Ambience of Long Beach. Photo: IndyCar

DiZinno: Long Beach thoughts, musings, observations

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Prior to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend, we wrote that there’s a surplus of things to cover and trying to wrap them all is rather impossible. Post the weekend, we think the same.

This was my 12th Long Beach weekend and I can’t recall a weekend that was crazier or more bizarre in terms of story lines. But as ever, here’s some thoughts, musings and observations to follow:

INDYCAR

Bourdais’ start has been unexpected. Photo: IndyCar
  • When the Verizon IndyCar Series form book is thrown out, the air of unpredictability in IndyCar is one of the best aromas. Sebastien Bourdais for Dale Coyne Racing and James Hinchcliffe for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports winning the first two races, and Honda having already matched its 2016 win total in two races, is proof positive of that. Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing Teams will get their victories, as will Andretti Autosport, but for now seeing these first two winners arise provided a solid start to the year.
  • This was a good balance of strategy versus pace, and had it not been for Alexander Rossi’s mechanical break on Lap 63, the three-stoppers likely could have run harder to catch the two-stoppers, who would have needed to save fuel. The longer yellow took that strategy out of play and freed up the two-stoppers to run harder, later.
  • Andretti Autosport should be thankful to be in a position where now, it’s late-race heartache from mechanical woes stopping them from good finishes rather than poor setup and direction as it was last year. The engineering enhancements made over the offseason appear to have clicked nicely. In terms of Firestone Fast Six appearances, the team already has three in two races – only one shy of the four total in 2016, and one clear of the two total in 2015. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rossi made it two Andretti cars in the Fast Six in one race for the first time since 2014, pre-aero kits, when Carlos Munoz and Hunter-Reay qualified fourth and fifth at Mid-Ohio.
  • The last two series champions, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud both have two top-five finishes to kick off the season in two crazy ways. Dixon has finished third and fourth but felt aggrieved in both races, caught out by a yellow flag in in St. Petersburg and a misjudged strategy play in Long Beach. Dixon’s usually a slow starter but is still in very good shape… Pagenaud meanwhile has somehow turned 14th and 21st grid positions into second and fifth place finishes. Pagenaud hasn’t yet been the story this season – he generated headlines after his qualifying penalty to impede polesitter Helio Castroneves – but he’s doing what he needs to do the longer the season goes on to stay well on form in terms of title defense.
  • Good to see IndyCar’s youth movement bank some results Sunday at Long Beach. Ed Jones, Carlos Munoz and Spencer Pigot all ran very solid races and were deservedly rewarded with sixth, seventh and eighth place finishes. Munoz and Pigot seem to be starting stronger than their teammates, Conor Daly and JR Hildebrand, with Pigot stuck in only a road/street course race situation for Ed Carpenter Racing and thus able to impress in fewer opportunities. With recent Indy Lights graduates Zach Veach, Jack Harvey and Gabby Chaves all confirmed for the Indianapolis 500 over the weekend, and Matthew Brabham present in Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks series, it feels as though the next generation of IndyCar drivers and Mazda Road to Indy alumni is starting to establish a presence at the next level. Pigot’s interaction with Instagram celebrity dog Loki the Wolfdog was a fun nugget this weekend.
  • By contrast, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves have had slow starts to their 20th seasons. Yes, Castroneves uncorked a flier at Long Beach – he has a fantastic knack for one qualifying lap there. But his start was rough and he dropped to seventh, and then pressed in the race with two penalties assessed. He ended ninth, after coming sixth from a poor grid spot at St. Petersburg. “TK20” meanwhile has kicked off with Mikhail Aleshin colliding with him twice, leaving him with finishes of 12th and 15th to start 2017. Their results need to turn, soon.
  • Similarly, Will Power must wonder where his luck has gone. Nightmare starts at two races he’s won at previously, albeit not since 2014 (St. Petersburg) and 2012 (Long Beach) respectively, see Power part of a three-way tie for 17th in points with series sophomores Rossi and Max Chilton, at just 30 points. Power is 63 behind points leader Bourdais and after his heroics to come from 137 back to within 20 of Pagenaud last year, he does have some wiggle room, but not much left if he is to re-enter the points discussion.
  • The toughest start of 2017 undoubtedly goes to Charlie Kimball. Two first-lap incidents in as many races has left Kimball buried 21st and last in points, already eight behind 20th place and 72 behind points leader Bourdais, who’s finished first and second. One of the worries I had for Kimball this year is that his aggressive nature might get the better of him and he’d press to compensate. He’s qualifying fine – ninth and seventh are good spots for him – but those have become 18th and 21st place finishes. Kimball’s made methodical improvement over 100 starts and six seasons but has regressed badly to start 2017; he needs to recapture last year’s more consistent Charlie, ASAP.
  • Long Beach head man Jim Michaelian and his staff continue to put on one incredible weekend, the event’s 43rd. Although crowd estimates were not released, Michaelian told reporters he expected a similar crowd to last year – a three-day weekend turnout pushing 180,000 fans. The challenge, as ever, is seeing how well the race does locally versus how it fits into the greater sports landscape. Sunday’s race was head-to-head against the final round of The Masters and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas.
Pigot, Loki the Wolfdog, and “Squad” over their shoulder. Go figure. Photo: IndyCar

IMSA

Hairpin drama. Photo courtesy of IMSA
  • I’m still trying to figure out exactly what happened in the 100-minute BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix race. Because it was quite a lot. Once I get through all the team post-race releases and the lap chart, I’ll fill you in. That should come later this week.
  • Haven’t yet done a proper breakout on them, but for Mercedes-AMG, the U.S. debut with its next generation GT3 couldn’t have gone much better. The No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing car won the pole and podiumed at Sebring; the No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG car has won Sebring and finished on the podium in all three races and the No. 50 Riley Motorsports-WeatherTech Racing car parlayed a strategic gem to win at Long Beach.
  • How Corvette Racing forges ahead after its bizarre finish remains to be seen, as the win changed hands for them as a result of the three-wide contretemps between the BMW, Acura and Lexus that eventually put Robert Alon on probation in the Lexus.
  • Great to see all three of the manufacturer DPis share the podium at Long Beach, with the Cadillac DPi-V.R ahead of the Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi and the Mazda RT24-P. The No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac is three-for-three despite several BoP changes – for Long Beach, it was adjusting the lower gear ratio – and continues to win despite the sanctioning body’s adjustments. They also have a big points lead, as well.
  • For both the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson, top-five finishes were great results on these streets for the privateer teams running the only LMP2 chassis in the field, after VISIT FLORIDA Racing was forced to withdraw its No. 90 Riley Mk. 30 Gibson.
  • So rare to see an off day for Action Express Racing, with the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac having been spun out and Dane Cameron making a mistake and sustaining a heavy crash in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac. The No. 5 and No. 31 cars finished seventh and eighth in class. Here’s how good they’ve been results-wise since the IMSA merger began in 2014. This was only the second race, in a total of 34 races since the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona, where a single Action Express car has missed the top-five in class. The only other was at Detroit in 2014, when Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa finished sixth, that after last-lap contact with the Taylor car. There were four races (one in 2015, three in 2016), where one of the team’s cars missed a top-five, but a second car made it.

PWC

Weird race for Johnny O’Connell saw him run with damage. Photo: PWC
  • By “PWC at Long Beach” standards, it was a typical weekend because something completely out of the ordinary happened. What I and many others thought was a water main break was actually a fire hydrant being hit on the intersection of E. Ocean Blvd. and S. Hart Pl. So the concern when this happened was that the race might not get restarted after the red flag. It spoke to the great collaboration and cooperation between PWC President Greg Gill and his team, Michaelian and the Grand Prix of Long Beach team and the City of Long Beach itself that the track was quickly cleaned up and the race resumed. Of course, it was also great driving by the series’ competitors that they ran through the wet track on slick tires without incident.
  • In terms of incidents, the water running was actually the biggest one. There weren’t the crashes or chaos that have peppered Long Beach’s PWC race in the past. Johnny O’Connell had a rough afternoon as he wracked up right side damage on his No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R he ran for the whole race, then picked up a loose sign late in the going (above). Mike Hedlund spun his No. 98 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3 out of the hairpin to cause another yellow, a rare mistake on his part. And St. Petersburg aggressor de jour Daniel Mancinelli had a cleaner weekend in his No. 31 TR3 Ferrari 488 GT3, although he still speared Tim Pappas during a practice session.
  • With Alvaro Parente and Patrick Long having split the three Sprint race victories so far, they’re only separated by one point in that championship. And they will be for more than two months, until the next Sprint weekend at Road America in June. The next three weekends are SprintX, at VIR, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Lime Rock Park.

REMAINDER OF THE WEEKEND

  • As ever, the SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks, Robby Gordon’s series kept the fans engaged and entertained for their pair of sprint races. Gordon and Matthew Brabham were among those that came into the media center during the weekend. The series also races with IndyCar at later events in Detroit, Texas and Toronto later this year.
  • Can Am cars were added in place of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race but while the noise was louder and the sounds perhaps better, the racing was not as existent.
  • Several drivers made notes about the Formula Drift rubber, which heavily populated the track in the back portion of the 1.968-mile circuit.

IndyCar races next at Barber Motorsports Park on April 23, IMSA at Circuit of The Americas on May 6 and PWC at VIR on April 29-30.

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”