IndyCar – GP of Houston: And This Changes Everything

indycar-2013-houston-dixon-victoryHelio Castroneves came into the doubleheader weekend at Houston with a one-race points lead over Scott Dixon for the 2013 IndyCar Championship. In the span of only a few laps on Saturday, the championship battle got considerably closer. Then, on Sunday, the championship battle was turned completely on its head. However, it wasn’t all good news for Ganassi Racing after a last lap crash on Sunday.

Thanks to a rather massive bump in the front straight that had to be fixed overnight and a temporary chicane installed to get cars over the bump without breaking them, qualifying was delayed to Saturday morning. It was Takuma Sato who took the first pole for AJ Foyt Racing since the 1990s.

And since this was a doubleheader weekend, we got a standing start. The first attempt was aborted because Charlie Kimball stalled. The second attempt saw the cars get the green light only for James Hinchcliffe to stall and collect Ed Carpenter while Tristan Vautier clouted the wall trying to avoid Hinch’s car. Well, the standing start thing kept things clean farther up the field even if the grid was a bit of a mess.

Sato probably should have walked away with this one but suffered a flat tire under caution and had to pit. That put Scott Dixon on point with Will Power right behind. Power was quickly able to get by into the lead. And try to eat as many points as possible while teammate Castroneves languished in the back. Helio qualified poorly then had a gearbox issue that cost him several laps and cut his championship lead from 49 points to eight in the span of just 90 laps.

indycar-2013-houston-conway-filippiWhile Power was fast, pit stops were his kryptonite. He lost the lead during the first round of pit stops thanks to a problem with the air jack. On the second round of pit stops, he and Luca Filippi were caught out while the rest of the field were able to capitalize. The pair went from podium contenders to the back when the race resumed under green.

Unchallenged, Dixon was able to storm away from the field. In the back, things got dicey as everyone jockeyed for position. Simona di Silvestro had made her way up to second but was facing a strong challenge from Justin Wilson while Josef Newgarden was threatening to do what he did in Sao Paulo with a late charge to the point but a late caution ended the excitement back in the pack.

indycar-2013-houston-podium-race-1The win was Dixon’s fourth of the season and put him out of Helio’s reach in terms of wins. Simona’s second was her first-career podium and best career finish. It probably also helped KV’s recruiting efforts showing what their more or less #2 driver can do in that equipment. Justin Wilson might have caught Dixon is he had five more laps but only managed third.

Simon Pagenaud closed in on the championship lead with a fourth place finish. Josef Newgarden showed some more of his street course skill by rounding out the top five.

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Because of heavy rain and standing water on Sunday morning, qualifying for Race 2 was postponed. Under IndyCar rules, when qualifying is cancelled, the grid is set by entrant points. Due to a penalty to Helio’s team earlier in the season, Dixon was leading entrant points after Race 1 which should have meant that he was on pole. However, IndyCar determined that entrant points at the start of an event meant before the weekend not before Race 2. I can understand that because Race 2 qualifying should have happened on Saturday morning so if the schedule wasn’t changed because of the bump this is the grid we would have had in the event of a rain-out.

indycar-2013-houston-start-race-2Castroneves led away from the lights but encountered more gearbox problems. On Sunday, his gearbox was damaged going over the front straight bump. This caused his car to spray gearbox fluid onto an angry Scott Dixon before the championship leader ground to a halt.

On the restart, Will Power resumed his battle with Dixon in what seemed like a repeat of the Saturday portion of the doubleheader. Unlike Saturday’s portion of the proceedings, James Hinchcliffe was able to get away cleanly during Sunday’s standing start and climbed the order while some of the other cars struggled on restarts.

indycar-2013-houston-franchitti-sato-crashThe big story of the day was the big crash on the last lap. On the long backstretch around the Astrodome, Takuma Sato fishtailed in the marbles. Dario Franchitti crashed into the back of the Foyt driver’s car and the speed differential launched the four-time champion into the catch fence.

The resulting collision left Franchitti with two broken vertebra (which don’t require surgery), a broken ankle (which did require surgery) and a concussion. Considering the violence of the collision, it’s a surprise that he came out of it as relatively unharmed as he did. The catch fence itself broke away from the concrete barrier with part landing short of the grandstand and part landing in the top row. Reports say that 13 spectators were injured by debris from the crash but none seriously.

The win on the day went to Power, though it was a somber affair until word got back to the pits from Chip Ganassi that Dario was going to be fine. Franchitti’s teammate Scott Dixon finished second and took the championship lead by 25 points heading into the final round of the championship. James Hinchcliffe finished third which was his first top five since Iowa which seems like a long time to go without a big result until you realize this is his 5th top ten in the eight races since Iowa.

Justin Wilson completed another solid weekend for the Dale Coyne team by crossing the line 4th. Sebastian Bourdais finished the race in 5th which gives him four top fives from the last five street course races dating back to Toronto.

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All is not well at Andretti Autosport at the moment. While it appears that rides will be there for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti next season and EJ Viso if his Citgo sponsorship keeps paying, the #27 car will need a sponsor for next season.

Regardless of James Hinchcliffe’s destination next season, GoDaddy is leaving IndyCar and AA after this season. Apparently, GoDaddy uses TV ratings as a proxy for its return on investment and they feel that IndyCar’s ratings aren’t high enough to justify the outlay. It’s not a good reflection on the state of IndyCar when a long-time sponsor is willing to stick with the top 30 car of Danica Patrick in Sprint Cup but not a team that won three races this season. It’s not like GoDaddy has done much outside of IndyCar broadcasts to promote IndyCar. Sure, they promoted Danica, mostly as a sex symbol, but not Danica as a race driver. That would have helped the sport out immensely.

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indycar-2013-houston-hinchcliffeSo it’s time for a silly season update. Let’s stick with the Mayor of Hinchtown for a moment. He hasn’t received an offer from Andretti yet but has received one from KV Racing. The remnants of a very solid sponsorship and pay package that the team lined up for Tony Kanaan can still be put together if the team gets a high-profile driver for the ride. It looks like Hinch fits the bill for KV and potential backers nicely. It looks like Hinch will have two career changing decisions in as many seasons with the AA to KV move after the Newman-Haas to AA move before the 2012 season.

Dragon Racing is still working on finalizing its plans for next season. While you would think that they’ll be back with two cars as they’re both fully funded paying drives, Jay Penske may have inadvertently cast some doubt on that when talking to Racer. He told Marshall Pruett that the team is still weighing all its options for IndyCar next season and even floated the idea that they may not run a full schedule. Considering the team is quickly becoming regular contenders at road and street courses certainly makes it odd that there would now be doubts over the team’s future.

If Dragon Racing does run next season, Penske said that he was happy with both Sebastian Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra in his cars.

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indycar-2013-houston-kanaan-ganassiNot only did Chip Ganassi announce this weekend that Tony Kanaan was joining the squad but he also announced that his team was switching over to Chevy engines.

The move came as a bit of a surprise because Ganassi is the flagship team for Honda engines in IndyCar. However, it makes some sense considering that Ganassi’s NASCAR team runs Chevy cars and engines. The corporate branding synergies makes sense for both.

The news of Ganassi’s engine switch was preceded by Honda Performance Development technical director Roger Griffiths saying that IndyCar needed a third engine manufacturer to make the series more sustainable in the long-term for engine manufacturers. Due to the series rule on maximum engine lease price, Honda is finding the cost to subsidize engine leases too high for all the teams they are providing engines to. They’d like IndyCar to find another engine manufacturer to join the fray and take some their costs away.

That doesn’t mean that Honda isn’t looking to bolster its ranks and find a new flagship team for its stable. The latest speculation has Andretti returning to Honda engines for next season. It’s also speculated that the Honda deal could include some sponsorship from Honda of Canada to keep Hinch in the #27.

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This news won’t affect us until the month of May during next year’s Indianapolis 500 but ESPN has fired their current IndyCar play-by-play commentator Marty Reid.

Reid’s work was often the subject of much criticism for a lack of awareness about the happenings of a race, a lack or knowledge about the sport and its history and a lack of interest in calling the races. The straw that broke ESPN’s back was him losing count of the number of laps remaining with two laps to go in a recent NASCAR Nationwide Series race and calling the race one lap too soon.

While I don’t take pleasure in seeing a man lose his job, getting a new play-by-play man can only help the series. Someone with a passion for his job and the sport selling IndyCar as the voice of the races on network television can only serve as a marked improvement over the status quo from ESPN/ABC.

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indycar-2012-fontana-trackThe next round of the 2013 IndyCar Series will also be the last. It’s one final race on the ovals and the final leg of the Triple Crown in the IndyCar World Championships 500 at Auto Club Speedway.

While there won’t be a Triple Crown winner, the $250,000 prize for winning two of three events is still up for grabs if Tony Kanaan or Scott Dixon wins the race. Considering that Dixon would seal the championship with a win, I could see the motivation being enough to push him to victory. Now that he’s found a ride, I don’t see Kanaan as motivated to score the win.

For Castroneves, 26 points (since Dixon has more wins, he needs the points) will be a big ask. Maximum points for Helio is 53 points means that Dixon can’t finish lower than 6th. And Helio has to finish in the top four even if Dixon finishes in last. Basically, the scenario for Helio is that he needs to finish strong and have Dixon DNF.

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