Sonoma Raceway is one of the finest places to hold a race and even if it's not the best track for actual racing, this matter was improved last year with some circuit tweaks. And without question, it offers a unique challenge for the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers.
Natural road courses are, in any case, in short supply on the 2013 schedule: the only other two are Barber Motorsports Park and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. But whereas Barber is high-grip and high-G, and Mid-O eventually reaches that same stage once it's rubbered up, Sonoma starts off slippery and remains treacherous enough to keep teams guessing.
Stand at any corner (other than Turn 1) in the morning sessions and you'll notice drivers are delaying getting back on the throttle. A sheen of sand regularly coats corners thanks to the squirrely squalls that blow around this undulating 2.385-mile course in California's wine country; this provokes driving errors that involve cars drifting off course and dragging yet more dirt onto the track, thereby exacerbating the problem. Understandable, then, that it's hard for a driver to commit. Thus, seat-of-the-pants “feel” and reactive driving become two of his or her most necessary talents.
Tire conservation is a third, as Scott Dixon highlighted to RACER following the test on Wednesday. All that lateral movement of tires across the track surface can chew up even the harder of Firestone's compounds and so having a strong car setup, as well as that delicate touch on the steering wheel, is vital. No surprise that only Penske or Ganassi drivers have visited Victory Lane here over the past six years.
GANASSI GO FOR GOLD
Since going testing at Sebring immediately after a desultory weekend in Iowa, Chip Ganassi Racing has yet to lose a race and the pace of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon in testing at Sonoma on Wednesday suggests Chip's champs are going to be the hardest to beat this weekend. Dixon is 32 points away from championship leader Helio Castroneves but should have the car (and obviously he has the ability) to at least halve this gap by Sunday evening. Scott took pole here in 2006 and won the race the following year.
Charlie Kimball, a deserving winner in Mid-Ohio earlier this month, looked less happy in the Sonoma test, but his confidence and speed generally come to the fore on Sundays. Unfortunately for him, as mentioned earlier, it's a difficult track to pull off a pass.
It's hard to imagine Ganassi getting lost setup-wise between now and qualifying, but even if it does, don't expect Franchitti to drop into obscurity. It's an annoyingly inaccurate perception that the four-time champion needs everything “just right” with the car in order to give of his best. In the near-five years they've been teammates, Dario has proven that even when the red cars aren't perfectly honed on road or street courses, his smooth precision can often tease out more pace than Dixie's overt in-cockpit acrobatics. You only need to look at the first half of the season for examples of this.
TEAM ORDERS NEED NOT APPLY
And a strong Franchitti can only help Dixon in his championship quest – and he will doubtless be prepared to move aside if necessary, just as Will Power has pledged to help Helio Castroneves. In neither case will team orders be applied, because they don't need to be; both Franchitti and Power know what they have to do, should the right circumstances arise.
The sad thing for both Dario and Will is that, without a win since spring 2012, they “need” victory more than their teammates do, and they could each be forgiven for hoping they're not leading in the closing stages on Sunday with an expectant teammate lying second. Given Ganassi's current pace, this is a possibility for Franchitti who took pole here in 2007 and '09 and won the latter race. It's also a possibility for Power, who's taken pole for the last three Sonoma races and was extremely unlucky that last year he failed to match this with three consecutive wins here. He nurses his tires better than anyone, so expect him to figure strongly on Saturday and Sunday.
And just in case the cards do fall the wrong/right way, and either or both of them lets a teammate through, Power and Franchitti can sidestep that fractious team orders debate by using the “braking issues” line: It's one of those great excuses that few can ever prove or disprove.
If you're looking for someone to break the six-year Penske/Ganassi stranglehold on this event, look no further than the reigning champion. His Andretti Autosport car was the only threat to those teams last year, running third until knocked out of contention, and he looked strong in the recent test, around half a second clear of his teammates and even edging the Penske pair.
No less significant is the change in outlook that the No. 1 team will have to adopt from this weekend. Mid-Ohio pole position being followed by only fifth on race day was a missed opportunity, and all involved know it. Hunter-Reay's now 65 points from the championship lead with five races to go and while gaining an average of 13 points on Castroneves at each race will be hard, it's not impossible to achieve. Race engineer Ray Gosselin and team owner Michael Andretti will have to adopt their “Baltimore 2012” go-for-it attitude, while Ryan will have to do likewise, striking the right balance between being hard and uncompromising, while also taking care not to overreach himself. He's done it before; he can do it again.
For teammate Marco Andretti, 76 points from the top of the points table, this really is the last roll of the dice. If he can't make a significant points gain on both Castroneves and Dixon this weekend, he's going to have to be prepared to focus on furthering RHR's cause in the remaining four races. Marco won this race back in 2006, and he's shown improvements on several tracks this year, but Sonoma's high-degradation surface will be the ultimate test of his newly smoothed-out driving style.
DRAGON NOT DRAGGING
Sebastien Bourdais showed great pace at Sonoma last year, qualifying third, while Sebastian Saavedra – then driving a fourth Andretti Autosport car for only the second time that season – embarrassed many of the regular IndyCar entrants with a bold performance. Now the two Sebs are teamed at Dragon Racing, all parties concerned appear to still have a good handle on the track, if we take the test results seriously. Whether either of them can break into the Firestone Fast Six this year is perhaps more questionable, but they should be the first in line to pick up the pieces should the leaders falter.
A NEW COMBO, A ONE-RACE-OLD COMBO AND A DEBUTANT
JR Hildebrand is probably too self-critical and introspective to ever accept the accolade of “local hero,” but the Sausalito, Calif.,-born driver's presence in the Barracuda Racing-BHA car is welcome for all those who care about a talented U.S. racer getting another chance following his shock dismissal by Panther Racing after the Indy 500. Panther, of course, welcomes back Ryan Briscoe after a shunt in Toronto (in which he was entirely blameless) left him with a broken wrist. Given that his experience in Indy cars involves working with Penske for five years – and winning this race last season – Briscoe will be expected to give his employers good pointers in developmental direction, but neither he nor we should expect miracles. There's no substitute for hard graft between races and post-season.
Fellow Aussie, James Davison, gets his second run in an IndyCar, and is again with Dale Coyne's team. He did a good job at Mid-Ohio, he's clearly physically up to the task and he's a hard-as-nails racer, but it will be interesting to gauge his temperament. Teammate Justin Wilson remains one of the absolute topline drivers in the field, and Mid-O was Davison's first open-wheel race for four years. It's vital that this fiercely competitive 26-year-old doesn't expect too much of himself when making a direct comparison with Wilson. If he can qualify within half a second of the Brit, James should be very proud.
Lucas Luhr was last in the Sonoma test but only 0.75sec off Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing teammate Josef Newgarden… and only two seconds off pacesetter Franchitti. Sure, everyone knows that it's the final few tenths that are hardest to find, but given that Luhr has driven less than one race distance in an IndyCar so far, his speed looks pretty impressive. More significantly (at least for this season), is how much extra feedback he might be able to deliver to the SFHR engineering squad, not just as a second driver but as a second driver who possesses a strong understanding of technical matters through many years of racing prototype sports cars.