Ten with Townsend: Long Beach Debrief

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After NBCSN’s first Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season, we checked in once again with our NBC Sports Group IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell for MotorSportsTalk’s first 2014 installment of “Ten with Townsend.” Look for more of these to come over the course of the year. For a 2013 archive, check this link.

Without further adieu, thoughts from our ace expert on the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

-With St. Petersburg a relatively mild race until the one restart, were you surprised by the level of aggression we saw at Long Beach?
 
Not really.  I would say that’s the norm these days.   For good reason too, because it’s so tough to win now.  I fully expect a multitude of winners this season.  So much quality, parity etc.
 
-Mike Conway’s win owed a bit to luck, but clearly he’s had the performance on street courses to help Ed Carpenter Racing. Where do you rate him in the field in terms of how talented he is on the road and street circuits?
 
Top 5 without question.  To come in like he does part-time, bouncing between WEC commitments is hard enough already.  Detroit last year was flat out breathtaking.  I can still remember the first time he showed up for Panther Racing at a Sonoma test in 2008 (I think it was).  Straight away- stunning speed.
 
-With Will Power’s St. Pete restart and now contact with Simon Pagenaud at Long Beach, were you surprised at all by either of those? Or was it more surprising there were no penalties assessed to him? 
 
I didn’t see anything wrong with his St Pete restart.  In fact I think it was text book to what was requested by race control.  The Long Beach contact was certainly open for review but we are seeing the new ‘hands off’ stance that IndyCar announced previously – let the drivers sort it out. The flip side is the carnage the ensued after Hunter Reay’s similar move on Newgarden.  So I’m not sure what the position will be now going forward with respect to ‘avoidable contact’. (BTW I never liked that term)  I wouldn’t want that job in race control, so we’re lucky to have people who step up for the abuse!!  In the end, life without fenders is complicated but so fantastic at the same time.
 
-Also Power-related, do you think his momentum was properly able to carry over from late last year into the first two races of the year? Or just more a case of starting strong without regard to 2013 finish? 
 
I’d say St. Pete was expected and Long Beach was a disaster (by his standards) blessed with good fortune.  His race pace was no better or worse than the top 10 cars, but circumstances fell his way for sure.   The competition didn’t need that!
 
-Most impressive rookie thus far: Hawksworth, Munoz, Aleshin or Huertas?
 
Man that’s tough.  Have to pull out Munoz because he had some races last season, not a pure rookie in my book.  If you analyze their circumstances, the other 3 can all make strong cases.  Hawksworth on pace, Aleshin on consistency, Huertas on the last second nature of his program.  Flip a coin but all these guys are solid and going to cause headaches (strong competition) for the establishment for the rest of the season.
 
-Two races in – biggest surprise and biggest disappointment.
 
Surprise-  Rookies are super strong and mistake free.
Disappointment-  Seems like Rahal just can’t find the sweet spot to start the season these last few years..they certainly are putting forth the effort and resources.  But hiring Servia was a smart move.   He will help them tune things in, but he only can if he’s there full-time.
 
-Thoughts on JPM’s first two races back? 
 
Methodically coming back to old form but not there yet…
 
-How was PT to work with in the booth? From a viewer’s standpoint he really helped add to yours and Leigh’s insights. Even on the course preview lap, too.
 
He was my IndyCar idol as a teenager so I’m biased.  But the fans loved him and I certainly enjoyed the perspective and candor.  He’s one of the most successful IndyCar drivers of all time, so when he speaks, we should listen.  But with the Blue Demon mask on…his lips don’t quite work the same.
 
-You’ve seen how competitive this field is. Having the opportunity with KV for the 500 now confirmed, how much confidence does that give you to be in your usual one-off role but now with the defending champion team? 
 
I sit there in the booth, looking at the depth of talent and competition, and think ‘oh boy, I’m about to jump in this tornado.’  But I think that every year and just go for it.  Kind of like sitting at the bar, watching a mosh pit in full glory, pounding a shot and then getting it on.  Insert Miles’ advice from Risky Business here..
 
-Besides IndyCar, a very busy year planned for you with the TUDOR Championship, Red Bull GRC broadcasts and additional TV work. What challenge are you looking most forward to this year? 
The Indy 500 stands alone for me… always will.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.