PREVIEW: Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix
It's the week after Indianapolis and IndyCar is back in action for the second time in a five-race-in-five-weekend stretch. Thanks to the efforts of Roger Penske and Chevrolet, the Detroit Grand Prix has been revived for the first time since 2008. It marks the fourth iteration of IndyCar in Detroit since the first race in downtown in 1989, and third at the Raceway on Belle Isle (1992-2001, 2007-'08). It's also the lone street course of the month, with three ovals to follow after this.
INDYCAR - CHEVROLET DETROIT BELLE ISLE GRAND PRIX
ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN, ON AGAIN – IndyCar's relationship with Detroit has been a bit like Elaine Benes and David Puddy on Seinfeld – on and off depending on the episode. Perhaps I'm dating myself here, but the last season of the show ran from 1997 to 1998, and coincidentally, that's the first year some of the drivers in this year's field made their CART debuts at Detroit. But IndyCar and Detroit can't seem to make a long-term commitment. Detroit's been through several different iterations around The Raceway at Belle Isle. The 1997 race marked the last race in its 2.1-mile configuration before transforming to a 2.35-mile course in 1998 with another extra straight built in (RIGHT). That configuration ran through 2001, before Detroit faded from the calendar for six years.
When it was revived in 2007, it was back to the original Belle Isle layout, one that's not particularly conducive to passing. The race was dropped after 2008 thanks to the region's economic meltdown and a lack of sponsorship. The 2012 layout is the same, but given the raciness the DW12 provided in the first four road and street races of the season, there's hope that it can spice up what's often been a mundane race.
VARYING DETROIT EXPERIENCE LEVELS – The three drivers who were rookies in 1997 and 1998 and Detroit – Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan – are also three of four former Detroit winners in the field this go-around. Castroneves' 2000 Detroit win, the first in his career, served as the launching pad for his trademark “Spiderman” fence-climbing escapades. Oriol Servia also scored his first podium that race, third behind Castroneves and Max Papis. Where Castroneves doesn't have good memories of the place was at the last IndyCar round in 2008, when he was called for blocking Justin Wilson. That allowed the Englishman to score an emotional victory for Newman/Haas Racing (LEFT) – the team's last to date and the last before co-founder Paul Newman passed later in the year.
Because of the on/off nature of when IndyCar has raced at Detroit, only 14 of the 25 drivers entered have prior Detroit experience. Four of those – Wilson, E.J. Viso, Will Power and Graham Rahal – have only the 2008 start to their records. For all his career open-wheel accolades, Sebastien Bourdais has never started a race at Detroit, and neither have 10 other drivers in the race.
RELEASE THE HOUNDS – Count Servia, Bourdais (RIGHT, sandwiching Wade Cunningham) and Alex Tagliani as three of the happiest campers in the field entering Detroit this weekend. Sure, all three made their debuts in a car without a Lotus engine at Indy, but none were realistic win contenders – even despite Servia's stealthy run from 27th on the grid to fourth by the flag.
However, in their natural habitats of a street course, where they all overachieved in Lotus machinery anyway this year, expect the Chevrolets of Servia and Bourdais and Tagliani's Honda to rank much higher up the charts this weekend both in qualifying and the race.
OTHER CONTENDERS, CREEPERS AND SLEEPERS – He didn't win at Detroit in his only start and he's coming off a 28th-place finish at Indy after a wreck not of his own doing. So, most likely, we should expect Will Power to resume his rightful place atop the standings throughout practice and qualifying before delivering another beat-down on the field.
Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe are also due for wins – Dixon after recording his third second-place finish of the season at Indy and Briscoe as he'll no doubt want to end his winless drought dating to Texas 2010 at the Chevrolet-sponsored race, in front of his team owner who brought the event back. His frustration with his best race of the year at Indy is a good sign for Briscoe going forward.
Andretti Autosport, too, seeks a bounce-back after its Indy disappointment, and could figure into the equation with any of its three drivers. Fellow Chevrolet teams KV Racing Technology and Panther Racing could threaten the Firestone Fast Six and podium this weekend.
Some others to watch: Takuma Sato for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the two “Ganassi 2” drivers Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, Wilson at Dale Coyne Racing, Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Mike Conway for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.