You can always count on a few things at Sonoma in August: It’ll be cold and foggy in the morning (the month is known as “Fogust” around here), the skies will start clearing between 10 and 11 a.m., and regardless of the high temperature that day, there will be a fairly stiff, cool breeze. (Today, that breeze is out of the south — a tailwind up the short front straight. That means it’s small help and usually a hindrance for the rest of the track.)
And it will always be gorgeous here. Folks remark that Sonoma looks like a hilly dirt patch on TV, but in person you can appreciate the golden hay and the dry grasses. The dryness is embraced here — it boosts the quality of wine grapes and, unsurprisingly, the folks here love good wine.
Viewed from the high elevation of turn 3a, the golden fields here have a dark, twisty snake of asphalt cutting through them, and it provides a perfect backdrop for the new DW12 chassis. The car cuts nimbly through the turns and looks really racy climbing the hills.
Today’s practice began at 10:50 a.m., and by the time it ended an hour later, the fog had faded and the skies were perfectly clear. Also perfectly clear was the fact that Team Penske is going to have a typically strong weekend here. Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves were first, third and sixth respectively in this session. Will and Ryan had finished first and second in yesterday’s session, but Helio was 16th, so he has found the speed to keep up with his teammates.
Others making gains in this practice included Katherine Legge, who appeared overjoyed to be back in a car, and James Hinchcliffe, who was just 20th yesterday. Those losing ground from yesterday’s practice times were Rubens Barrichello (5th to 17th), Oriol Servia (11th to 24th) and Josef Newgarten (18th to 27th). Teams were adjusting setups to cope with the stronger winds with varying degrees of success, and drivers were dealing with twitchy cars and slick sections of the track due to the dust being blown into their paths. Everyone managed well, with the only incident being a spin with no damage done by James Hinchcliffe. It would be interesting to see how the teams who fell back would adjust for qualifying. Full session times are available in our Event Summary.
Qualifying group 1 was the stronger of the two groups (though not quite as lopsided as we’ve seen in the past), and a familiar cast of characters emerged for round 2 — Briscoe, Dario Franchitti, Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson and James Hinchliffe, who just nipped his way into the top six at the last moment. Outside looking in was Sebastian Saavedra, racing here for Team AFS since the Firestone Indy Lights series has the weekend off.
Group 2 saw Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Alex Tagliani, Scott Dixon and Rubens Barrichello claim the top six spots and a pass to round 2. Unlucky number 7 in this group was Marco Andretti, who hasn’t been making much noise around here this weekend. We’ll see if he has more presence in the race.
In round 2, Briscoe was fastest, showing that he was up for a battle with his teammate for the pole. Joining Briscoe and Power in the Fast Six were Sebastien Bourdais, Castroneves, Dixon and Franchitti. Just barely missing the final round was Hunter-Reay. (A note about Round 2: it seems many of us in the media center were unable to capture the timing and scoring data from this round before it disappeared from Race Control. If we get hold of this info, you’ll be able to review it on our Event Summary.)
The Fast Six saw Team Penske congregate at the front of the field — with one spoiler. Sebastien Bourdais had the best qualifying run of his season with Dragon Racing and will start third, breaking up the Penske party of pole-sitter Power, second place Briscoe and fourth place Castroneves. Ganassi teammates Dixon and Franchitti start side-by-side in row three. Bourdais’s crew was jubilant as he returned to the pits and are again showing themselves to be the Little Team that Just Might Win with their stellar Frenchman at the wheel. We’ll be watching to see if Bourdais can prevent a Penske podium sweep.
A few notes to wrap up Saturday’s activities:
Please make sure to check the Event Summary for the starting grid. There are a few 10-spot grid penalties for unauthorized engine changes that will be served at this race, and Justin Wilson and Sebastian Saavedra are among them.
It’s unusual to spend an entire day in the paddock and pits at an INDYCAR race and not see Randy Bernard, but that’s what has happened to me. He’s here, but he definitely wasn’t out and about when I was, so I didn’t get a chance to ask the few questions I had for him. As reported by TSO, there’s a three-year deal with GoPro to sponsor this event, but apparently the sanctioning fee with INDYCAR still hadn’t been completely settled and there were due to be meetings today to discuss it. TSO also reported that Randy has meetings with Dallara this weekend about parts costs, and we heard talk that the 2013 schedule announcement has been pushed back into mid-September but didn’t get a chance to verify that.
The car name for Alex Tagliani has changed from Team Barracuda-BHA to Barracuda Racing. Haven’t heard anything further about that, but I’ve also been up to my ears in my day job, so it may be old news to the rest of you.
There will be Olympians in the house for race day — gold medalists Tyler Clary, Erin Cafaro and Dana Volmmer will bring some bling to the track as special guests. No word on whether Clary will try to outswim an INDYCAR, but he will join the others to give the command to start engines.
There will also be a brief salute to Dan Wheldon tomorrow during the prerace ceremonies.
Please follow me on Twitter @SpeedFreakBash for the race today and stay tuned for a wrap-up here at More Front Wing. And be sure to follow @MoreFrontWing for INDYCAR news and commentary today and all season long.