29 April 2011

Carnival! IndyCar Hits Sao Paulo

Last year, the IZOD IndyCar Series opened its season on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The race was a hit - both literally and physically, as the opening corner saw Marco Andretti with an Indycar atop his head.  With five Brazilians in the field, Sao Paulo promises to be an entertaining conclusion to the four straight road/street courses that began the IndyCar Season.
Sao Paulo marked the return of Will Power in 2010; after a devastating wreck late in 2009, Power took advantage of Ryan Briscoe forgetting to turn to set up a pass of Ryan Hunter-Reay four laps later, coasting to the first of his five wins in the year.  
In just one year, the event has proven to be a massive success, with a Carnival-like atmosphere enveloping the track in the largest city in the southern hemisphere.  Having five Brazilians in the field surely helps, as does Sao Paulo's history and infatuation with racing.
Versus (in one of its final races under that name) has the coverage of qualifications and the race, with quals airing at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.  The Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle airs at 12 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Why to Watch: Last year, the first chicane on the course was chaotic.
You think with double-file restarts, the opening chicane does not possess the same chance of carnage this year?  Not that I would advocate watching a race for wrecks, but let's face it: people do.
Along with the first chicane, NZR Consulting's layout gives fans a delightful street circuit with plenty of passing zones - something that is all too rare on the 'twisties.'   
What to Watch: Well, if you were in Brazil for the race, I'm sure there would be plenty of items outside of the race to keep an eye on.  But since most of us are relegated to watching on TV, keep an eye on the double-file restarts, once again.
Two weeks ago, these were non-existent, as drivers did not bunch up in the proper formation, nor did race control enforce the double-file restarts.  After fan feedback over the last two weeks, keep an eye on how the race goes back to green flag racing.
Who to Watch: Helio Castroneves.  Castroneves has come under scrutiny for driving like a battering ram of late, failing to brake in time at Long Beach and punting his teammate Power late in the race.  Earlier, it looked like the three-time Indianapolis 500 champ used his nose to turn Justin Wilson - a similar move to a penalized action by Paul Tracy.
It will be very difficult to penalize the Brazilian in his home land, but race control may have no choice if Castroneves continues to struggle with late corner braking, as he has in these first three races.
Who Will Surprise: Frankly, I've been terrible in this category.  Called Bourdais at Barber.  Picked Justin Wilson last week.  If I were a driver and saw this, I would be begging not to be selected.  Since I have to pick someone, it will be Vitor Meira this week.  
Last year, in his first race since breaking his back at Indianapolis, Meira finished on the podium, taking third.  This year, Meira is healthy, but maybe a little sleep deprived after he and his wife welcomed a baby into their lives on Easter Sunday.  I think he drives well in his native land once again, taking a top five.
Taking the Checkered: Will Power. I refuse to bet against him.  Until the series hits the ovals, anyways (and that gap is closing rapidly). 

27 April 2011

Conway's Win Testament to Dallara

While the teeth-gnashing was underway about decisions from race control in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (and I share some of those concerns), another thought occurred to me as Mike Conway dashed and darted his way through the field to claim his first career IZOD IndyCar Series win - how about Dallara?
Without the manufacturer, is Conway even driving today?  Or is Will Power challenging for a second title, or Vitor Meira still competing with A.J. Foyt?  To be honest, I'm not sure.  In 2009 and 2010, each driver endured frightening wrecks - collisions with walls and/or other competitors that in years past, may have left them with far greater injuries than the broken legs and backs suffered.
Seriously, watch the Mike Conway wreck again (if you can).  It's a minor miracle he was not hurt worse.  The only thing left of Conway's car is the tub in which he is seated.
The common denominator, as it has been in the IZOD IndyCar Series over the last 14 years, has been the Dallara chassis.  The only manufacturer in the series since 2008 (and most of 2007), Dallara has staked its reputation on safety.  While some may clamor for a "sexier" looking machine, the Italian company's record of protecting drivers is strong, as Meira, Power and Conway can attest.
When Randy Bernard and the ICONIC Committee began looking at options for the future chassis of the IZOD IndyCar Series, several entrants came forth with sparkling ideas.  While Dallara's entry and sketches for future cars was not panned, it was not the flashy, fascinating designs submitted by others, such as Swift.  In fact, many fans were clamoring for something new and forward-thinking (though not as new as the Delta Wing).  While fans respected Dallara, maybe it was time for several new manufacturers to enter into competition with the staid, old company, was the basic argument.
Instead, the ICONIC Committee went back to Dallara, and with the company's track record for safety, reached a compromise.  Again, look at Conway's wreck - the tub became a cocoon around the Englishman, keeping him from further harm.  With this in mind, and the fact that Meira and Power were both able to return soon after horrific wrecks, the committee used the tub - the safety cell - as the building block for the 2012 chassis.  With ideas taken from other submissions, the safety cell/aero kit idea was born, allowing Dallara to continue what it does best: keep drivers safe.
Fans will have the opportunity to see the 2012 Dallara safety cell/aero kit package come together, as the manufacturer is presently constructing its American base of operations in Speedway, Ind., as part of the town's massive redevelopment project.  With the building not yet complete, testing will begin at the former Zipp Speed Weaponry building on Main Street.  In May, prototypes of the 2012 Dallara safety cell and fuel kit will be revealed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as over half million fans file through turnstyles during the month during practices, qualifications and the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.
As the competition continues to improve and drivers continue to run close together, open wheel racing is always going to have its share of wrecks.  But with Dallara building the safety cell (and one of at least three aero kits), those drivers involved in incidents will have the chance at future checkered flags, as Mike Conway became the latest to demonstrate on April 17.

17 April 2011

Conway Shoots Through Field for Surprise Long Beach Win

(Note: this recap also runs at SBNation Indiana)
After qualifying third, Mike Conway was buried in 22nd place after a mistake on pit road 30 laps into the 37th Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.  However, the second-year driver methodically moved through the field, picking off Ryan Briscoe with 13 laps to go and cruising to his first career IZOD IndyCar Series win.

After passing Briscoe, who led the majority of the second stint of the race, Conway dominated the closing laps, eventually winning by 6.32 seconds.  
Conway had been fast since joining Andretti Autosport in the offseason, but had not had the result to show, finishing 23rd and 22nd in his first two races with the team as a result of contact.
Just 11 months after a horrific accident in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 left him with a broken leg and back, Conway became the first driver to pick up his first career victory since Briscoe did so in 2008 at Milwaukee.  The driver was unsigned for most of the offseason before locking up a deal with Andretti Autosport, surprising many in the paddock.
In the post-race press conference, Conway reflected upon his last 11 months and the chance Michael Andretti took on him, saying:
I mean, initially I saw the injuries I had, and I just wasn't sure when I'd get back.  Yeah, things like that can definitely stop your career.  But I was just determined to not let it, determined to get back, back to fitness and back in a car. 
As soon as we were kind of talking to Michael [Andretti], it was really exciting times knowing that we could possibly be with such a good team like Andretti Autosport.  Yeah, for it to finally come together was awesome. 
Yeah, this year just full of energy and just all ready for the fight ahead.  A long season.  To get a win in the third race in, third race back, is awesome, and I can't think Michael enough for believing in me and the team for doing such a great job.
Conway's drive to his first checkered flag came just after a wild sequence saw Helio Castroneves take out teammate Will Power on Lap 66 after the field restarted following Justin Wilson's foray into the Turn 8 tire barrier.  Power was outside Ryan Hunter-Reay in a battle for second and tried to duck behind the No. 28; however, his teammate Helio Castroneves ran into the back of Power, putting both drivers out of contention for the win.
While Castroneves was punting Power, Conway shot through the space vacated by the two and Oriol Servia, eventually setting up a pass of Dario Franchitti.  Conway put the same move on Briscoe just a few laps later in Turn 6 and drove away for the victory.
Of cutting through the field, Conway remarked: 
As soon as we came out on the reds [tires] and kind of jumped a few people in the pits, [the] car kind of came to life again, and yeah, on the restarts the car was awesome.  Everyone else was kind of struggling for grip and we were just kind of charging through. 
Yeah, great we won, and Dario and Ryan I passed later, so it was nice to really fight for the lead there and a nice clean pass, and from there it was kind of just head down and try and pull away.
After the Turn 1 incident, it looked as if Hunter-Reay was poised to battle Briscoe for the win, but the defending champion at Long Beach suddenly lost power when his actuator broke down the front stretch, costing him a chance at a second straight win at Long Beach.  Hunter-Reay finished 23rd.
Briscoe rebounded from a sluggish start to the season with the runner-up result, while Franchitti picked up needed points to reassume the points lead from Power. James Hinchcliffe, after a fire in his car on Friday, used Servia's backup to take fourth and tighten the Rookie of the Year battle with JR Hildebrand, who was 17th.  Alex Tagliani briefly led en route to a season-best fifth-place finish.  
Servia, after spinning in the Power-Castroneves incident, took sixth, with Danica Patrick behind in seventh.  Tony Kanaan, who suffered a fuel pump problem in his first pit stop, came back for an eighth-place result, while Vitor Meira and Power rounded out the top 10. 
Five different teams were represented in the top five and seven of the top 10 drivers came from various teams.
Franchitti retook the points lead from Power and now leads by seven points.  Kanaan remains in third, 35 points in arrears.
After a week off, the IZOD IndyCar Series will resume on Sunday, May 1, hitting the streets of Brazil for the second consecutive year.  Coverage on Versus starts at 12 p.m. ET.
Finishing Order (starting position-driver-laps completed-reason for exiting race), courtesy of IndyCar PR:
1. (3) Mike Conway, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
2. (12) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
3. (7) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
4. (11) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
5. (9) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
6. (4) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
7. (20) Danica Patrick, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
8. (10) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
9. (13) Vitor Meira, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
10. (1) Will Power, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
11. (19) Raphael Matos, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
12. (6) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
13. (16) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
14. (15) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
15. (23) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
16. (25) Paul Tracy, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
17. (27) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Honda, 85, Running
18. (8) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 84, Running
19. (26) Ana Beatriz, Dallara-Honda, 83, Running
20. (18) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Honda, 82, Running
21. (22) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 81, Running
22. (5) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 78, Running
23. (2) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Honda, 72, Mechanical                 
24. (24) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 66, Mechanical
25. (17) EJ Viso, Dallara-Honda, 59, Contact
26. (14) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 37, Mechanical                  
27. (21) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Honda, 27, Contact
Race Statistics
Winners average speed: 88.676
Time of Race: 1:53:11.1000
Margin of victory: 6.3203 seconds.
Cautions: 3 for 12 laps
Lead changes: 7 among 6 drivers
Lap Leaders: Power 1-27, Tagliani 28-31, Briscoe 32-55, Hunter-Reay 56-57, Power 58-59, Dixon 60, Briscoe 61-71, Conway 72-85.
Point Standings: Franchitti 122, Power 115, Kanaan 87, Servia 80, Conway 74, Tagliani 73, Dixon 66, Briscoe 66, De Silvesto 66, Meira 64.