The Grand Prix of Baltimore's future has been the source of much speculation, but we have it on good authority that dire forecasts are wide of the mark, and that Chrysler Corp.'s sponsorship through its SRT brand, as well as Andretti Sports Marketing and local enthusiasm, ensure this race is on the 2014 IndyCar schedule.
That's a relief because this is one of the best events on the IndyCar (and American Le Mans Series) schedule: the atmosphere is special, the facilities are good and the staff are helpful, Camden Yards provides a striking backdrop and the 2.04-mile track is a combination of good passing zones, high-speed sections and a tricky surface. Throw in the possibility of drizzle, and you head into a race with a good degree of uncertainty, both as a fan or a participant. OK, so the pits are bizarre, but let's not gripe. In the last six days, there's been enough talk about IndyCar pit lanes to last six lifetimes.
TITLE CONTENDERS TAKE DIFFERENT APPROACHES
For Helio Castroneves to clock seventh place at Sonoma was not in itself a remarkable achievement. But to survive being struck by an estimated five cars over the course of the race and survive was admirable…and beating title championship rival Scott Dixon by eight places was a bonus. Of course the Team Penske driver's priority was to finish and, if he's to score his first-ever Indy car title, it must remain so. But keeping as near the front as possible, away from the desperadoes, has to be his goal. Can he be at the front? Well, maybe, but it looks like Chip Ganassi Racing's advantage first seen at Toronto is here to stay, so it's going to take favorable circumstances and trouble for the red cars for Castroneves to take the top step of the podium.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, as he reveals here, is now in a no-guts-no-glory mode, as he arrives at the track where he turned his championship hopes around last year (RIGHT). Even now, he may be slipping into his Superman costume, but as well as having the right attitude for these circumstances, he's also just a damn fine street course racer. Remember, it was only someone else's accident that relegated him on the grid here last year: He should have been running in the top three from the start. This year, he should be a strong contender throughout.
Somewhere between the attitudes of cautious Castroneves and hell-for-leather Hunter-Reay lies Dixon, who has to gain 10 points on Helio per race. Not unfeasible, but still it's a big enough gap that Scott must assert his authority, take full advantage of Honda's mid-range punch and Ganassi's strong form. If he wins the race, there are definitely enough fast car/driver combos to get between him and Castroneves so that they leave Maryland with their 39-point gap halved. But Scott's got to do his bit, while also remaining prudent enough to stay out of harm's way. A tricky balancing act.
If Castroneves and Dixon are inevitably the focus of attention, their teammates are capable of stealing the storylines. Will Power, who scored his first victory last week at Sonoma, not only managed to end his win drought that stretched back to April 2012, he also managed to aggravate his old foe, Dario Franchitti. Their mutual dislike had abated over the past couple of seasons, as one and now both fell out of championship contention. Yet by the end of their dialogue in Sonoma, the pair of them were itching for a fight (that's no exaggeration) while in public they pretended that no, they don't get under each other's skin. Amusing to watch from the sidelines.
Each of them outqualified their title-contending teammate in Sonoma, and it would be no surprise to see that happen again this weekend. Power has taken pole at Baltimore for the past two years and Franchitti's Alain Prost-like progress around here makes it look like he alone is on a fast, flowing road course rather than a bumpy flick-of-the-wrist, point-'n'-squirt. His style is good to watch and good on the stopwatch. These two prove that there's more than one way to go fast and look after your red-walled soft tires.
They remain focused on winning races, although both are fine with helping their respective teammates take the title, but the Will vs. Dario grudge match may well occurs at the very front of the race, and steal the show from the championship contenders. Don't be surprised, either, if rational thought is in short supply should Nos. 10 and 12 end up wheel to wheel once more.
PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM
Last year, Baltimore was the setting for Simon Pagenaud's fourth podium finish of the season, which is a good baseline for the Schmidt Hamilton Racing boys to start from this year. However, the game has moved on considerably (despite the restrictive developmental rules), and so Simon would be thrilled to repeat such a performance. Apart from the second race in Detroit, which of course the No. 77 won, street courses haven't looked happy hunting grounds for SHR – nor the Schmidt Peterson Motorsport car of Tristan Vautier, for that matter – in 2013. There's no particular shame in that: the early-season dominance of Andretti Autosport and the late-season dominance of Ganassi has put all other teams into perspective.
But while there's enough strength in depth in this team to learn from its problems come the off-season, nonetheless, sponsorship income – far more than driver assessment – follows that rather sad and misguided path of “you're only as good as your last race.” While the Hewlett Packard funding for Pagenaud's car is secure enough, Vautier's sponsorship situation is less assured, hence the regular changing of colors. A good result here would help.
It's worth noting, by the way, that over the past two seasons Vautier won in Baltimore in both Star Mazda and Indy Lights. So long as things flow his way, he should once more show the promise we saw at St Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park. Or put another way, if car No. 55 is not in the top half of the field, there shouldn't be too many fingers pointing at the guy in the cockpit.
Vautier's problem is also shared by Justin Wilson. The guy who every one of his rivals rates in the top five in the series drove as well at Sonoma as he has at many other venues. The difference is that in NorCal he was in a position of prominence while he did it, thanks to an enforced pit stop policy following an earlier misfortune. Now suddenly everyone's raving about him once more, and while he was thrilled to get on the podium last weekend, he must be frustrated that it's so rare that he gets the chance to mix it at the front of the field, despite regularly delivering top-class drives.
This weekend, he is joined in the Dale Coyne Racing team by his brother, Stefan. Couple of years ago, this writer suggested such a lineup and Justin's comment was, “It would never work.” Well…let's hope he's wrong, for Dale's sake. Stefan has raced here before, finishing fifth in Indy Lights two years ago, but his chances to drive a Dallara DW12 have been minimal, and so there should be no burden of expectation on him here. Be competent, don't get in people's way, don't crash the car should be his three aims.
RAHAL ON THE RISE
Notice how level-headed Graham Rahal was after his spin at Sonoma, where he (and the others around him) were blameless? That's because, although he was bummed by that incident, in general he's regaining his confidence once more, with Neil Fife in his corner at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, bringing a sense of calm to proceedings. He knows this season is a bust championship-wise, but Rahal just wants to go out and wring that car's neck, remind everyone of the kid that so many of the media and fans have been waiting to hail as American open-wheel racing's “next big thing.”
Two years ago, Rahal qualified on the front row here at Baltimore in Ganassi's “G2” team, outqualifying the Target cars of former champs Franchitti and Dixon. Well, if his self-belief is heading for that level again, start looking for Firestone Fast Six performances in qualifying. Graham's driving style may not be pretty to watch, but it is frequently effective on street courses. And heck, this team deserves some encouragement for the season has been largely bereft of hope, aside from James Jakes' brilliant second place in Detroit.
Oriol Servia returns to Panther Racing for these final four races of the season, as Ryan Briscoe has ALMS commitments. With the Aussie expected to be driving permanently in National Guard colors from next year, Servia is therefore driving for his future, and likely to be in extra-feisty mood on-track. Should be fun.
Luca Filippi, meanwhile, returns to Barracuda Racing-BHA for a second dose of IndyCar racing. Baltimore is a tough venue to be racing at when you're a relative novice, but he's a pro and he's talented and he can certainly impress this weekend.