After a swathe of five oval races interrupted only by the double-header at Detroit at the start of June, the IndyCar drivers take their fight to the streets once more – twice more, actually – with one of the most popular stops on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar in charismatic Toronto.
With Edmonton gone from IndyCar's schedule seemingly forever, the capital of Ontario is the only Canadian event on the 2013 IndyCar schedule but some compensation lies in the fact that Toronto will host another of the series' double-headers. What will distinguish it from the two races in Motown last month is that the first of this weekend's races, held on Saturday, will feature a standing start – something that hasn't been seen in Indy car racing since Champ Car experimented (successfully) with the concept back in 2007. The second race will feature a traditional rolling start.
The standing starts have been met with a whole range of reactions from drivers and teams. Here's a selection of comments:
1. “Can't do any harm to experiment. Should be interesting for the fans.”
2. “The clutch biting point is so variable on these cars, even when we're pulling away from our pit box, I wonder if there could be a lot of people stalling, and if that happens at the front of the grid, it could be chaos.”
3. “What is it about this year that we keep experimenting with gimmicks when we already have great racing?”
4. “They're going against IndyCar tradition.”
5. “I realize it means the crashes at Turn 1 [note the optimism there! - Editor] are going to happen at a slower speed, but by bunching everyone together even more, I think there's still more chance of people running into each other.”
6. “I don't know what people are moaning about. We can cope.”
That last point seems a reasonable view to take. Of course, if half the field are left standing still at the start of the race, we'll all be saying it was a bad idea. On the one hand, it doesn't seem to add much to the spectacle other than novelty value, but on the other hand, it means that IndyCar drivers have to master two styles of starting procedure. In a series that trumpets its drivers' versatility, maybe this latest move is in keeping.
The qualifying session for Saturday's race will be decided by the usual means of Q1 (two groups of 12), Q2 (the top 12), and Q3 (the Firestone Fast Six shootout). Sunday's grid, as in Detroit, will be determined by a 30-minute two-group qualifying session on Saturday morning.
Will Power, after some very strong oval performances, must be licking his chops at the idea of getting back to racing at one of his strongest venues. He won at Toronto in 2007 and 2010 and could/should have done so in the past two seasons. With it looking increasingly unlikely that he'll win this year's championship, he can continue to drive as he did in Brazil, Detroit and Pocono – quickly, aggressively, and with nothing to lose. Ultimately, he will surely pledge to help Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves' quest for his first championship, so it's best that Power strikes while he can.
Does that mean he'll win two poles and and two races this weekend? Well, this season's so peculiar, and yellow flags in the race and red flags in qualifying can always turn strong form to utter failure, but it's safe to assume tha the Verizon car will be a contender throughout the three days.
As for Castroneves, he's never finished better than sixth here (that was last year) so he'll be eager to improve on that but as Marshall Pruett highlighted in yesterday's feature, the 2013-spec Castroneves is a smart operator. He knows that what's gotten him into his championship lead is consistency and an ability to turn on the speed and combativeness only when appropriate. Unnecessary risks are being eliminated from Helio's makeup.
ANDRETTI'S FASCINATING FOUR-PLAY
It probably wouldn't thrill the casual fan, but you could wipe 20 cars off the grid and just turn the Honda Indy Toronto into an all-Andretti Autosport competition and it would be fascinating. The internecine battle of wills and skills that is currently being kept under control by Michael Andretti and his henchmen will surely bubble out of control at some point as the frustrations ferment.
Think about the viewpoints. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the reigning champion and last year's Toronto winner, is the driver leading the AA charge in the championship standings, second behind Castroneves. He knows that he's the best street course driver in the lineup while at Barber (road course) and Milwaukee (oval), he also scored two of the most convincing victories of the year. However, Hunter-Reay is also aware that teammate James Hinchcliffe is the great opportunist who can beat all comers on his best days.
Hinchcliffe himself has scored more wins than anyone this year, and each of them was hard-earned and deserved. But he's also had an amazing win-or-bust tally of results. From dominance in Iowa to despair in Pocono, Hinch is the driver who has most needed his natural ebullience and self-belief to remain intact. Throw into the mix that this is his home event and so he's being pulled every which way, he's currently trailing Castroneves by 84 points and his teammate Hunter-Reay by 61, and he's probably to blame for his demise last week at Pocono, and you have a guy under pressure.
Then there's Marco Andretti, whose sheer consistency and ability to look after his tires over a whole stint this season has been in marked contrast to his flat-out-at-all-times style in recent years. And yet, Fate has kicked him in the pants repeatedly in 2013. A potential race winner at Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Pocono, it has not been Marco's fault that he's been unable to take a potentially victorious challenge all the way to the checkered flag.
And finally, there's EJ Viso, whose campaign has recently been stymied by doubts over his engine's power. He absolutely has the ability to outperform all his teammates on a street course, but his confidence needs to remain intact, while self-doubt and desperation must remain dormant. One of the most pleasant guys in the paddock, the little Venezuelan and the No. 5 crew deserve some days in the sun.
Above all, the last race at Pocono was an absolute disaster for the Andretti Autosport team come Sunday, despite the promise of the day before. Each of these drivers will be kicking themselves at being unable to grasp the intra-team advantage in Pennsylvania – in Hunter-Reay's and Andretti's case, through no fault of their own. Can any/all of them retain their focus in each of the one-minute laps at Toronto this weekend? Well, that's a potential storyline right there.
DIXON DIGGING DEEP
Scott Dixon's victory in Pocono last week has boosted his chances as a title contender, no question about it, but being 65 points behind a recently matured yet still-quick Castroneves means the 2003 and '08 champion is still a long way from steering the course of this year's championship battle. However, while people may gripe and grouse about the difference between the Chevrolet and Honda engines, the difference isn't enough to rule the Target Chip Ganassi Racing squad out of potential victory on any type of track. While Dixon's in-cockpit acrobatics have often been outpaced by teammate Dario Franchitti's smooth and composed style – at this race last year, for example – expect Scott to be up for a fight to the season closer. And as Honda's best (only?) bet in the chase for the IndyCar championship, it's not unreasonable to expect Dixie to get the best of everything from everyone on his side.
Don't discount Franchitti, however. He's the subtlest and smartest of the potential race winners, and as polesitter here at Toronto last year, he's proven he's deceptively fast around here.
DALE IN HIS PRIME
It's not inconceivable that Dale Coyne Racing will depart Toronto on Sunday evening having doubled his non-oval win tally from two to four. Mike Conway, who scored a win, a third place and a pole position in his cameo role in the No. 18 car in Detroit, returns this weekend with the potential to wreak yet more havoc on the hearts and minds of the full-time IndyCar stars.
Meanwhile, Conway's compatriot and teammate Justin Wilson has previously shone at this track (remember that sublime pole for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2010 and his win in 2005's Champ Car race?) and though it's now established that his and Conway's car setups are mutually incompatible, Wilson is likely to shine on a track that demands in-cockpit acrobatics. Toronto – especially given the exceptionally “green” nature of the course after all its recent flooding – could be bumpy enough for Wilson's more supple suspension setup preference to payoff this weekend.
ALSO LOOK OUT FOR…
• The results of the support races. The Mazda Road to Indy, including Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000, will comprise a packed and fascinating schedule this weekend
• How well Alex Tagliani responds on home ground. The French-Canadian's confidence has taken a knock in recent weeks with incidents and accidents, and his Bryan Herta Autosport team is surely better than its 2013 results suggest. Tag usually responds well to performing in front of a Canuck crowd, and he sure needs a strong performance to restore his credibility with his employers.
• The comeback of Simona De Silvestro who, during the oval phase of the IndyCar schedule, has been overshadowed – perhaps inevitably – by KV Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. Miss SDS is as brave and inspired as they come, and it would not be a surprise to see her reach the Firestone Fast Six.