24 August 2009

Ah, Youth

While Dario Franchitti was cruising to the second wire-to-wire victory in IndyCar Series history, something else happened - the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma turned into an exciting race (at times).

This occurs when you jumble the field via a first-lap accident and then let eight drivers - seven of whom have 3 years or less IndyCar Series experience - battle it out for spots 3-10 over the last five laps.

Look at the experience level (in the IndyCar Series) among the drivers who finished in the top 10:
  1. Dario Franchitti - 7th year (8th if you count Surfers' Paradise in 2008, but I'm not)
  2. Ryan Briscoe - 4th year
  3. Mike Conway - rookie
  4. Mario Moraes - 2nd year
  5. Hideki Mutoh - 3rd year
  6. Oriol Servia - 2nd year (9th year in top-level, American open-wheel racing)
  7. Justin Wilson - 2nd year (6th year in American open-wheel racing)
  8. Tony Kanaan - 8th year
  9. Raphael Matos - rookie
  10. Robert Doornbos - rookie
Just look at 3-7 in the final results. With all the young drivers looking to make a name for themselves and not caring about championship points, the "damn the torpedos" mentality took over and made for exciting racing. Sure, you look at Oriol Seriva and Justin Wilson not as "young" drivers, but they are both in their second season of IndyCar Series racing. Their previous experience in CART/Champ Car (and its road-only circuits) definitely served to spice things up at Sonoma.

Shortly after Helio Castrone3ves and Ryan Hunter-Reay went off the course in separate incidents, the IndyCar Racing gods decided to spice up Sonoma, creating controlled (and sometimes not controlled) chaos in the last five laps. Justin Wilson was attempting to carve through the field on fresh Firestone Firehawk red tires, and while Jack Arute may have been overstating it a bit to say he could climb from seventh to the podium, Wilson's attempt at running through the field and subsequent spin was exciting to watch.

Wilson wasn't the only driver in the top 10 to spin. Raphael Matos went wide in the final turn, giving away two spots to Wilson and Tony Kanaan. Then Marco Andretti spun Scott Dixon, dropping Dixon to 14th temporarily; the racing stewards eventually put him in 13th and dropped Andretti to 14th.

And maybe most exciting over those final few laps was the drive of Mike Conway. Always a candidate for the "Good Qualifying Effort, Only to be Undone by Driver Error," Award, Conway showed what he is capable of if he keeps his nose clean. The best may have come in the post-race interview, when Conway broke down his pass of Hideki Mutoh by describing it as a "dummy" move of Mutoh. Versus captured the aerial shot of the pass, and when Conway gave the play-by-play, you could see exactly how he dummied Mutoh (showing left then ducking inside the turn) to record his first career podium.

Besides the final five laps, Sonoma presented plenty of drama, just not in the front of the field. You had Kanaan getting into Castroneves, possibly setting in motion Castroneves' suspension failure later in the race. Richard Antinucci and Franck Montagny got together, ending Montagny's day in his only IndyCar start for Andretti-Green.

And you had the cluster at the beginning of the race that allowed several of the young drivers to move up through the field, simply by avoiding the wreck. Kudos to Mario Moraes for admitting as much in post-race interview, in which he was praised for advancing seven spots on the first lap. Moraes, whose fourth-place finish was his career best, some something to the effect of: I didn't have to do too much, just avoid the wreck, to advance.

To top it off, the game of Championship Hot Potato continued, as Dixon fell from 1st to 3rd in the championship hunt. Though being moved to 13th helps, Dixon is now 20 points shy of Ryan Briscoe, who sits in first. Franchitti, who refused to share throughout the weekend (taking the pole position, leading every lap and claiming every bonus point possible) is four points behind Briscoe entering the final three races of 2009.

In any case, the recipe for creating an exciting road course race has apparently been found:
  • Create chaos early in the field
  • Create alternate tire strategies for teams
  • Off-sequence pit stops for some teams
  • Late yellow flag, bringing the field back together
  • Let the youngsters try and drive all over each other in the final laps
It's not a bad way to go, all things considered. With Sonoma serving as the last road/street circuit of 2009, the IndyCar Series will have three ovals over the next 5 weeks to wrap up the season. But if the ICS can bottle the excitement of the final five laps of Sonoma (or barrel them) and use them as a catalyst towards the road/street course set ups of 2010, then things are looking up for the series.

1 comment:

  1. Good race to watch, especially with the first-lap shakeout. Nice to see drivers like Moraes up front, not just The Red Cars. Was hoping for more from Montagny - that guy can drive! Not sure what the deal with Doornbos is - certainly has talent, just not getting results.