Scenes like this will be no longer at Sonoma Raceway after Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar says goodbye to Sonoma Raceway today: so long wine, hello lettuce

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SONOMA, California – For the last 14 years, the IndyCar Series loved to race at Sonoma Raceway.

Not only was the racetrack one of the most challenging permanent road courses in the country, it had ambience that most other tracks on the circuit would love to have.

There were the picturesque rolling hills that surrounded the track, and the charming flock of sheep that keep the grass trimmed.

Sheep?

Yes, the track truly employs a herd of a few thousand sheep that “cut” the grass virtually every day – and there’s sure plenty of land to munch upon.

Going to the races at Sonoma also meant there was all the touristy things to do in the City by the Bay, San Francisco, less than an hour south.

And to the north around the town of Napa, there were world-famous wineries that drivers, team members, media and fans alike all loved to visit … and do a bit of tasting, of course.

Sadly, that all comes to an end Sunday. The Grand Prix of Sonoma will make its 14th and final run at the Speedway Motorsports Inc. facility.

Next year, the season-ending IndyCar race shifts to WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway, about 150 miles south in Monterey, California. In a sense, it will be déjà vu of sorts for IndyCar, which returns to Laguna Seca for the first time since 2004, one year before it shifted to Sonoma Raceway.

According to a recent story in the Sacramento Bee, racetrack president and general manager Steve Page said there needed to be a “sustainable business model” to keep – or now, perhaps some day return – IndyCar to its track.

There have been reports that even though the so-called wine-and-cheese crowd loves to come watch the sleek open-wheel Indy car race cars at Sonoma, the race weekend was a losing economic proposition for the track for at least the last several years.

While several drivers have talked this weekend that they would like to see the series to return to Sonoma one day soon, that won’t be happening for at least the next three years – the length of IndyCar’s new contract with Laguna Seca.

“We wish IndyCar and our friends at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca the very best with their new event,” Page said in a statement when the shift to Laguna Seca was first announced in July.

Forget for now that both tracks will one day host races in the same IndyCar season. Sonoma officials have said it’s “not economically viable” to hold two races at two different tracks per year in Northern California (although some would argue that Laguna Seca is more in Central California).

But here’s where the interesting part comes in: for years, Texas Motor Speedway outright rejected any bid by IndyCar to also hold a race at Circuit of the Americas.

Well, TMS will become bosom buddies with COTA next season, as the latter joins the IndyCar circuit for the first time.

COTA is about 225 miles south of Fort Worth, a bit further than Laguna Seca is from Sonoma. But it will be interesting to see if the crowd base is significantly impacted at either track because there’s now two tracks holding IndyCar races within less than three months of each other.

In theory, there should be enough IndyCar fans to go around so that Sonoma and Laguna Seca could peacefully co-exist and be economically viable.

But that’s an argument to be explored for another day … or three years.

Including Sunday, Sonoma will have held the IndyCar season finale for the last four years, dating back to 2015. In doing so, it’s carried on a great tradition, one that has dated back 13 years, where the series’ championship has been decided in the final race of the season.

In an ironic twist, that 2015 race has been etched in IndyCar history as one of the most remarkable comebacks the sport has ever seen.

Scott Dixon entered the race 47 points behind series leader Juan Pablo Montoya, yet pulled off a stunning rally to not only win the race, but also to earn his fourth IndyCar championship.

Now, four years later, Dixon – if he wins – will bookend the season finale run at Sonoma with his fifth championship. He enters Sunday’s race with a decent – but not comfortable by any means – 29-point lead over Alexander Rossi.

If Dixon wins, he’ll become only the second driver in IndyCar history to win at least five championships (A.J. Foyt has seven).

If Rossi wins, it’ll be fitting that the Nevada City, California native captures the last IndyCar race for at least the foreseeable future – if ever again – at his home track.

When Sunday’s race ends and the new champ is crowned, doused in wine and champagne and proudly trots the championship trophy home, Sonoma Raceway is still going to end the day losing because IndyCar won’t be coming back again any time soon.

If ever again.

Oh yeah, by the way, not to disrespect Laguna, but there’s one other thing to point out that only adds to the loss of Sonoma from the IndyCar schedule.

As afore-mentioned, while IndyCar team members and race fans loved going on wine tasting excursions around Sonoma — where grapes are king — somehow, the top agricultural product of the area around Laguna Seca just doesn’t have the same tourist lure, attraction and cache:

Lettuce.

Well, then again, there is lettuce wine to look forward to, right?

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F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.