IndyCar: Toronto weekend analysis, musings and observations

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TORONTO – I previously hadn’t been to Toronto a year ago – much less Canada – so last year was always going to be a “wow!” wide-eyed first experience north of the border. This year, for the Honda Indy Toronto weekend, I could take in the weekend with a closer eye knowing what the weekend was like and what to expect.

A few thoughts on the races, the event and the city to follow:

  • Parity reigns. Sebastien Bourdais and Mike Conway won for KVSH Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing, meaning the six doubleheader races this year have been won by five different teams. Team Penske swept Detroit; Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports scored in Houston. All told this season, we’ve had nine race winners (all of whom have come in the last nine races), 18 different podium finishers and 21 different drivers who’ve banked a top-five finish (sorry, Sebastian Saavedra).
  • Rain reigns. This weekend was not the first occasion of rain wreaking havoc on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule this season. St. Petersburg, Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Houston and Iowa have all had rain interruptions at some point during the weekend. But while Houston’s rain came in Race 1, and didn’t cause a schedule change, the spitting rain here on Saturday caused a bit of a nightmare for INDYCAR and the fans on site. And, as at least one PR person told me this weekend, I’d regained the unofficial “blame me” championship belt due to the preponderance of rain at races I’ve attended… (all but Iowa in that six-pack).
  • Maybe it was Rob Ford’s fault? The weekend was going smoothly in Toronto… then embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford showed up and Saturday then went into a rainy, drunken stupor that needed to come out of rehab. But he took a pace car ride with Paul Tracy, so that was interesting. Doubt any teams will have the gumption to blame Ford for their crappy on-track weekend, as Magnus Racing so brilliantly did last week.
  • Mikhail Aleshin is one lucky Russian. No need to say anything else about the JPM/Aleshin contretemps in race two other than Aleshin’s seriously lucky, because he said he couldn’t even breathe properly due to JPM’s car being on top of him. Open-wheel cars have always been open cockpit, but at the end of this year I think INDYCAR needs to at least begin to ponder the possibility of further enhanced cockpit protection.
  • Not racing Saturday was probably the right call. I feel for INDYCAR regarding its call to ultimately not race on Saturday, because really, they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. You don’t want 12-plus totaled cars and more work for the crews overnight. Then again, the crews were left in the situation Sunday where if their car was damaged in the rescheduled race one, there’d barely be any time to fix in the three-plus hour window before race two. Hearing the drivers say publicly too, save for rookies Jack Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin, that the conditions were too unsafe to race was all I needed to hear. The last time there was vocal dissent about the safety of a race before it happened was Las Vegas 2011… and we all remember how that went.
  • But as a result, better contingency plans and communication were needed. What did need fixing more than anything was the communication of how to proceed once the rain happened and delayed the process. For one, starting so late on Saturday (3:50 p.m.) limits options to get a first, full race in that day. Once it got to 6, 6:30, it was all for naught. There were communication issues regarding which channel the rescheduled race one would be on; there was back-room petitioning by the six other support series (frankly, too many for the weekend) to try to get better timeslots themselves, and a further schedule change to see the reduced races dropped from 85 laps to 75, then 75 to 65 laps or 80 minutes. In theory, it should go that when a revised schedule is announced, that’s the revised schedule. When you stick around in the media center until 8:30 p.m. and it changes 10 minutes later after you’ve left, when you find out via Twitter, you can only imagine the frustration. Here was the track’s official statement and how it planned to honor Saturday tickets.
  • Red, red, red. I could elaborate on the frequency of red flags this weekend, but I’ll refer you instead to this rather spot-on blog entry from Mark Wilkinson of NewTrackRecord that sums it up nicely.
  • On Derrick Walker’s impromptu media conference. Hiring Derrick Walker is one of INDYCAR’s smartest hires in recent memory. That said, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into with Walker, and one of his trademarks is his tendency to speak off the cuff. So when he waltzed into the media center around 8 p.m., without a formal introduction, what followed was the racing equivalent of Hungry, Hungry Hippos – in this case, Hungry, Hungry Journos who’d barely eaten all day but wanted some meat from Walker on why the day had shaken out as it had (some pepperoni pizza could have worked, as well). Say what you will about IMSA’s indiscretions and controversy this year regarding penalties, but at least when Scot Elkins appeared at Daytona and Sebring, there was a formal introduction, a formal statement, then an open Q&A. As an aside, one of the funnier moments of the weekend for yours truly came when I was running back into the media center before race two, held the door open for Walker as he headed to Race Control, and he joked, “Despite what people say about you, you’re not such a bad kid.” One of my colleagues started laughing after watching the exchange.
  • “The element of surprise.” I had no problem with Will Power answering my question regarding the call to throw the final red flag in race two this way: “That’s what’s good for the fans, the ultimate surprise, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Some took that to mean that INDYCAR didn’t know what it was doing, or changed things on the fly. But Power was introspective; the Australian noted that while he was surprised he’d been moved to the back of the grid following his race one spin and crew repair, he was grateful to even be in the race on Sunday rather than laps down on Saturday. More than his two wins and other podiums this year, it may be that ninth place in race one bags him enough points to capture that elusive first series championship.
  • Podium selfies! This, from Power, was also cool. More please. Shows these guys have personality and is done for the fans.
  • Detroit vs. Toronto as a race? I’d rather take Detroit. Despite what the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video, Take 2” video will tell you – at least we’re not Detroit! – I actually wish Toronto was Detroit. Because the event itself has a long ways to go to match the professionalism, ease of access and overall presentation that Roger Penske, Bud Denker and the entire Detroit Grand Prix organization have assembled just a bit south of T.O. Toronto is one of the hardest races in terms of getting anywhere around the premises – construction doesn’t help (like in Cleveland!) – the fans get shafted with no INDYCAR Fan Village, there’s minimal souvenir offerings, and the vendors on site have no apparent flow or reasoning. Canadian fans are smart, diehard, passionate individuals – they deserve better than what they’re getting now. As a city, Toronto wins hands down, but as an event, it could afford to take some lessons from how Detroit has put things on over the last few years.

Anyway, that in the books, it’s off to Mid-Ohio from August 1-3 following a much-needed off weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock.

Sebastien Ogier in driver’s seat for sixth straight World Rally Championship title

Sebastien Ogier leads the way in the WRC title chase. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) — Thierry Neuville finished the sixth stage of Rally Australia on Friday without a rear left tire, damaging his chances of catching five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title.

The Belgian driver entered the rally just three points behind Ogier in the closest title fight in 15 years.

He held the upper hand on his French rival, building a near-10 second gap through the first five stages at Coffs Harbour before hitting a chicane and finishing the stage with only three tires on his Hyundai.

Neuville was fortunate the puncture occurred late enough in the day to finish all six forestry stages and avoid a retirement. But the mistake cost him 40 seconds and gave Ogier, who is 33 seconds ahead of him, a clear run at his sixth straight championship.

In his last start with Ford before a move to Citroen next year, Ogier struggled as the first to drive the dusty, slippery forest routes.

“I pushed like crazy, I was on the limit over the jump and everywhere, I can’t do (any) more,” Ogier said. “I was on the limit.”

With Ogier on sweeping duties the back markers flourished, and Mads Ostberg took the lead in his return to the series.

Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner and nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three guest appearances for Citroen.

Now back in the seat, Ostberg leads Jari-Matti Latvala by 6.8 seconds in the Australian rally, with sixth-stage winner Craig Breen in third.

Ogier was seventh, 38.2 seconds off the pace, but only needs to finish ahead of Neuville to claim the championship title. Neuville is in 10th place after six stages.

Roles will reverse on Saturday, with Ogier to start further back in the field and do his best on cleaner roads to make up the day-one deficit before Sunday’s final stages.

Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2016 Rally Australia champion, was an early dropout after rolling into a ditch in his Hyundai. Mikkelsen had only just avoided a tractor that had found its way onto the course.

Former winner Molly Taylor and co-driver Malcolm Read were also forced out of their event when their Subaru hit a hay bale at high speed on the morning’s second stage. Both reported soreness but suffered no serious injuries.

The 24-stage rally totals 319 kilometers (197 miles). Ten stages are scheduled Saturday with the final six on Sunday, most of them through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.