|Castroneves hits wall after cutting across into Bourdais|
After a rather regrettable 2013 Grand Prix of Houston, the Verizon IndyCar Series went a long way towards redeeming itself in the 2014 edition of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston presented by the Greater Houston Honda Dealers.
With a higher-than-normal volume of material to cover, let’s get right into the recently concluded bat***t crazy weekend for IndyCar in Houston.
Nothing against Sunday winner Simon Pagenaud, who led a 1-2 finish for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (we’ll hit on Pagenaud and SPM later). However, the enduring memory of Houston 2014 will forever be Saturday’s did-that-actually-happen victory by Dale Coyne Racing’s Carlos Huertas.
|Huertas drove a perfect race 1 to win|
Let’s begin our discussion by acknowledging the following: there is not a single empirical metric one could have reasonably cited going into Saturday, or even in retrospect that would have forecast a Huertas win in Houston. He had and still has never qualified better than 12th for an IndyCar race. He had no finish better than eighth prior to Saturday. He had never even led an IndyCar lap prior to Saturday. Yes, this was the textbook definition of an “out of nowhere" victory.
That said, the fact Huertas had something of a breakout performance did not come as a shock to everyone.
Let’s go back about a month
On the Saturday before the Indianapolis 500, AR1 President Mark Cipolloni and I spent about a half hour with Dale Coyne in Gasoline Alley. The conversation was relatively casual. We spoke about the IndyCar schedule, Coyne shared some insights on the costs of running a race team, there was a brief discussion about pit strategy for the 500, etc.
However, an enduring memory of that conversation was Coyne spent a fair amount of time praising his young Colombian driver. Whether it was how quickly Huertas had adjusted to Indy despite having never been on the track prior to the month of May; whether it was fuel mileage or managing tires, Coyne noted how quickly Huertas absorbed new information. He mentioned the fact he had yet to crash the car (something that still hasn’t occurred). He reminded us that Huertas should have finished fifth at Long Beach, but was given an unwarranted penalty.
He also mentioned that Huertas would likely run more of the oval races the summer, even though he had not publicly confirmed that (and to my knowledge still has not).
Now, keep in mind, Mark and I did not venture over to Gasoline Alley with the intention of getting the lowdown on Carlos Huertas. Coyne, absent any significant prompting on our part, gave it to us anyway in glowing terms.
The longtime IndyCar owner would reiterate similar thoughts to me the next weekend in Detroit (again unprompted) after Huertas qualified 12th and finished 8th on Saturday. Noting how the Colombian had managed to make the Firestone ‘Reds’ last longer when many of the front-runners were experiencing significant wear, Coyne said Huertas could have finished higher if not for some better strategy on the part of the team.
Of course, it’s one thing for an owner to praise his driver (as if he’s going to slam him to the media?). But in speaking to Coyne on multiple occasions, I got the sense he believed a breakout performance (not necessarily a win, but a top-5) for Huertas was if anything, a little overdue.
No one, Coyne included, saw a win coming Saturday.
However, after a decision to bring Huertas in just as the final pit window opened, a timely caution vaulted the he and teammate Justin Wilson to the front of the field; Wilson leading. When Wilson pit with a few minutes remaining, Huertas found himself leading with minutes remaining.
Of course, there are those who will point out that Huertas was the beneficiary of timely cautions and some shrewd pit strategy by DCR. He was. Others will note that the variable weather conditions played a role in allowing those who usually run mid-pack greater opportunity to move to the front. They did. Also, Graham Rahal punting Tony Kanaan on what would have been the final restart means we’ll never know if Huertas could have outfoxed three restart-extraordinaires in Rahal, Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya to hang on for the win.
Just keep in mind that the Colombian rookie didn’t put a wheel wrong for 20-plus laps with Montoya and Kanaan, who both had fresher tires and no fuel conservation concerns, in hot pursuit. As Coyne noted in the aftermath the strategy got him to the front, but Huertas knew what to do once he was there.
In other words did Huertas get a break or two on the way to victory? Certainly.
But did the 23-year old Colombian rookie show the world he had the chops to keep it together with two Indy 500 winners and Indy car champions breathing down his neck when it mattered most?
No doubt about it.
And while Huertas winning the race, was clearly a shock, the fact he was in contention, and handled the moment like a seasoned pro, was not the least bit of a surprise to one notoriously coy IndyCar team owner.
As for Pagenaud, we knew he had the chops prior to Sunday’s win. Ironically, this was the second time the Frenchman won the Sunday installment of a doubleheader, only to be upstaged by a Saturday DCR win. You might remember Pagenaud scored his first win at Detroit last season, the day after Mike Conway won for DCR.
In this particular case, the win was potentially some redemption for Pagenaud, who had won pole for Saturday’s race, and clearly had a strong car but experienced brake problems and finished 16th. Sunday, Pagenaud gapped the field multiple times in scoring a more-than-convincing victory.
Aleshin qualified 2nd Sunday, and slipped back in the early going but like Huertas the day before used some shrewd strategy to get back to the front, and help complete the first 1-2 for SPM.
With Carlos Munoz finishing third Saturday, and Jack Hawksworth doing the same Sunday, that made for four rookies on the podium this weekend.
Also, look for an article sometime in the near future on AutoRacing1 about the impressive rookie class of 2014.
Back to SPM…
Any reasonable person would classify Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Team Penske as the elite teams in IndyCar. However, with 4 wins in the last 20 races and a 1-2 yesterday, SPM in my opinion leads Ed Carpenter Racing and probably DCR as the class of Tier 2 if you will.
That said, to maintain said status and continue putting the pressure on the top-teams it is an imperative that SPM find a way to bring back the driver who the team is built around: Pagenaud. Pagenaud is of course, rumored to be speaking with Andretti Autosport.
I’ll ask in advance that you forgive the length of this section. However, there’s no way to really brush over the level of detail involved here.
As you probably know, Marco Andretti was fined $2500 and placed on probation for three races for failing to heed the blue flag in Race 1. Andretti Autosport was also fined $2500, although the reasons were not clear, as “actions" were cited in an IndyCar press release.
Andretti was of course racing then-leader Takuma Sato in an attempt to stay on the lead lap early in the race. At the time Andretti’s teammate James Hinchcliffe was running second and closing on Sato. IndyCar showed Andretti the blue ‘move-over’ flag, which he ignored, and was subsequently black-flagged.
Yes, there is a case (an easy one) that can (and will) be made for INDYCAR mishandling the situation. What cannot be overlooked is the fact Andretti ignored the blue flag. Simply put, with cars at speed on track, the orders of Race Control are not a matter of interpretation. Whether Race Control is right or wrong, the black flag means the driver must pit. The blue flag means the driver must yield.
In this particular case, it’s everything else that is less clear.
Let’s start with a report on More Front Wing Sunday of a radio exchange (no audio, no quotes) between Hinchcliffe and the team. Apparently, the Canadian was told by the team that Sato was about to catch Andretti. The obvious implication there is that Andretti would impede Sato to assist Hinchcliffe.
Now, if that was a direct action by Andretti Autosport to have Andretti impede Sato for Hinchcliffe’s benefit, I agree that it was a) unsporting, b) against IndyCar rules, and c) action should be taken in accordance with Rule 9.3.4 states in The IndyCar Rule Book which states:
“If IndyCar determines one or more Members of a Team attempted to or engaged in team tactics or orders, INDYCAR may issue a black flag penalty to any or all of the Team’s Car/Driver combinations in addition to other penalties."
My interpretation of the wording above gives INDYCAR discretion to administer the black flag to the entire Andretti Autosport fleet (including Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz.) Granted, that would be excessive. Still, if INDYCAR had proof of an attempt to engage in team orders via the radio, both Hinchcliffe and Andretti could and should have been black-flagged. However, that’s not what happened.
For the record, team owner Michael Andretti took vehement exception to the notion of any wrongdoing by his team.
It gets more convoluted
In the MFW report, INDYCAR president of competition and operations Walker claims that “we made a new rule," with regard to Andretti being blue-flagged for impeding Sato. In other words, because Andretti was impeding Sato with his teammate in pursuit, the blue flag was administered, which wasn’t actually a rule because…
The blue flag
IndyCar’s rule 184.108.40.206 states the blue flag can be shown to “lapped cars" with nothing about cars being lapped (which would have applied to Andretti at the time).
So, if Andretti (team and driver) happened to collude for Hinchcliffe’s benefit, it’s conceivable that IndyCar showed Marco Andretti the wrong flag initially?
According to my understanding of the two rules in question, yes.
So let’s get this straight: Marco was shown the blue flag even though there is nothing in the rule book that would warrant administering the blue flag? And even if there was intent to impede Sato on Andretti’s part, which is questionable, the rule that is in the book was not administered. Instead, a rule that was reportedly created sometime between laps 10 and 15 Saturday was administered?
Repeating that Andretti was justifiably black-flagged for ignoring the blue flag, that’s how I interpret the matter with the information at our disposal. Although, it should be noted that Walker denied making the “we made a new rule," comment in a story with ESPN.com’s John Oreovicz on Monday.
And we still have no idea what was said on the radio anyway
Yes. Without the audio (and possibly even with) no impropriety can be proven, leaving a myriad of reasonable questions.
First, doesn’t Andretti (the driver) have a right to race in order to stay on the lead lap, regardless of who is in pursuit of the leader? The fact it was Hinchcliffe chasing Sato is inconsequential. For example, Andretti would want to stay on the lead lap if Hinchcliffe were leading and Sato was second.
Further, while Andretti was not as fast as Sato or Hinchcliffe, he was running competitive lap times on fresher tires. He was not blocking nor was there any action in my opinion which could have been interpreted as directly impeding Sato. Keep in mind, this occurred at a time in the race when there was really only a single-groove dry line, making overtaking difficult throughout the field.
In short, it appears INDYCAR admitted to administering a penalty that didn’t exist before lap 10 Saturday. Further, the administration of said penalty that didn’t exist was based on circumspect, questionable and non-cited evidence.
Whatever the case, this has the all the makings of your proverbial monkey-football situation written all over it.
Very quietly, Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 9th and 6th this weekend, while both Helio Castroneves and Will Power had rough weekends. RHR gained 19 points on both the Penske drivers. Don’t look now but we have an idiotic double-points race coming up this weekend, and some RHR favorable tracks ahead like Iowa, Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio.
Might we look back on this weekend as the one where RHR’s title-run sprang to life?
|Juan Pablo Montoya appears to be finding his groove.|
Montoya had an excellent weekend finishing second Saturday and nearly scoring another top-five Sunday, before fading to finish 7th. After spending seven seasons in NASCAR, the former F1 driver, and CART Champion is driving with a ton of confidence right now. Look for JPM to be a factor this upcoming weekend in Pocono.
Some not-so-pretty numbers
16, 14, 19, 21, 11, 17 and 13. Aside from his win at Long Beach, those are Mike Conway’s 2014 race finishes.
14, 16, 8, 18 and 18. Those are Will Power’s last 5 qualifying efforts for street course races dating back to this year’s Long Beach race.
3. That’s how many top-10 finishes Takuma Sato has in his last 25 races, with no finish better than seventh. Yes, Sato is fast on his day, but he’s never seemed to shake his propensity for mistakes at inopportune moments. Also…
37. No, I’m not calling Sato an old man. But at 37, he’s certainly not the future of Foyt’s race team, and if he isn’t the present either, one has to wonder how long a certain grumpy not-exactly-known-for-his-patience Texan is going to tolerate the current state of affairs.
The TV Booth
I can’t offer any particular reason as to why this trio seems to have such good chemistry. However, the combination of Leigh Diffey, Paul Tracy and Steve Matchett is the best television-booth announce team Indy car racing has had in quite a while.
Also, while I’ve long believed that NBC Sports Network’s sales pitch has essentially been “we’re not ABC," the coverage top-to-bottom this weekend was outstanding.
Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.