Tires Man (Detroit 2021 Review)

I have a love/hate relationship with the Chevrolet Grand Prixes of Detroit. Plainly speaking, I think the surface at Belle Isle needs some advanced resurfacing. When the commentators are talking about steering wheels trying to “kick out of” a driver’s hands, or the red tires are turning useless at such a rapid pace: you must look at the racing surface. I know it’ll never leave the schedule; you only need to have the broadcast pan up to show the Chevrolet headquarters in the background to know why. I just think there needs to be some improvements to the racing surface. However, we’ve had some wild weekends of racing, both with drivers just getting right up to the edge, and people getting caught. This year was no different. Red flags in the one practice session, a qualifying session, and each sets of races.

There was but one practice session all weekend. Which sure the series learned after last year that they can compress race weekends; could we get some consistency? Are we doing Friday practice, or Sunday warm up, or both? But here they were on Friday, the one on-track practice. Started immediately off interesting given the insanely hot temperatures and the “air scoop” on the cars which the series mandated for the race only. You had teams running them in practice or not running them in practice. I’m sure there’s strategy in there, I’d err on the side of getting the most practice with it. Then we had Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin crashing in separate incidents but nearly the same time and bringing out a red flag. Jimmie would get back out later in practice…Scott would not as they really had to work on that car. Then Rinus VeeKay “yeeted” (his word) his car over the curbing, and practice ended with James Hinchcliffe spinning his car.

Saturday

This year there’s a new qualifying format for Detroit and the August IMS race. Field is split into two groups each get ten-minutes. The fastest six in each group then race in the “Firestone Fast Twelve” and really it worked out. There was some trepidation that having twelve cars out on the track may make it harder to get clean air, but for the most part no one had issues. Well, Will Power did but … it was not his weekend.

The race on Sunday truly came down to three things: everyone pitting on lap 2 to go from Red tires to Black tires, Felix Rosenqvist’s wild ride, and Will Power’s extreme heat – allow me to elaborate. As mentioned, the red tires were just not holding up this weekend. Seriously, after two laps they were shit. So…the race started and nearly the whole group who started on Red tires pitted on lap 2 to go to Black tires. Which was just crazy to watch half the field pit on the second lap for new tires.

Then on Lap 27, Felix Rosenqvist had just a wild crash. His car…well the throttle sounded like it was wide open, and his car went through the tire barrier and even punched a whole in or severely damaged the concrete barrier and the race went red flag. First, thankfully Felix is fine, and he suffered no major injuries and was released from the hospital on Sunday. Second, according to the team it was a “singular non-re-occurring mechanical fault”, it was not driver error nor system error, and it’s been fixed. But shit. Its in those moments when you see a driver nearly walk away from a crash like that, kind of amazing to think of how far safety has evolved in the sport. Since they literally had to replace the concrete barrier, the race went red for over an hour. It caught a lot of drivers in need of fuel, so the restart had drivers pitting for few immediately.

Then with five laps to go, Romain Grosjean tagged the wall and caused the second red flag. A lot of conversation has gone on around this red, and initially I was squarely in camp “they threw it just for a dramatic restart” however after talking to a few people who handle flags at race events here’s just some food for thought: sometimes it’s not Race Control that requests the red, it’s the safety team. Looking at where the incident happened, AMR may have wanted a red given the area the car was in, and where the better ingresses and egresses were. If AMR requested the red I have no qualms as they’re the experts. If it was Race Control: they suck. The red was thrown so all the cars were in pit lane, at the very end of a very hot race. Drivers were baking, cars were baking, and some official on pit lane was not aware that in a red you’re allowed to connect a fan and give water to the drivers. When it came time to restart cars to finish the race, Will Power who sat in first position couldn’t get his car started. The decision was made to then have all the other cars go around him and start the race. That put Marcus Ericsson in the race leader position, and he would go on to win his first race in over ten years.

Sunday

Qualifications had some weird moments. First, Oliver Askew got the call very late on Saturday he would fill in for Felix Rosenqvist and the ten minutes of qualifying were his only ten minutes on the track prior to the start of the race. Then, apparently Scott Dixon’s crew did some unapproved work between the qualifications groups and he had to serve a drive-thru during the Firestone Fast Twelve. Finally, at the very end Santino Ferrucci just smashed his car into the wall, rendering it undriveable for the race. Props to the Rahal Letterman Langian Racing crew for getting a back-up car prepped and half-way wrapped with sponsorship in three short hours.

To discuss Sunday’s race, you first how to note the big temperature difference between the two races. While Race 1 was simply unbearably hot, Race 2 was just mildly hot. But the tires were still just as effected. In fact, the loss for Josef Newgarden did come down to his tire strategy. He started on blacks, did blacks for the middle stint, and used red tires for his last stint. This allowed him to get way out in front and at times had a fourteen-second lead. By the time the rest of the field switched from reds to black, it was just hard to catch him. Ultimately Colton Herta did whittle the lead down to approximately 4.7 seconds when they both were on blacks, and when Josef went to red that lead was 0.9 seconds.

Going completely out of race order, but Josef was destined for passing at the last restart. Romain Grosjean ended up with a brake fire causing a red (and showing us all that he has no fear of fire and was ready to put out the car fire himself). The last restart had Pato O’Ward in fifth place. Within three-turns, he was then in third place. With five laps to go he passed Colton Herta for second and just went straight for Josef Newgarden. The car had the speed, and Pato decided that all of the racetrack was passing zones, and with four laps to go – he took over the lead. Then he just checked out and let Josef, Colton, and Alex Palou battle out behind him for the podium. Shoot that car was fast, and that pass was just perfection. Sometimes we get a treat and have a good old-fashioned speed show at the end of the race between leaders. Sunday was that day.

The standings in the series have again shifted. With Pato O’Ward leading by just one-point with Alex Palou right behind him. We did end the streak of no-repeat winners, but after that show I’m okay with that.

Yeah I know

A lot more happened in these races that I just didn’t have the space to cover. You’ll want to hear our Race Review where we run down each driver for each race. You can find that, and how to subscribe to our podcast, here.