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MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 2

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re continuing our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our respective bests and worsts of this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. As you’ll see below, Chris and I agreed on several items, but occasionally for different reasons…

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A no-doubter. Four second-half wins including the incredible run of three in eight days at Pocono and Toronto, a revitalized charge at Houston after getting knocked down at Sonoma and Baltimore, and a controlled drive at Fontana all did the trick for Dixon’s third IndyCar title. Helio Castroneves collected points, but Dixon went out and took points away.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s place among IndyCar’s all-time best competitors has to be secure after he charged from seventh in the standings at mid-season to his third career IndyCar Series championship. His three-race win streak in July (Pocono, Toronto 1 and 2) put him back in the title picture, but he proved how strong his resolve is after suffering twin calamities at Sonoma and Baltimore, and capitalized on the misfortunes of title rival Helio Castroneves in the Houston doubleheader with a win and runner-up. From there, he did what he had to do at Fontana and now he’s back on top of the mountain – a well-deserved triumph for one of the sport’s most tenacious drivers.

MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER

TDZ: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sebastian Saavedra’s a close second for me, but the stats don’t lie: Rahal tied Saavedra with the worst starting average in the field (17.7), had only five top-10 finishes in 19 races, and finished 18th in the standings. Plus, James Jakes hassled him way more than I thought was possible. A midseason engineering change from Gerry Hughes to Neil Fife helped, but it wasn’t enough to make a sizeable difference. Perhaps the addition of Bill Pappas for 2014, announced Thursday, will. I certainly didn’t expect this, and I’m fairly certain these guys didn’t either.

CE: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Things just never really got on track for Rahal in his first full-time season with the family team. He and the No. 15 crew are capable of better as they showed in their flashes of promise this season, like their podium at Long Beach, drive to fifth in Iowa and jumping 17 positions in Houston Race 1 for a top-10 result. It’s moments like those that should make the RLL camp optimistic about what they can do when everything does come together. But 2013 was definitely not that time.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Either “Newgy” or “Chuck strong,” Charlie Kimball, would be a worthy recipient here, and Chris hits Charlie’s case below. I’ll state Josef’s. The kid overachieved on a single-car team in his sophomore season and eliminated the mistakes that all-too-frequently occurred in his rookie year. He could have won at Brazil had it not been for ill-timed defending by Takuma Sato, and his run to second at Baltimore was one of the drives of the year. There, he started fifth, bounced from front to back to front again, and handled the track’s notorious chicane like a boss. His qualifying could be better but that’s my only demerit; 23rd to 14th is an excellent jump in the standings and in 2014 he should be contending for his first win, and a top-10 points finish, a la Kimball this year.

CE: Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. The IndyCar Series had four first-time winners in 2013, but it can be argued that Kimball’s breakthrough at Mid-Ohio in August was the most heart-warming of them all. It was the climax of a very competitive 2013 for the American driver, who logged two podiums (the other coming at Pocono), three top-5s, and 10 top-10s en route to a respectable ninth-place finish in the championship. Even better: With Kimball’s star rising on the track, he and sponsor Novo Nordisk’s noble work toward diabetes awareness is sure to resonate further off of it.

BEST RACE

TDZ: Brazil. Several second-half races challenged it from a drama standpoint – Sonoma, Baltimore, both Houston rounds and the Fontana season finale – but Brazil was the best blend of on-track drama and an incredible finish in my estimation.

CE: Brazil. Of course, this race is currently off the schedule for next season (*facepalm*). Time will tell if it comes back in 2015, but let’s hope so. This year’s running was everything a motor race should be – passes for position galore, daring maneuvers, and a battle that went all the way to the final corner. Even the most hardened oval-racing fans had to love what they saw in the streets of Sao Paulo.

WORST RACE

TDZ: Houston Race 2. The battle between Will Power and Dixon for the win was good, and there was decent passing throughout the field. So why does this qualify? The last-lap wreck that sent Franchitti airborne was the icing on the cake on what was IndyCar’s most trying weekend of the season. Franchitti and fans got injured, the national passerby media popped up again questioning IndyCar’s safety, and most folks left with a sour taste in their mouths.

CE: Houston Race 2. If you saw our coverage during the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, you’ll know that the on-track proceedings left much to be desired: Constant schedule changes, temporary chicanes, bipolar weather conditions, the botched setting of the Race 2 grid, and then, Franchitti getting sent into the catch fence on the final lap and scattering debris into the grandstands. Thankfully, Franchitti survived the incident and the injured fans weren’t severely dinged up. But altogether, it was certainly not IndyCar’s finest hour.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Going to take a step down to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder for this. The announcement that Dan Anderson and Andersen Promotions will take over Indy Lights, thus putting it under the same umbrella as Pro Mazda and USF2000, is huge. There is more cohesion, more announcements, and more possibilities for growth under one tent than separate.

CE: I don’t really see this so much as a “story,” but more so as “the right thing to do.” Shortly after the events of Houston, IndyCar drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to a local hospital to visit some of the fans that were hit with the debris from the aforementioned crash. It was a poignant reminder of just how many good people there are within the series.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Take your pick of the 2014 schedule and the doubts that raises among some IndyCar fans, the IMS road course race, the lack of a commercial division head or the rash of sponsors that are on the way out at the end of this year. To me, IZOD’s departure is the biggest – and worst – off-track story this year. It was not unexpected as signs of its leaving have been forecast for almost two years. At the moment though, there is little to no buzz about a potential replacement. I had mooted a couple suggestions a month or so ago but neither appears serious as time has passed. IndyCar has a good product, but will remain invisible on a national scale so long as it does not have a key title sponsor to activate and promote the series. This remains Mark Miles and Hulman & Co.’s biggest challenge, and as Miles performs company reorganization this winter, they seek the big fish that can help get this product to the people.

CE: I have to go with the condensed schedule rolled out for 2014. While keeping tabs on the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month, I had the rather cringe-worthy realization that IndyCar would be almost two months into its off-season by this time next fall. Nobody wants to deal with the NFL, but the proposed international winter series for 2015 better come off or the series will sink further into irrelevance thanks to its extended hiatus.

Sainz frustrated as puncture ends Belgian GP after strong start

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28:  Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR11 Ferrari 060/5 turbo with a punctured rear tyre during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Carlos Sainz Jr. made no secret of his frustration after a puncture brought his Belgian Grand Prix to an early end while running inside the points.

Toro Rosso arrived in Belgium skeptical of its chances given the advances made by other teams running 2016-spec engines, with the Italian team still using a 2015-spec Ferrari power unit.

Sainz qualified a lowly 15th on Saturday, but a flying start saw him rise up to seventh at the end of the first lap.

However, a tire blow-out while approaching 200 mph on the Kemmel Straight ruined Sainz’s race. A vain attempt to return to the pits only caused more damage to his car, tearing the rear wing off before the Spaniard eventually parked up at the side of the track.

“How frustrating to have to retire from the race because of a puncture!” Sainz said after the race.

“I did one of the best starts of my life and by the end of the first lap I had gained seven positions and was racing in P7.

“But I then went over some debris from other cars at the start of my second lap and the tire ended up exploding after Eau Rouge.

“It definitely wasn’t the best moment of my life, especially after doing such a good start!

“It’s frustrating to have to end the race like this, but I will keep fighting and forget today as quickly as possible.”

Teammate Daniil Kvyat had a quiet race, finishing 14th despite thinking at one point that points may have been within reach.

“We pushed quite hard today and after the red flag there was some hope – at one point it even looked like we could dream of scoring some points,” Kvyat said.

“I think we did a great job with the tires, but we started to struggle with straight-line speed and the deficit was more and more obvious after the second pit-stop.

“It’s a shame, but at least we can say we did our absolute best today. Unfortunately not many people will see this, as we only ended up P14 and out of the points, but it’s not that bad.

“We will have to take our opportunities at tracks that suit us better.”

Vettel: Talks, not penalties, right way to deal with Verstappen

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Sebastian Vettel is keen to have talks with Max Verstappen about his on-track actions during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, believing it to be a better way to handle things than issuing a penalty.

Verstappen clashed with both Vettel and Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 1 on the first lap of the race, leaving all three drivers with damage.

Verstappen then incurred the wrath of Raikkonen later in the race after forcing him off-track at Les Combes, before moving late when defending his position the next lap on the Kemmel Straight at 200 mph.

Verstappen defended his actions after the race, but Vettel thinks that something needs to be done.

“We talked about moving under braking. Top speed… reaching 340 km/h… and he’s moving,” Vettel told NBCSN after the race.

“It works so long as the car behind plays accordingly and lifts. But if both stick to line, both crash. That’s not what you want to do.

“If you drive like that it won’t end up too well. More than anything it cost us – and him – a lot of time.”

Vettel said it was best that the stewards did not investigate Verstappen’s moves, instead saying that such issues were better dealt by the drivers talking together.

“I don’t like to investigate anything. We’re men; we’re not in kindergarten,” Vettel said.

“If I have a problem with Max I need to go to talk to him. But obviously right after race isn’t the best moment! Leave it to us though.

“If you go beyond the limits you need to talk. In general, I’m not a fan. We’re not here to cry, ‘oh here’s a penalty!’

“Today we could have had a great race. We could have had both cars on the podium but sometimes these things happen.”

Verstappen blames Raikkonen, Vettel for ‘destroying’ Belgian GP at Turn 1

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Max Verstappen has blamed Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel for ending his hopes of a podium finish in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, saying his race was “destroyed” at Turn 1.

The race at Spa-Francorchamps acted as Verstappen’s home event as tens of thousands of fans made the trip over from his native Netherlands, resulting in the circuit’s best raceday attendance in over a decade.

Verstappen made a slow start from second place on the grid, slipping behind Raikkonen on the run down to the first corner.

The Dutchman tried to dive down the inside of Raikkonen at La Source, only for the two to make contact and also tangle with Vettel on the outside.

The collision left Verstappen with damage that forced him to pit at the end of the first lap, taking a new front wing.

However, more severe damage was caused to his floor, costing him over one second per lap for the remainder of the race en route to 11th place at the checkered flag.

“I got squeezed. Kimi wanted to turn in. Sebastian did on both of us,” Verstappen told NBCSN after the race.

“Destroyed my front wing and the whole floor. Fans were so great… but unfortunately was not our day.

“We had a car like you could see to finish on the podium. But when other drivers take that away from you, you’re not happy.

“Today everything got destroyed in Turn 1.”

Verstappen faced the wrath of Raikkonen during the race after some aggressive defensive moves, prompting the Ferrari driver to express his anger over team radio.

Verstappen thought little of the Finn’s comments, though, saying he would have been penalized by the stewards had it been an unfair move.

“I should have got a penalty if it was not correct. So it was fair,” he said.

Raikkonen fumes over Verstappen moves, predicts ‘big accident’

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Kimi Raikkonen predicts that Max Verstappen will cause a “big accident” unless he changes his approach to racing after being left fuming by the Dutchman’s defensive moves during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Raikkonen and Verstappen were both forced to pit early on after a clash at the first corner, leaving them together on-track once the race went back to green after a short red flag period.

Verstappen forced Raikkonen off-track at Les Combes when defending his position before making another aggressive move along the Kemmel Straight at 200 mph on the next lap.

Raikkonen immediately complained about Verstappen’s moves over team radio to the Ferrari pit wall in an expletive-laden message.

“I’m all up for fair racing and close battles. But when I have to brake after Eau Rouge before Turn 5, at full speed, when he turns in front of me, that’s not correct in my view,” Raikkonen told NBCSN after the race.

“Obviously FIA looks a different way with the stewards.

“There will be a big accident if this doesn’t stop.

“The rest; I’m fine with fighting. But we should not do stupid things.”

Raikkonen eventually got past Verstappen en route to finish ninth for Ferrari. Verstappen struggled in the closing stages of the race with his damaged car, eventually crossing the line 11th.