MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 1

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Nine of 16 racing weekends, and 10 of 19 races are in the books in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. It’s a season thus far defined by parity, relative struggles by the long regarded top two teams in the series (Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing), and the emergence of several new stars.

In the first of our two-part midseason review (the second part, each of our top five stories this year, will be posted on Thursday), my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I examine the bests and worsts of the first half of the season purely from an on-track standpoint. At this point, much of the off-track hand-wringing that always seems to pop up in some way, shape or form, has been relatively minor and in the background.

Without further adieu, our take thus far:

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport. The champion has come out firing to dismiss suggestions his 2012 title was a “fluke,” with two wins, two poles, a 4.6 qualifying average through 10 races and just 9 points off Helio Castroneves.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Helio Castroneves, Team Penske. With just one finish outside the Top-10 this season (and a victory at Texas Motor Speedway), the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is showing the consistency he’ll need to finally bring home that elusive series championship.

MOST DISAPPOINTING FIRST-HALF DRIVER

TDZ: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing. I like Tag and I like the team. But via some mix of bad luck, bad timing, struggling to acclimate to the 2013 Firestone tires, either the pace or the results haven’t yet synced up on a weekend for the veteran Canadian this year. Through 10 races, I’m sure they expected a lot more than one top-10 finish and two top-10 starts.

CE: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing. Graham Rahal was in this spot until his Top-5 run at Iowa last weekend. As a result, I have to go with Tagliani and Barracuda, who’ve led just one lap all year and have finished outside the Top 20 in the last six races (four of which ended in DNFs). If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.

MOST IMPROVED FIRST-HALF DRIVER

TDZ: James Jakes, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. E.J. Viso a close second here, but Viso’s had potential for years. Meanwhile Jakes has undoubtedly risen the most year-on-year, has taken nicely to RLL’s team and setup and starred on multiple occasions.

CE: E.J. Viso, Andretti Autosport. Some of us were thinking the well-sponsored Venezuelan was simply going to be the “money man” for the Andretti foursome. But Viso has taken advantage of his team’s plentiful resources and is putting together the most competitive season of his IndyCar career so far.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE

TDZ: Brazil. With the level of passing and drama on the streets of Sao Paulo, ending with a last-lap, last-turn pass, it’s hard to say any race beat it – even Indianapolis despite its record 68 lead changes.

CE: Brazil. It was, quite simply, the best street race in IZOD IndyCar Series history and one of the best it’s had overall. James Hinchcliffe’s race-winning pass on the final corner gives this race the award over perhaps the most competitive Indianapolis 500 ever.

WORST HALF-RACE

TDZ: Texas. Thing is, it wasn’t that bad – it just was a combination of a package that had been slightly overdone and a presentation that left a little to be desired.

CE: Detroit, Race 2. The second doubleheader race around Belle Isle Park ended well enough with Simon Pagenaud getting his first victory, but getting there was brutal – with the low point being a 10-car pileup coming off a restart. For the series, it wasn’t the best way to follow up a thrilling Indy 500.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY 

TDZ: For me, it’s Alex Zanardi attending the Indianapolis 500 and being presented with the car that he made “The Pass” – his legendary move on Bryan Herta at the 1996 CART race at Laguna Seca.

CE: INDYCAR is finally implementing a long-range plan to bring back technical innovation and ramp up the speeds. Fans that have been clamoring for something besides a spec product are hoping it comes off.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Aero kits. To me, they’ve been nothing short of a boondoggle since they were first announced in 2010. Now, INDYCAR has announced they’ll finally be implemented in 2015… allegedly. I’ll believe them when I see them, and I’m not sure if they’ll generate much buzz beyond the hardcore fans that are already there.

CE: Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles is certainly working hard trying to boost INDYCAR’s profile, but his apparent preference to end the season around Labor Day is worrisome. Unless he’s also trying to gain warm-weather events that can push the start of the season back into February, we’re looking at six months of nothing again. Not acceptable.

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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