After what can best be described as a trying off-season, the Izod IndyCar Series got back to racing this weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida. In an action-packed, thrilling race, popular 26 year-old Canadian James Hinchcliffe held off three-time St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves in the closing laps to score his first career win. Of course, the self-appointed Mayor of Hinchtown, famous for his marketing savvy, seemingly endless reservoir of self-confidence and spot-on Kimi Raikkonen impersonations, was far from the only story.
No, in addition to Hinchcliffe’s breakthrough win we were treated to the infinite wisdom of the not-nearly-as-beloved Chip Ganassi, witnessed a likable young American inexplicably self-destruct (again), followed by the same young American showing the world how exactly one should don the hat of responsibility after said self-destruction (again).
Lastly, this weekend we gained something we couldn’t (at least, I couldn’t) have imagined was humanly possible: an even greater awareness for how dreadful that Lotus engine was one year ago.
Yes, there were plenty of stories from St. Pete this weekend. We’ll take a look at a few of them using a subject/elaboration type format.
Certainly, we’d seen flashes from Hinchcliffe before. Two years ago, as a rookie he led at Mid-Ohio, impressively holding off Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon for numerous laps. Last season, he ran in the top-5 at Indianapolis much of the day, put in another stunning drive at Mid-Ohio from mid-pack to fifth, and scored third-place finishes at Long Beach and Milwaukee. In addition to talent seemed to uniquely combine a relaxed self-deprecating personality with the savvy and smarts indicating he had all the makings of a star at the top-level.
What we had not seen was the charismatic Go Daddy-guy in a late race scrap — a put some hair on your chest type moment. That was, until yesterday.
When Castroneves bobbled slightly on a lap 85 restart, Hinchcliffe running second, opportunistically moved into the lead. The Mayor would stay there for the final 25 laps, holding off a charging Castroneves, who was on the faster, alternate tires.
And in victory lane, Hinchcliffe was to no one’s surprise, all class. He dedicated the win to the late Dan Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident, who had signed to drive the Andretti Autosport Go-Daddy car Hinchcliffe now occupies just before his sudden death.
Of course, now that Hinchcliffe has a win in addition to all the class, talent, charisma, and marketing savvy, of a star in the making, questions concerning how his emergence may help IndyCar are inevitable. Certainly, the ticket-sales office in Toronto probably enjoyed a busier-than-normal Monday morning. And if there is anyone who can attract more mainstream interest in the sport, it is undoubtedly Hinchcliffe. Further, Hinchcliffe will no doubt charm his way through whatever promotional, media type appearances he makes over the next few days. Still, what the long-term impact effect this win has for IndyCar, remains to be seen.
What we do know, is that yesterday Hinchcliffe had some real competition for the hearts and affection of the IndyCar faithful, which this leads us to…..
|Simona de Silvestro|
The Swiss Missile:
Quick, prior to Simona de Silvestro’s third-place grid position yesterday, when did a KV Racing Technology car last qualify in the top-3 on a road or street course?
Well, it didn’t happen in 2012. In fact, KVRT had a mere one top-5 road/street course qualifying effort in 2012 (Viso, 5th Detroit). And to find the last time the team cracked the top-3 qualifying, you need to go back to Edmonton 2011 (Sato, pole ).
Yes, while the IndyCar world is rejoicing at de Silvestro’s rescue from Lotus purgatory, the Swiss Missile has made KVRT relevant on the road and street courses. Yesterday, de Silvestro ran in the top-5 nearly all day, before worn tires and a charging Scott Dixon relegated her to sixth-place, as the two were coming to the checkered flag.
And while de Silvestro may have deserved better, there is no reason to think she will not be a regular front-runner on road and street courses in 2013. Further, as witnessed by Kanaan’s fourth-place finish and eighth-place qualifying it appears de Silvestro has arguably been as good for KVRT as they have for her.
While the outlook for Hinchcliffe and de Silvestro is looking up, fellow twenty-something J.R. Hildebrand endured a miserable weekend in St. Pete. The Panther Racing driver, qualified twenty-fourth, fell a lap down, then on lap 77 inexplicably ran over the back wheel of then third-place runner Will Power during a caution period. Hildebrand, noted that he had become distracted by telemetry on the steering wheel. However, as is he is becoming known to do, Hildebrand bore full responsibility for the strange mishap..
Of course, Hildebrand, famously crashed on the final turn of the final lap while leading the 2011 Indianapolis 500, which was eventually won by the late Wheldon. With regard to Hildebrand, who finished second to Wheldon, everyone remembers two things from that day: one, his epic collapse, and two, how well the then 23 year-old native of Sausalito, California, handled an incredibly difficult situation. Hildebrand could have easily thrown slow moving back marker Charlie Kimball under the bus. He could have blamed his spotter, or said the car got loose. He did none of those things.
Rather, Hildebrand admitted that he well, royally screwed up. He answered every question with class and grace. He talked about how he let down his sponsor, the National Guard, and his team, Panther Racing. While we admired Hildebrand’s maturity beyond his years, wondering where the kid would go from that bizarre finish was a legitimate question. When Hildebrand tore his ACL a week and a half later at a promotional event for the IndyCar race in Texas, to the notion of him being somewhat mistake prone was only exacerbated.
Fast forward to 2013, and numerous people are calling this a make or break year for Hildebrand. I don’t particularly buy that, mainly because Hildebrand has relative to the capabilities of his team performed well. Keep in mind, there has not over the past few seasons been such a thing as a fast Panther car on a road course, no matter who the driver.
And while Hildebrand hasn’t wowed (at least, in terms of on-track performance) he did finish 11th in the championship last season, and 14th as a rookie. That may seem unspectacular, but keep in mind Hildebrand’s predecessor Wheldon did not finish appreciably better (tenth and ninth) in the standings during two years with Panther. Further, Wheldon benefited from a schedule more skewed to ovals, historically Panther’s strength. Overall, I’d say Hildebrand’s outlook is still a wait and see.
However, we do know this: J.R. has shown a proclivity for the big-time meltdown. But to his credit, he at least seems as aware of this as anyone.
|Ganassi demands more from Honda|
Speaking of self-awareness, Chip Ganassi, could probably learn a thing or two from old J.R. Ganassi, of course, blasted team engine supplier Honda this weekend, wondering aloud if the manufacturer was serious about winning. To Ganassi, it seems Honda would rather “sit around and hold hands and sing Kumbayah."
Whatever the case, Honda was clearly bested by Chevrolet. The best Honda finisher would be Ganassi Racing’s Dixon in fifth. Further, seven of the top-9 qualifiers would be Chevy-powered.
Now, whether Ganassi simply suffers from diarrhea of the mouth or was attempting to stir the pot is anyone’s guess. That being said, it would seem odd that Ganassi would go public, even if he was trying to motivate the powers-to-be at Honda Performance Development. While Honda is clearly behind Chevy as of now, the company’s motivation, engineering excellence, and track record of success are all well documented. Further, Ganassi has won nine Indy car style championships, eight with Honda. So, yes, I find it surprising Chip would go public with such a grievance, particularly considering the vast success the two have shared.
However, I will say this: Ganassi's comments have told us manufacturer competition is indeed, back. Sure, it would be nice to have a third and even fourth engine supplier. Sure, I’d love to see different chassis, or at minimum aero-kits. Sure, I’m not saying this is a return to the CART glory days of four engine manufacturers, multiple chassis, and multiple tires.
Still, Ganassi unabashedly, and unquestionably, called out one of the racing's renowned manufacturers this weekend. While Honda publicly defended itself, I cannot imagine Ganassi’s comments will fall on deaf ears amongst that very proud company. Further, I imagine Honda’s response will manifest itself with a better on-track product sooner rather than later.
The Partisan Spirit:
An "uproar," as one journalist called it, broke out on Twitter Friday, after the Dan Wheldon memorial honoring previous winners at St. Pete was unveiled. The "uproar," centered around the fact, 2003 St. Pete winner Paul Tracy, who won the event under CART sanction, was not included with the other winners.
Some tried to dismiss the matter, saying that it was inappropriate to air such a grievance in light of the monument being named after the late Wheldon. Others, decried the "partisan" CART/IRL politics, they believed to be behind the grievance.
For starters, drawing the conclusion that questioning Tracy's omission, somehow impugns the memory of Wheldon is in my opinion, dangerously presumptuous. With regards to the second issue, I should probably admit I harbored relatively strong sentiments toward a particular side during the CART/IRL years. However, I do agree with the belief there is zero good that can come from perpetuating that specific debate. Still, those who dismiss this matter as partisan trivial nonsense, greatly miss the importance of this issue. Worse, they are only perpetuating the very subject they profess to loathe.
See, calling for Tracy's 2003 win to be recognized alongside Wheldon's 2005 victory, and Hinchcliffe's from yesterday, does not exacerbate the divide. Rather, it is about closing an era of senseless division, recognizing there were many who the sport disenfranchised, and welcoming them back.
For example, while Tracy did not compete yesterday, I would imagine there were crewmen, P.R. staff, marshals, and others in St. Petersburg, who were part of that victory. Wouldn't you want to recognize their contributions? Or does IndyCar simply brush them aside, because they were accomplished under a different sanctioning acronym? That is the message I would construe from the omission.
Yes, if you think about it for a minute, those calling for Tracy's inclusion, aren't the ones exacerbating some antiquated divide. Contrarily, it seems, they are the ones, who actually learned something from it.
A Few Quick Things:
—Granted, it’s not my life. Still, instead of constantly dodging trees and finding himself hanging by a guard rail off the edge of a cliff, Robert Kubica might be better off racing sports cars. With a return to the Formula One grid, much less a competitive ride, unlikely, Kubica can make a very comfortable living with a factory-based sports car team. At minimum, this silly rally habit has already ruined his F1 career. Kubica should probably reconsider before it ruins even more.
–I’m in the minority on this issue, as I have little problem with team orders in racing. However, if F1 is to ever gain anything more than a niche audience in America, they will need to eliminate team orders entirely.
–Something I take much greater exception to than team orders, is NASCAR’s idiotic policy of allowing drivers to police their race tracks. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “boys-have-at-it," is an archaic, moronic policy, in which NASCAR is complicit with visceral acts that are not simply dangerous, but arguably, criminal. Drivers turn cars into weapons in an attempt to maim, and the sanctioning body complies. That my friends has not only safety ramifications, but if you ask any attorney, legal ramifications, as well.
–Perhaps even worse than NASCAR's policy, is the pro-NASCAR media repeatedly avoiding the real issues of "boys have at it," in lieu of gooing and gushing over the attention it garners. We hear how great it is for drivers show their personalities, as if turning a car into a weapon is somehow a personality. It’s sad not only that NASCAR revels in such behavior, but those who cover the sport — those responsible for conveying the news to the public — are too afraid, too dumb, or both to report the policy for what it is. Sadly, that makes them, part of the problem.
Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar columnist for AutoRacing1.com. His first memory of Indy car racing is Danny Sullivan’s 1985 “Spin and Win," at Indianapolis.
Brian lives in Rockville, MD. He is a lifelong fan of the Washington Redskins and passionate supporter of Manchester United. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @BrianC_AR1