Phoenix Test in the West notes, musings, observations

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Some notes, thoughts and perspective follow below after the Verizon IndyCar Series two-day Test in the West at Phoenix International Raceway:

  • Back to the glory days speed. You might remember in the late 1990s when CART ran at one-mile ovals in Milwaukee and Nazareth, while Phoenix dropped off and hitched its wagon to the IRL. But for a couple years, speeds at the one-milers were insane: 190-plus mph at Nazareth and mid-180s at Milwaukee were the pole speeds. And this weekend, it came back. Some speeds were tow-assisted but still, seven drivers had best speeds of over 190 mph, and the slowest best speed for the week was 184. For reference, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track record at the same track is in the 143 mph range… IndyCars are running six seconds per lap quicker at the same track. How they’re getting there though, is the big question mark before the race.
  • The downforce dilemma. So when the speeds were that high in the late 1990s, CART then struggled with what wing package to bring – it’s the age-old debate between low and high downforce. High downforce brings higher cornering speeds; low downforce brings higher straightaway speeds and a greater gap between terminal velocity and cornering speeds. The super speedway wing package came in 1999 to short ovals, then with an aided Handford Mk II device for a mid-range downforce level. Right now in 2016, it’s skewing to more of a higher downforce package at PIR but even so opinions are split about whether it’s the right amount. Michael Andretti told Motorsport.com he wants more downforce, while defending series champion Scott Dixon told a group of reporters at the end of the session the current level is good. “Starting right now, I think it’s gonna be a good race. Is it gonna be hard to pass? Yes, but I think it’s possible,” said the four-time champ. Watch this space and we’ll have more thoughts about downforce in the days to come.
  • Tightly packed field. As noted, the speed gap was only six mph from 1-21 – and an even smaller two mph, or just 0.2964 of a second – from 1-18 in looking at the combined times. With different gearing, Dale Coyne Racing’s two cars could have found an additional tenth or two as well to make it even tighter 1-20. Compared to oval races in the past where there is at least some separation, right now, the quality and depth of field is as strong as it’s ever been, even with a reduced car count.
  • On Chevy vs. Honda. One issue apiece for both of them, with an engine failure cutting Will Power’s test short and with a mistake by Jack Hawksworth exiting Turn 2. Honda seems a bit closer to Chevrolet, but times could be a bit deceiving with at least one Honda team opting for qualifying simulations during the evening rather than race runs. Most of the fastest laps of the weekend were set on Saturday afternoon, not evening, as Honda’s best times were.
  • A bigger than anticipated fan turnout. Didn’t get over to see it in Turn 1 or from talking to track staff, but it seemed as though more fans came to the test than was expected. I’ll refer you to these tweets from veteran reporter Bruce Martin, who got the lowdown on how track staff handled the influx of fans. The hope and prayer is that between now and April, the marketing push gets hit harder. Two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Arie Luyendyk and 1992 race rookie of the year Lyn St. James are Phoenix locals, and St. James was on site all weekend at PIR helping to get the word out.
    https://twitter.com/BruceMartin_500/status/703677820040572928https://twitter.com/BruceMartin_500/status/703678061674414081
  • New sheriffs in town. You can read the full transcript of the INDYCAR Stewards Press Conference here if you like. The early takeaway – and it’s early days yet with all we have to go on initial impressions rather than proper race situations – is that you feel as though the sanctioning body has finally taken control of its new staff and management situation after a two-to-three year transition period. It’s obvious that the latest new regime, with Mark Miles and Jay Frye at the top, and then the new quartet of Bill Pappas, Dan Davis, Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk, enter with high expectations and a high sense of optimism. Having Will Phillips gone is interesting/intriguing from a technical side, while without Derrick Walker and Beaux Barfield – Walker gone after 2015 with Barfield having left after 2014 – Race Control now has people who I hope we don’t have to hear from near as much. Accountability is important, for sure, as Miles outlined, but we don’t want the officials to be a story.
  • April’s gonna change from now. The race is called the Phoenix Grand Prix and by that point, the NASCAR Sprint Cup race will have also run at the track. That’s gonna be a lot of Goodyear rubber that will have gone down since, which will feel different than the 5,300-odd plus laps completed by Firestone this week. “I think it’s going to be interesting because NASCAR is going to be here about two weeks before we race, two, three weeks, so I think it’s going to change the track a lot with all that rubber they’re going to lay down and everything, so we’ll see how the track changes,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who’s the only driver in the field who by April will be able to say he’s raced at PIR in both events.

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.