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.

Fong to test for Sauber in Abu Dhabi next week

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Thursday 26 November 2015.
Adderly Fong (HKG, Carlin) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBL5941
© GP3 Series
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Sauber has confirmed that Adderly Fong will take part in next week’s Pirelli tire test following the conclusion of the 2015 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi.

Fong, 25, first tested for the team in October 2014 before taking part in practice for last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Fong has since been racing in the GP3 Series and in the GT Asia series while also working with Lotus F1 Team as part of its development programme.

On Friday, Sauber announced that Fong would be returning to one of its cars for next week’s tire test in Abu Dhabi at the Yas Marina Circuit.

“I am very pleased and thankful to have another opportunity to drive for the Sauber F1 Team,” Fong said. “I will do my best to give valuable feedback. I am looking forward to it, as well as the aim of extending my superlicence after completing 300 kilometers.

“Last year it was great to have the chance to drive the Sauber C33-Ferrari during FP1 here at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Now I am curious about testing the current car.”

Team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added: “We are pleased to have Adderly in the car again and to give him the opportunity to drive a current Formula One car.

“He immediately put in a solid performance in his last opportunities for us. We are confident Adderly will again put in every effort in this tire test.”

Rosberg edges Hamilton in second Abu Dhabi practice

xxxx during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
© Getty Images
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Nico Rosberg responded to the early pace shown by Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi by edging out the Briton for P1 in second practice on Friday evening.

Hamilton beat Rosberg by less than two-tenths of a second to finish at the top of the timesheets in the opening practice session at Yas Marina, but the German bounced back in FP2 to finish 0.138 seconds clear of his teammate.

Starting at dusk and finishing under floodlights, second practice offered the drivers far more representative conditions of what to expect on Saturday and Sunday than FP1 had, prompting the teams to complete a usual practice programme featuring qualifying simulations and heavy fuel race runs.

Once again, it was Mercedes who set the pace as Rosberg posted the fastest lap of 1:41.983, heading up a one-two finish for the German marque.

Sergio Perez produced a fine lap to finish less than half a second off Hamilton in third place for Force India, narrowly beating Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

Sebastian Vettel showed few signs of a possible challenge to Mercedes from Ferrari in Abu Dhabi as he finished three-quarters of a second behind Rosberg, ending FP2 in fifth place. Daniil Kvyat and Kimi Raikkonen followed in sixth and seventh place respectively.

Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth in the second Force India, while Fernando Alonso enjoyed an improved, trouble-free session to end the day ninth for McLaren, giving the team hope of points at the end of a tough season.

Pastor Maldonado finished tenth for Lotus ahead of the Williams pair of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, who in turn were followed by Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Sainz’s session came to an early end after a technical issue on his car forced him to park up at the side of the track with 30 minutes to go.

Romain Grosjean and Jenson Button finished 15th and 16th respectively, leading home Sauber drivers Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson. Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi propped up the order for Manor in P19 and P20.

Red Bull secures engine deal for 2016 F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Members of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team take part in a pit stop practice session during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Red Bull Racing’s engine saga appears to have finally come to an end after team principal Christian Horner confirmed that an agreement had been struck with a supplier for the 2016 Formula 1 season.

Red Bull’s participation in next year’s championship had been uncertain after the team expressed a desire to cut ties with existing supplier Renault over frustrations with the performance of its power unit.

However, the team failed to strike a deal with Mercedes and turned down Ferrari’s offer of a 2015-spec power unit for the new season. Talks were also held with Honda, but this deal was vetoed by McLaren CEO Ron Dennis, forcing Horner to rekindle negotiations with Renault.

A deal appears to have finally been struck that ensures Red Bull will still be racing in 2016, with an announcement due in the near future.

“We have an agreement with an engine for next year which hopefully will be confirmed in the coming days,” Horner is quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Red Bull is thought to have agreed an amendment to its deal with Renault that will allow the team to race with unbadged or rebranded engines in 2016 while the French manufacturer focuses on the impending takeover of Lotus and the revival of its works team.

B-team Toro Rosso is poised to take on 2015-spec Ferrari engines for the new season, ending its relationship with Renault after just two seasons.

Hamilton quickest in opening Abu Dhabi practice

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP returns to the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton kicked off the final race weekend of the 2015 season in impressive fashion by setting the pace first practice in Abu Dhabi on Friday.

With the weekend’s key sessions taking place far later in the day and therefore in different conditions, first practice offered the drivers little in the way of meaningful running ahead of the race.

However, what it did provide was a chance to evaluate some early updates ahead of the 2016 season, acting as a glorified test session that allowed the drivers to head out and get in some laps before turning their focus to race setup in FP2 later today.

Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg led the way once again, with the Briton coming out on top thanks to a lap of 1:43.754 to give him P1 by just over one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton’s session was not without its issues as he narrowly avoided spinning twice before telling the team “my car doesn’t feel good” with a few minutes remaining.

Nevertheless, it was still a strong start from Hamilton as he looks to end Rosberg’s recent resurgence and pick up a first victory since the United States Grand Prix last month.

Ferrari posed the most stringent challenge to the Mercedes drivers once again as Kimi Raikkonen finished six-tenths of a second back in P3. Teammate Sebastian Vettel finished fifth as Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat split the Ferrari drivers.

Daniel Ricciardo underpinned Kvyat’s pace in the sister Red Bull by ending FP1 in seventh place, slotting in between Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Massa rounded out the top ten in P9 and P10 respectively.

FP2 will offer the drivers more representative conditions, given that it will start at dusk just as qualifying and the race will, meaning that we are likely to be offered more of an indication of the pecking order.

You can watch second practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET on Friday.