Long Beach Postscript
Whether it was jokes about A.J. Foyt eating sushi, wisecrack questions over Speedway's Dallara factory being adequately staffed, or simple amusement at the potentially unlimited supply of comedic ammunition, we laughed hard and laughed often. Heck, we never even got around to asking whether Takuma Sato cut his teeth racing sprint cars and midgets like Kenny Brack, Airton Dare, Vitor Meira, and Eliseo Salazar.
And if we weren't busy bursting with laughter over what seemed to be an especially bizarre of bizarre pairings, we sure as heck weren't predicting dominant form. No, many like myself forecast nothing but doom and gloom for Takuma Sato and Foyt Racing. In fact, about one month ago, I wrote the following in Part 1 of AutoRacing1.com's 2013 Izod IndyCar Series previewâ€¦.
"I knowâ€¦.Sato posted the fastest time in a recent test at Sebring. He also displayed flashes of brilliance with RLL last season. However, I bet you didn't know this: no Foyt car has won a race in a unified Indy Car series since 1978.
Also, keep in mind you have the combination of an aggressive driver paired with a team not exactly known for engineering excellence. Further, I don't see A.J. Foyt mentoring Sato as Bobby Rahal did a year ago. I'm guessing, Sato, as he is known to do, will overdrive the car to compensate for said engineering shortcomings.
Yes, this is a disastrous pairing folks. I'm predicting lots of tax write-offs, more overtime shifts at the Speedway Dallara factory, and one extremely grumpy Texan."
In fact, so convinced was I the Sato and Foyt partnership was certain to end in tears, I placed 150/1 odds on Taku to win the 2013 title in that same article. For the record, no one took me up on the deal, and that deal is now, off the table.
Yes, with his maiden win Sunday the likable, aggressive Japanese driver has moved into second place in the series standings and forced at least this writer to eat a little crow. And while Sato and the long-suffering Foyt team, were clearly the story Sunday, there was news aplenty throughout the field.
Using a subject/elaboration style format, let's take a look at a few of the headlines to emerge from yesterday's 39th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, starting with the man of the hour, Takuma Sato.
Sato, of course, has been poised for a breakout for what seems like, forever. Even dating back to his Formula One days, no one questioned whether Taku could pedal the car. The greater question was he could bring it home in one piece.
And early in his IndyCar he often didn't. In fact, Sato would crash 8 times in his first IndyCar season in 2010.
Last season, however, was a breakout of sorts as Sato joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He, of course, nearly won the Indianapolis 500, scored two podium finishes, and ran at the front numerous times particularly early in the year.
Still, given his switch this season to the previously hapless Foyt team, expectations were low. In fairness, that was partially due to the woeful performance of the Foyt operation in recent years.
But all indications are the Foyt boys have upped their game. Simultaneously, Sato seems to have learned to combine that pure speed with greater patience. Further, it was long believed that if Sato could simply score that break through victory, he would be able to score more.
Well, he has that break though victory now. While I'm not ready to label the Sato-Foyt pairing a title contender yet, keep in mind this weekend's win was not some fuel mileage, get lucky strategy deal. No, Taku was the fastest guy on track.
And don't look now, but the next two events are at places Sato ran quite well last season, Sao Paulo and Indy. Yes, don't be surprised if a "monkey-finally-off-his-back" Sato goes on a little run here at venues he has enjoyed success.
Sato's somewhat surprising win is also indicative of how competitive the field has been so far in 2013. While I will say it has become a little tiresome hearing the "things are so close in IndyCar this year," talk, this oft-repeated narrative cannot be disputed.
Already, we've seen 8 different drivers on the podium in three races. Further, the running order has not simply been scrambled race-to-race but session-to-session. Simon Pagenaud, for example, posted the fastest time in Practice 3 this weekend, only to qualify seventeenth in the following session. James Hinchcliffe led the opening practice, but was 10th and 19th in the subsequent sessions.
The championship standings also bear this out, with the top-5 drivers separated by 18 points. For some perspective, last season at this time, Will Power led the championship by 24 points over Castroneves. Power at this point in 2012 had won two races and finished seventh in the other. This year, Castroneves leads the championship with ironically fewer points than he had at this time last season.
Now, there is a way to go, and it is conceivable someone gets on a run a la Ryan Hunter-Reay last season.
Still, judging by the first three events this field is extraordinarily deep, which will place a greater premium on consistency. And we could see a champion, who does not dominate a la Gil de Ferran, who won the CART title in both 2000 and 2001 each season with two wins.
Although, Not Everyone is Enjoying This Parity Thing:
Two teams have yet to record a top-10 finish: Ed Carpenter Racing and Dragon Racing.
As for Carpenter, we know the deal with him. Although the series' only owner-driver has improved his road racing craft, he is not a road racer by trade. However, he is certain to be a factor once the series visits the oval tracks starting with Indy in May.
Dragon is an altogether different matter.
Whether full or part-time, the Jay Penske-owned team has been around in one form or another since 2007. Last season, the team endured a difficult beginning saddled with the dreadful Lotus before switching to Chevrolet at Indy. Sadly, the team had to drop from two entries to one for much of 2012.
However, with a full-season Chevrolet effort led by former four-time Champ Car Champion Sebastien Bourdais, who had some impressive runs late last season, Dragon was expected to take a step forward in 2013.
That hasn't happened so far. Sure, no one expected 22 year-old Colombian Sebastian Saavedra to contend, but Bourdais' lack of form is concerning. Despite the fact he has completed all three races, the talented Frenchman is currently a distant 18th in points with a best finish of 11th at St. Pete.
Generally speaking, Bourdais has been a total non-factor, seemingly invisible. To what extent the issue is the team and/or driver is hard to say. However, Dragon has yet to record a podium finish in IndyCar and they no longer have the excuse of a lousy engine. And considering the Foyt team's recent upturn in form, and the fact Carpenter will certainly contend for race wins on the ovals, I have to ask: Is there team on the grid currently worse than Dragon Racing?
While Dragon hasn't been much to talk about, their engine supplier, Chevrolet, enjoyed the upper-hand at the season's first two events. The Bowtie Brigade swept the first four spots at the season opener in St. Petersburg, and took three of the top-five spots in the second race at Barber. Long Beach, however, was all about Honda.
Overall, indications are the Chevy-Honda battle will continue to seesaw. However, we do know this: legitimate competition from major engine manufacturers is back in IndyCar. Sure, it's not the heydays of the 1990s in CART. Sure, Chevy and Honda arenâ€™t natural rivals like say Chevy and Ford, or Honda and Toyota.
Still, after years of Honda supplying the entire field, a nice little rivalry between Chevy and Honda is starting to blossom. And if those Audi rumors are true, IndyCar could have a third manufacturing giant by 2015.
Speaking of Audiâ€¦..
News broke last week that the legendary German marque was considering a move to IndyCar. Audi, of course, has enjoyed vast success in sports car racing, particularly in the prototype classes.
Now, it's hard to say how serious Audi is about getting into IndyCar, and on the surface, I can't really see their motivation. While the Indy 500 would certainly entice Audi, IndyCar's current rules are somewhat restrictive regarding technical development.
Still, manufacturers are the lifeblood of any racing series. Audi joining the fray would give IndyCar three bonafide major manufacturers. While there would be concerns over Audi raising the costs of competing, their presence would greatly raise IndyCar's profile both internationally and domestically. And few manufacturers would give IndyCar more cache than the legendary Four Rings.
One Quick Thing:
In this era of gimmicky tires, DRS, and other measures intended to "liven up the show," Sebastian Vettel was thoroughly dominant at Bahrain this weekend. Don't look now, but at 25 years of age (he turns 26 in July), Vettel has already produced an astounding 28 F1 wins. By comparison, Michael Schumacher had 10 wins before turning 26.
And no, it is not too early to start speculating as to whether Vettel can make a run at Schumacher's record of 91 career wins.
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