Sunday, April 10, 2022

First Impressions: Long Beach 2022

1. This was actually a very impressive day for Josef Newgarden, and he did more work than most race winners who spent nearly every lap in one of the top two positions. 

For a driver who lost ground but didn't lose any positions after his first pit stop, Newgarden quietly had a comeback. He was set in second in the opening stint behind Colton Herta, not challenging but not terribly far off. And when the pit stop sequence was complete, Newgarden was second behind Álex Palou, how was third prior to the stops. 

Newgarden's team didn't have a great pit stop, but it wasn't a poor stop either. Palou's team was on it. It could have been one of those days where Newgarden was set to finish second, not bad in terms of the championship, but not what a driver would like. In the second stint of this race, Newgarden kept it close again. He didn't let Palou pull away and when it was time for the second and final pit stop, the Penske crew nailed it. He leap-frogged back ahead of Palou and into the lead.

In the closing laps, it was a new challenger, as Romain Grosjean rocketed forward on the alternate tire, but Newgarden held off a few attempted overtakes. Newgarden didn't put a wheel wrong all race, and after an offensive victory in Texas, Newgarden showed his all-around talent defending the lead in the closing stages. After a dreadful St. Petersburg season opener, two consecutive victories has Newgarden back on top, a good position for him and difficult for the rest of the field.

2. Romain Grosjean looked competitive all weekend, but never quite put himself on top. His qualifying accident cost him at least a front row start, and he was mostly in the middle of the top ten for the first half of the race. The cautions got him back into the battle, and Marcus Ericsson slapping the wall after the lap 67 restart gifted Grosjean a position, but Grosjean got around Palou and pressured Newgarden. 

This turned into an old school race as both Newgarden and Grosjean were out of push-to-pass with more than 10 laps to go and Palou only had a few seconds left. It came down to tire life and skill. Grosjean's alternate tire didn't quite have the life in the closing laps, but it still got him second. Good for Grosjean, and it papers over what was another lackluster day for Andretti Autosport.

3. Álex Palou had another under-appreciated drive. Palou was not mentioned for the race lead during that first cycle, but the team had an incredible stop, and he was over three seconds clear ahead of Newgarden and Herta. Palou didn't pull away though. He settled in and Newgarden and Herta actually closed in over that stint. Newgarden only barely beat Palou out of the pit lane. A tenth of a second slower for Newgarden and we are likely talking about a Palou victory. It is a net loss day in points for Palou considering how many laps he led, but this is how Palou won his championship last year. He isn't going anywhere.

4. I am not sure Will Power was mentioned once outside of when he led during the first pit cycle and late when it was noted he was fourth and had the most push-to-pass left. Power is driving smart, and he has three top five finishes through three races. This could be an "old-hat" championship where Power isn't going to light the world on fire and take the title, but he will quietly pile up top five finishes, get a few victories fall his way and suffocate the competition with his consistency.

5. Patricio O'Ward pulled off a few good moves to get to fifth, ending what is one of the few slumps he has had in his young IndyCar career. He had to put in some work to get into the top ten. More consistent pace over an entire stint went in his favor. He benefitted from a few retirements, but he was still going to be in the top ten and maybe pushing for a top five today.

6. Scott Dixon had to go off strategy early and it got him in the top five because he had clear air. He had to conserve fuel over the middle of the race, which might have cost him, but he remained at the front, and survived bouncing off his damaged teammate Ericsson after the Swede hit the barrier to finish sixth. Dixon has these races all the time, no surprise he went from 16th to sixth, but the next race will be exactly one year after his most recent victory. He is due.

7. Stop if you have heard this before: Graham Rahal failed to advance from the first round of qualifying but finished seventh. Oh? This happens about six times a season? Yeah, it does. Rahal does this all the time. He doesn't do anything foolish, makes a few moves and has us all wondering where he would finish if the team had competitive qualifying pace. Three races in and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has a combined zero top ten start, but it has had a top ten finisher in every race this season. Go figure. 

8. Stop if you have heard this before: Alexander Rossi was in the back half of the top ten, but he spent the first portion of the race in the top five only to lose ground because his tire management is putrid. Oh? This happens about six times a season? Yeah, it does. Rossi didn't have the pace on the alternate tire at the end of the first stint. He stopped earlier than the leaders and lost ground. Tire preservation has been the one thing Rossi has not improved on in his IndyCar career, and it is a damn shame. It is one of the things that has kept him from victory since June 2019. 

9. Hélio Castroneves was ninth. He did nothing flashy, didn't make a breath-taking pass, but he drove a smart race. When you have made 360 IndyCar starts, Castroneves can pull this race out of his back pocket and leave us applauding the veteran.

10. How about a first career top ten finish for Kyle Kirkwood? Kirkwood was between tenth and 13th all race. For a rookie that is driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, this is a wonderful day. Everyone should be happy. 

11. Alexander Rossi's day was ruined because of poor balance on the alternate tire, but Felix Rosenqvist's balance was worse. Rosenqvist was hanging on in that opening stint, and actually holding up Rossi. Rossi made a daring pass with slight contact with Rosenqvist. It didn't appear like either car was damaged, but that started the free fall for Rosenqvist. He went from the top five to outside the top ten before making his first pit stop. Rosenqvist recovered for 11th, but this was far from a good day. 

12. Ed Carpenter Racing is average. Conor Daly was 12th, which is where he was all race, and that means it is a bad thing that he finished 12th, because when leaders were falling out of the race Daly wasn't making up positions, they were only offsetting the spots Daly was dropping. Rinus VeeKay had to make a pit stop late, and he got back to 13th, but this feels like an underwhelming result for VeeKay. 

13. Scott McLaughlin started on the primary tire, the top starter to do so, it didn't look like a bad strategy, but he clipped the wall in the hairpin and that spun him. The spin only really cost McLaughlin a position on track, but he never showed great competitiveness in this race and kept falling backward. With the amount of attrition, McLaughlin was able to finish 14th and only finds himself five points behind Newgarden in the championship. It will be key seeing how McLaughlin responds. He was on top of the world in the first two races. Now, he has work to do. 

14. Jack Harvey was in the middle of the field all race. Never a threat and he finished 14th. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has to speed to find across the board, but Harvey needs better showings. 

15. Through the field: Tatiana Calderón was 16th and that happens when seven cars get into accidents. Calderón didn't get into an accident and despite her slowness, it netted her a better result. Takuma Sato ended up in the turn eight tires on the penultimate lap when Rinus VeeKay passed him. There didn't appear to be any contact. I think VeeKay made a good pass, caught out Sato and Sato went wide. Sato's accident did mean the race ended under caution and now we have to endure a week of "should races end under caution?" think pieces. I guess we are all losers in that one. 

Christian Lundgaard went off the lead lap early with some kind of mechanical issue and he managed to pull out an 18th-place finish. 

Simon Pagenaud went backward this weekend. From topping the first practice session to 19th, Pagenaud had a slow first pit stop, it sent him back a few spots and then Pagenaud went into the flowerbed racing side-by-side with Sato into the fountain section. Not a good day for him.

16. Jimmie Johnson had four accidents in five sessions this weekend. Racing with a fractured right hand, I am not sure Johnson would have been in this race if he was another driver. If a 20-year-old had the first three sessions that Johnson had, I think the team would have sat the young driver for his own protection and found a veteran for this race. There were plenty of veterans around. Chip Ganassi Racing had Sébastien Bourdais at the track and winning in IMSA. 

It felt like Johnson was in harm's way. He is already one of the slowest drivers in the series and driving injured wasn't doing any favors to Johnson or the rest of the field. I understand he is trying IndyCar, and for all his mistakes, Johnson is admirable for taking on this challenge, but it would have been better to let him rest today and not driven battered. 

Also caught up in the Johnson incident in turn eight was David Malukas. Dale Coyne Racing did not look good today, and Malukas' penalty for improper pit lane exit did not help. 

17. Just when Marcus Ericsson was receiving praise, and he was worthy of it, Ericsson slaps the barrier exiting turn four. It must be something with Long Beach because in three races Ericsson has finished outside the top 20 each race. He looked good, but was a distance off Palou, Newgarden and Herta. However, Ericsson had breathing room to the rest of the field. This should have been a top five finish. 

18. Colton Herta has another race he throws away, but this isn't entirely on Herta. Yes, he smacked the barrier entering turn nine while a lap or so away from making his final stop of the race, but Herta was third after dominating the first third of the race because of a slow pit stop. Herta's first stop was a second slower than Newgarden and two seconds slower than Palou's. If the team has a respectable stop, he likely isn't chasing the lead and might be controlling the race. 

Andretti Autosport already has plenty of strategy issues, but slow pit stops and other miscues in the pit box is setting them further behind. Herta overstepped it, but like Nashville last year, he was forced to be on edge. Andretti Autosport has a lot to clean up. 

19. Final three spots: Callum Ilott pulled off course after 55 laps for an unannounced problem. This has been common for Juncos Hollinger Racing since it returned to competition at the end of 2021. Devlin DeFrancesco smacked the turn nine barrier on fresh tires. Dalton Kellett walloped the turn one barrier after five laps. Not a great race for Canada. 

20. During the race, Simon Pagenaud expressed concern for the marbles on the track. The track looked rough. Marbles littered the circuit in every corner. Pagenaud called for a caution. That seems extreme but think of it this way: If the track was coming apart or if it was raining and puddles were forming, race control would call a caution for track conditions. 

Should a caution be called for track conditions if there are excess marbles? It hasn't been done before, and I think most would not be in favor of it, but it isn't that dissimilar to asphalt coming up or puddles. Unsuitable track conditions are unsuitable track conditions. We didn't hear any other drivers express concern, but maybe more agreed with Pagenaud than we realize. 

21. There were many historic Long Beach videos posted ahead of this race. You cannot help but notice how the track has changed over the years, and in the Formula One clips you can tell how much further the hairpin was down Shoreline Drive. Could we move the hairpin back? One, it would make the hairpin an actual corner where cars could pass. Two, we could have the entire field on the front straightaway for the start instead of only the top eight side-by-side with 18 other cars single-file. It would also make turn one a better passing zone. 

This shorter hairpin has been in use for every IndyCar race. IndyCar never ran the longer straightaways into the hairpin like Formula One did. I think IndyCar and Long Beach organizers should look into this. I am sure paddock support for it would be near unanimous. 

22. Another three week break for IndyCar. At least these breaks are consistent. There will be testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in about ten days. That will keep us busy until Barber Motorsports Park.