Friday, July 17, 2020

First Impressions: Iowa 2020 Race One

1. Incredible. That is the only word that comes to mind with Simon Pagenaud's victory from last to first at Iowa. Fuel pressure issues kept Pagenaud from qualifying, dropping him to last in the grid for both races because of the qualifying format for this weekend. Despite the setback, Pagenaud nailed the strategy thanks to Ben Bretzman.

Pagenaud stopped early and got fresh rubber. This allowed him to move into the top ten and then he went longer on his second stint. After doing around 50 laps, his second stint went nearly 80 laps and the caution for Will Power's accident allowed Pagenaud to take his second stop under yellow.

Timing was in Pagenaud's favor, stopping with 103 laps to go. It was outside the 90-lap limit for the fuel cell, but perhaps some conservative driving would get him to the end. One waved off caution and a domino effect accident directly behind Pagenaud erased any need to save fuel. Colton Herta got into the back of Rinus VeeKay and instead of going green with just under 100 laps to go, another 20 laps were run under caution.

This allowed Simon Pagenaud to make it. He ran a conservative pace for the sake of the tires, and no one could really put up a challenge down the stretch. Scott Dixon tried, but with 100 laps on a set of tires Dixon would get one good shot. It didn't stick, and Pagenaud could open his gap a second time, taking him to the finish line with some comfort.

All the pieces fell into place, but Pagenaud and Bretzmen deserve credit. They mastered it again from behind. They did it in iRacing, they did it in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and it led to victory at Iowa. Pagenaud is starting last again tomorrow. He has done it once and he could do it again.

2. Scott Dixon is in the same point as Pagenaud. Everything lined up for him. Pagenaud had a better car and moved forward easier than Dixon. Maybe Dixon gets a top ten finish without the cautions, but this was 's greatest night and he ended up second. When you're hot, you're hot.

3. Bravo to Oliver Askew. Askew, and a handful of other drivers were caught out with both cautions. When the Power accident occurred, Askew, Patricio O'Ward, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Marcus Ericsson were all on the wrong side of the Power accident. They had all stopped about 30 laps before. It made no sense to stop under it and then the Herta/VeeKay incident occurred. Rossi and Daly stopped. Askew, O'Ward and Ericsson didn't.

The race went green with just over 80 laps to go and the McLaren drivers and Ericsson drove into the window before making their final stops. Tires were key tonight. Askew had a clean stop, drove back to the lead lap and got up to third. That is ballsy. Josef Newgarden did something similar at Milwaukee in 2014. Askew was tremendous, even if the strategy didn't lead to victory. I am not sure where he could have found another 7.2 seconds over the final 58 laps.

4. Patricio O'Ward had a slow stop cost him. O'Ward was ahead of Askew before the final round of pit stops but one problem dropped him down the order. O'Ward was still able to match Askew's drive to the front, but it could have been two consecutive podiums for O'Ward.

5. This could have been a disaster for Josef Newgarden. Newgarden stopped about ten laps before the Power caution and didn't stop again. He went about 115 laps on his final stint. He saved a ridiculous amount of fuel to make it and he got a top five out of it! He was trapped a lap down for much of this race. For the first 40% of this race, it felt like another Newgarden beatdown in the making. For the next 40% it looked like Newgarden was going to cough up points. For the final 20%, Newgarden pulled out something better than expected.

6. Alexander Rossi didn't have the tires down the stretch. He stopped with 82 laps to go, before going green. He should have made it and finished on the podium, if not challenged Pagenaud for the victory. The tires weren't there and he lost spots to the McLaren drivers and Newgarden, who had no business passing Rossi after stopping about 30 laps before Rossi. It is good considering how Rossi's season started, but it could have been better. The bad news is Rossi is starting at the back tomorrow and will have a lot more work to do.

7. Jack Harvey was marvelous in seventh. Harvey needed a good oval race. A lot of people dragged him through the mud because of his struggles at Texas. Harvey found something in qualifying and drove smart today. He was not battling for the lead, but he was in the top ten for almost all of this race. Like Rossi, he lost a lot of time late on old tires, but Harvey will take seventh.

8. Conor Daly took a surprise pole position for Carlin and finished eighth, which is a tad disappointing, but still encouraging. He got caught out on strategy, made the same call as Rossi, but tires. This is good. Carlin needs good results and eighth is great! Daly has three consecutive top ten finishes with this team. These are great strides in an unusual year. Carlin was supposed to be a two-car operation, but the pandemic has kept that second car sidelined. In a strange way, that has been a blessing in disguise.

9. Another good day for Marcus Ericsson. Ericsson and Chip Ganassi Racing is proving to be a wonderful partnership. There is still some work to do, but this has been better than I bet a lot of people had penciled down for Ericsson back in February.

10. I can kind of explain how Takuma Sato finished in the top ten today. Sato stopped first. That led to Sato leading because he ran about 20 laps on fresher tires before everyone else stopped. On the second stint, Sato was strong and did over 80 laps without conceding a lot of time. His second stop was a little long and the cautions canceled out his strategy leading to a victory, but a top ten was still alive and Sato pulled it out.

11. Quickly through the rest of the field: Álex Palou drove smart and finished 11th and he deserved it. Graham Rahal started at the back and had a lot of work to do and pulled out 12th. Santino Ferrucci looked good at the start of stints, but his tires fell off quickly and it cost him on every stint, leaving him in 13th. Felix Rosenqvist tried to make this a two-stop race with stops just after lap 80 and 160, but he lost too much time and ultimately the cautions buried him in 14th. Ed Carpenter was 15th, that is all. Ryan Hunter-Reay started well but could not tune the setup and apparently lost 12 seconds on the out lap after his first stop. From there, Hunter-Reay could not make up any time. A.J. Foyt Racing had another long night. Charlie Kimball was five laps down and I have no clue what went wrong. Tony Kanaan brushed the wall early and forced an early stop to repair rear suspension.

12. We got two incidents to cover: Will Power had made his second stop and, a few laps later, Power lost his left front tire. He slammed the turn four way and it was night over for him. This is a big blow for Power. He is in a deep hole after this one.

13. The second incident was Colton Herta getting into the back of Rinus VeeKay. IndyCar waved off the restart late and Herta was already going. I am going to pin this on IndyCar a little bit. IndyCar called it with the leaders in turn four. I think that was the point of no return. You just have to go green. I don't know what kept the race from restarting then but this kept it from restarting for another 20 laps or so and cost Andretti Autosport and Ed Carpenter Racing a good chunk of change. I hope it was worth it.

14. Marco Andretti lost a clutch and Zach Veach keeps dropping. Both these guys need a good day.

15. I like that IndyCar did something different for this doubleheader weekend. We are used to doubleheaders on road and street courses. The road/street course format is set, it can be plugged to any weekend and work, but ovals are different. I am glad we didn't have two oval days and two oval qualifying session. I thought the one session, one lap for each race format worked. Each lap mattered and carried individual weight. If you screwed up lap one, you could still end up on the front row in the second race because the second lap only mattered for one race.

It set up an interesting strategy in qualifying because you had to get the most out of both laps, but you couldn't be too conservative and focus too much on consistency. The two grids are mixed up. They don't mirror each other. You have a few guys that are up one or down two, but a few drivers had double-figure swings between laps. Some were conservative on lap one and gained on lap two. It was enjoyable to watch. It did require a little mental balancing to know the second lap didn't matter for tonight and it allows for some confusion when first lap was good enough for sixth, but the second lap was ninth best. It is minor but I know what people will complain about.

The one downside to the process is Simon Pagenaud had fuel pressure issues and since Pagenaud could not make a qualifying run he has to start last for each race. One error hurts his starting position for both races. Zach Veach had a bobble on his first lap and it cost him time at the start of his second lap. That is the one downside to this format. When this doubleheader was announced I was open to an inversion for race two. NASCAR had done it a few times and it had worked. I think IndyCar could do the same with the top ten or top 12.

We don't know when the next oval doubleheader will be. This was IndyCar's first since 2011. Before that, an oval had not hosted a doubleheader since 1981. I wouldn't mind if Iowa was a doubleheader again next year. I am not sure it would happen if we can get 16 race weekends, but if it does return, this qualifying format would be fine, although I think we would like to try an inversion.

16. I was surprised at the pace of this race. I know the tires drop off at Iowa, but this was more significant than last year. Everyone knows where they have to improve for tomorrow. It will be interesting to see who gets the adjustments right and who still cannot tweak the setup accordingly. Get a good night's rest folks. We will see you tomorrow night.