charlie Kimball's last road course start of the year provides one final chance to show a stroke of brilliance seen infrequently in 2011.
As in Baltimore, the odds of someone outside the usual Ganassi and Penske contenders making the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying or starring come race day increases on a track only a handful of drivers have experience on.
While de Silvestro hopes to take her aging but cult hero chassis “Pork Chop” to a strong result in its final road course start, Danica Patrick also signs off these type circuits in IndyCar after raising a few eyebrows with comments saying she was concerned about the trip over.
If anything, Patrick's probably disappointed to not be running on the oval, a track traditionally her strongest. Besides her 2008 win, she has only once finished outside the top 10 on the oval, and led her first laps in IndyCar in the 2005 race.
Takuma Sato of KV Racing Technology-Lotus refuted Patrick's concerns about coming to Japan. Interestingly, Sato has never raced on Motegi's road course, but enters the weekend as the home favorite.
“It is absolutely necessary to go race there, especially after what happened on March 11 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami,” Sato said. “Japan needs energy and IZOD IndyCar Series brings that energetic excitement that Japan needs. I've never raced there, but I have driven a few demonstration laps around the circuit. I've never been to a race there, which is equal for all of us. I think it will be a big chance for us and certainly, I will do my best job.”
Two wild card drivers make their first IndyCar starts of the season. Hideki Mutoh, twice a winner in Japanese F3 at Motegi in 2005, returns to the wheel in the joint AFS/Schmidt No. 17 entry. Double that number and Japanese-based Brazilian de Oliveira (ABOVE) debuts in IndyCar aboard Conquest's No. 34; the defending Formula Nippon champion also has two prior wins on the road course.
Rookies who have competed in the full season, JR Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe, resume their battle separated by just three points. Hinchcliffe's status for this race had been uncertain most of the year but was just finalized in the last two weeks.
Elsewhere, Giorgio Pantano and Sebastien Bourdais look to impress in their final scheduled starts of the year. Pantano's been confirmed for this race while Bourdais enters Japan off his first Firestone Fast Six qualifying effort at Baltimore and a win in last weekend's Intercontinental Le Mans Cup round for Peugeot in Silverstone. Bourdais had four consecutive top 10 results before electrical issues sidelined him early in Baltimore.