Welcome to the new IndyCar racing series.
Gone are the days of cars that sound like trash compactors. Gone are the day-long parades where passing an opponent is tougher than passing a kidney stone. Gone is the dominance of the Big Race Teams, at least in perspective to the past.
The 38th Long Beach Grand Prix was one of the most interesting since the days of the powerful Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the era of the Unsers, Mario Andretti, Fittipaldi – when competition was stiff and the cars truly impressive beasts.
There were nine lead changes. There were seven different leaders. In the last five laps, Simon Pagenaud was cutting into Will Power's lead at the rate of one second per lap before running out of laps. Four one-car race teams claimed four of the top eight finishes. Penske, a name long revered, won its first LBGP since 2001.
IndyCar shook up its model for 2012, with three different engine makers (Chevy, Honda and Lotus), and a chassis that provides better safety (tire guards, a rear bumper), and added rules like an open pit lane on yellow caution flags and a 10-spot grid penalty for teams that make engine changes before a race.
That pre-race penalty put all 11 cars using a Chevrolet engine further down the grid. At the end, six of the top seven finishers were Chevys, which makes one wonder if adding a handicap component to IndyCar might make for better racing. No matter. The other additions alone have put the throttle back in the series. Everyone has a different reason why.
Power, who won the 2008 LBGP, the last year of the Champ Car era, says it's the tires. The Firestone tires now being used run tighter on the track but degrade quicker, adding strategy to the race. "They hold the track better in the turns," the Australian driving for Team Penske said.
Pagenaud, the Frenchman who gave the Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports team its first-ever podium finish, says it's the engines, and the rules that give teams more discretion in how they tune it.
"The engineering was the difference for me today," he said. "I think the one-car teams can have success now, because you can focus on the one car."
Pagenaud's team uses a Honda engine.
"I don't necessarily think Chevy is better," he said. "The competition is very tight. The Penske and Andretti teams have a lot (of resources) and are strong as a team, but it's a matter of what happens in the moment."
Takuma Sato, who is helping bring Rahal/Letterman racing back, had his Honda poised to finish third before getting bumped on the last lap and finishing eighth.