TorontoAnalysis

IndyCar: Toronto weekend analysis, musings and observations

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TORONTO – I previously hadn’t been to Toronto a year ago – much less Canada – so last year was always going to be a “wow!” wide-eyed first experience north of the border. This year, for the Honda Indy Toronto weekend, I could take in the weekend with a closer eye knowing what the weekend was like and what to expect.

A few thoughts on the races, the event and the city to follow:

  • Parity reigns. Sebastien Bourdais and Mike Conway won for KVSH Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing, meaning the six doubleheader races this year have been won by five different teams. Team Penske swept Detroit; Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports scored in Houston. All told this season, we’ve had nine race winners (all of whom have come in the last nine races), 18 different podium finishers and 21 different drivers who’ve banked a top-five finish (sorry, Sebastian Saavedra).
  • Rain reigns. This weekend was not the first occasion of rain wreaking havoc on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule this season. St. Petersburg, Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Houston and Iowa have all had rain interruptions at some point during the weekend. But while Houston’s rain came in Race 1, and didn’t cause a schedule change, the spitting rain here on Saturday caused a bit of a nightmare for INDYCAR and the fans on site. And, as at least one PR person told me this weekend, I’d regained the unofficial “blame me” championship belt due to the preponderance of rain at races I’ve attended… (all but Iowa in that six-pack).
  • Maybe it was Rob Ford’s fault? The weekend was going smoothly in Toronto… then embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford showed up and Saturday then went into a rainy, drunken stupor that needed to come out of rehab. But he took a pace car ride with Paul Tracy, so that was interesting. Doubt any teams will have the gumption to blame Ford for their crappy on-track weekend, as Magnus Racing so brilliantly did last week.
  • Mikhail Aleshin is one lucky Russian. No need to say anything else about the JPM/Aleshin contretemps in race two other than Aleshin’s seriously lucky, because he said he couldn’t even breathe properly due to JPM’s car being on top of him. Open-wheel cars have always been open cockpit, but at the end of this year I think INDYCAR needs to at least begin to ponder the possibility of further enhanced cockpit protection.
  • Not racing Saturday was probably the right call. I feel for INDYCAR regarding its call to ultimately not race on Saturday, because really, they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. You don’t want 12-plus totaled cars and more work for the crews overnight. Then again, the crews were left in the situation Sunday where if their car was damaged in the rescheduled race one, there’d barely be any time to fix in the three-plus hour window before race two. Hearing the drivers say publicly too, save for rookies Jack Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin, that the conditions were too unsafe to race was all I needed to hear. The last time there was vocal dissent about the safety of a race before it happened was Las Vegas 2011… and we all remember how that went.
  • But as a result, better contingency plans and communication were needed. What did need fixing more than anything was the communication of how to proceed once the rain happened and delayed the process. For one, starting so late on Saturday (3:50 p.m.) limits options to get a first, full race in that day. Once it got to 6, 6:30, it was all for naught. There were communication issues regarding which channel the rescheduled race one would be on; there was back-room petitioning by the six other support series (frankly, too many for the weekend) to try to get better timeslots themselves, and a further schedule change to see the reduced races dropped from 85 laps to 75, then 75 to 65 laps or 80 minutes. In theory, it should go that when a revised schedule is announced, that’s the revised schedule. When you stick around in the media center until 8:30 p.m. and it changes 10 minutes later after you’ve left, when you find out via Twitter, you can only imagine the frustration. Here was the track’s official statement and how it planned to honor Saturday tickets.
  • Red, red, red. I could elaborate on the frequency of red flags this weekend, but I’ll refer you instead to this rather spot-on blog entry from Mark Wilkinson of NewTrackRecord that sums it up nicely.
  • On Derrick Walker’s impromptu media conference. Hiring Derrick Walker is one of INDYCAR’s smartest hires in recent memory. That said, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into with Walker, and one of his trademarks is his tendency to speak off the cuff. So when he waltzed into the media center around 8 p.m., without a formal introduction, what followed was the racing equivalent of Hungry, Hungry Hippos – in this case, Hungry, Hungry Journos who’d barely eaten all day but wanted some meat from Walker on why the day had shaken out as it had (some pepperoni pizza could have worked, as well). Say what you will about IMSA’s indiscretions and controversy this year regarding penalties, but at least when Scot Elkins appeared at Daytona and Sebring, there was a formal introduction, a formal statement, then an open Q&A. As an aside, one of the funnier moments of the weekend for yours truly came when I was running back into the media center before race two, held the door open for Walker as he headed to Race Control, and he joked, “Despite what people say about you, you’re not such a bad kid.” One of my colleagues started laughing after watching the exchange.
  • “The element of surprise.” I had no problem with Will Power answering my question regarding the call to throw the final red flag in race two this way: “That’s what’s good for the fans, the ultimate surprise, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Some took that to mean that INDYCAR didn’t know what it was doing, or changed things on the fly. But Power was introspective; the Australian noted that while he was surprised he’d been moved to the back of the grid following his race one spin and crew repair, he was grateful to even be in the race on Sunday rather than laps down on Saturday. More than his two wins and other podiums this year, it may be that ninth place in race one bags him enough points to capture that elusive first series championship.
  • Podium selfies! This, from Power, was also cool. More please. Shows these guys have personality and is done for the fans.
  • Detroit vs. Toronto as a race? I’d rather take Detroit. Despite what the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video, Take 2” video will tell you – at least we’re not Detroit! – I actually wish Toronto was Detroit. Because the event itself has a long ways to go to match the professionalism, ease of access and overall presentation that Roger Penske, Bud Denker and the entire Detroit Grand Prix organization have assembled just a bit south of T.O. Toronto is one of the hardest races in terms of getting anywhere around the premises – construction doesn’t help (like in Cleveland!) – the fans get shafted with no INDYCAR Fan Village, there’s minimal souvenir offerings, and the vendors on site have no apparent flow or reasoning. Canadian fans are smart, diehard, passionate individuals – they deserve better than what they’re getting now. As a city, Toronto wins hands down, but as an event, it could afford to take some lessons from how Detroit has put things on over the last few years.

Anyway, that in the books, it’s off to Mid-Ohio from August 1-3 following a much-needed off weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock.

Exclusive: Austin Coil returns to ‘help’ John Force in 2016

Austin Coil is coming back to 'help out' at John Force Racing in 2016.
(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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The man most responsible for John Force’s career success – other than Force himself – is coming back to John Force Racing.

Force exclusively confirmed to NBCSports.com that former crew chief Austin Coil is coming out of retirement and returning to the JFR fold for 2016.

“Coil said to me, ‘You’ve managed to screw this up, but I can help you’,” Force said with a laugh during a phone interview from NHRA preseason testing in Phoenix. “He’s helping me, to help the people with me, to look at the things we need to get this thing right.”

First joining forces in 1986, Force and Coil went on to become the winningest driver-crew chief combination in NHRA history, earning 15 Funny Car championships and 132 national event wins together.

Coil abruptly retired one day after leading Force to his 15th NHRA Funny Car championship in 2010.

Since the breakup, Force has won just one additional Funny Car championship (2013) and 11 national event victories. The veteran driver is coming off an especially tough 2015 season, one he calls “my worst season in 25 years,” finishing seventh in the standings and recording just two wins (Las Vegas 1 and Epping, New Hampshire).

And even though Force is now 66 and Coil is 70, they believe they can regain some of their old magic together. Force has also brought back former tech whiz Ron Armstrong into the JFR fold.

“We’re putting the old band back together,” Force said with a laugh.

As for what Coil’s role will be exactly, Force was quick to point out Coil will not return to his old crew chief role, nor will he be considered a “consultant” or “advisor.”

Rather, Coil simply wants to be “help out,” Force said.

“Coil, I want to be clear, is not going to come out here on the road, he doesn’t want to do that,” Force said. “But he’s helping us with stuff.”

Coil will not have an office at JFR and will work at his own pace, Force said. But given that Coil called the shots for 24 years before, Force is more than happy to let his old buddy “help out” in any way he sees fit.

“I’m really excited to have him on board,” Force said. “Just talking to Coil, for me, we’ve only had three or four lunches together, but just talking helps get my heart back right. He made me who I am and I’m never going to forget that.

“I asked Coil what did I do wrong? He said, ‘You’ve been on overload. You had good people and you lost some. What you have to do is get back on track.

“He told me to split the team in half, start building the dragster side (with 11-time Top Fuel champion Alan Johnson overseeing the team with Force’s daughter, Brittany, behind the wheel), and on the other side, build the Funny Car side, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Coil had resisted prior efforts to return to the JFR fold. But when Force came calling over the winter, Coil apparently had a change of heart.

“Over the winter, Robert (JFR president and Force’s son-in-law Robert Hight) and I got together (with Coil) and said, ‘Let’s talk about things,’” Force said. “We knew there were issues. He quit, he walked away, he said he just didn’t want to do this anymore. I thought he might be going to Schumacher (arch-rival Don Schumacher Racing), but that’s not where he went.

“He said, ‘I’ve done my thing, I’ve won’ and we really were best of friends. He said to my face, ‘I love you, Force, I always have. But I’m in a different mode in my life of what I want to do. I’m in retirement, I can’t run to the airports like I used to.’

“He’s the one that put me here 25 years ago. Thirty years ago, we started building it. People give me the credit for it, but no, it’s the people I put around me like Coil, Armstrong, Mike Neff (crew chief for Hight and director of operations for JFR) and with AJ (Alan Johnson) coming in here and Brian Husen (as Brittany Force’s crew chief).”

With Johnson now running the Top Fuel side of JFR, and with Coil’s return, Force is very optimistic about his four-car organization’s chances in 2016.

“I always listen to Austin Coil,” Force said. “He says let Alan Johnson run that dragster, he’ll put your kid in the winner’s circle, and let Mike Neff run that Funny Car. He’s won championships for you and he’s going to build those Funny Car teams to where they need to be.

“So, I’m excited about it. We’re going to be okay. We’re going racing now.”

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Bird: Buenos Aires Formula E win ranks among career best

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - FEBRUARY 06:  Sam Bird of DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team celebrates at the podium after winning the Buenos Aires ePrix as part of 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship at Puerto Madero Street Race Track on February 06, 2016 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images for TAG Heuer)
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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird believes that his victory in Saturday’s Buenos Aires ePrix ranks among the very best in his racing career after he fended off championship leader Sebastien Buemi in the final stages of the race.

Bird led the majority of the race from pole position, but came under intense pressure late on from Buemi who was bidding to complete a last-to-first comeback.

A mistake in qualifying had resigned the Swiss driver to the back of the grid, yet he was crawling all over the back of Bird’s DS Virgin Racing car with a few laps to go.

However, Bird managed to produce a superb defensive display to keep Buemi back and secure his third win in Formula E, which he believes ranks among the best in his career.

“I think it’s up there, I think it’s really good,” Bird told MotorSportsTalk. “I enjoy all the victories. I look back on all of them with fondness but considering we were fighting with two cars that are really good at the moment, to come out and beat them hands down feels very nice.

“We’ve learned a lot from Punta del Este, like I’ve told everbody and we put that into good practice and we did the best we could. We maximized everything and we’ve come away with 28 points so really happy.”

Despite sitting third in the championship standings, Bird does not believe that he is in a position to mount a challenge for the title this year.

“Hare and the tortoise and all that, that’s what I’ve said, hare and the tortoise,” Bird said. “It’s way too early. There are two guys out there that are just so fast. If I can take it to the end, great. I’m not even thinking about it to be honest.

“There are so many decent drivers in this championship that one minute you might win, the next minute you might be P10. So we need to wait and see. Consistency is the key. The two guys ahead of me, they’re relentless, so beating them will be tough.”

Sam Bird takes memorable Formula E victory in Buenos Aires

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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird emerged victorious from one of the most thrilling Formula E races in the short history of the series after fending off a charging Sebastien Buemi in the closing stages to bag his third win.

Championship leader Buemi started the race from the back of the grid after making a mistake in qualifying, leaving him with a mountain to climb to even score points, let alone win the race.

However, the Swiss driver produced a driving masterclass and was aided by a safety car period to come into contention late on, only for Bird to produce an equally-excellent display and keep his cool to win in Buenos Aires.

Bird led all but one lap of the race, dropping down to second when Nelson Piquet Jr. went one lap longer during the pit window, and managed to see off challenges from Nicolas Prost and Antonio Felix da Costa in the first half of the race.

Da Costa’s hopes of repeating his victory in Buenos Aires from 2015 were ended just before pitting when his car came to a halt, prompting the stewards to send out the safety car which bunched the field.

Buemi had fought his way up into the points from 18th on the grid by the time he came in to swap cars, and made light work of Stephane Sarrazin before setting his sights on perennial title rival Lucas di Grassi in second place.

An exquisite move into the hairpin saw Buemi move into P2, and despite appearing to have a pace advantage over Bird in the closing stages, the Briton put up an impenetrable defence to keep the Renault e.dams driver back on the final two laps.

Low on power, Buemi had to drop back at the final few corners, giving Bird the breathing room to take his third Formula E win and the first since the start of the DS Virgin partnership.

Di Grassi was unable to join the leading pair at the front for the last fight, dropping back to save power, but managed to finish third. Sarrazin finished fourth for Venturi ahead of Prost and Loic Duval, while Nick Heidfeld’s return from injury went well as he finished seventh.

Robin Frijns enjoyed a good start in the Andretti, running as high as fourth early on, but ultimately dropped back to finish seventh. Oliver Turvey and Bruno Senna rounded out the points in P9 and P10 respectively.

Jean-Eric Vergne bounced back from food poisoning overnight to finish 11th, narrowly missing out on points, while Nelson Piquet Jr. ended the race P13. Daniel Abt and Simona de Silvestro enjoyed quiet races en route to 13th and 14th, while Mike Conway blew his chance of points on debut with a late spin, dropping him to P15 at the end. Jerome d’Ambrosio was the last classified finisher in 16th place.

Manor WEC program launched

Photo: Manor
Photo: Manor
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One of the intriguing elements to come out of yesterday’s entry list reveal for the FIA World Endurance Championship and 24 Hours of Le Mans was the confirmation of Manor in LMP2.

Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth hinted something new was up not long after the final Grand Prix of the season, when the pair took their bows from what had been the Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

That “something” was revealed on Friday as an Oreca 05 Nissan in the stacked LMP2 class – a 10-car class – with Tor Graves, a past Manor driver, confirmed as the first new driver for the effort.

“We are delighted to be joining the World Endurance Championship. It is a fantastic series that visits iconic tracks all over the world. The level of competition is very high and we are really looking forward to racing again,” Booth said.

“The LMP2 class is specifically designed for teams independent of manufacturers and/or engine suppliers which places the focus firmly on how the team performs.

“I can’t wait to see the car running now. We have lots to do but we have a great team of people to get it all done.”

The team might be out before the Prologue test at Paul Ricard end of March, but it’s likely that test will mark the team’s first significant running. It should have its driver lineup settled by then, as well.

Lowdon, who’s been bit by the sports car racing bug, expanded on the announcement.

“It’s really great to be racing again and the FIA World Endurance Championship provides a fantastic challenge for us,” he said

“Preseason testing starts soon and there is a lot to do but we have never been afraid of a bit of hard work.

“There is a real buzz within the team at the moment, we have enjoyed great support from the fans over the last few months and we are very keen for them to get fully involved in what we are doing. We all have a great passion for motorsport and we are keen to share that passion.”