RACER editor David Malsher looks ahead to the final road course race in the 2009 IndyCar Series
U.S. open-wheel racing fans should be looking ahead to the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma with optimism. And one of those reasons to be cheerful may even be good racing. There are usually complaints that the 2.303-mile course produces a lot of talk and not enough on-track action – like an IndyCar equivalent of Pinks All Out
. But the final road course event in the 2009 IndyCar Series could be set for a proper battle between the major contenders and a bunch of surprises, too.
Penske Racing held a clear upper hand at this track last year, qualifying and finishing 1-2 (in their back-up cars, after their transporter caught fire en route to the track), and championship leader Ryan Briscoe looked very quick in the test here last Wednesday/Thursday. In fact, if he pulls out the sort of stunning qualifying performance he produced at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, there aren't many people who could beat him to pole position.
Not many…but a few. There's a constant threat from within – his teammate Helio Castroneves. At Edmonton and Mid-Ohio, the Brazilian superstar may not have looked quite as sharp as we've come to expect from him on road courses, but he's no pushover. And frankly, he never ceases to surprise either with brilliance or a lapse in concentration. He also seems as dogged a fighter as he's ever been.
And then there's the other Penske teammate, Will Power, who will be desperate to prove his mettle in what (for all he knows) will be his penultimate race for Roger's outfit, and his final race on a road course. Yes, he didn't get a chance to test alongside Ryan and Helio this past week, but he'll still be sharp. Remember, last year Power was the biggest thorn in the side of Penske at this circuit, qualifying the KV Racing entry third.
There is still the question of team orders, and it's a question that can never go away: are Castroneves and Power going to be expected to help Briscoe? Given Penske's history, I suspect it will be a case of the drivers being instructed to use their common sense. If Ryan is leading The Three Pensketeers, neither Will nor Helio will be expected to risk a collision with a 50/50 pass. (Trust me, Power was well aware of what he was doing in Toronto on the restarts, backing up the pack behind and not even attempting to pass Briscoe and chase after leader Dario Franchitti).
But equally, even had it been Penske's title-hope Briscoe, rather than Castroneves, running second behind Power at Edmonton in the closing stages, I'm 99 percent convinced that there would still have been no order from the Penske team for Power to move aside, or develop mysterious “brake issues” in the closing stages. For one thing, everyone who scans radio transmissions would have heard so it would have brought negative publicity on the team. Secondly, Penske people truly are fans of Power. Thirdly, those same people have absolute confidence in Briscoe being able to clinch the the IndyCar title with minimal assistance. And a fourth reason: being ordered to relinquish victory might have driven Power to the arms of a rival team for 2010.
We shouldn't assume that the battle in Sonoma will be an all-Penske affair, however. Dario Franchitti has always shone at this track, and will be desperate to re-establish the slight road/street course superiority he showed over teammate Scott Dixon in the first half of the season. For his part, Dixon won this race in 2007, and he arrives on the crest of a wave: his victory at Mid-Ohio was the culmination of the most dominant roadcourse performance of this IndyCar season. On a track notoriously difficult to pass, however, he must improve his qualifying. The reigning champion has just one pole to his name this year, and that was at Kentucky and came courtesy of a rain-out.
Everyone at Dale Coyne Racing knows that this will be their last chance to win this year, and so long as they have stopped kicking themselves over the Mid-Ohio error that saw Justin Wilson run too low on fuel, then there's no question that Justin can stick the No. 18 among the leading contenders. He, like most people, was slightly shocked at Dixon's pace in the second half of the Mid-Ohio race, but in terms of pace, there are few who would dispute that the DCR car was next best.
Graham Rahal is another man with the ability and the car to mix with the Penske/Ganassi quintet. The young American has a startlingly good qualifying record this year, and whenever you start thinking, “Okay, this is the race where he can't get in the Firestone Fast Six,” he carves out another great lap and the No. 02 Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing entry lands in the top half-dozen. Expect new teammate Oriol Servia to be back up to speed, too, after a mildly disappointing return to the series at the previous race. Oriol qualified sixth for KV at this track last year.
Speaking of KV, Mario Moraes will be back in action this weekend after sympathy leave in Mid-Ohio. As he has proven all year, he's fast – very fast – over a flying lap, and at this circuit last year he was a gnat's quicker than Dale Coyne Racing teammate Bruno Junqueira. Not bad for a rookie. Expect this year's other fast rookies to shine too – Raphael Matos (Luczo Dragon Racing), Robert Doornbos (in his second race with HVM Racing) and Mike Conway (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing). Conway topped the timesheets both test days, so clearly speed isn't a problem. But then, Mid-Ohio apart, speed hasn't been lacking from the Britain's repertoire at any of the road or street course races. What he needs is a strong, top-six finish, the sort he earned completely legitimately at Watkins Glen.
It's impossible to ignore Andretti Green Racing for both bad and good reasons. Tony Kanaan's in-cockpit acrobatics could produce something startling for the team, while both Hideki Mutoh and Danica Patrick have shown marked improvement on road courses this year. Meanwhile, Marco Andretti, who won this race three long, long years ago, is positive that his Mid-Ohio race day performance was a genuine sign of progress.
But as Andretti says in his most recent column, here on RACER. com: “It's a strange feeling. People saying ‘Well done!' for getting a mediocre result… It's no consolation that no one is consistently giving the Ganassi and Penske boys a hard time. In fact, for us I'd say it was doubly frustrating because we used to be able to not just threaten them but often beat them.”
Not much chance of that at Sonoma this year. However, adding spice to the mix is the arrival of Franck Montagny in a fifth AGR seat. Although the Frenchman qualified sixth and finished second at Long Beach last year, and therefore scored IndyCar Series points, that was of course the Champ Car finale, so aside from testing laps, he's new to the Dallara-Honda package. Personally, I've always rated his talent highly, and I'll be interested to see what he can do. But I'm intrigued as to the purpose of his arrival and at whose behest. About the only thing AGR hasn't been accused of this year is not having enough cars.
Despite my emphasis on the importance of qualifying thus far in this article, I'm reckoning there should still be plenty of action at this race. The reason for my optimism? The little push-to-pass button, which even made a difference at Mid-Ohio, where there are fewer obvious overtaking opportunities. Matos in particular, but also Paul Tracy, Wilson and Dixon used it wisely and successfully, and given that Infineon Raceway's pedal to the metal areas are followed by hard-braking zones, I suspect this could make even the paltry 10hp increase invaluable. Also, aside from Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti, no one has anything to lose, so there's no excuse for the others to not simply go for it.
Versus will be showing the qualification show at 6pm (E.T.) on Saturday, and the race at 5pm (E.T.) on Sunday. However, if you don't mind ruining the surprise, watch the Live Timing on Indycar.com.
But best of all, get to the track if you can, and try and watch from one of the braking zones or one of the fast corners. And if the race does turn into a snoozer, at least you're in a beautiful part of a beautiful state and you're watching the country's premier (albeit very unbeautiful) open-wheel cars turn left and right for the last time this year.
See you there.