IndyCar 2014 Primer: The Tracks

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Rewind to Labor Day Weekend 2013. Simon Pagenaud had emerged victorious after a wild and wooly Baltimore Grand Prix that also saw Helio Castroneves increase his Verizon IndyCar Series points lead on Scott Dixon, who came out badly after being involved in a restart incident with Will Power.

We were left with questions: Had Castroneves effectively captured the series title that he’d been missing for so long? Could Pagenaud, now with momentum, mount a last-ditch charge in the remaining three races? And how would Dixon possibly be able to regroup from another disaster?

The answers didn’t come until five weeks later – yes, five weeks later – at the revived Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 5-6. Dixon exited the doubleheader with a points lead over Castroneves that he would not relinquish, while Pagenaud was eliminated from contention.

Such a long gap isn’t conducive to building championship buzz, so Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has responded by condensing this year’s 18-race calendar into a five-month span, which begins this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The new calendar retains the same three doubleheader weekends as last year, with two-steps in Detroit, Houston, and Toronto. One new race, the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis at the reconfigured Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, now serves as a kick-off to the Month of May. Gone from the docket, sadly, are a pair of street course gems in Baltimore and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

March 30 – Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (1.8 miles, 14 turns)
Blessed with waterfront scenery, this street circuit provides a picturesque backdrop to begin the IndyCar season. A critical part of the course is the left hand Turn 10/Dan Wheldon Way, which comes after a full-on blitz down the dog-legged Bayshore Drive.

April 13 – Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (1.968 miles, 12 turns)
North America’s most important street race celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and it’s a race that every driver wants to win. The land rush from Shoreline Drive into Turn 1 is always a highlight, and so’s the treacherous right-hand hairpin that sets it all up.

April 27 – Barber Motorsports Park (2.38 miles, 17 turns)
One of IndyCar’s most challenging circuits, this track features a narrow ribbon and multiple elevation changes to test the drivers. Surrounding the course is a beautifully maintained landscape dotted by whimsical sculptures. All you need to do to find the hot spot at Barber is to look for the spider near left hand Turn 5, aptly named ‘Charlotte’s Web.’

May 10 – Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (2.434 miles, 14 turns)
A new chapter in the legendary history of IMS will be written this May as the IndyCars attack the Speedway’s revamped road circuit. The course utilizes parts of Turns 1 and 2 of the hallowed Brickyard oval, but the infield section has seen several modifications leading up to what should be a fascinating watch.

May 25 – Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5 miles, banking of 9 degrees, 12 minutes)
Relatively flat turns and a different profile for each corner ensure that drivers are constantly running on a knife’s edge during the ‘500.’ The long straightaways (5/8-mile) would appear to provide a momentary respite, but considering the amount of passing we’ve seen in the last couple of years with the Dallara DW12, that may no longer be true. In short, this track separates the good from the great and provides one of the greatest mental tests a driver can ever face.

May 31-June 1 – Belle Isle Park, Detroit (2.34-mile, 13 turns)
The battle for the championship truly begins with a punishing doubleheader on Belle Isle, where drivers have to deal with numerous surface changes and park roads that are even more narrow than what you usually find on a typical street course. But the 90-degree Turn 3 provides a great spot for passing opportunities, as it comes at the end of a half-mile straight.

June 7 – Texas Motor Speedway (1.5 miles, banking of 24 degrees)
Seeing the IndyCars battle under the lights on the Texas high banks remains a thrilling sight to see. And with an extra 50 kilometers being added to the distance this year, there will be more excitement to behold. But with lower downforce now the norm on big ovals such as TMS, tire management can be just as important as pure horsepower.

June 28-29 – Reliant Park, Houston, Texas (1.7 miles, 10 turns)
The compact and largely concrete Houston circuit takes drivers on a quick trip through several of the city’s most important sporting landmarks, including the fabled Astrodome. Getting the hairpin at Turn 4 right is critical for drivers to accelerate through Turn 5 (the same corner that proved disastrous last fall) around the ‘Dome and stage a passing attempt going into the lefty at Turn 6.

July 6 – Pocono Raceway (2.5 miles; banking of 14 (Turn 1), 9 (Turn 2), and 6 (Turn 3) degrees)
There’s a reason why this place is called the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ Pocono’s three distinct turns are modeled after some of open-wheel racing’s most important tracks, with Turn 1 mimicking the long-gone Trenton, Turn 2 being similar to Indy, and Turn 3 taking on the feel of Milwaukee.

July 12 – Iowa Speedway (.875 miles; banking of 12-14 degrees in turns, 10 degrees in frontstretch)
Scorching summers and brutal winters have given this bullring plenty of character over the years. The bumps are especially noticeable in Turns 1 and 2, and combined with the 18-second laps, Iowa makes for a long few hours of work in the cockpit.

July 19-20 – Streets of Toronto (1.75 miles, 11 turns)
The mayhem always seems to go up a notch every time the IndyCars take to this street course. There are multiple passing opportunities, but things can get very tight in a hurry and that often leads to chaos. The right-hand Turn 3, which comes after a long run down Lakeshore Boulevard, may very well be the ‘Calamity Corner’ of the series – although Turn 1 at the Princes Gate is also ripe for run-ins.

Aug. 3 – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2.258 miles, 13 turns)
This venerable, natural-terrain circuit oozes a throwback vibe. Like Barber, it’s narrow, has elevation changes, and features a mix of high-speed and rhythm sections. The signature corner is the right-hand Keyhole at Turn 2, but watch for Turn 9, a blind corner that features an up-and-down elevation change. Qualifying up front and maintaining track position are very critical here.

Aug. 17 – Milwaukee Mile (one mile, banking of nine degrees)
The biggest part of success at Milwaukee is being able to navigate the flat, sweeping turns and accelerate out of them for good runs on the straights. The groove is a narrow one, making this matter all the more tricky to accomplish. But this is very much a driver’s track, which is much appreciated by those who wish to see great displays of talent.

Aug. 24 – Sonoma Raceway (2.385 miles, 12 turns)
Elevation changes abound on this highly technical Northern California road course, which can also prove slippery for drivers as the winds often throw sand and dirt in their path. Turn 7 represents a decent passing zone with a good run out of the track’s Carousel corner.

Aug. 30 – Auto Club Speedway (two miles, banking of 14 degrees in turns, 11 degrees on frontstretch)
Multiple grooves are present at this wide and fast Southern California oval, but a bumpy backstretch and treacherous seams in the racing surface can turn a good night into a bad one instantly.

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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