Today had the makings of perfection. There was a full slate of activity, the weather was gorgeous, Thunder Alley is more engaging and exciting, and the on-track action was excellent.
The only thing missing was the people.
Don’t get me wrong — it was a decent crowd. On any other Friday at any other street course, I would have been impressed. But admission to the grounds at the Honda Indy Toronto was free today, and this is the 25th running of the event. Today’s turnout felt roughly equivalent to last year’s Friday crowd to me, but it seemed like it should have been bigger. There was something about the vibe of the event that was missing.
Perhaps it was the fact that there’s been a lot less excitement than it seems that there should be over the 25th running of this race. Leading into the weekend, there was the one event in the city with the large cake, and some of the lightpost banners downtown had a logo. But today at the track, I saw a small sign on the way in, and the event program seems to carry some detail about it (though I confess that I haven’t had a chance to flip through it). At a minimum, some sort of display highlighting the 24 past winners would have been nice. I hope the remainder of the weekend will reveal more pomp and circumstance than a mention in the pre-race speeches.
There’s good news, though: word on the street is that there was a good amount of tickets sold today for the rest of the weekend. And there were a whole lot of families with young children checking things out. It’s never a bad thing to hook ‘em young.
Plus, Thunder Alley really does look great this year. For the past couple of years, there have been retail booths and displays in both the Direct Energy Centre and Thunder Alley. I haven’t been through the DEC yet, but based on the maps it looks as though that space is now all dedicated to support series paddocks and the booths have been sent outside. This was emphatically an excellent move. It gives the infield a much busier, more event-like feel and does a better job of keeping the crowd together.
On the other hand, by Sunday the booth operators might be disagreeing that it was a good idea to send them outdoors. The current weather forecast calls for it to feel like 95 degrees F with the humidity. (Earlier today, I was told 104 degrees! But that forecast is actually for Monday.) That will be the warmest it’s been yet in Toronto this summer, so let’s hope that the locals remember how to handle themselves in the heat. If you’re headed to the track this weekend, be sure to take a hat, lots of water, and sunscreen!
As for the on-track activity, there were three practice sessions today: two for the IZOD IndyCar Series and one for Firestone Indy Lights. I spent the FIL session and the first IICS session on pit lane getting my bearings — it’s been a while and I felt a bit rusty. FIL practice was pretty uneventful, though it was good news to see Stefan Wilson at the top of the time charts today after having a fairly dismal first half of the season. The first IICS sesson was also relatively quiet apart for a couple of minor spins, which allowed for a lot of time to watch in-car cameras and get a feel for exactly how bumpy the track looks this year since a few people were commenting on it after the media day on Thursday. There’s one particularly nasty bump at pit in that could definitely catch a few drivers out if they’re not careful. But otherwise, it’s hard to say whether there’s a very dramatic difference. I asked Justin Wilson this afternoon if he felt the track seemed unusually rough, and he said that this track seems bumpier every year he comes here but that he’s not sure whether that’s reality or just his perception. As long as the drivers are mostly saying that it’s just the nature of the track and a challenge that everyone has to deal with, the situation must not be too dire.
For the afternoon session, I made the trek out to turn 3. This is a fantastic spot to get a good read on who’s taking the proper line, who’s handling well under heavy braking, and who’s struggling and lacking in confidence. One driver who definitely stood out as being part of the latter group was Helio Castroneves. Helio is reportedly still getting used to left-foot braking — a change necessitated by the highly competitive nature of the Series as of late — and he found himself in the run-off several times after missing the braking zone. He got turned around and away with no damage each time today, but a similar move during Sunday’s race likely won’t leave him so lucky.
Speaking of Helio, a very notable change has been made in the Team Penske stable as Tim Cindric will act as Race Strategist for Will Power instead of Helio this weekend. It seems that team has recognized that the repeated pit missteps need to be resolved if Power is to have a legitimate shot at the championship. This is definitely a situation to keep an eye on.
Another driver who appeared to be struggling from my vantage point in turn 3 was Simona de Silvestro. I asked around at HVM Racing this afternoon, and I was told that while Simona was excited to get back onto the road and street courses, she was having some trouble finding confidence in the car after sitting out at Iowa. However, I didn’t get the sense at all that the team was concerned or putting pressure on her. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and happy to let her ease into it at her own pace. (When you think about it from the team’s perspective, a slower recovery process is better than a whole lot of broken car parts.)
There was one incident during the later session that got the Toronto crowd a bit worked up. Paul Tracy got sideways coming out of turn 8 and ended up with his nose in the tires. He waited for a few cars to go by and then started to back out, but he stopped suddenly part way through the maneuver and ended up blocking the entire racetrack — just as Sebastien Bourdais was coming around the corner. Bourdais had to come to a full stop while Tracy finished working his way out, and Bourdais ended up stalling the car and needing a push to get going again. The response from the crowd said it all: Toronto fans are very keen to see these two rivals duking it out on the track again!
By the end of the last practice, all the different tire rubbers and the increasing track temperature were making conditions very slippery. In an informal press scrum after the session, James Hinchcliffe mentioned that the INDYCARs might actually be in the best situation any series this weekend because their sessions are almost always preceded by the Lights cars who lay down Firestone rubber for them. Today’s last practice was the only time this weekend when that isn’t the case, so this could be an interesting point to watch.
One more quick note: I was at an event on Thursday night where I picked up a few interesting bits of information. For one, the car that Paul Tracy is driving this weekend is the same one that Ho-Pin Tung crashed in qualifying at Indianapolis, and it’s the team’s only car. The team was impressed with Ho-Pin and is looking into the possibility of running a partial season with him in 2012. For this weekend, Dragon opted to bring only spare front and rear wings and no sidepods — an interesting choice for Toronto. And I also heard phrases like: “Paul Tracy and Honda,” “productive meeting,” “75/25 odds,” and “announcement in September.” Paul Tracy fans, heads up — it looks like there may be some good news on the way.
I’ll be back at the track for the next two days. Please keep an eye out here and at @MoreFrontWing on Twitter for live updates. More tomorrow.