Well if we thought everything had changed before the AMR Grand Prix last weekend, this weekend proved once again the only constant in INDYCAR is change. This was, as far as anyone can remember, the first double-header at Road America. The weekend included two days of the Road to Indy, and two days of INDYCAR, with no overlap. The somewhat condensed schedule led to qualifying being done under the double-header rules (or as we all said “like they do with Detroit”). While at the end of the first race everyone felt like it was deja vu with a Scott Dixon win, the second race was comparably different.
Race Day #1 – Saturday
It was a nondescript practice session in the morning. Rookies getting used to the track and veterans getting reacquainted with the track. Given the schedule, the practice on Saturday was the only practice of the weekend. It also set the qualifying groups for both Saturday and Sunday. Some good news learned during practice was that unlike last year, the softer alternative tires (the Reds) were lasting longer than one lap!
It was quite interesting to review the two qualifying groups. Group 1 had ten poles and nine race wins amongst them. Group 2 had one-hundred and thirty-one poles and one-hundred and forty-five race wins. Bit of a unbalanced group. Group 1 started first on Saturday, with Jack Harvey receiving the fastest time in that group. Under the rules for this weekend, he also got a bonus championship point. However, much like what happened at the AMR Grand Prix, he found the pole taken from him by a Penske driver. In Group 2, Josef Newgarden bested Harvey’s time by just over 3-one-hundreths of a second.
The race started with three Andretti Autosport cars off-roading before the first two laps were even finished. In Turn 14 both Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti off-roaded, ending up with pieces of the REV Banner on their cars. Then in the same turn, but just a lap later, Zach Veach joined the team fun. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the most successful of the group, overtaking Jack Harvey in the first lap, by Turn 1, and continued to fight throughout the race. He got taken by Santino Ferrucci in an over-under maneuver, and was also out passed by Alex Palou later on. RHR finished 4th overall, the highest finishing Andretti Autosport driver.
Pit stops were still a problem this race. Graham Rahal had an issue with his fuel hose. Josef Newgarden stalled his car twice, and then they couldn’t get the starter properly. Team Penske continued with pit issues when they didn’t get Will Power’s car dropped in time. Santino Ferrucci dropped four stops on Lap 40 by narrowly avoiding contact with Dalton Kellett.
Despite Scott Dixon winning the race, and having won three races in a row – a first for Dixon. This was a race for rookies. Rinus VeeKay pulled an excellent pass around Simon Pagenaud in the carosuel during the first lap. O’Ward (a rookie-ish) challenged a lot of veteran drivers including Power and Pagenaud. Alex Palou had a great race! Not only did he make great moves on RHR but he also was having smooth pit stops which helped him earn his first podium. A third place with Scott Dixon and Will Power finishing higher than you: a solid race!
Race Day #2 – Sunday
Everything started earlier on Sunday! Qualifications had the two groups flipped with Group 2 going first and Group 1 going second. Colton Herta came out strong, getting the fastest lap in his group. He was narrowly beaten by Pato O’Ward who earns his first podium of his INDYCAR career. Pato’s teammate, Oliver Askew, suffered a penalty during his qualification when he sped in pit lane, it discounted his fastest lap. In any set of qualifying procedures this would be extremely detrimental. When you only had fourteen minutes, it’s dire.
My goodness, the first lap of the race. PAIN Tour Tim suggested we all try and watch the race from Turn 1. Best decision ever. We saw them coming up the hill (and man did they line up beautifully) caught some brakes suddenly lighting up. Looks like Pato, well within his discretion, took the start late. Those in the back got squirrelly and some contact was made by Conor Daly, bending the front peice of his car. Then in Turn 1 Will Power …well I’m not sure what he thought but he got right into the rear of Ryan Hunter-Reay who spun out into the gravel. That caused cars around to slow and avoid, Jack Harvey braked and moved to avoid hitting Rosenqvist in front of him, only to be hit by Santino Ferrucci. Then, Graham Rahal is making that turn and Will Power shoots right up to the inside and spins him out as well. If you’re keeping track we had two cars who didn’t get past turn 2 during the first lap. The Racing Gods were none-to-pleased with Will’s behavior and on Lap 6, he spun out in Turn 13.
After Lap 1, things were marginally quieter. Scott Dixon had a shitty day of pit stops, in his first there was an issue with the tire, and in his second he stalled out twice. His Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Felix Rosenqvist had a bad pit stop on Lap 30, but he would go on to win the race.
The final laps of the race featured a great race between rookie Pato O’Ward and sophomore Felix Rosenqvist. iIth eight laps to go, Conor Daly allowed O’Ward to pass him. Daly was coming out of the pits. That effectively put Conor a lap down. He is, at that time, allowed to fight for that lap back. This is different then drivers who are multiple laps down trying to hold up traffic. Daly’s tires get up to temperature, and he starts to try and get that lap back. Remember, Daly has just gotten fresh tires and all the fuel so he has stronger tires and fuel to burn. O’Ward at this point is nursing older tires and is trying to save fuel. Daly is dropping lap times much faster than O’Ward. If it were Daly and Dixon, Dixon would have let Daly pass and not try to put up a fight with five laps to go. O’Ward eventually let’s him pass with four laps to go. He should have let Daly pass him earlier, I don’t know if that would have changed the outcome of the race, but potentially.
With three laps to go, O’Ward is starting to go wide on turns, his tires are getting bad FAST. Rosenqvist had a great car for the last stint and with two to go, makes the pass on O’Ward and ultimately goes on to win the race. Man, what a fight!
Looking at the Races and Ahead
It was mentioned on the broadcast, and I discussed it in my preview of this race, the rookies stepped up. They’ve not gotten an oval and a road course under the belt. We’re seeing both rookies and sophomores deciding to make moves. I enjoy it, I like seeing rookies try and get some action. Sometimes the risks pay off, and sometimes they don’t. You’re watching the learning process play out. O’Ward, pretty much a rookie, got his first pole and nearly won the second race. Rinus VeeKay put on a show during the first race, as did Alex Palou. Great to see at Road America…we’ll see how Iowa treats them of course. Personally, based solely upon his post-race quotes, Rinus VeeKay is a doll. Uses all of the exclamation points and always talks about wanting to try.
Race #2 may have proven that Scott Dixon won’t win all the races, but Chip Ganassi Racing might. We’re seeing CGR coming out strong. Dixon wining the first three and his teammate Felix Rosenqvist wining the third. I think CGR is like a sleeping giant and now with Dixon and Team Sweden, the giant has awaken.
The ever constant changes this season are mainly due to the public health emergency with the novel coronavirus-19. This past weekend was the first race where the public was in attendance. Leading up to the race a lot of information went out about the the track was going to do, including sanitation stations, masks, and signs. They did some of this. There were signs and reminders throughout the weekend. I never saw a sanitation system the whole weekend. The track gave us a mask each, but other people indicated they never received it. Also a lot of track workers or food service staff weren’t wearing masks. Also in grandstands there was no way to maintain social distance.
Iowa is up next. That track is exclusively grandstand seating, and they’ve limited the amount of tickets being sold. Following Iowa there are two weeks before Mid-Ohio. That’s when there may be some discussion about fans at tracks. I’d put the split about 50/50 as to fans wearing masks. Not to sound defeatist, but the cases in Indiana have started to climb back up and that’s not good for the Indianapolis 500.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking about ranking the masks driver’s wear during Iowa. Some are quite snazzy.