Wednesday, November 6, 2019

IndyCar's Worst Races of the 2010s

Over the next few weeks we are going to look back at the decade of the 2010s and we will start with IndyCar.

The decade ended for IndyCar about six weeks ago and the decade ended in a place that was better than where it started for IndyCar but it was a long and bumpy road for the series.

This decade started fresh off of reunification but with the Dallara IR05/IR07 chassis and the normally aspirated V8 Honda engines being the only allowed combination on the grid. While the DW12 chassis was introduced and saw Honda and Chevrolet become a competitive battle for eight seasons there were plenty of headaches that occurred.

I think we got to go over some of the low points for IndyCar over the last ten years, not to be negative but as a reminder of how far IndyCar has come and to appreciate the good days. We need to put every race into perspective and looking back on some of the low points make the average days seemed not as bad.

We are going to look over the worst ten races of the 2010s. Worst is subjective but it will take account of what happened on the track, how it made IndyCar appear and the response it drew.

To address the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room, you are not going to see neither the 2011 Las Vegas race nor the 2015 Pocono race on this list. I think we can all agree the deaths of Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson were the lowest points for IndyCar over the 2010s.

10. 2019 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway
What happened: An accident on lap one took out five cars and saw the car of Felix Rosenqvist graze the catchfence in turn two causing a 45-minute delay one year after an accident in turn two on lap three took out five cars, saw Robert Wickens get into the catchfence and put him in a wheelchair and led to a two-hour delay.

Once the race got restarted it saw Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power control the race. With the race reaching the halfway point the threat of rain appeared very likely and the race had this frantic feeling with dark clouds approaching from turn three.

Power jumped out to the lead and ran away from the rest of the field when lightning strikes in the area brought out the red flag. Within the hour the rains started and due to the proximity to sunset there would be no way for the track to be dried and all 500 miles be completed. Power was declared the winner after completed 128 of the scheduled 200 laps.

How is it remembered: Despite the early deduction in cars and only completing 320 of 500 miles, the 2019 Pocono race had 19.25% more passes than the 2018 race and passes for position more than double going from 53 in 2018 to 109 in 2019.

The 2019 Pocono race was not a dreadful race but why this takes the number ten spot is because of everything that led up to it and the inevitability that Pocono would not be returning during the red flag.

The crowd was good on both days despite rain on both days and there was some hope that Pocono would stay. The track seemed open to IndyCar returning for 2020 and beyond.

Then the accident happened and another delay and people got mad on social media and the race was rain-shortened and no one left the track feeling positive other than Will Power, Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden because he increased his championship lead, as Alexander Rossi was in that lap one accident.

Pocono and IndyCar aren't splitting on bad terms. Both sides left the door open for a possible return but how things ended in 2019 left a mark.

9. 2011 Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park
What happened: Will Power led 90 of 90 laps from pole position and won the race by 3.383 seconds over Scott Dixon. This race had six cautions for 20 of 90 laps. There were three cautions for incidents in turn six alone. There were two incidents that occur on the first lap after a restart and one that happened on the second lap after a restart.

How is it remembered: This wasn't a terrible race. This type of road course race happens every now and then. Tony Kanaan went from 24th to sixth. Simon Pagenaud, in relief for the injured Ana Beatriz, went from 23rd to eighth. Charlie Kimball got his first career top ten finish in tenth from 21st. This was James Hinchcliffe's debut and he got together with E.J. Viso. I remember Robin Miller preaching "hate is good" after Hinchcliffe's interview and he expressed his displeasure with Viso.

Why did this race make it? Not every beat down is going to be a great race and the start-stop nature of the race can dragged it out. It is the slowest race to take place at Barber Motorsports Park, slower than the two rain-affected races.

8. 2014 The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston Race One at Reliant Park Street Course
What happened: A lot of rain at a shoddy street course in a parking lot.

The race started dry and Simon Pagenaud lost the lead early to Takuma Sato. An untimely caution for a Mike Conway accident shuffled James Hinchcliffe to the lead but the rain turn it into a timed-race.

Going off-strategy, the Dale Coyne Racing cars of Justin Wilson and Carlos Huertas moved up to the top two spots. Wilson had to make a pit stop after 73 laps and a caution would come out on lap 77 for Sebastián Saavedra having an accident.

Huertas was tight on fuel and time was running out. IndyCar planned for a restart with one lap to go but coming to the green flag, Graham Rahal got into the back of Tony Kanaan while both cars were in the top five. The restart was waved off, time ran out, Huertas took the checkered flag and led an all-Colombian podium ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Muñoz and on a day Colombia won 2-0 over Uruguay in the round of 16 in the FIFA World Cup.

How is it remembered: The race that Carlos Huertas somehow won, albeit failing inspection for fuel cell capacity and rear wing ride height.

I don't want to knock IndyCar too much but in a race where fuel mileage determined the winner, how is the penalty for a car with an improper fuel cell capacity only a $10,000 fine? Maybe IndyCar should broach disqualifying winning race cars, something that many series have been doing for decades and NASCAR just invented for the start of the 2019 season.

I digress but this race felt incomplete. The race was shortened ten laps because of rain. Houston was not a great racetrack and this race was moved from a hot weekend in early October to a boiling weekend at the end of June. The track was motocross track rough. It was not ideal.

All three podium finishers started outside the top ten. Muñoz started 23rd. Most wet races are regarded as the best but this was a mess.

7. 2016 Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway
What happened: IndyCar returned to Phoenix for the first time in 11 years and produced a race with very little passing.

There were two lead changes, the first when Hélio Castroneves suffered a punctured right front tire on lap 40 and the second when Juan Pablo Montoya punctured a right front tire on lap 96. Scott Dixon took the lead from there and led the final 155 laps uncontested and the race ended under caution after Alexander Rossi brushed the barrier exiting turn four.

Though Rossi was able to continue and drive back to the pit lane and there was no apparent debris on the racetrack, a restart could not be organized in the final three laps.

How is it remembered: I am not putting it in here because the race ended under caution. Races end under caution. It happens. What sucks about this race is everyone knew this wasn't good enough and things had to change and IndyCar did nothing for 2017 and basically nothing for 2018 other than run the universal aero kit and hoped that would be enough.

Everyone had been begging for Phoenix for a decade and IndyCar returned, put on a processional race and then didn't do enough to make sure the same race didn't happen again. Phoenix is remembered as a miss for the series. The series never seemed to get it right.

6. 2010 Honda Indy Edmonton at Edmonton City Centre Airport
What happened: Will Power led from the start ahead of Hélio Castroneves. Power led 76 of the first 77 laps before Castroneves took the lead into turn one.

A caution with six laps to go gave Power a second chance to back around Castroneves. Power made his move to Castroneves on the outside of turn one but it was unsuccessful and it opened the door for Scott Dixon to get ahead of Power for second.

Castroneves maintain the lead and ran to the checkered flag only to be penalized, docked back to the last car on the lead lap and giving the victory to Scott Dixon. The penalty was originally stated as blocking but later explained as Castroneves breaking the rule that prohibits a driver from defending the inside line of the corner, which he did on Power's attempted pass for the lead that allowed Dixon to move up to second.

Dixon took the victory with Power finishing second ahead of Dario Franchitti, Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

How is it remembered: Castroneves' meltdown that led him to shout at the flag stand and then grabbing then-IndyCar security director Charles Burns by the shirt.

Not only would we have Castroneves' meltdown but also we would have to live with IndyCar's defending rule for the next season and a half. For every road and street course through the end of the 2011 season we watched the road and street course races intently to see if anyone would defend and then nitpick what was defending, what was blocking, what was legal and so on. Keep in mind the 2010-11 regulations did not allow for the best racing on road and street courses so every potential move had heightened importance.

The rule made IndyCar feel a little amateur in regulating where a car could race on the racetrack.

5. 2011 Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway
What happened: Will Power led 71 of 75 laps from pole position with the four laps he did not lead being during pit cycle and all four of those laps were led by Ryan Briscoe.

Hélio Castroneves was runner-up from second on the grid and Ryan Briscoe made it an all-Penske podium finish from third on the grid. Dario Franchitti was fourth after starting fourth and Scott Dixon was fifth after starting fifth. Sébastien Bourdais rounded out the top six after starting eighth. James Hinchcliffe was seventh, one spot worse than his starting position of sixth. Graham Rahal went from 13th to eighth. E.J. Viso started ninth and finished ninth. Ryan Hunter-Reay made a great improvement from 19th to tenth.

The only caution was for Ho-Pin Tung after he went off in turn nine. The margin of victory was 3.242 seconds.

How is it remembered: It was a typical Sonoma race. There was little to no passing, at least not at the front of the grid. When the top five starters finish exactly where they started it is going to be very hard to argue this was a good race. Hunter-Reay made up some ground but there was not much moving anywhere.

Charlie Kimball started and finished in 26th. Ed Carpenter started 27th and finished 25th after two cars retired, Tung and Tony Kanaan. Danica Patrick went from 25th to 21st. Simon Pagenaud, in relief for Simona de Silvestro who was not in the country due to visa issues, went from 22nd to 15th.

It was a rough race and one that again pointed that something had to be done at Sonoma. Nothing really came of it.

4. 2010 Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway
What happened: Will Power led 73 of 75 laps from pole position with Scott Dixon leading the other two laps and finishing second from sixth on the grid.

Dario Franchitti started and finished third. Ryan Briscoe started fifth and finished fourth. Hélio Castroneves dropped from second on the grid to fifth. Justin Wilson moved up from seventh to sixth, Tony Kanaan moved up two spots from ninth to seventh and Ryan Hunter-Reay started and finished eighth. Graham Rahal went from 16th to ninth and Alex Lloyd went from 22nd to tenth.

Dan Wheldon flipped before even reaching the green flag and that was the first of four cautions. Milka Duno had an accident. J.R. Hildebrand and Marco Andretti got together. Raphael Matos, E.J. Viso and Bertrand Baguette had accident.

How is it remembered: Wheldon's flip because who saw that coming? Outside of that it was another dull Sonoma affair.

It should also be known that, in 2009, Dario Franchitti led all 75 laps from pole position while Ryan Briscoe started and finished second and Mike Conway shuffled up to third from ninth. Mario Moraes did something similar from 14th to fourth and Hideki Mutoh started and finished fifth.

In a three-year period, the pole-sitter led 219 of 225 laps. In all three races the pole-sitter won and of the 15 top five starters, 12 finished in the top five.

Sonoma wasn't much better with the DW12 chassis. There were definitely better races but far from enough to change the attitude toward the racetrack. This three-year period, the end of the IR05/IR07-era in IndyCar, combined with Sonoma showed how incompatible that car was with road courses and how unfavorable the Sonoma layout was to good racing.

3. 2012 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix at The Raceway on Belle Isle Park
What happened: The track came apart!

James Hinchcliffe's race ended after track came apart underneath his wheels and put him into the turn seven tires. This led to a two-hour red flag after 39 laps.

The race would be shortened to 60 laps because of the delay and only seven of the final 21 laps were run under green flag conditions after two more accidents would occur in the final part of the race.

Meanwhile, Scott Dixon won unchallenged from pole position, having led all 60 laps. Dario Franchitti went from 14th to second, giving Chip Ganassi Racing its second consecutive 1-2 finish, one week after Franchitti took his third Indianapolis 500 victory ahead of Dixon. Simon Pagenaud rounded out the podium.

How is it remembered: The track came apart!

This was Belle Isle's first race since 2008. It was not a race people were dying to have back on the schedule and it could not get through 40 of 90 laps without the track ripping up. Hinchcliffe's race was over. There was no way to right this wrong. The track had to be torn up, concrete had to be poured into some of the potholes and we had to wait two hours for the conclusion.

Need I remind everyone this race went from ABC to the finish being shown on ESPNNEWS!

However, and I think if you have any fears over what Roger Penske's leadership of IndyCar will look like, everything improved at Belle Isle since this race.

Belle Isle was resurfaced but not only resurfaced, IndyCar returned to the larger Belle Isle layout. The 2012 layout was 2.07-mile. It did not feature the long straightaway from turn two to turn three that we all know and love today. Turn three was much closer turn two. Instead of being a series of straightaways connected by 90-degree corners, the 2012 layout saw turns three, four, five and six being much more flowing corners.

Belle Isle returned to the larger layout and the races have been greater than any preceding Belle Isle races. Belle Isle is a doubleheader weekend and it is the one major curveball on the schedule.

Roger Penske had a bad event and not only fixed it but made it better. Penske took this low point for IndyCar and turned it into something greater than anyone could have first imagined.

2. 2011 Indy 225 at New Hampshire International Speedway
What happened: In IndyCar's first trip to Loudon since 1998, Dario Franchitti led from pole position and had a comfortable lead while Tomas Scheckter went from 18th to third in the first 15 laps, albeit it ten of those laps were under caution. Oriol Servià, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay were having a good battle in the top five.

Rain showers hampered this race and at lap 75 a drizzle forced a yellow flag that lasted 32 laps. Once the conditions cleared and the track was deemed good enough to race, the race restarted. Not long after that period Scheckter, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti got together with Scheckter and Kanaan both retiring from the race.

Franchitti had led 115 of the first 117 before he and Takuma Sato came together on the lap 118 restart. Franchise's race was done and it opened the door for anyone to take this race.

Hunter-Reay inherited the lead but different strategies made the race outcome uncertain. Will Power and Takuma Sato cycled to the lead before Hunter-Reay retook the point ahead of Servià. Rains forced another yellow flag on lap 206 of 225.

The race appeared destined to end early but cars lined up with a restart despite raindrops continuing to fall. Some cars struggled to line up and it led to one restart being waved off. While drivers complained the rain was getting worse, a second restart was attempted and Danica Patrick spun and collected Power, Sato, Sarah Fisher and Ana Beatriz. The red flag was immediately displayed.

This led to confusion and disgruntled drivers and team owners. IndyCar official reverted back to the running order at the end of lap 215 as the final result giving Ryan Hunter-Reay the victory over Oriol Servià, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Power, Patrick and Sato.

How is it remembered: Will Power flipping off Brian Barnhart with both middle fingers. IndyCar restarting an oval race in the rain when every driver was adamant it should not be restarted. This led to the end of the Barnhart-era in race control.

This was actually a pretty good race and I think IndyCar would put on a good race at Loudon if the series was to ever return but the missteps over the final restart have forever shaded this race as nothing but a blunder.

It was one of IndyCar's most inept moments. Any Barnhart defender could not justify this decision. It appeared clear the paddock had lost faith in race control.

On top of all that, Servià felt robbed because a restart had happened and he took the lead from Hunter-Reay. With IndyCar reverting the results prior to the failed restart, Servià was demoted to second and Hunter-Reay got the victory. This led to more Zapruder-esque film breakdowns that IndyCar was hoping to escape after the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

It was a brutal display for IndyCar and it all occurred on ABC.

Also, what the hell was It was a mismanaged race with a shady title sponsor. What a great day for IndyCar.

1. 2015 Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park
What happened: The inaugural trip to NOLA Motorsports Park had rain pretty much wash out all of Saturday's action and delay Sunday's proceedings.

Qualifying was rained out and the race was delayed to allow drivers some track time with a warm-up session.

The first 15 laps went well and the track started to dry. However, it fell to pieces after that.

Drivers switched to slicks and it did not work out. The dry line was not wide enough and the length of the following green flag runs were one lap, one lap, one lap, two laps and one lap.

Twenty-six of 47 laps were under caution.

The fractured nature of the race led drivers to roll the dice on strategy as the race was going to end early because of the time limit. James Hinchcliffe inherited the lead on lap 33 when Juan Pablo Montoya made his second pit stop under caution. Hinchcliffe would lead the final 15 laps, of which only three were under green flag conditions. James Jakes made it a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports 1-2 finish with Hélio Castroneves in third.

How is it remembered: This is prime contender for worst race in IndyCar history, let alone the decade.

I do wonder if cars had stayed on the wet weather tires for another five to ten laps how the race would have played out. It could not have been worse than what we actually saw.

It also didn't help that NOLA Motorsports Park was perceived as a diamond in the rough. IndyCar was racing just outside of New Orleans, a place where there was no other major motorsports events for miles. There was a lot of hope this could become an IndyCar market.

This wet weekend exposed NOLA Motorsports Park as being underprepared for such an event. It was not a big venue, only about 8,000 spectators could be handled. The racetrack did not have the proper draining. It was a mess. It led to a lawsuit between Michael Andretti and Andretti Sports Marketing partners John Lopes and A. Starke Taylor.

It was IndyCar's only trip to the Bayou. Looking back at it in hindsight, you have the one doomed NOLA round and starting in 2016 you had Road America return, in 2017 you had Gateway return and in 2018 you had Portland return. We saw IndyCar try to go to unexplored territory and spread the word of IndyCar and what we have seen in seasons since is what has raised IndyCar's profile is going back to places where it has roots. Maybe under different circumstances NOLA Motorsports Park could still work for IndyCar but looking at the schedule now IndyCar has learned from previous mistakes and has found its identity.

We have gone over IndyCar's lowest moments but we will soon be looking at some of IndyCar's brightest spots from this decade.