Indianapolis: Paul’s race day thoughts, Part 1

IndyCar commentary — By on May 29, 2012 10:36 am
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Note: These are my thoughts concerning most of the on-track activity from Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.  I’ll be back with Part 2 of my review in the coming days focusing on my off-track thoughts and viewpoints from the spectator side of the fence.

 

What a race the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 turned out to be!

Heading into the Month of May, nobody knew really what to expect, but all indications were that the race would be chaotic and jumbled.  It turned out to be just that way.  In a race featuring a record 34 lead changes among 10 drivers, fans were once again left hanging on the edge of their seats until the last lap when second-place challenger Takuma Sato spun and hit the turn 1 wall while attempting to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead.

Besides the action on the track, which was thrilling, there were many other storylines on this historic afternoon that should be remembered.  First and foremost among them was the introduction of the brand-new Dallara DW12 chassis and the 2.2L turbocharged V-6 engines.  By all accounts, they were resounding successes.  Not only did neither one bring about a calamity, the new aero package produced one of the most thrilling races in the history of the 500.  Drivers were able to make clean passes and run near to each other without significant turbulence, and the engine provided plenty of power to make the drivers work.  There are still critics who contend the grip levels need to be significantly decreased and that the engine power needs to be equally increased, but few people complained about those issues following Sunday’s race.

Speaking of the new DW12, many of the complaints heard about the chassis — its unconventional and gangly looks and its weight bias issues that initially caused unstable and unpredictable oval performance — were largely forgotten by the end of the day.  While the new car may not be perfect (and the Mike Conway/Will Power incident shows there is still work to be done keeping this car on the ground in a crash), the raceability of this chassis has now been proven on street courses, road courses, and the most-important oval.  The next few weeks will complete the challenge as the DW12 gets through its first paces on a 1.5-mile high-banked oval, a flat 1-mile oval, and the lightning-fast 7/8-mile, variably banked oval at Iowa.

On the engine front, this race was a complete turnaround from the first four races of the season and the first official weekend of the Indianapolis 500.  To this point, Chevrolet had been the dominant engine, scoring four decisive victories and securing five pole positions.  Suddenly, after rolling out a new stack of engines for Carb Day, the Honda engines were clearly superior to the Chevrolets throughout the day.  I’m sure there will be discussions to understand what changes were made to the Honda powerplants in the short turnaround and whether those changes were in compliance with the technical specifications that states which parts can and cannot be altered before the June 18 amendment date.

Additionally, comments from some Honda drivers indicated that they may not all have been playing with an even deck.  In particular, Townsend Bell tweeted after the race, “Happy with finish given b league motor treatment. Wish I had the new spec to fight at the front.”  With engines distributed by INDYCAR from a pool of available entries, it is unlikely that the Target Chip Ganassi drivers received preferential treatment direction from Honda with a special trick engine.  Given that Justin Wilson was a strong contender late in the race with his Dale Coyne entry (to take nothing away from that team, but realistically they wouldn’t have been a top-five team if this was the first couple races of the season), it does seem that perhaps there were a couple of different Honda engine specs in play during the race.

Any rumor of changes to the sealed engine components will of course be met with extreme disdain from the folks in the Chevrolet camp, whose hackles are still raised from INDYCAR’s ruling regarding Honda’s turbocharger change.  Chevrolet and Ilmor officials still believe they did a better job building a more powerful and efficient engine and that their engineering advantage was unfairly taken away just prior to the world’s biggest race.  Wins in St. Pete and Long Beach are nice, but the Indianapolis 500 is the reason engine manufacturers get into open-wheel racing in the United States.  Given that the Honda engines were clearly more powerful and fuel efficient throughout the day, and following the controversial legal ruling this month, Ilmor officials will be scrutinizing every move INDYCAR and Honda make between now and the engine update date next month.

Legal maneuvering aside, Honda engineers deserve a great amount of credit for the effort they put in to overcome what was clearly a significant deficit in little time.  I spoke with Honda’s Dan Layton in victory lane on Sunday, and he freely admitted that Chevrolet had beaten them and had a great advantage through qualifying weekend.  However, the HPD engineers had put in a behemoth effort to make up the difference and had accomplished their goal with flying colors.  Overcome with emotion and on the verge on tears several times, Layton, who is obviously accustomed to winning with Honda, expressed relief, joy, and pride as we watched Dario Franchitti’s car be rolled past us and onto the victory platform.  He’s been in this game a long time, and watching the emotion on his face epitomized just how special this race truly is.

New Race Director Beaux Barfield had, by all accounts, a very successful first effort as the new man in charge for the Indianapolis 500.  Most visible to many onlookers was the sensational formation of the field when coming to take the green flag.  For the first time in many years, all 33 drivers were on the main straightaway and in good formation when the green flag flew.  (The visual was short lived as Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered an engine overboost penalty right away and immediately lost power, causing those behind him to scramble and Ryan to drop from third to sixth before he got to the first turn.)  Barfield also did a great job throughout the race of enforcing his own rules and making clear to all that enforcement would be swift and consistent.  It was great to see Barfield allow the drivers to defend their positions going into a turn as well.  Under the old regime, Dario would have been helpless to defend himself on the last lap as Brian Barnhart would have required Dario to stay to the outside while Sato drive right by on the inside.  I personally thought Dario drove Sato down a bit into an impossible line, but I don’t fault Dario for his move, Sato for his aggressiveness, or Barfield for letting it go unpunished.  When the race is on the line, fans want it settled on the track, not by a judgment of the official in charge.

One call that may cause Barfield a bit of controversy was his decision to extend the caution period brought out by Josef Newgarden’s stalled car at lap 164 to allow teams a better chance to run the rest of the distance without having to conserve fuel.  While I believe it was a proper decision and one that allowed the race to be completed at the hands of the drivers rather than the fuel calculating computers on pit lane, I can understand the point of view others may hold that says the yellow flag should be withdrawn as soon as the racetrack is safe for open competition.  It’s a fine line, but as Barfield said in a tweet concerning the situation, “Would you rather have a short yellow OR a sprint to the finish? Sometimes you can’t have both.”  Given the option, I would prefer to see the drivers running full throttle to the end, especially given that the race was blessed with nine lead changes among three drivers over those last 30 laps.

Several drivers in this year’s race had phenomenal runs that will never be actually reflected in the final box score.  Obviously, Takuma Sato drove an incredible race and should have finished much higher than 17th.  The third-year driver from Japan was the only driver to really have a chance at hanging with the Target boys over the last 10 laps and put on a thrilling show right up until the point his impatience got the best of him again.  Even now in his third year in the series, Sato still hasn’t quite mastered the art of oval racing, and this is just another example of it.  There’s little doubt that Dario could have given Sato more room, but a more experienced oval driver would probably not have put himself in the position Sato did at that time.  The attempted pass came very late down the straightaway and after Dario had already established himself on the inside line.  There really was no way that pass was ever going to work.  This was what would have happened in 2006 on the 198th lap if Sam Hornish, Jr. hadn’t conceded the third turn to young Marco Andretti when Andretti forced him almost into the warmup lane.  Hornish realized the time wasn’t right and decided not to risk throwing away a great run.  I can’t and won’t say that Sato shouldn’t have gone for it if he perceived an opening, but as strong as his car was running and as much effect as the draft helped the second-place car all day long, a more oval-adept driver would have backed off slightly going into turn 1 and set up for a pass at the end of the backstraight.  Sato will learn from this mistake, and next time he is in a position to win on an oval I doubt we see him try to force the issue again.

Local product Ed Carpenter also had a run that will largely go unnoticed by those simply reading the box score.  Starting 28th after a pole day crash, Ed quickly moved through the field and found himself running in the top five with only 20 laps to go.  Unfortunately, Ed suffered with a broken front wing adjuster all day long that made balancing the car impossible.  The issue finally caught up with Ed when he lost control exiting the first turn and spun through the south chute.  Ed avoided any contact with the wall but lost a lap and was unable to regain a spot on the lead lap, finishing with 199 laps completed and 21st-place honors.

The show of fan support for Ed Carpenter was topped only by that of Tony Kanaan.  The hard-luck Brazilian was clearly the fan favorite in the waning laps, and his late-race maneuver to jump from fifth to first, followed by a pass for the lead down the frontstraight, nearly brought the house down.  In my 25 years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was one of the loudest roars I’ve ever heard, exceeding even that for Danica Patrick when she made a late pass for the lead on Dan Wheldon in 2005.  In the end, Kanaan’s Chevrolet just didn’t have the power to keep pace with the Ganassi Hondas, but TK once again affirmed that he is the people’s choice.  If, or when, he does finally break through for a victory at IMS, it will assuredly be one of the most popular victories in the history of the storied event.

So, another year is in the books and the 2013 Indianapolis 500 is a light far off in the distance.  There is still much more to discuss about this year’s running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but a quick turnaround this week before the next IZOD IndyCar Series event on Belle Isle in Detroit will have cars on track only five days after finishing the toughest 500 miles of the year.  Look for more coverage of the Indianapolis 500 here with part 2 of my Indianapolis review in the coming days before we shut the book on another year at IMS and move forward with the balance of the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.

 

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