Monday, May 25, 2015

2015 Indianapolis 500 review

The 99th Indianapolis 500 is behind. And what a great race it was! Exactly what the series needed after the practice crashes and difficult weather in the qualifying weekend.

Team Penske's Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career. After qualifying 15th, I was pessimistic about his chances but the qualifying isn't so decisive for the result, rather just an indication of one's pace. Montoya had a difficult start to the race when Simona de Silvestro hit his rear wheel guard during an early caution and he got as low as 30th. But he made his way through the field and was one of the front-runners at the last restart with 15 laps to go. On the fourth-last lap, he passed Ganassi's Scott Dixon for the second place into the turn 3 and half a lap later he passed his teammate Will Power for the lead he'd keep until the finish.

The defending series champion Will Power was aiming for his first Indy 500 win. This was the race he wanted to win and you could hear it in his post-race comments, saying he'd be happy with the second place everywhere else but at the Indy 500. But it was nice to hear how he enjoyed the racing, I'm sure the fans did as well. The outcome might have been different for him had he not lead so many laps in the end but instead learned how his car behaves when running second. That might have been the key to overtake Montoya on the final laps.

It was a Penske vs. Ganassi battle in the front of the field. Team Penske claimed the top 2 positions, Ganassi the 3rd and 4th. Ganassi's Charlie Kimball was the best American, finishing third. He passed teammate Dixon with three laps to go, soon after Montoya's pass on Dixon. The polesitter and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon was one of the front-runners for the whole race but in the end finished only fourth.

Penske's Simon Pagenaud and Ganassi's Tony Kanaan had good cars but they got out of the contention for the win before the end of the race. Kanaan was having a very good race before crashing soon after his pitstop on lap 152. And Pagenaud seemed like the strongest Penske driver before clipping his front wing on the lap 176, costing him the chance to race for the win.

Last year's runner-up, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was one of the favorites for the race. But in the end, he couldn't challenge for the win, finishing only seventh. And it was unfortunate Sage Karam, last year's ninth, had to retire after a first turn incident. Given how well Ganassi's cars were doing, he might have had a strong race.

The race was dominated by Chevrolet with the only Honda drivers in the top 10 being Graham Rahal on the fifth place and Marco Andretti on the sixth place. Besides the last eight finished drivers were all powered by Honda. Honda surely can't be happy with the result; especially given their main focus was in winning the Indy 500.

Safety was a concern before the race because of crashed cars flipping in the practice sessions and James Hinchcliffe's leg getting pierced by a front rocker. Thankfully there were no serious injuries in the race, Sebastian Saavedra suffered a foot contusion in a three-car incident and a Dale Coyne Racing pit crew member broke his ankle in a pit road incident. The practice crashes were worrying but only one serious injury from them shows in my opinion that IndyCar is as safe as open-wheel racing on ovals can be.

The 99th Indianapolis 500 was a great race. Hopefully there will be plenty of other great races during the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. And hopefully the 100th Indy 500 next year will be just as great, preferably with also Honda as a serious contender for the win. And with James Hinchcliffe in the field of 33 drivers.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

2015 Indianapolis 500 preview

In my previous text, I was writing about the crashes that have taken place during the practice for this year's Indianapolis 500. But now it's time to look forward to the race on Sunday.

The front row was occupied by Scott Dixon, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud. This trio was quite dominant, the only ones with a speed of over 226 mph with fourth-placed Tony Kanaan at 225.503. The top 5 was occupied by Chevrolet-powered cars with the fastest Honda driver being Justin Wilson on the sixth place.

The pole went to Scott Dixon. This was his second pole at the 500, the first being in 2008 when he went on to win the race. And this year seems like a good chance for him to repeat that feat. He's been solid in the previous races in the IndyCar Series and he's been constantly among the fastest in the Indy 500 practice days.

Last year's series champion Will Power was second in qualifying. He's also been solid in practice days, even though not as consistent as Dixon. Earlier this year, I wasn't so convinced of his performances, he had some stupid moments like the overly optimistic attempt to overtake Montoya at St. Petersburg or crashing with Sato when exiting the pits at Barber. But he took an impressive win at the GP of Indianapolis, and even though now we're on oval, I expect him to be battling for the win.

I was disappointed with Simon Pagenaud's performances in the early season. But before the technical retirement at the GP of Indy, he was having a solid race, performing like one could expect from him before the season. And he's been one of the best drivers in the practice days. While he's still to win an oval race, he's a strong contender on Sunday. Still, I rank Dixon as the favorite.

The second row has some serious challengers for the win. The 2013 winner Tony Kanaan was fourth in the qualifying and excels on ovals. So does also the fifth-fastest man of the qualifying, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. After his scary flip in the Wednesday practice, he set the fastest lap of the week in the Saturday practice.

The sixth-placed Justin Wilson was the fastest Honda driver. Honda, who have been underdogs on road courses, had obviously their priority in succeeding at the 500. Looking at the practice and qualifying results, a Honda win would be a surprise, though.

The last two years' polesitter, oval specialist Ed Carpenter had a big crash in the morning of the qualification day. Given the circumstances, 12th place with the backup car was a decent performance but he has lots of work in the race. And his practice results weren't so good, apart from that Sunday morning before his crash.

The 2000 winner and the series leader Juan Pablo Montoya was a disappointment in the qualifying, only 15th, especially given his teammates were second, third, and fifth. Actually, I find it a bit surprising Power and Pagenaud were the best Penske drivers in the qualifying. Given how well Montoya and Castroneves have started their seasons, I was expecting those former 500 winners to have an advantage at Indianapolis.

The weather forecast for Speedway doesn't look too good for Sunday with thunderstorms being forecasted for the afternoon. Hopefully they will stay away long enough to let the race finish first. After all the difficulties in this month, I'm hoping for a good and safe race that would help to forget those difficulties and would be great promotion for the series.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A week of crashes behind at Indianapolis

The Indianapolis 500 is approaching; the qualifications are behind as well as all practice sessions but one-hour Carb Day practice on Friday. Then on Sunday, it's time for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.
This year has seen the introduction of the new aerokits. An aim in opening the aerodynamics for competition was to get visible differences between different manufacturers. And it seems that aim was achieved; there are clear differences in the Chevrolet and Honda aerokits and the manufacturers had even designed different parts for the qualifications and the race.

In my previous text, I was carefully positive about the introduction of the aerokits. The aerodynamically more sensitive cars haven't hurt racing, at least too much. But we may have seen another harmful effect of aerodynamically sensitive cars. There have been five crashes on the oval at Indianapolis this year, in four of them the car turned upside down. At first it seemed like it might have been an issue of the Chevrolet aerokit as the first three flips happened with it. But yesterday also a car with the Honda aerokit turned upside down when James Hinchcliffe had a heavy crash and his car was sliding sideways.

Maybe the new aerokits are so sensitive that they have caused the tendency for the cars to flip this year. Or maybe the new aerokits being faster is a reason for crashes and subsequent flips. Or maybe a bit of both, or maybe that could've happened also with the old Dallara aerokit. A thing to be noted is that all flips with the Chevy aerokit happened with the qualifying parts which were abandoned later as it became required to run the qualifying with the race trim.

But what should have been done otherwise, if anything, and what should be done in the future? Well, clearly something should be done to avoid these flips in the future; we don't want that to happen in a race with a group of cars coming behind. And all these flips can't have been a coincidence; there is something wrong at least in the Chevy aerokit. Actually, I'm less worried about the suspension failure that caused the crash of Hinchcliffe, despite it being the only of the crashes where the driver got injured. That crash may just have been a one-off failure and very bad luck for Hinch. There will always be the risk of a mechanical failure, and on an oval it can have severe consequences. 

I think IndyCar should have tested the speedway aerokits already before May. To start testing them only in May meant they didn't have time to fix the arisen issues before the 500, they can only hope the race setup leads to less crashes and isn't so prone to flip. Had they tested the speedway aerokits in winter, they could've addressed and solved their issues before the Month of May.

As for what they should do now, I don't know as I'm not an aerodynamics engineer. But here's a bit radical idea. Make the car less aero-sensitive. Distinctive differences between manufacturers are the only good thing I can imagine of the aerokit competition. Otherwise advanced aerodynamics don't improve racing on track and as we've seen on the past week, they can make a spinning car behave unpredictably. I'd reduce downforce and compensate the loss in lap times with more mechanical grip and power. Of course, this is no short-term solution, rather an idea on what they should do when they set the regulations for the successor of DW12. A short-term solution is just to find what makes the cars flip so easily and how to avoid that from happening without a complete redesign of the car.

Crashes have taken the attention on the first week of this year's Indy 500. But hopefully on Sunday there will be a great race. Later this week I will write a preview of Sunday's race.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Some review of the early 2015 IndyCar season

It's time for some review of the first IndyCar races of the 2015 season. The big change for this season was opening the aerokits for competition. The start wasn't promising. In the first race of the season at St. Petersburg, broken winglets brought many debris cautions plus drivers were already saying it's harder to follow the car ahead. Those were my concerns about the aerokits. The more aerodynamically advanced the cars get, the more they suffer when following another car. And more fragile wings may discourage drivers from overtaking attempts or lead to debris cautions.

Barber was the race I was looking forward the most to see the effects of the aerokits on a road course with fast corners. And it left a good impression, it was a good race. Obviously it's harder to follow the car ahead but it wasn't hurting the racing at Barber too much. And maybe it's only the track characteristics or maybe the drivers have learnt to be more careful with the more fragile wings after St. Petersburg. So, I'm thinking the manufacturer aerokits are a good thing; the cars are a bit more different now. Different aerokits also caused fear of one manufacturer dominating the series. Honda were underdogs in the early season but pretty competitive at Barber, so maybe their car isn't as bad as it seemed earlier. It will be interesting to see how Honda will do at the Indianapolis 500 where they have won 10 of the last 11 races. I hope they could improve their performance on road courses a bit so that we'd have two manufacturers racing for wins all the time. Even better would be if a third manufacturer came to IndyCar soon.

Still, I think IndyCar must ensure the cars don't get aerodynamically too advanced. Aerodynamically advanced cars don't usually provide so great racing plus they put less emphasis on the drivers' skills. Also, while I'd like opening the rules more, it should be done carefully to avoid creating too big performance differences between the manufacturers as well as to avoid costs exploding.

Juan Pablo Montoya is leading the championship by three points to Helio Castroneves. Montoya took a brilliant win at the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. At the second-race of the season at NOLA, his pace wasn't so good but as the qualifying had to be abandoned, he started on pole as the championship leader and finished fifth. Great defensive driving at the end of the Grand Prix of Long Beach gave him the third place there and he retained his championship lead at Barber despite finishing only 14th.

Castroneves took the poles in the last two races at Long Beach and Barber. Having to wait for the traffic on the pit road probably cost him the win at Long Beach and at Barber he finished only 15th after running out of fuel. Still, his pace in the last two races shows he's a strong contender for his first IndyCar Series title and surely one of the favorites for the Indianapolis 500 where he could equal A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Sr., and Rick Mears at four wins.

Scott Dixon is on the third place of the standings. After the difficult first two races, he took his first win at the Grand Prix of Long Beach and then was third at the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber. Everything looks to be set for another great season for the three-time series champion.

Josef Newgarden has had a good start to the season, three times in top 10 and fourth in standings. The 2011 Indy Lights champion took his first career win the in the IndyCar Series in the last race at Barber. He seems to have potential to become the next American superstar in IndyCar, and an American superstar would be great for the series in its home market. I heard some speculation that he might be a candidate for the new Haas F1 Team in 2016, even though he may not fulfill the super licence requirements. While I'd love more crossover between IndyCar and F1, I must say I'd be slightly disappointed if IndyCar lost a potential future American star driver to F1.

The defending series champion Will Power is only fifth in the standings. A pole and a second-place finish at St. Petersburg as well as a fourth-place finish after a collision and drive-through penalty at Barber show he has the pace but he should have been smarter at times. At St. Petersburg, an overly-optimistic dive on Montoya for the lead caused a collision but thankfully didn't take the cars out. At Barber, colliding with Sato when exiting the pits was a stupid mistake. He hasn't lost the championship yet but he needs to drive smarter if he wants to win it.

Simon Pagenaud completed Team Penske's four-car dream team. One might have expected him to be a threat for the veterans Montoya and Castroneves for the 2016 seats unless Penske wants to continue with four cars. But Pagenaud has been a disappointment for me. He's been the weakest Penske driver so far and is only ninth in the standings. That's quite poor given he's been in the top 5 in the last three years and his teammates are first and second in the standings.

And few words about the calendar. As it seems that Formula One is going to start the 2016 season only in April, I think IndyCar should try to fill the void of open-wheel racing. Start the season in the Southern states, Latin America, or Australia right after the Super Bowl and have few races before the F1 season starts. The winter break of F1 might make some F1 fans to watch IndyCar.