Sunday, September 18, 2016

First Impressions: Sonoma 2016

1. Simon Pagenaud won the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship in style with a race victory at Sonoma. It was never in doubt this weekend. After his slip up at Pocono, it appeared the pressure may have been getting to him but he put the accident behind him, got a top five out of nowhere at Watkins Glen and drove a smart race at Watkins Glen while Will Power ended up in the barrier. Today, Pagenaud wanted to show his might. He wanted to show that there was no doubt he was the best driver of the 2016 season and he won from pole position and led 76 laps in the process. Will Power's engine failure made the final two-thirds of the race an exhibition of Pagenaud's strength.

For a few years, Pagenaud was a mystery man. He ran Champ Car in 2007 and then was left on the sidelines after reunification. He drove in ALMS, he drove for the factory Peugeot LMP1 program, he drove everything under the sun until he got a fewer IndyCar races as a substitute in 2011. He returned in 2012 with Sam Schmidt's team and he took a good team and made them great. He was fighting with the big boys despite a much smaller budget and fewer resources.

When Pagenaud joined Team Penske, it seemed like the beginning of the end. How could a team that had Pagenaud, Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and Hélio Castroneves not win 13-14 races a season? It didn't happen in 2015 when we all thought it would. This year, Pagenaud won five races, Power won four and Montoya won one. Pagenaud, Power and Castroneves went 1-2-3 in the championship, matching the feat accomplished by Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy in 1994. Team Penske's 50th anniversary couldn't have been better. Ok, a Indianapolis 500 victory would have been nice.

Pagenaud's years of waiting paid off. It is kind of similar to Ryan Hunter-Reay, who lost his ride in Champ Car, leaving his career in doubt. Pagenaud could have casted IndyCar off. He could have focused on sports cars and probably been in Austin this weekend driving for Porsche, Audi or Toyota. In a world where IndyCar is a shell of its former self and most are frustrated to barely be getting by despite succeeding in a "premier" motorsports series, Pagenaud could have gone elsewhere and have a much better living but he came back to IndyCar, became a must-have talent and is now champion.

2. Graham Rahal ended his 2016 season on a much higher note than 2015. He had another battle with Pagenaud but it wasn't Barber-esque. It was a hard earned second-place finish. Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are almost there but they need a second car and a second car is not cheap to run. If they could get Carlos Muñoz or Josef Newgarden or even Sébastien Bourdais (since he appears to be on the market) in, that team could take that next step. It was an impressive year nonetheless for the single-car team.

3. Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the podium and it was kind of symbolic. He was over 14 seconds behind Rahal and 11 seconds ahead of fourth-place. He was alone, just him and his thoughts in the closing laps. His career is at another crossroads. He has been successful but Penske doesn't want him anymore. IndyCar is in a state where Montoya won't just be paid to show up and drive. He is turning 41 years old in two days and will likely need to raise some money to keep his career going. Remember when we all thought Montoya would never come back to IndyCar? Now he doesn't want to leave. I don't think we want him to leave either.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay had his worst season since joining Andretti Autosport but ended with a fourth place finish. No victory, 12th in the championship and a handful of painful misses. Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Texas. He wasn't terrible. Heck, double points are making his season appear worse than it was. He has a long-term contract with Andretti Autosport until 2020. Can he perform a Pagenaud-esque rebound in 2017? He will need Andretti Autosport to improve.

5. Alexander Rossi ran out of fuel in the closing laps and finished fifth. He was ahead of Hunter-Reay most of this race. He improved greatly over the course of the season. He went from starting outside the top fifteen to constantly qualifying in the top ten. He was struggling for top ten finishes and was in contention for the top ten in almost every race at the end. He is Rookie of the Year, 11th in the championship and it appears Penske may be interested. If he goes, he will win. If he stays at Andretti, all he is guaranteed is question marks. Is Formula One still interested? Is anything across the pond worth it? Rossi had a really good rookie season. He and Montoya are at crossroads. Montoya has hindsight. He has gone down the same path Rossi is on. Rossi should pick his ear.

6. Josef Newgarden held on for sixth and finished fourth in the championship. It appeared Penske was his but Rossi might be the shiny, European-trained American to steal Newgarden's destiny. Newgarden wasn't always the American kid driving for the small, family-run team but he has taken on that moniker and if he could have one season without a handful of catastrophic results, he might have been in the championship fight today. Newgarden is proving Ed Carpenter Racing can fight for championships but that team isn't financially stable, other than Penske, which teams are? Newgarden isn't at a crossroads but a beach chair is in his future.

7. Hélio Castroneves finished seventh and got third in the championship. Was he really the third best driver in IndyCar this season? His season appeared to be lackluster. He was consistent but he can't boss a race like he once was able to. When will he lose that next tenth? When will he be struggling to get top ten finishes? Time is running out on Castroneves. Montoya appears to be on his way out. Castroneves can't be too far behind.

8. Marco Andretti got his second top ten finish of the season with an eighth. This was a rough season but he wasn't that far off. In how many races was Andretti on the edge of the top ten? He needs to improve. He needs to go back to driver coach. The high downforce aero kits haven't suited him like the much more forgiving Dallara aero kit. The Honda kit is going to be around for another season. Andretti needs to improve or 2017 will be even longer than 2016.

9. Charlie Kimball finished ninth and it was his 11th top ten finish of the season. He is the younger, American Hélio Castroneves except he doesn't have three Indianapolis 500 victories and we don't know about his history paying taxes. Kimball is at an age where I am not sure he can make that next step and go from a driver who can constantly bring the car home in a good position to constantly bringing the car home in the top five and being a championship threat. Kimball is a really good driver. Is became a great driver out of reach?

10. Sébastien Bourdais rounded out the top ten and ends the 2016 season with four consecutive top ten finishes. He joins Montoya and Rossi at a crossroads except he is in a similar position to Montoya. Bourdais turns 38 years old in February. KV was a good team for him but not good enough to get him back to fighting for the championship. Penske isn't calling. Ganassi isn't calling. Dale Coyne Racing reportedly is a step up for the Frenchman. He wants to stay in IndyCar. He wants to win more than just one race a year.

11. Mikhail Aleshin just missed the top ten with an 11th-place finish, just ahead of his teammate James Hinchcliffe. Aleshin had a good season but should he return for a third season in 2017, he is going to need to make a bigger step forward. Hinchcliffe had a disaster final two races. He went from surefire top ten finisher in the championship to 13th in the championship. His season was much better than that.

12. Tony Kanaan finished 13th after stalling in turn seven on lap one after spinning Alehsin. He had a really good year and unlike Castroneves, Kanaan is still showing he has the pace. Could he stay at Ganassi, could he move to Foyt? Kanaan has another year under his belt.

13. Takuma Sato finished what had to be his final race with A.J. Foyt Racing in 14th. Carlos Muñoz finished 15th but still ended up tenth in the championship, the best Andretti Autosport driver in the championship. Max Chilton was 16th, which was typical for him in 2016. Scott Dixon had a radio issue and he could only manage 17th. Jack Hawksworth didn't get a top ten in 2016 and was 18th. RC Enerson finished 19th but he had three impressive starts in 2016. You know about Will Power's engine issue that cost him a fight for the title. Conor Daly had exhaust problems and now his career is back in flux. Spencer Pigot had a gearbox issue end his race after 35 laps.

14. IndyCar has raced at Sonoma since 2005 and I think it is safe to say IndyCar mind as well try the NASCAR circuit because there is no way it could produce less exciting action than this course. We would lose the carousel but is one corner really worth it? Everything isn't long enough in this layout for passing. The straightaway to turn four isn't long enough. The straight into the turn nine section isn't long enough. The straightaway into the faux-hairpin isn't long enough. Just run the NASCAR circuit once. NASCAR turn four and the Chute might produce some really good action and run the actual hairpin. Sonoma could be a much better track if it just used what it has instead of running some half-assed hairpin. I can't believe IndyCar and Sonoma Raceway aren't as bothered with the racing as the rest of us.

15. I didn't mind the start time of this race. It was after the 1:00 p.m. ET NFL games and most of the 4:05 p.m. ET games were near over. The crowd was better than I thought. It was on par with other past Sonoma races. I have to imagine it is a tough sell considering the race didn't end until almost 6:00 p.m. local time and if you are coming from the Sacramento-area, you might be lucky to get home by 8:30 p.m. tonight. Sonoma will be the season finale in 2017 and I expect the race to be the same time. I am sure the track will talk it over this autumn and winter and crunch numbers and watch how renewals go and by next year's Indianapolis 500 have an idea whether or not they will want Sonoma to be in the middle of September come 2018.

16. The season is over. It didn't feel as short as 2015 but didn't feel like it was very long. Maybe it was in the Goldilocks-zone of being just the right length. Maybe a race or two in autumn would also be just right. We will review 2016 over the next couple of months and wait patiently to find out what driver is heading where and hold our breath that no teams fold or sponsors bail.

17. There are 175 days until the 2017 IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg.