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IndyCar: INDYCAR Grand Prix Recap

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The fifth INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course was perhaps the most intriguing and entertaining of the bunch. With varying tire and pit strategies, a number of big names moving forward and backward, and threatening weather moving in late in the race, this year’s event featured more than a few extra theatrics in comparison to previous years.

Add in the 200th Verizon IndyCar Series win for Team Penske, and you end up with a weekend that most certainly resonated very loud in the IndyCar paddock.

A look back at major stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Power, Penske Perfect

Will Power takes the checkered flag at the 2018 INDYCAR Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

The phrase “Penske Perfect” has been a part of motorsports vernacular for a long time now. But over the weekend, you could’ve added “Power” to the phrase – as in, driver Will Power.

For both driver and team, the weekend was basically perfect. Power was fastest in both practices on Friday, captured the pole, and led the most laps during the race to the take win. In fact, the only session in which Power wasn’t first was the final warm-up prior to the race – Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon was fastest then, with Power in second.

Further, it proved to be a milestone weekend for Power and Penske, as Power tied Helio Castroneves for the most Penske IndyCar wins (30) and Penske scored its 200th IndyCar win as a team.

Indeed, the weekend could not have gone much better for them.

“It’s been a slow start (to the 2018 season) for us, so it’s just fantastic to get the win. But 200 wins in IndyCar just shows Roger’s determination and the way his team works and his passion for winning,” Power said afterward. It’s a real pleasure to drive for him. You’re given equipment week in, week out to win, and yeah, I have to say it’s amazing to be a part of that history of Penske Racing because it’s such a deep history.”

It’s also appropriate that the milestone came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track at which Penske has won the most times of any IndyCar track where the team has participated – including 16 Indianapolis 500 wins.

Roger Penske scored his 200th IndyCar win on Saturday. Photo: IndyCar

And Penske might be the favorite as preparations begin for the 102 Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Josef Newgarden has two wins in 2018, including an oval triumph at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway back in April.

Power’s victory on Saturday gives them yet more momentum heading into the “500,” and victory No. 17 at the marquee event could be reckoning.

Rest assured, Penske’s IndyCar triumphs will only continue to grow, and there’s no telling how far they’ll go.

Tire Strategy Had Drivers Seeing “Red”

The Firestone alternate “red” tires were the tires to have at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar.

Tire strategy has become the predominant factor in deciding a race winner at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, with Firestone’s alternate “red” tires ultimately proving to be the tire of choice during the race.

Take this past weekend as an example, as teams and drivers appeared almost desperate to spend as much of the race as possible on the red tires.

Scott Dixon started the race on blacks, and put on reds during his first pit stop on Lap 15. He spent the rest of the race on reds, which helped him to finish second.

Power started the race on reds, switched to the blacks early – in his second stint – to get them out of the way, and spent the second half on race reds.

Robert Wickens also started on reds, but he switched up his middle stints in comparison to Power. Wickens stayed on reds in his second stint, a move that helped him take the lead.

However, he switched to blacks for his third stint while Power went back to reds, and Power quickly closed in and retook the lead.

Indeed, tire strategy proved to be the ultimate factor in deciding the front runners. And even though fuel strategy played a role in the final stint, as everyone went into fuel-save mode to make the finish, the finishing order had been previously set up based on the tire strategies.

Misc.

  • In substitute duty, Zachary Claman de Melo had an impressive run in the No. 19 Paysafe Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. The 20-year-old, called in to sub for Pietro Fittipaldi, enjoyed a strong battle with veterans like Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, and he gave them all they could handle too. Claman de Melo even ran inside the Top 10 at stages. He ended up finishing 12th, but he gets better at every race and is progressing nicely in his rookie year.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay deserves an “Atta boy” for battling through a persistent electrical issue to make the finish. Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda sounded hurt for much of the race, but he nursed it all the way home to finish 18th. “We were running seventh and eighth and then we had an electrical issue that caused a misfire. It cut power on the bottom and top ends,” Hunter-Reay explained. “We tried a couple on-track fixes, but they didn’t work and a fix in the pits would have taken too long. So, we were running all day about half of the horsepower and had to save fuel. It was pretty much a full nightmare scenario and certainly not what we hoped for today.”
  • Simon Pagenaud’s difficult 2018 also continued, as he got together with Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King in Turn 2 right after the start, and both drivers ended up going through the Turn 2 gravel trap. However, Pagenaud did rebound to finish in seventh. Alas, he still languishes outside the Top 10 in the championship standings – he sits 12th, 15 points behind Marco Andretti in 10th.
  • Helio Castroneves had a solid, albeit surprisingly quiet return to IndyCar competition, finishing sixth in his first IndyCar race since last year’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Castroneves will now shift his focus to chasing a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
  • Despite finishing 11th after spinning, Josef Newgarden retained his championship lead, albeit by only two points over Alexander Rossi, who finished fifth. Sebastien Bourdais sits third, 26 points out of the lead, while Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe sit fourth and fifth, 31 and 34 markers out of the lead, respectively.

And with that, the focus shifts to Indy 500 prep. Opening practice for all Indy 500 entrants is on Tuesday, 5/15.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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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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