IndyCar still playing fast and loose with the rule book
While the crowd was larger than last year at Toronto’s recent IndyCar stop, it was clear that despite good racing, the series still has a long way to go to become healthy and successful.
The biggest reason to be positive about IndyCar is that the on-track product continues to be compelling. Toronto’s doubleheader weekend with races on Saturday and Sunday featured lots of good action, although Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon made things a bit predictable at the front with his two wins in two days.
The move to Sportsnet from TSN also served to help boost the number of fans in the stands, as the series’ new Canadian television partner promoted the stop in Toronto much more than the old one. The result was about 35,000 at the Exhibition Place for Sunday’s race, which was easily more than double the number who showed up in 2012.
And although the television numbers were down from the TSN broadcast last year, the number of eyes attracted by Sportsnet shouldn’t be worrisome.
On average, Sportsnet attracts about one-third fewer viewers than TSN (145,000 compared to 96,000) and the numbers reported for the two races were solidly around that figure. The race on Saturday got 145,000 viewers with 151,000 watching on Sunday, whereas 233,000 took in the race last year on TSN.
On the other side of the ledger, the television numbers and attendance underline the series’ position as an afterthought for most racing fans.
Toronto also highlighted that the main problem with IndyCar when it comes to attracting and keeping race fans interested remains its inconsistent officiating, an issue that has plagued the series for years. At the root of its problem is the sometimes fluid IndyCar rulebook and the haphazard way it is often applied.
The magnifying glasses came out in Toronto after the stewards in race control judged that Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti blocked rival Will Power of the Penske team near the end of the first doubleheader tilt. They slapped him with a 25-second time penalty that dropped the four-time IndyCar champion from third to 13th.
Unfortunately, it was apparent to just about everyone in the stands and the media centre that it was a terrible call.
With Power chasing him down the long Lakeshore Boulevard straight to Turn 3, Franchitti picked the inside of the track and stayed there. He left the outside wide open for Power and varied his line to Corner 3 by 10 centimeters or less as he approached the braking point. Essentially, Franchitti did exactly what the drivers had been told to do in the pre-race briefing.
After Franchitti made his intentions clear, Power tried to muscle his way through on the inside. The Penske driver brushed off the wall on the inside of the track as he tried to brake and then bounced past Franchitti’s car before missing the corner completely and sliding into the tire barrier on the outside of the 90-degree turn.
After the penalty was applied, Franchitti summed up the feelings of almost everyone who watched the incident and were stupefied by the penalty: “It will be very interesting to know how they make decisions up there sometimes. I think it involves a dice and a blindfold.”
Incredibly, Franchitti wasn’t far off: Race control essentially blamed the bad call on the lack of proper angles to view the incident. To be more exact, the stewards in Toronto had a grand total of one camera shot to make their decision.
Remember, this is the group charged with discipline that reviews all incidents and imposes penalties that can change the complexion and outcome of races. And yet race control had only one camera angle available when the network feed to the media centre offered a couple of different views of the incident, which clearly showed there was no infraction. Later, when IndyCar officials viewed the other angles and footage from Power’s onboard camera, they reversed the decision.
Even without the additional camera angles, it’s inconceivable how Franchitti’s straight line was a block when you look at previous incidents. For example, Takuma Sato did not get a penalty for moving the entire width of the track on three separate occasions and almost running two drivers into the wall lining the circuit while defending the lead on the long straight on the streets of São Paulo in May.
In other cases, the series plays wildcards by making decisions behind closed doors without ensuring fans know about them, while sometimes things just get changed without any rhyme or reason. That just leaves fans angry and confused, and is something that erodes the credibility of the series.
While fans were perplexed by the Franchitti penalty on Saturday, just as many might have gone home thinking his fourth-place on Sunday was ill-gotten. In the second doubleheader race, Franchitti damaged his car after contact on the first lap and pitted for a new nose and changed from the “option” tire to the regular “primes.”
That meant he did not complete two laps on both types of tires and should have been disqualified. Except, it was decided in a competition meeting in Toronto that during doubleheader weekends that rule may or may not be applied depending on the particular situation. The decision was up to the series in consultation with tire supplier Firestone.
If that weren’t enough, Toronto provided another prime example of an abrupt rule change with no explanation.
In the first race on Saturday, the tires that were usually on the inside of Turn 5 for Honda Indys were not there because the series wanted to lessen the probability of a car hitting them and bringing out a yellow. Early in Race 1, Power was warned for having all four wheels outside the white lines that mark the racing surface in Turn 5 after he cut the corner too aggressively.
Despite the series saying it thought cutting the corner was dangerous, the drivers were told a few laps later that they were free to ignore the white lines in Turn 5 and use as much of the curb as they wanted.
Apparently the reason for this abrupt change was the same one that caused the Franchitti fiasco: Not enough camera feeds to police the drivers who were cutting the curbs.
The next day, the tires were back, and IndyCar warned all the drivers prior to the race that getting all four tires off the racing surface – something that was fine 24 hours earlier – would not be tolerated.
It all points to some serious issues inside IndyCar that need to be solved before the series can grow into something bigger. There’s no doubt that it’s tough to be consistent when your rulebook is written in pencil, but the bigger problem is that it makes it hard for your fans to take you seriously. Globe and Mail