Lotus made a smart play, but even that fell short vs. Vettel

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The Japanese GP, at Suzuka, is one of the Formula One classics and more than lived up to the hype on Sunday.

The race at the front of the field turned out to be a strategic battle of almost military proportions, between the two Red Bulls and the lead Lotus of Romain Grosjean.

The pre-race analysis had the fastest way from lights to flag as being a two stop strategy. There wasn’t a huge amount in it, around five or six seconds of total race time over making three stops, because the pitlane loss time for a pitstop at this famous circuit is relatively small at about 21-22 seconds.

The trouble with these very basic predictions is they just work out the total time it would take a car to race around the 53 laps without any outside interference — i.e. traffic and fighting other teams. Those factors all have a big influence on tire management and therefore the ability to maintain a certain pace and stick to an optimum pitstop strategy.

When teams have their grid positions set on Saturday afternoon, they look at where they are, where their competitors are in relation to them, current start form, clean/dirty side of the track, distance to first corner and many other factors. Their race plan ‘A’ will be based on their drivers getting away from the line as expected and making it through the first couple of crucial corners unscathed.

Red Bull Racing, sitting in P1 and P2 on the grid, would have expected to very quickly pull away and settle into their own race, but surprisingly both cars bogged down as the lights went out, allowing Grosjean to tear through the pair of them and into an early lead.

What happened from there on in, was a very patient, but very calculated display of time biding and precision attack from the Red Bulls, using all of the tools at their disposal to ensure the right result.

Such was the underlying confidence of the current World Champions, the team issued very clear and measured instructions to their drivers to each maintain a two second gap. Mark Webber behind Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel behind his team mate in the early laps. They knew trying to close up and make the pass at this stage, at a circuit where that’s not easy, risked damaging tires in the turbulent air of the car in front and so by holding that prescribed gap they waited to see what Grosjean could do.

With the Lotus being kept at arms length, the decision was taken to try and make the undercut work for Webber in second position. This earlier than normal stop would not only try to force Lotus into covering them, but give him a lap on new hard tires before Grosjean could react and therefore perhaps put in a blistering out lap to be ahead as the Lotus exited from it’s own stop a lap later.

Lotus did react, but Webber was unable to make up enough ground in that single lap to make the difference and remained behind.

What this did do was leave Sebastian Vettel out in front for another couple of laps. In the back of his mind was this race from two years ago, where he and the team focused so much on staying in front of everyone by making early stops to maintain track position, they ran out of tires at the end and came under severe pressure.

Sunday, they played the long game. Vettel didn’t have the pace on his, now well used, mediums to pull out the gap required for a ‘free’ pitstop as Grosjean, now on new hards, stayed around 19 seconds back. Although we saw the odd uncharacteristic lock up from the leader, his team knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t panic when they pitted and emerged still in third position.

Splitting their strategies, they switched Webber to a three stop race. Of the two drivers in the team, Mark’s not as good at looking after tires, so it made sense for him to use more of them and set himself up for a big push in the last stint. Vettel stayed on a two stopper and the race continued.

As the end drew nearer, Grosjean, two stopping and having done a brilliant job for his team, must have felt he was under attack from all angles. He knew he’d face pressure from Webber at the end on fresh tires, but also that Red Bull’s early ‘dummy’ had drawn the Lotus driver into a far earlier sequence of stops than Vettel, allowing the German to finish on a younger set of tires, come the closing laps.

When the eventual winner picked up his last set of tires he was given the instruction from the team “It’s Grosjean up ahead…go get him” and that’s exactly what he did.

On tires eight laps younger than Grosjean’s, Sebastian made a clinical job of passing his rival and there was no looking back. With clean air ahead, he did what he does best and pulled out a gap big enough to break DRS and be comfortable and held it there.

Behind, Grosjean knew there was still a threat from the sister Red Bull, even though he perhaps couldn’t see him coming. When Webber  pitted for his third and final stop he came out around 5 seconds behind the second place car, but a series of very fast sectors quickly brought the gap down to nothing. For the three stop plan to have any hope of overhauling his team mate, he needed to not only pass Grosjean, but get passed him immediately.

The Lotus did a valiant job of defending, and although Webber finally got past, he’d lost too much time to attack Vettel and had to settle for second spot.

It was a well-executed strategic play from Red Bull on two fronts, both cars had a genuine shot at victory here. Sebastian’s play was a calm and patient one, knowing he’d deliver when asked to by the team and Mark’s was switched up to play to his strengths of aggressive attacking driving.

It was huge credit to Romain Grosjean and Lotus that they were the only combination to be able to take the race to the sport’s top team and although the starts were crucial, they played the best hand they could as the race panned out.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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