Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Look Back: IndyCar at Gateway

We are in the middle of IndyCar's summer break and this break has given us some time to look back, which is important as IndyCar's return to Gateway in a few weeks away. The last time the series went to the track was in 2003 and a lot has changed since then. During the last few days I have gone back and watched the seven previous IndyCar races at Gateway.

The first reason I revisited these races was because it has been 14 years since IndyCar has been to Gateway and off the top of my head I couldn't recall what the races were like. The second reason was because I wanted to see what the racing was like to give me an idea of what to look forward to when IndyCar returns there at the end of the month. The one noticeable difference between this upcoming race and the previous seven races is this year's race will be at night while the other seven were day races but it will still give me an idea what to expect.

I started with the 1997 race and I was first taken aback that it has been 20 years since the first time Gateway hosted an IndyCar race. It doesn't feel like Gateway has been around that long. I know IndyCar spend almost a decade and a half away from the track and there were a few years during the recession where the track struggled, lost all its dates, saw a change of ownership and then got a NASCAR Truck race back in 2014 but I can't believe it has been 20 years. Twenty years have flown by.

Anyway, onto the race itself and the first thing I noticed was how much it looked like a race track that had just completed construction. Despite this, the front straightaway grandstand was packed with people and this isn't saying it was packed but the ends of the grandstand were empty. It looked like body on top of body from the top row down to the catch fence.

Once the race got started it was obvious the cars were downshifting into turn one and in some cases drivers were going down two gears into turn one. The first two corners looked tight and slow and it was difficult to pass. Passes could be made but a driver had to have set it up a half dozen laps prior and if it couldn't stick then it would take another half dozen laps to try it again. What made up for the lack of passing was the fuel strategy that shook up the end of the race with a rookie Dario Franchitti leading before the transmission broke and this handed the lead to rookie Patrick Carpentier. However, Carpentier would lose the lead with two laps to go as Paul Tracy passed him and took the victory while Carpentier came home in second.

The following year saw CART switch from high downforce aero package to low downforce aero package usually seen at the super speedways. There was slightly more passing than the year before but most of it came outside the top five. There were three lead changes the entire race. Jimmy Vasser led the first 42 laps, Michael Andretti led lap 43 to lap 175 and Alex Zanardi took the lead during pit stops under caution and led the final 61 laps on his way to victory. However, this race did see Scott Pruett go from 17th to fifth and a fair amount of those spots were made on the race track and Bobby Rahal went from 20th to eighth.

One thing that caught my eye was in the closing laps, with 16 to go to be specific, Zanardi and Andretti are picking through lapped traffic. Zanardi easily clears the lapped car of P.J. Jones on the front straightaway and Jones slows down significantly entering turn one, opening the door for Andretti but not enough for him to get by and Andretti locked up the left front and that pretty much killed his shot at victory. When was the last time we saw someone lock it up going into a corner on an oval? The crowd matched the 1997 crowd in terms of size.

By the time I got to the 1999 race I came to realize that a second groove never developed in either of the first three races and if two drivers went side-by-side into a corner it took a lot of bravery. Drivers were still downshifting as much as twice into turn one and there was more side-by-side racing in this race but it wasn't constant. It was sporadic and Juan Pablo Montoya made a handful of those passes as he was caught a lapped down and worked his way to the topped lapped car in the field.

The other guy who made passing look easy in this race was Hélio Castroneves. He worked his way up to second and he was on the back of Michael Andretti's car and threatened him for the victory. While these two battled and dealt with lapped traffic, Franchitti made it a three-horse race down the stretch and the Scotsman made an incredible save earlier in the race after he and his teammate Paul Tracy made contact entering turn three. Franchitti drifted the car for the duration of turn three and into turn four before sliding into the grass and straightening the car out and continuing with minimal damage. Andretti held on for the victory. The crowd was still really good but it was thinner from the first two years.

It appeared the 2000 race saw downforce added back to the cars as the cars clearly had larger rear wings but the front wings still appeared to be the low downforce, super speedway configuration. There was some more passing but it mostly came when lapped traffic got in a way and a faster car could make a run on the outside. We shouldn't get too picky about how we get passing. There was action. Cars weren't single-file for majority of the races. If it takes lapped traffic to break that up than I think we won't mind that.

Michael Andretti dominated this race. He lapped up to second place by lap 167. Then his engine blew up with 40 laps to go. And that didn't even bring out a caution. The first 210 laps were run under green flag conditions with Paul Tracy's bump into the wall in turn four while running second bringing out the first and only caution of the race for five laps. Montoya went on to comfortably win the race by over 11 seconds as he and Carpentier were the only two cars on the lead lap and Montoya restarted the race as the only car on the lead lap with Carpentier getting his lap back with just over 20 laps to go. The crowd mirrored the 1999 race but there were a few people scattered around the turn two grandstand, which I don't believe were complete for the race the year before.

While Montoya and Carpentier were the only two cars to finish on the lead lap, I would say the 2000 race was the best of the CART stint at Gateway ahead of 1999, 1997 and 1998. There was a fair amount of action for positions it was only between cars not on the lead lap.

The Indy Racing League took over at Gateway and the first thing you notice from the 2001 race is the cars are definitely running more downforce with larger rear and front wings. Passing once again seemed to only come when lapped traffic was in the way. There was a fair amount of drivers following another but not really having enough to get a draft and make a move into the corner. It was also tough to tell how much passing there was because the race seemed to focus on the leaders whether it was Sam Hornish, Jr. all by himself with a 9-second lead or Hornish, Jr. and Al Unser, Jr. running 1-2 with about a second between them but neither gaining ground on each other. Unser, Jr. won the race by stretching fuel while Hornish, Jr. stopped for a splash of fuel under caution with ten laps to go.

The 2002 race still featured high downforce and this race had much more passing than any of the prior five races and more passes were coming without the aid of lapped traffic. Alex Barron took the lead from Castroneves on the outside of turn four at one point. This race was the first Gateway race where the top four to six stayed in close proximity to one another throughout the race. The first five races either saw the leader pull away or the top two pull away. Cars still weren't running two distinct lanes but you could make a pass on the outside.

Castroneves had pulled away from his teammate Gil de Ferran and the rest of the field after the final restart with 50 laps to go but de Ferran would catch and pass Castroneves with 17 laps to go and he would go on to win the race. Barron challenged Castroneves for the lead on that final restart but went very high in turn two and dropped to fifth but recovered to finish third. Buddy Rice held off Hornish, Jr. in a battle for fourth.

The 2003 race felt like a mix of the first six races. Scott Dixon pulled away at one point but second through fourth or fifth stayed in the vicinity of one another and could make a few passes but then the race calmed down and everyone spread out after the halfway point in the race. Unfortunately for Dixon his gearbox broke with 42 laps to go after leading 78 consecutive laps and holding a sizable lead over Castroneves.

Despite having no electrical read out on his steering wheel for majority of this race, Castroneves held on to take the victory by over eight-tenths of a second to Tony Kanaan and de Ferran made it an all-Brazilian podium with Tomas Scheckter and Dan Wheldon rounding out the top five.

Where can IndyCar improve from the previous seven Gateway races? Hope two distinct lines can develop, especially in turns one and two. The first two turns are tight but the banking in the turns could be favorable to a car on the high side. What we need to see is Graham Rahal do what he did at Iowa a few weeks ago. If a car can enter turn one on the high side and carry it to the back straightaway then we could see passes not only in turns one or two but passes set up in the first two corners are then completed entering turn three.

Another hope would be for some tire degradation like we saw at Iowa. Unfortunately, the repave might make degradation non-existent, like we saw at Texas. Firestone was caught out on the tire selection at Texas and times didn't drop like we had seen in recent years, leading to a flat out race where the leader was safe as long as he stayed glued to the bottom of the race track because trailing cars couldn't carry the speed needed to make a pass on the high side. After IndyCar tested at the track last week drivers noted how they no longer had to downshift two gears into turn one like they were at the test on the older surface in the spring test and a handful of drivers were able to be flat out all the way around the 1.25-mile oval.

One question that occurred to me when watching all these races was are super speedways ruining how we view short ovals? We say we want oval races but I worry that because of the races put on at Indianapolis, Fontana, Pocono and Texas in the DW12-era that the bar is set way too high for short ovals to be deemed a success. The bigger tracks allow for drafting to be more of a factor and long straightaways allow for passing to happen multiple times a lap. Tracks like Gateway, Phoenix and Iowa aren't set up for that and passes won't happen every lap and leaders will get to break away a bit from the rest of the field.

I wonder if we are no longer able to accept that one driver might lead 45 to 60 laps before being challenged for the lead and that passes might be more nuanced and take five laps to set up and complete.

After watching all seven previous Gateway races, what should you expect for IndyCar's return to Gateway in a few weeks? First, I would tell you to keep the bar low. This won't be a super speedway race with 38 lead changes and a pass every other straightaway. We might see two lead changes on track all race and another seven to occur during a pit stop cycle. If you want to know which of the previous seven races this year's race should want to resemble it is 2002. I would say 2002 was the best Gateway race followed by 2000, 1999, 2003, 1997, 2001 and 1998. I think we all want to see at least that drivers can at least get a run on the car ahead into turn one and turn three and make a pass and occasionally see two cars being able to go completely through turns one and two side-by-side.

I have to applaud all the people for doing their best to make this event into a big deal and draw people out. No one can say Gateway isn't trying to promote this event. The track organized a weeklong automotive festival in St. Louis leading up to race day. The CART crowds looked really good but the final two IRL races were a fraction of what the track drew when it first hosted a race in 1997.

There seems to be a lot of positive momentum heading into Gateway. We can only hope everything from the crowd in the stands to the racing on track lives up to the hype.