Photo: IndyCar

INDYCAR PREVIEW: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

Leave a comment

A busy month of April that features three consecutive race weekends for the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend on the famed streets of Long Beach, California for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The most iconic street race on the schedule, Long Beach is second in prestige only to the Indianapolis 500 in the IndyCar ranks, so a win at Long Beach is a big feather in the cap to get.

Like all street courses, passing can be a challenge at Long Beach. Unlike other street courses, cautions can be few and far between – the 2017 race had only three, and the 2016 race ran without any yellows at all.

The two facets combine to put a premium on qualifying.

The race has also seen six different winners in the last six years: Will Power, Takuma Sato, Mike Conway, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and James Hinchcliffe, and plenty of other big names have yet to add theirs to the list of Long Beach winners.

Talking points ahead of Long Beach are below.

Two Stops or Three? That Is the Question.

At 85 laps in length, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach presents two distinct options for pit strategy: two stops, in which you’ll need to save a little bit of fuel but can save a pit stop, or three stops, with which you can run at a much faster pace in hopes of making up for time lost with the extra pit stop.

Last year’s race saw most of the field opt for three stops, though a handful, namely drivers running at the very front, went with two. For example, James Hinchcliffe used a two-stop strategy to get to Victory Lane last year, while second and third place finishers Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden used three stops.

It should also be noted that Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi were podium contenders with two-stop strategies before mechanical gremlins befell both of them.

Using 2017 as an indicator, it would appear those at the very front of the field may go with two stops, while those outside of the Top 5 could go for three.

Which strategy will work depends on if and when cautions fall, but Long Beach again appears to be set for a battle of strategic wits.

Schmidt Peterson Looks to Continue Early-Season Form

James Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are the defending winners at Long. Photo: IndyCar

The early-season prowess of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has been well-documented.

Robert Wickens has emerged as a rising star in his first IndyCar season, while James Hinchcliffe has amassed finishes of fourth and sixth in the opening two races – and he could have finished higher up in both races under different circumstances.

“Life right now in INDYCAR is pretty good,” Wickens quipped about his early IndyCar success. “I definitely can’t complain with how competitive we’ve been in the first two races. Long Beach is going to be a new challenge. We’re going to have to start from zero again, but I’m really happy with where we are as a team and how we’re working together. Hopefully, we can keep this little run of performance going and try to score some good points in the Lucas Oil car.”

What’s more, Hinchcliffe and SPM are the defending Long Beach winners, and come into the weekend riding a wave of momentum and confidence.

“I always say this, but we look forward to Long Beach every year. It’s one of the greatest events on the calendar, one of the longest-running events, one of the best attended… it’s definitely a highlight of the year,” Hinchcliffe said of his enthusiasm for Long Beach.

“Last year was obviously pretty special taking the win! The entire team has had a really strong start to the season, and St. Pete went well for us, so we’re cautiously optimistic that our street course package is going to be strong. That said, Long Beach is a different racetrack than St. Pete, and with this new car, everyone is constantly improving, so we’re certainly not taking anything for granted.”

Both drivers appear to be early championship contenders, and they’ll look to continue their strong form at Long Beach.

Andretti Autosport Looks to Rebound from 2017 Long Beach Heartbreak

Ryan Hunter-Reay all the other Andretti Autosport drivers suffered mechanical and engine problems at Long Beach in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Long Beach in 2017 looked set to be a strong showing for the Andretti Autosport squad, with Ryan Hunter-Reay starting third, Alexander Rossi starting fifth, and Marco Andretti starting tenth. Then Andretti driver Takuma Sato qualified 18th, but as a former Long Beach winner, Sato was certain to be a factor.

But, everything fell apart in the race as all four dropped out with mechanical trouble: Marco Andretti on Lap 17, Rossi on Lap 62, Sato on Lap 78, and Hunter-Reay in the final laps as he ran second behind James Hinchcliffe.

In 2018, Andretti Autosport hopes to take their speed from 2017 and turn it into something much better, as Hunter-Reay described.

“Long Beach is one of my favorite races of the year,” said Hunter-Reay, a former Long Beach winner. “It’s one of the cornerstone events for the series with a great fan base and great racing. We have a win there from 2010, started on pole in 2014 but still feel like we have unfinished business after last year with the car shutting off on us while running up front. We have some work to do. We have two top-five finishes so far this year, but we’re not satisfied with that, which is a good thing.”

Teammate, and California native, Rossi echoed Hunter-Reay sentiments about realizing last year’s potential.

“It is hard to beat the atmosphere and energy of Long Beach. With it being a Southern California race, it is sort of a home race for me, so I will have lots of friends and family down for the weekend. We will be looking to finish what we started last year and hopefully, we can put the NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda on the top step,” Rossi explained.

Misc.

  • A handful of rookies who did not run at ISM Raceway return to the grid at Long Beach. Zachary Claman De Melo, Jordan King, and Jack Harvey will all look to build on foundations laid on the streets of St. Petersburg as they make their second IndyCar street race starts. Elsewhere, Kyle Kaiser makes his first IndyCar start on a street circuit this weekend.
  • Both Spencer Pigot and Graham Rahal will have new liveries this weekend. Pigot’s No. 20 Chevrolet will feature the blue paint scheme of Preferred Freezer Services, a long-time partner with Ed Carpenter Racing, while Rahal’s No. 15 Honda is adorned with Total Motor Oil’s red, black, and white.
  • Conversely, the Team Penske duo of Josef Newgarden and Will Power will again feature identical silver liveries on their Nos. 1 and 12 Verizon Chevrolets.

The Final Word

From Sebastien Bourdais, who is the winningest active driver at Long Beach, with three victories on the famed streets to his name.

“Long Beach is historically a track where I have had a lot of success and I have always enjoyed racing there. It is a great event. It’s going to be a matter of finding the two or three tenths of a second we were missing at St. Petersburg. Obviously, we’re in it (the championship race) so we just need to keep digging and see where we can take things, but it seems pretty clear that we have a good shot. We were obviously competitive at St. Pete, but I really wasn’t expecting us to be that strong at Phoenix. So we will just keep working and see how far we can go.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times PT and local)

Friday, April 13

10-10:45 a.m. (1-1:45p.m. ET)- Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

2-2:45 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Saturday, April 14

10:45-11:30 a.m. (1:45-2:30 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 4, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

3:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m. ET) Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE on NBCSN

Sunday April 15

9:00-9:30 a.m. (12:00-12:30 p.m.) – Warm-up, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

1:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on air

1:40 p.m. (4:40 p.m. ET) – Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (85 Laps)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. James Hinchcliffe
2. Sebastien Bourdais
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Scott Dixon
5. Simon Pagenaud
6. Ed Jones
7. Carlos Munoz
8. Spencer Pigot
9. Helio Castroneves (pole)
10. Graham Rahal

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Scott Dixon
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. James HinchCliffe
5. Alexander Rossi
6. Graham Rahal

Follow@KyleMLavigne

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

Follow@KyleMLavigne