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IndyCar: Fontana weekend analysis, musings and observations

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FONTANA, Calif. – The 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season is in the books, and while we’ll have plenty of offseason and postseason coverage on MotorSportsTalk, we take a quick look back at the weekend itself at Auto Club Speedway:

  • It’s about time. The prevailing sentiment in the paddock Saturday night was that the right two guys won. Will Power finally got his championship, and after a second half of the season that should have produced at least one if not two wins, Tony Kanaan finally got on the board in the 10 car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
  • We got lucky. Friday night’s accident involving Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin nearly cast a dark shadow over the remainder of the weekend, although mercifully, Aleshin is beginning his recovery process. The track already has a sore spot for some after Greg Moore’s fatal accident in 1999. Perhaps the scariest part I saw from the video footage, after re-watching and after his car came back to the track from its time careening along the catch fencing, was that his head was seriously far forward in the cockpit, way beyond where it ordinarily would have been under normal crash circumstances. Looking into the crash, the fencing, the cockpit protection and the results of said crash should be added to the offseason to-do list for INDYCAR, if it hasn’t been already.
  • Cautious, clean driving prevailed. I doubt few of the remaining 21 drivers would admit it publicly, but after the Aleshin/Charlie Kimball accident on Friday there wasn’t the same sense of going for broke for Saturday night’s 500-mile race. What followed was a methodical race that, like the other oval races this year, largely depended on how well the drivers managed their tires. Speed dropoff was evident over a stint, usually about 6-7 mph per lap and particularly after the first 10 laps. There also wasn’t the frequency of “wow!” moments the same as a year ago. You could probably put a lot of that down to Power’s cautious but clean opening half of the race, and Carlos Munoz not running the low line as he did last year. Other than Power’s launch to the front after the race’s lone restart, there were few audible gasps, and perhaps that was a good thing.
  • “Fontana flu” strikes again. Mike Conway stepped out of A.J. Foyt’s No. 14 prior to the 2012 race at Fontana; E.J. Viso got sick a year ago and missed the Fontana finale as well for Andretti Autosport. This year, although he competed in all practice sessions and qualifying, Dale Coyne Racing rookie Carlos Huertas retired after 21 laps with dizziness, per the team. The reason out actually shifted on timing & scoring from “Medical” to “Driver Illness” during the race. It marks the second time this season (Iowa) the young Colombian has retired for this reason. Huertas has been a mostly positive surprise throughout 2014 but never got fully comfortable on the ovals, other than Indianapolis. To this point, neither Conway nor Viso has driven another IndyCar oval race again (although Viso temporarily filled in for James Hinchcliffe in Indianapolis 500 practice), and it remains to be seen whether this will hold true for Huertas.
  • If it wasn’t for bad luck… then James Hinchcliffe would have had none at all. The Canadian had a pit speed violation mid-race that took him out of a potential podium, if not winning position. He fought back to fifth by race’s end but all told it was a year where seemingly nothing went right for the driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda car, even though the pace and chemistry seemed to be there.
  • The Fontana date conundrum. Three years into the return of IndyCar at Auto Club Speedway, there hasn’t yet been the perfect balance of time, date, temperature or buzz. If we’re honest, ACS is one of the few big ovals that can work – and work well – for IndyCar. It isn’t high banked (only 14 degrees in the corners), there’s no pack racing, and it works well as a 500-mile event that ties nicely with history in the area (dating to the old Ontario Motor Speedway days). The Verizon IndyCar Series has put on three good, if not great, races here the last three years. Yet the sanctioning body has moved the race date three straight years; it may do so again in 2015; and it was hard to accurately gauge both the number of fans live on site and who stayed up late to the finish past 1 a.m. ET. Meanwhile, an IndyCar promotional event for fans at The Grove at LA Live Thursday was good in theory but not necessarily in execution – watching Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud ride bicycles to make smoothies doesn’t exactly scream “go watch us race at 220 mph 50 miles east of here, where it’s way hotter.” It behooves both IndyCar and ACS to make this race work, and MAVTV’s sponsorship for two more years is huge, but there just doesn’t feel the proper spark that this race is as big a deal as it could be. We know ACS is trying; local promotion by the track president Gillian Zucker and her staff has been solid.
  • Some final thoughts. I get the frustration about the 7:20 p.m. PT start time and the resulting late evening on the east coast, but for the fans on site, baking in 100+ degree heat for three+ hours also would suck. And the drivers would be blind going into Turn 3 at 220+ mph. The start time saw the track, the series and the TV partner make the best of the circumstances, and even despite the late end, the rating didn’t kill off the year-on-year NBCSN gains. … Takuma Sato ended sixth, and after a season-best fourth in Sonoma just before, he’s ended the year on a very positive note. … Conor Daly and Daniel Abt made the rounds this weekend and while Abt has a busy fall lined up between GP2 and FIA Formula E, Daly will be full speed ahead on attempting to secure an IndyCar ride. I’ll say it once again, Daly and Sage Karam would be ideal to have as young Americans full-time. … For Power to have to hear a question about whether he wanted to go to F1 in the press conference was something of a joke. The questioner has been reprimanded by other series before this year, and at a certain point, IndyCar needs to step in and put a stop to it.

We thank you for reading our season-long Verizon IndyCar Series coverage here on MotorSportsTalk, and as mentioned, there will still be plenty to come throughout the offseason.

Vettel rides solo en route to ROC Nations Cup win for Team Germany

ROC Nations Cup finalists Team USA NASCAR, Kurt Busch (USA) and Kyle Busch (USA) with ROC Nations Cup winner Team Germany Sebastian Vettel (GER) during the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday 22 January 2017 at Marlins Park, Miami, Florida, USA
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Four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel led Team Germany to its seventh Nations Cup victory at the Race of Champions on Sunday in Miami, picking up his first major honor of the 2017 racing season.

Vettel saw his individual Race of Champions title defence end in the group stage on Saturday as IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya took a shock victory on debut.

Vettel had never previously appeared at the Race of Champions without winning one of the two titles on offer, having claimed six straight Nations Cup wins alongside Michael Schumacher between 2007 and 2012.

Following a frightening crash in Saturday’s event, Sauber F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein was forced to withdraw from the event, leaving Vettel to represent Team Germany alone on Sunday.

However, the Ferrari driver made the most of the opportunity, winning all eight of his match-ups en route to an unlikely victory.

Vettel topped Group B after beating Tom Kristensen, Petter Solberg, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, sending Team Nordic and Team GB – the latter out to defend its teams’ title – home in the group stage.

Vettel faced off against Team Colombia in the semi-finals, facing Saturday winner Montoya and coming out on top. The German completed a 2-0 victory after easing past Gabby Chaves in the second heat.

The nature of the draw guaranteed either Team USA or Team Canada would reach the final, with three American teams featuring in Group A. Team USA IndyCar and Team USA NASCAR both made it through, the former courtesy of a last-ditch victory for Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay faced off against NASCAR brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, with the match tied at 1-1 ahead of the decider. Kurt Busch appeared to jump the start, moving into a lead that remained to the checkered flag, securing Team USA NASCAR a place in the final in a controversial manner.

Vettel managed to see off Kurt Busch in the first heat of the final, but a loss in revs gave Kyle Busch an advantage off the line in the second match-up. However, Vettel was able to claw it back and cross the line ahead, wrapping up a 2-0 victory and Germany’s seventh Nations Cup win.

“I had a better day than yesterday,” Vettel said. “It’s a bit of a shame that Pascal is missing, but I did my best.

“In the last round against Kyle I was really nervous. The car nearly stalled. But then I came back so really, really happy.”

Nico Rosberg: More to life than driving around in circles

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg says there is more to life than “driving around in circles” after retiring from Formula 1 at the end of last season.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi at the end of November before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing five days later.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this week, Rosberg opened up on his decision to call it quits.

“To do sport at the highest level, it is really 110 per cent focus that is required and there is no room for any compromise whatsoever,” Rosberg said.

“Everything else is secondary and far behind, and that’s even family. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter now. Friends and any other fun or exciting projects – everything is way, way behind.

“So, there’s a time for everything and I find that life has more to offer than driving around in circles and it just felt like the right moment. I want to go for new challenges.

“Of course, there is the side now of having more time for family, more time for friends and being in control of my own life as well.

“For the last 21 years of racing, even starting as a 10-year-old, the whole season is planned by other people, telling you where you need to be and especially in F1 – it’s really, really intense. And now all of a sudden I have this complete freedom.”

Rosberg said that he plans to spend some time focusing on charity work, particularly helping children.

“One of the avenues that I want to go down is to give something back, find something that really touches my heart,” Rosberg said.

“Now I have the time, I’m going to go exploring different avenues. I’m going to go to Germany and visit children who are quite ill, especially of the age of children who are really happy to see me.

“I would really like to go and see them at the age where I can give them a great time.”

Pascal Wehrlein withdraws from ROC Nations Cup on medical grounds

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber Formula 1 racer Pascal Wehrlein will take no part in Sunday’s Race of Champions Nations Cup in Miami after being withdrawn on medical grounds.

Wehrlein sustained a frightening crash during Saturday’s ‘Champion of Champions’ event, rolling his KTM X-Bow with a passenger inside after crossing the line during a heat against Felipe Massa.

Both Wehrlein and the passenger escaped unhurt, but the Race of Champions organizers confirmed on Sunday that the German would not be racing on Sunday as a precaution.

“I’m very sorry to withdraw from today’s ROC Nations Cup. I’d really like to race again and I feel fine, but the doctors have advised me to rest so of course I will take their advice,” Wehrlein said.

“It’s no more than mild discomfort but my real priority for the coming year is my Formula 1 season. So while I’m sad to be missing out on all the action, I send my best wishes to my team-mate Sebastian Vettel and the rest of the competitors here in Miami and I wish them another exciting day’s racing.”

Event officials are yet to confirm who – if anyone – will replace Wehrlein in Team Germany’s line-up.

The Race of Champions Nations Cup takes place later today at the Marlins Park in Miami.

Juan Pablo Montoya victorious on opening day of Race of Champions in Miami

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia, driver of the #2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet prepares to practice on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya added another trophy to his cabinet on Saturday by claiming a shock victory in the Race of Champions.

The event at the Marlins Park in Miami pitted some of motorsport’s biggest names up against each other in a multi-discipline challenge, with the Race of Champions’ traditional crossover circuit style being used.

Ahead of the battle for national honors on Sunday, the 17 drivers on the entry list in Miami faced off for the individual title.

Defending champion and four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel suffered a shock exit in the group stage after defeats to Helio Castroneves and Travis Pastrana. The German won only one tie against 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who in turn had qualified following a shoot-out against GRC’s Scott Speed.

In the bottom half of the draw, IndyCar stars James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan were eliminated in the group stages, while veteran British F1 racers David Coulthard and Jenson Button made it through. The pair were joined by nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and NASCAR’s Kyle Busch; the latter’s brother, Kurt, was knocked out at the first hurdle.

Pastrana and Castroneves both fell in the quarter-finals, losing to Felipe Massa and Montoya respectively. Massa advanced through the draw despite a frightening incident in the group stage involving fellow F1 driver Pascal Wehrlein, who flipped his car after crossing the finish line.

Kristensen edged out Button 2-1 in their best-of-three bout to reach the semi-finals, setting up a tie against Coulthard after he eased past Kyle Busch 2-0.

Massa and Montoya’s semi-final went down to a tie-breaker, with the former receiving a time penalty to hitting the wall and gaining an advantage. As a result, Montoya progressed into the final, winning the tie 2-1. Losing 2015 finalist Kristensen followed Montoya through, beating Coulthard 2-0.

Montoya won the first heat of the final in the rallycross car, edging Kristensen out by less than a car length before jumping into a KTM X-Bow for the second match-up. Despite almost jumping the start, Montoya managed to wrestle his car through the two laps before edging out Kristensen by just 0.08 seconds, securing a shock rookie victory in the process.

“Honestly I had a blast,” Montoya said. “It’s pretty amazing. I told my wife, I’ve got to make it through the first round. It just worked out.”

Montoya will race in the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday, teaming up with recent IndyCar racer Gabby Chaves for Team Colombia.