Toronto: Steph’s Sunday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on July 18, 2010 7:43 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

I said it during the race, and I’ll say it again: the carnage in today’s IndyCar event was over the top, but if you didn’t enjoy the heck out of it, I’m afraid that I just don’t know how to help you.

But more on that later.  Let’s start from the beginning of the day.

(Before I begin:  Paul says he needs to “collect his thoughts,” so it looks like my summary is the only one that will hit the site today.  I’ll harass him mercilessly until he posts his Sunday rundown later this week.)

The morning started for me at about 7:30 as I stood at the streetcar stop on the waterfront, grateful to have coffee in hand (I wasn’t sure my local Starbucks would be open that early on a Sunday).  As I waited longer and longer, it dawned on me that the majority of the transit system in Toronto doesn’t start running until 9 AM on Sundays.  The guilt of having failed to inform any of my friends and contacts of this ahead of time weighed on me as I climbed into a cab and headed for the track.

From there, the day’s schedule never let up for a moment.  The only break for the open-wheel set was an hour-long Canadian Touring Car race between the morning warm-ups and the FIL race.  This made for a lot of hectic running back and forth with barely a moment to catch a breath, let alone grab a bite to eat or take care of staying hydrated.

As for the races themselves, there was a fair amount of contrast between them.  The IMS Radio team did a good job of making a somewhat lackluster Firestone Indy Lights event seem more entertaining than it really was.  A low car count meant that the field strung out fairly easily, and nobody had anything for JK Vernay, who led the event from flag to flag.  James Hinchcliffe looked like he might have been able to challenge Vernay early on, but his car appeared to get away from him fairly quickly, and Vernay jumped out to a greater lead on each restart.  To add insult to injury, and much to the chagrin of his hometown crowd, Hinch lost control in turn 5 on the final lap and stuffed it into the tires.  Being that he’s likely all too keenly aware that he fumbled under the weekend’s glaring spotlight with a mistake that may have allowed the season championship to slip from his fingers, it’s unsurprising that Hinch disappeared after the conclusion to the race and that there isn’t a quote to be found on the sources of his woes.

But the IZOD IndyCar Series race, as you likely know by now, was a festival of tomfoolery from start to finish.  So many great stories emerged from these 85 laps (as they often do in Toronto) that it’s difficult to know where to start.

At around 12:30 this afternoon, there were three key stories that were capturing attention on the starting grid:

- At the front of the pack, Justin Wilson was starting the #22 Z-Line Designs car on pole for Dreyer & Reinbold, having brought the season’s streak of Penske pole positions to a close.

- At the back of the pack, hopes were high among the locals that Paul Tracy would be able to recover from the dismal qualifying effort that saw him taking the start from 24th position.

- And in row 3, drama was unfolding over the change of engine effected by the Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew on the #10 machine of Dario Franchitti earlier in the morning.  Reports had been flip-flopping for several hours regarding whether Dario would lose his 5th place starting position.  Media said yes, Honda said no.  By a half hour before the start, the situation was being reviewed by Race Control.  In the end, the entire story was a non-starter, and Dario maintained his grid position.  Reportedly, the team had requested the engine change after reporting that the original powerplant was underperforming.  The equipment that was removed will be sent back to Honda for inspection.  If an issue is found with it, Honda will take on the charges associated with the shipping and inspection process; if nothing is found, the costs will be shouldered by TCGR.  The expense to the team in such a situation will be considered sufficient penalty, and the team was therefore not assessed a penalty on the track today.

Expectations for the race were high as the green flag fell.  After a thrilling and largely contact-free first few laps, things quickly got messy.

- The mobile wrecking balls at KV were out in full force today with Mario Moraes leading the way.  Moraes was involved in two separate incidents; the first saw him take out his own teammate, Takuma Sato, on lap 16, and the second resulted in a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact after he collided with Mario Romancini on lap 32.  EJ Viso was also involved in a first-lap incident with Dan Wheldon and was collected in a tangle with Rafa Matos on lap 65.  Once again, Paul Tracy was the only driver in the KV stable who brought the car home in one piece.  (I shake my head in wonderment at being able to write that sentence factually.)

- Some mistakes were made by some unusual players this afternoon as well.  The most visually graphic of those was seeing Helio Castroneves touch tires with Vitor Meira at the end of the back straight on lap 21 (a sight that makes long-time Toronto attendees cringe) and end up burying himself deep into the tire barrier at the run-off in turn 3.  Helio felt that Vitor braked very early and caused the incident.  Later, Ryan Briscoe and Graham Rahal got together on lap 60, again in turn 3; Briscoe has been uncharacteristically vocal over the incident, and he and Graham were still exchanging barbs on Twitter about who blocked who as of the time of this writing.  Then, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay made contact on lap 72 — again in turn 3 — and Justin Wilson saw a hopeful run slip away later in the same lap when he spun all on his own in turn 8.

- Just as the yellow came out for the last of those incidents, another story was developing in turn 1 as Tomas Scheckter and Alex Tagliani got together and into the tires.  These two came into this weekend’s event with a history; it was at this event last year that these same two drivers had an on-track tussle that resulted in Tomas’s now-famous glove-throwing incident.  I happened to be in the right place at the right time to see Tag get out of his car after the race and storm down pit lane to Tomas’s stall.  Tomas, however, had already left at that point.  Once Tag found him later, they exchanged heated words, and the barbs flew between them through the media post-race.  Tag accused Tomas of taking him out intentionally as retaliation for last year’s incident; Tomas claimed he would never do that and said that Tag should stop “crying like a baby.”  In a press conference later on, Tag let loose:

“The most frustrating thing is a guy that does four races a year, you go see him, he tells you the f-word, just payback, see you later.  He was actually happy that he didn’t finish the race and he took us out.  Pretty long time to keep a grudge.  Either the series does something maybe a little more strict and gets the drivers to be a little bit more courteous and respectful or … if you take it in your own hands, it never ends. … His attitude was really sad at the end of the race.  I thought that was pretty shitty. … I hope he’ll be back in Edmonton because I have a lot of front wings to damage.”

Harsh stuff — no love lost here.  Expect this verbal jousting to continue going into next weekend.

- And at the end of the day, who was there to benefit from a low-key, cautious and consistent run?  Why, none other than Series points leader Will Power, of course.  The man is terrifyingly calm and collected under pressure.  If his competitors aren’t already shaking in their boots, they should be.

All in all, the collective complaint at the end of the day seemed to be that the race saw too much contact and too many full course yellows and that the driving looked sloppy and unprofessional.  To those people, I ask you:  if you can look at the race we had today and complain, and you can look at a race like we had at Barber and complain — seriously, what do you want?  Yes, there was a great deal of contact, but at least there are awesome passing zones here and the drivers were trying to use them.  It’s a shame that more of the early caution periods couldn’t be restricted to local yellows, but overall, there were very few moments in this race where the action wasn’t constant and the stories weren’t developing rapidly.  From this viewer’s perspective, today’s race had everything I ask for:  passionate driving, dramatic storylines, and tons of action.  You want the IICS to generate headlines?  This is the kind of race that’s going to make that happen.

As for the success of the event itself, the prevailing opinion on the ground is that this weekend saw substantial improvement over last year.  The grandstands were almost completely filled (including two new ones for this year), and there was definitely a much more vibrant feel to the place overall.  Free Friday was deemed to be a great success, and Kim Green and Kevin Savoree confirmed in a post-race press conference that the promotion will be a multi-year deal with the assistance of the Ontario Honda Dealers.  Corporate support is vastly higher, key partnerships are solidifying, and Savoree stated that IZOD sees Toronto as a key activation market.  Even as I take a step back to force an objective opinion, I feel confident in declaring that this event is back on the upswing.  It has a long way to go before it can proclaim the sort of success it saw at its height, but there’s no question that the quest is now well under way.

I’ll wrap this up here to head out for a couple more race-related events to close out the weekend.  Paul has many more thoughts for you as a first-time twisty attendee that he’ll get to you over the next few days.  I will tell you one thing, though:  when he came back to pit road about three-quarters of the way through the race, he looked like a kid that had just raided a candy store.  He was talking so fast about everything he’d seen that I could hardly keep up.  And afterward, he said to me that sitting at turn 3 in Toronto should be on every race fan’s bucket list.  High praise from an oval junkie.  But I’ll let him tell you the rest.

In the meantime, don’t touch that dial, race fans — the coverage will continue throughout the week here as Paul and I bring you more summaries of the action in Toronto, further examination of the 2012 chassis strategy decision, and previews of next weekend’s event in Edmonton.  Watch for it here at Planet-IRL.com.

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