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PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The Verizon IndyCar Series concludes its April stretch this weekend with its third race (plus a Texas Motor Speedway test) in four weeks this month. Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) provides the first glimpse at an all-left-hand turn race this year.

However, the downforce levels applied to both the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits have been locked in from 2016, which will make passing difficult if not outright impossible under the lights.

Here’s what to look for on Saturday night:

2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix – Talking Points

Wide-open points race

What enters as a 15-point spread between points leader Sebastien Bourdais, ahead of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe figures to increase after Saturday night’s race. If the Chevrolets are as strong as they were in testing and last year, it’d tend to favor Newgarden and Pagenaud on paper of those top five. Of course, Dixon won here last year, thanks in large part to his Ganassi crew. It’s a big test for the Bourdais and Coyne package.

Helio Castroneves (sixth, 33 points back) sits nicely positioned if he can end his near three-year winless drought. Meanwhile for Chevrolet’s other drivers, Phoenix could present an opportunity for Will Power (14th, 67 off the lead), Carlos Munoz (15th, 69) and Conor Daly (19th, 76) to make inroads. JR Hildebrand returns and Ed Carpenter makes his first start of 2017, but both had speed in the test here in February.

Late days at the office

It’s an interesting schedule for IndyCar and a tight turnaround from racing in Birmingham this past weekend, then driving back to the West Coast for all teams and drivers. There’s only one two-hour practice from 4 to 6 p.m. PT on Friday afternoon, a two-hour gap, and then night qualifying from 8 to 9 p.m. This will certainly be closer to race temperatures rather than qualifying during the day, as was originally projected for this race and was done last year – and perhaps helps the Hondas, which struggled in the heat of the day both last year and in this year’s test, but were better at night.

It’ll make for a lot of hurry-up-and-wait though, with none of the Mazda Road to Indy series joining on the weekend. The only support action are USAC Silver Crown cars and vintage IndyCars.

Fortunately, the field had two full test days here in February so they’re not short on track time. But it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, translates from them because it will be hotter and the track has been through a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend since.

Short ovals hard to project, outside of one three-letter acronym – RHR

There’s not really been a rhyme or reason to recent IndyCar winners on oval tracks one mile or less. Here’s a recent rundown in the Dallara DW12 era, with aero kits the last two years and the base chassis from 2012 to 2014:

  • 2016: Scott Dixon at Phoenix (started sixth), Josef Newgarden at Iowa (started second)
  • 2015: Sebastien Bourdais at Milwaukee (started 11th), Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started ninth)
  • 2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started 13th), Will Power at Milwaukee (started first)
  • 2013: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started fourth), James Hinchcliffe at Iowa (started second)
  • 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started second) and at Iowa (started seventh)

By recent history, short ovals have largely been the domain of Ryan Hunter-Reay – that’s a run of five wins in the last 10 short oval races in IndyCar, with five other drivers splitting the rest one apiece.

“RHR” was about worth the price of admission on his own here last year, but got caught out twice by ill-timed caution flags that negated a potential podium finish. If he can get track position nailed down, he could finally be in to break his own winless run of races.

As ever though, if your car is hooked up, it could be a long night for everyone else. That was Newgarden at Iowa last year, when he led 282 of 300 laps. And at Phoenix, once Dixon’s team got him to the lead on pit stops, no one else was able to beat him as he led 155 of 250 laps on the series’ return.

Firestone’s tire note

From Cara Adams, Chief Engineer of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports in Firestone’s pre-race advance: “Our team of engineers and compounders selected several constructions and compounds to test at PIR last October based on driver feedback, vehicle data from every race held at PIR along with tire analysis. Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter assisted us in the evaluation of our test tires. We ultimately selected a superspeedway right side construction with a softer short oval compound along with the race-proven 2016 PIR left side tires. We then brought this tire package to the April 11th open test at PIR, and look forward to racing at this unique mile oval racetrack this weekend.”

Lingering questions

  • Do we get a fourth winner in as many races to kick off the new year?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing make it through Phoenix into May, still as points leaders?
  • Can Josef Newgarden carry the momentum from his first Team Penske win to the short oval?
  • Does Will Power snap his career-worst run of five consecutive finishes outside the top-10?
  • Similarly, does Power – or the other drivers without a top-10 this season, Max Chilton (pictured above), Charlie Kimball and Conor Daly – break into the top-10 for the first time?

The final word

From the defending race winner, Scott Dixon: “I’m excited to be going back to Phoenix again. We obviously had a great result here last year, and hopefully, we can duplicate that again with a strong run. It’s a tough track and I know it’s changed a bit over the years with some resurfacing, and we learned a lot last year in terms of how the cars handle now. I love the area and Arizona is a great part of the world. There are a lot of fans in the area and I hope they are as excited as we are to go racing Saturday night under the lights.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times PT and local):

Friday, April 28
4-6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
8 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE online; airs NBCSN 7:30 p.m., April 29

Saturday, April 29
5-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
6 p.m. – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Will Power
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Graham Rahal
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Max Chilton
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Ryan Hunter-Reay
11. Helio Castroneves (pole)

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.