One Formula 5000 race, eight Formula 1 races and 29 Indy car races into its existence, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the granddaddy of U.S. street races. Seems like everyone, even those uninterested in racing, have heard of it. And, like the Indy 500, like the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix, it's attended by those who wish to attend an event
, regardless of whether they're racing enthusiasts. That makes for a very special atmosphere.
Throw in a race lineup that includes the American Le Mans Series, Firestone Indy Lights, Pirelli World Challenge, the Toyota Pro Celebrity race, and then the Formula Drift competition and the demo from Robby Gordon's new Stadium SUPER Trucks, and you have everything for the red blooded race fan.
Here, though, are our tips for the top in TGPLB's headline event, the IZOD IndyCar Series race.
ANDRETTI vs. PENSKE, part 3
Two years ago we were robbed of what promised to be a classic Will Power-vs.-Ryan Hunter-Reay street fight for first, as the former was knocked out of contention by his teammate and the latter succumbed to gearbox problems. A year earlier, Hunter-Reay had scored the first of his wins with Andretti Autosport, a year after, Will Power reigned supreme. Now it's time for battle to be rejoined.
The IndyCar field is too tough and close to ignore potential surprises, and it only takes one blocked lap in qualifying for a pre-race favorite to end up way further down the grid than you'd expect. But seeing Hunter-Reay and Power annexing the front row here would cause no surprises. Each has taken a dominant pole position this year, each has a formidable engineer and team behind him, and each is confident around the 1.968-mile track…which is absolutely one of the keys to speed in blind turns. And each has a great deal of respect for the other's pace around here but is equally eager to upstage the other.
The shortening of this race from 85 to 80 laps could be a factor in lessening fuel-saving strategies, but still, team/driver combos will work to build a better strategic mousetrap. At Barber Motorsports Park, Hunter-Reay was dominant, while Power dropped to eighth for the first segment of the race after running wide at Turn 1 and elected to try a two-stop strategy. Had there been a reasonable length yellow-flag period in the middle or final stint, he'd have had the fuel to make inroads into those ahead. But following IndyCar's healthy trend for fewer caution periods, there were none at all in the second half of the Barber race, and Power was pegged back to a lap speed 0.8sec off that of Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon. He ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap.
Given Hunter-Reay's super-aggressive form that weekend, though, Power would have struggled to beat the reigning champ and it's anyone's guess as to who will have the upper hand at the Beach this weekend. It would be great to see that good hard battle we missed out on here two years ago…
Two men eager to prevent that happening are the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports/Schmidt Hamilton Racing duo of Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier. The former, who scored his first IndyCar podium here at Long Beach last year, has had a troubled start to his 2013 campaign, with throttle problems in St. Petersburg and being-outqualified-by-a-rookie-teammate problems in Barber. It would be foolish to see this as a trend developing – there have been only two races so far! – but it's surely caused some surprise and puzzlement in the No. 77 camp. But I'd still expect the fundamental speed, experience and racecraft of Pagenaud to prevail over the course of the season, and falling just a second short of Power in last year's TGPLB will be a source of encouragement.
That being said, Vautier appears to be as impressive a rookie as Pagenaud was last year, and starting your first two IndyCar races in the Firestone Fast Six is an immense achievement. Yes, coming off the back of a Star Mazda title and an Indy Lights title, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. But it's not only Vautier's immediate pace but also his composure that makes him look like he belongs among IndyCar's front-runners so early in his career. Any driver who can make the leap from junior formulas look so easy has got to be a bit special. Tristan didn't excel at this track in Indy Lights, but that's not to say he can't do so in the big cars.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti has blown hot and cold at this track over the years, winning in 2009, way off the pace in 2010, stronger in 2011 and then being the quickest Honda runner (and a true fourth fastest) last year. This season, like last, his first two races have been struggle, but his pace in the race at Barber was strong and it seems that he and race engineer Chris Simmons are cracking the code to the DW12 once more.
Franchitti's Target teammate Scott Dixon has had a troubled past at Long Beach, but on his day, he's one of the absolute best at street racing. Avoiding scruffy slip-ups in qualifying that leave him at the mercies of the more unruly drivers on starts and restarts will be key for the 2003 and '08 champ, whose Barber performance (qualified fourth, finished second) suggest he's going to be one of the strongest title contenders this year.
And after his revelatory performance in Barber, it would be wrong not to mention the Target boys' teammate Charlie Kimball. That fourth place was the result of his best performance yet in an IndyCar; if that was the key to fanning his confidence, don't count him out of qualifying and finishing in the top 10 this weekend.
While third Penske driver AJ Allmendinger looked strong at Barber and could again shine at Long Beach, it's actually the third Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing pilot who may cause the biggest stir this weekend. Mike Conway chose to become an IndyCar part-timer following his decision to quit oval racing at the end of last year, but he won this race in 2011, and the canny Mr. Rahal was quick to snatch up the Englishman to hopefully gun for a repeat performance. Certainly the quietly confident Conway has lost none of his chops for courses that turn right as well as left, ending the preseason test at Barber comfortably faster than his full-time teammates James Jakes and Graham Rahal. It would be perhaps too much to expect Mike to end up in Victory Lane on Sunday, but a place on the podium may well be within his grasp if he can qualify in the top eight. Bear in mind, too, that a strong performance this weekend may be key to Bobby getting more sponsorship and therefore running a third car at more events later in the year.
TWO TO KEEP AN EYE ON
People forget that Justin Wilson should have been part of the Power/Pagenaud fight for victory at Long Beach last year, and the Dale Coyne Racing driver also drove a (typically) combative race at Barber two weeks ago. One of those drivers who can make up for deficiencies in his car, he actually shouldn't need to this weekend, for his excellent race engineer Bill Pappas has a strong setup for this course.
Bryan Herta Autosport has had a slightly underwhelming start to the season, but Alex Tagliani is spectacularly quick at Long Beach when his confidence is high, and this is definitely a race which can revive his 2013 fortunes. Even a podium finish is within the grasp of BHA if everything runs smoothly for all three days. You heard it here first.