FP2: View from the ground in Austin

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Rather than doing your traditional “Sebastian Vettel was fastest” post-session report – my colleague Luke Smith has that covered – I spent most of the 90-minute second free practice session roaming the grounds here at Circuit of the Americas to get a gauge on the atmosphere and the sensory overload of Formula One here at the circuit. A few thoughts to follow:

SPEED AND BRAKING

Although I’ve followed Formula One since the mid-1990s, I’ve only been to one prior Grand Prix on site, and that was eight years ago. So of all the things that you witness on the ground, the speed and transition to braking has to be the most surreal.

Standing at the end of the longest straight on the circuit, where Lewis Hamilton made his race-winning, albeit DRS-assisted pass on Sebastian Vettel last year, your jaw just drops as the cars decelerate from, according to Brembo, north of 190 mph down to 55 in 125 meters. The stopping power on an F1 chassis is just incredible – especially compared to an IndyCar, even though it also has carbon brakes.

The speed drop looks less severe as the cars head up the hill into Turn 1, aided by the huge elevation change that helps to slow the cars down. More intriguing there is the launch out of Turn 1 into Turn 2, as the steep downhill drop is an underrated part of this course.

DIRECTION CHANGE

I was here for the FIA World Endurance Championship and American Le Mans Series sports car doubleheader weekend in September as just a fan, and through the esses, the Audi, Toyota and HPD prototypes inhaling the GT cars were also surreal to watch. They looked like sharks chasing goldfish if I’m honest, to give you an idea of the speed differential.

Yet watching an F1 car go through the same section two months later, the prototypes look the smaller fish from an optics standpoint. An F1 car hits its turn-in points with laser precision, and it doesn’t even look real how fast the car changes directions. The fans obviously noticed too – I’d reckon there were more in the Turns 2 to 7 section just today than there were in total on Friday in September.

ELEVATION

I touched on this briefly in the first bit but yes, the climb up Turn 1 and the fall back down Turn 2 is more severe in person than it appears on television. Other areas of the track – the tail end of the esses, the dip through the back straight and the dive down from Turns 19 to 20 are also sizeable, but not as much as the first two corners. The elevation poses a true challenge for engineers on the pit wall and drivers alike as they negotiate the 3.4-mile circuit.

FAN FERVOR

There’s a diverse mix of fans on the ground, as you’d expect. Track president Jason Dial told me yesterday to expect fans from all 50 states and 40-plus countries on hand for the race. There’s a multicolored festival of team hats, humorous anti-other-championships shirts (the “BORING” signage over the NASCAR logo colors is a classic) and a genuine buzz in the air.

If there were ticket issues for fans, it didn’t appear as such from the turnout on the ground today. You’d have to think there was an easy 60,000 or so judging by the grandstands in Turns 1, 4, 11, and 15 plus all the ones on the ground.

CELEBRITY PRESENCE

It wouldn’t be America without some level of celebrity. NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton – whose “Buxton’s Big Time Bash” last night was a rousing success to raise money for Meals on Wheels – spoke with former Friends star Matt LeBlanc in the paddock today. There’s likely going to be more of these vignettes to come.

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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