Two choices cost Romain Grosjean spot on Abu Dhabi podium

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The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may not have been one of the season’s most spectacular, but it provided as many strategic headaches as any other.

After Friday’s practices, many within the paddock saw the race as a probable one stopper, perhaps removing some of the strategic options available. However, by Sunday morning, careful analysis of Saturday’s tire usage and the predicted temperature drop, almost all were resigned to stopping twice.

While eventual champ Sebastian Vettel got a great start and showed the levels of utter domination we saw in Singapore (meaning he could’ve almost stopped as little or often as he liked and still come out on top), there were a couple of team decisions that could be retrospectively questioned.

In the very early stages of the race, after a great start, Romain Grosjean found himself fourth, behind Mark Webber. Webber had not had the best of starts, as we’ve seen before, and by lap six and seven was beginning to suffer with his rear soft tires, dropping lap time by around .2 tenths a second per lap. The Lotus was close behind, still looking good on tires and pushing, was racing Webber. I’ve no doubt that Lotus would have originally set out to go deeper into the Grand Prix before pitting, but they made a key decision when Webber was forced into his early stop on lap eight for new medium tires.

Lotus opted to pit Grosjean at the same time in a bid to cover the Red Bull move, but it was perhaps that split second decision that ultimately cost him a step on the podium.

Two things surprised me a little about the call. I had expected Lotus to try and one stop;, their car is one of the best at looking after tires and though it might have been a brave call, it’s brave calls that are needed to take on the Red Bulls at the moment. I guess the memory of Kimi tumbling down the order last weekend as his tires ‘fell off the cliff’ was still too fresh in the mind.

The other option, even if they thought they’d have to two-stop, was to leave Grosjean out, let Webber pit and give him five or six laps in clear air to run at Nico Rosberg in P2. At that point there were only two cars ahead on the track, no back markers to worry about and with the tires still in reasonable shape, a chance to put in some fast laps before switching to mediums on or around lap 12. Rosberg had to stop on lap 10, so if the Lotus could’ve stayed out longer than that he’d have had a clear track to do his thing on soft tires.

As it was, Grosjean got held up behind the very fast-in-a-straight-line Force India of Adrian Sutil for a long spell in his middle stint which ultimately cost him the chance to take on Rosberg and Webber at the end of the race.

The other decision that looks questionable with hindsight was down at Ferrari. Felipe Massa, doing a great job and running one place ahead of his team mate in the middle, medium tire, stint of the Grand Prix, was brought in six laps earlier than Alonso, despite his laptimes remaining stable and consistent in the preceding laps.

Even if you accept the decision to bring Massa in in order to free up Fernando Alonso, who was arguably faster at that stage, it’s strange that the team then gave him a medium compound set of tires to go seventeen laps to the flag. The mediums were up to a second a lap slower in the race and although the team justified the decision by saying they didn’t think Massa could’ve got to the end on softs, it seems odd given that his opening stint on scrubbed soft tires, with a car full to the brim on fuel, went on for 18 laps.

Alonso, stopping later, took softs at his second stop and went on to set the fastest lap of the Grand Prix. The decision, in my opinion, cost Massa at least two places in finishing behind Hamilton and Sutil, but perhaps saved Ferrari the headache of a fiercely fought battle at the end between the feisty Brazilian, battling for his own career and the disgruntled and slightly less level-headed-than-usual Spaniard for fifth position.

Of course it’s very easy to make these points afterwards, but worth remembering the pressure that teams are under in the heat of the moment during a race. You can be sure that, whilst we in the media analyze the information we have each week, the teams themselves, with far more data to go through over the coming days, will be analyzing themselves more closely than anyone else to find out what they got right and what could be done better, should similar situations arise in the future.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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