Saturday, June 27, 2015

First Impressions: Fontana 2015

1. Where to begin? I want to be respectful and start with the race winner but I want to start with the race itself. Here it goes. Graham Rahal won and it has been a long time coming. He went 124 starts between victories, breaking the record for most starts between victories, which was 97 and held by Johnny Rutherford. Rahal has been the best Honda this season and he could have won two races this year already. It just seemed it was bound to happen.

1b. With that said, Rahal had a few too many breaks. First, he left the pit lane with the fuel nozzle attached. Not his fault as the fuel man made a mistake but it's something that has to be penalized and penalized on the spot. IndyCar has to start making penalties on the spot. They can't wait for Wednesday at lunchtime to just fine teams and drivers a few thousand dollars and/or a handful of points. It should have been a drive-through penalty and instead it was a warning.

1c. Rahal also blocked a few drivers. Especially on that final run when he blocked Marco Andretti. He just plain blocked him. I know there were only two or three laps to go but it was a block and it has to be called. It can't be allowed.

1d. Rahal drove a great race but he pushed the envelope a few too many times today and the officials didn't do anything about it. He has talent but today wasn't his greatest day despite him winning a 500-mile race.

2. Before I get to the rest of the field, was this pack racing today?

As a whole, which is all 250 laps, I didn't think it was pack racing. The first 135 laps were run caution-free and the field had spread out and it was great racing. Cars didn't pull away from one another but they weren't constantly side-by-side. One car could run the other down, pass them and hold on to the position for a few laps before another driver made a challenge.

However, on the start and restarts, the cars were very close and it took 15-20 laps for the cars to spread out. Unfortunately, in the later stages, those long green flag runs didn't happen and there was an accident between Will Power and Takuma Sato with nine to go and it caused a red flag and then a restart with three to go. Of course it was going to be helter skelter.

And then there was an accident. Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay got together, they spun into the infield grass and Briscoe got airborne. Thankfully, both walked away. The accident occurred because the cars were packed together like sardines in a can and that could happen at any track with a restart with three to go, oval, road course or street circuit. Briscoe got airborne because of the grass. Grass doesn't scrub off speed. Remember, the first caution occurred when Hélio Castroneves spun off of turn two and slid on the asphalt apron on the back straightaway, which was put to prevent cars from getting airborne. It's why numerous of tracks have paved over the apron. And it's not just a safety improvement for IndyCar but NASCAR as well. Think Rusty Wallace at Talladega.

Had the front straightaway grass been asphalt I don't think Ryan Briscoe gets airborne and I don't think the reactions would be as strong for what we saw today.

2b. The officials have to start listening to the drivers. After the first practice, they came to the officials worried about pack racing. I don't think we saw pack racing but something should be done to allow the cars to spread out a little quicker and restarts. I don't understand why there was an aerodynamic change to the cars considering the last three Fontana races were all really good races. The last three years have seen 29, 28 and 18 lead changes and lots of green flag racing. Last year, only 12 laps were run under caution. Today we saw a record-breaking amount of lead changes. It was fun to see but was it necessary? This is a very deep conversation but I think if the downforce levels stayed the same as last year, the race would have been just as good. There has to be better communication between the teams and drivers.

2c. To wrap this up, a collection of things can be improved.

A. I don't think this was pack racing but if IndyCar can figure out a way so the cars are spread out in 5-8 laps instead of 15-20 laps than that would be great because this was great racing today.

B. IndyCar has to start calling penalties in race. No more waiting for midweek. Jon Beekhuis was mad about it and called out race control on the broadcast. I don't know Jon Beekhuis from Adam but he seems like a very intelligent guy who doesn't lose his cool easily and if he is calling out race control during the broadcast then something has to change. IndyCar needs to get more qualified people in race control and people the drivers respect. And don't say you can't find anybody. They are people out there. Emanuele Pirro is the race steward for Formula Three and he is cracking down on driver. IndyCar needs him. He is a six-time Le Mans winner, he made 37 Formula One starts and he would have every drivers respect and attention. And if they can't get Pirro, get someone like him. Get Allan McNish, get Scott Pruett, get Buddy Rice or Justin Wilson. If Justin Wilson can't be in a car then I would want him in race control because he has driven these cars, driven with these drivers and is respected.

C.  If removing the infield grass would decrease the chance of a car, whether it is IndyCar or NASCAR, getting airborne, then it should be done.

3. Back to the drivers. Tony Kanaan had a great race and finished second. He was up front all day and I thought in the closing stages he would find a way to finish first today. He is great on ovals and he didn't disappoint today.

4. Great day for Marco Andretti. He was up at the front at the start, faded but came back and made a smart choice to take tires before the final restart. If it wasn't for Rahal's block, he might have won instead of finishing third.

5. Juan Pablo Montoya came home fourth but to be honest, it didn't seem like he was a threat all day. He hung around in the top ten but was never making runs for the lead. He would get the Triple Crown but he still has a shot for the double and the championship lead.

6. Sage Karam scored his first career top five. This was the race he needed. It could be a confidence booster for him. He had a similar day to Andretti. They both faded at the same time and made their comebacks at the same time and both took tires prior to the final restart. Not to forget mentioning he led his first career laps today.

7. Scott Dixon finished sixth but like Montoya, it didn't seem like he was scraping for the lead much. He was up in the top ten all day though and he got a solid finish.

8. Hats off to James Jakes in seventh. Kept him nose clean and it paid off. He has had some good oval finishes. He isn't a threat on them but he can put together a good finish.

9. Charlie Kimball in eighth makes it perfect attendance for the Ganassi drivers in the top ten.

10. Simon Pagenaud started on pole but finished ninth. He faded from the start and was never a factor. It hasn't been a great first year for Pagenaud at Penske but it hasn't been dreadful. He will likely be back in 2016 and I think he will make big strides.

11. Jack Hawksworth finished tenth mostly because a half a dozen drivers ahead of him retired but you got to take what you can get and he got his second career top-ten on an oval.

12. To wrap up, Stefano Coletti finished 11th despite being a lap down at one point. Carlos Muñoz faded to 12th but after everything that happened I don't remember how. Pippa Mann finished a career-best 13th despite being a lap down at one point. Sébastien Bourdais did nothing and finished 14th.

13. Once again, I am unbelievably happy Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay walked away. I am unbelievably happy Takuma Sato and Will Power walked away from their accident and the same for Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden. All had great day, all could have finished in the top ten.

14. IndyCar needs Fontana. Despite all that happened, all the crappy things that happened and all the things that need to be fixed, this was a great race. IndyCar needs to work with Fontana. Move it back to October so people will actually show up, work with Fontana about paving over the grass and IndyCar should work on an oval package that produce what we saw in the first 135 laps without the helter skelter first 15 laps after going green. IndyCar can't afford to lose this race. The flips, the closeness of the cars that can be fixed. It's going to take time and it's going to take money (everything takes money) but it's worth. Don't leave Fontana again. The track was built for IndyCar. Don't leave. Fix the problem and return. It's a diamond; just keep polishing.

15. After a week off, I am glad there is another off week. I understand we are all passionate about it but I think we need to find common ground and be respectful. It's ok to have differing positions but it's not ok to be rude because someone has a differing opinion. Take some time off and cool down. Happy Canada Day. Happy Independence Day. Enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate and for those of you who don't have a holiday to celebrate, enjoy the start of July and the fact we halfway through another year. Whether IndyCar at Fontana was pack racing or not is so irrelevant to everyday life. It's ok to be passionate about it but it's not the be-all and end-all of life. Take a break. Milwaukee is in a fortnight.