IndyCar — Three up, Three down at Long Beach: The little-big team and the trials of reliability

Scott Dixon leads the field down the frontstretch to start the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach -- Photo by: Christopher Owens, INDYCAR

Round 2 of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, was settled this past Sunday with a pleasant mix of good racing, surprise performers, and tragic mechanical failures late in the race. Unlike many of the street races of past seasons, and quite unlike the IMSA race that same weekend, the IndyCar drivers kept their machines relatively unblemished and the race saw only three, relatively short full-course caution periods. The first was for a Lap 1 altercation between Will Power and Charlie Kimball in Turn 4, and the second two for mechanical failures Andretti Autosport teammates Alexander Rossi on Lap 63 and Ryan Hunter-Reay on Lap 81 of the 85-lap race. The failures of Rossi and Hunter-Reay were duplicated in their other teammates Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti resulting in none of the Andretti Autosport drivers making it to the checkered flag.

James Hinchcliffe celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach — Photo by: Chris Jones, INDYCAR

Hinchcliffe drove a masterful race, taking full advantage of his excellent P4 starting position and good strategy to dominate the last half of the race and win his first race since his victory at the New Orleans Motorsports Park in 2015. Pagenaud, who started at the rear of the grid due to a Round 1 qualifying penalty for impeding his Team Penske teammate Will Power, drove extremely well, but couldn’t pull off the worst-to-first trick, finishing a still respectable fifth. Helio Castroneves started from pole, but slid back in the order immediately after a disastrous race start. His poor start combined with two drive-through penalties for violating the pit lane speed limit relegated the Brazilian to a mid-pack racer most of the afternoon in spite of his setting the fastest lap of the race.

The story of the weekend was the continued performance of the Dale Coyne Racing duo of Sebastian Bourdais and Ed Jones. Bourdais finished 2nd behind Hinchcliffe, clawing his way up from his P12 starting position, and Jones finished in 6th after starting in 13th. This firmly secures Bourdais as the championship points leader, taking a 19-point lead over James Hinchcliffe into Round 3 of the season at the Barber Motorsports Park.

There was a lot that happened this weekend, some of it good and some of it not so good, so let’s break it down in our “Three Up, Three Down” for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Three Up

Great racing
Street races are notorious for being parades and none more so than the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Long touted as the “Monaco of North America”, the Long Beach race is often more of an event than an actual race. This year, an actual motor race broke out and we were treated to action and passing galore. While we saw passing and passing attempts at a few locations throughout the circuit, most of the action happened unsurprisingly in Turns 1, 2 and 3. Getting power down coming of the extremely tight Turn 11 hairpin, the tightest turn of the IndyCar season, proved to be critical to making a successful challenge for position going into Turn 1. This was obvious at the end of the race as Josef Newgarden was trying to take second place from Sebastian Bourdais in the waning laps of the race. Newgarden would close in on Bourdais throughout most of the circuit, but he fought with wheelspin coming off of Turn 11, compromising his exit speed to the point that even the advantage of using the Push2Pass was not enough to close sufficiently on Bourdais to attempt an overtake in Turn 1. It was still a great battle to watch.

The little-big team

Sebastien Bourdais on course during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach — Photo by: Christopher Owens, INDYCAR
Those of us who have been following IndyCar regularly over the years often default to thinking of Dale Coyne Racing as the little team with a shoestring budget that everyone loves, but always seems to just barely make it to the grid and fields second-tier drivers that finish in the back third of the field. Times change and so do teams. Coyne has developed a collection of strong partnerships and sponsorship programs that has allowed the team to invest is talent both behind the wheel and behind the pit wall. While we may continue to think of Dale Coyne Racing as “The Little Team that Could”, doing so does a great disservice to the great team that Mr. Coyne and assembled and the hard work they’ve put in to making the team a success. With Sebastian Bourdais finishing 2nd after winning the previous round, and Ed Jones finishing 6th, his second top-10 finish in as many races, Dale Coyne Racing finds their driver in the championship lead by 19 points over Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe, and 23 points ahead of the defending series champion, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud.

Chevrolet gains some ground
At St. Petersburg, only three Chevrolet-powered machines made it into the top-10, and they all belonged to Team Penske. The highest finishing Chevrolet that wasn’t part of the Team Penske stable was that of Ed Carpenter Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand who finished in 13th. At Long Beach, both Carlos Munoz and Spencer Pigot of AJ Foyt Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing, respectively, broke into the top-10 joining Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, and Josef Newgarden. That made for an even 5/5 split of the top-10 between Honda and Chevrolet. While the advantage, at least on street circuits, still seems to belong to Honda, the disparity between the performances of the two platforms is not as severe as some would have you believe.

The solid performance of both Munoz and Pigot are great not only for their respective teams, but also for Chevrolet as a manufacturer who now has only three teams on their side of the paddock. For Spencer Pigot especially, the good finish at Long Beach is a bit of vindication and validation after suffering a rather forgettable season last year. After watching Pigot climb through the Mazda Road to Indy ranks, I know the young driver has an abundance of talent. It’s good to see him finally adapting positively to the more powerful IndyCar platform. It helps Ed Carpenter Racing, of course, but it’s also a big help to Chevrolet’s efforts.

Three Down

What’s the deal with Helio?
Helio Castroneves qualifies like a demon, but races like …well… i don’t know what. Something that doesn’t race well. (I had something for this.) That might sound strange to say about a driver who routinely is in the top-five in points at the end of every season and is one of the few drivers in history to have won the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race three times. Consider, though, that Helio has not recorded a race win since his victory at Belle Isle in Detroit back in 2014. That was his singular victory in 2014, and in 2013 his again singular victory came at the Texas Motor Speedway. This is not to say that Helio isn’t a quick driver. Of course he is. After all, he won the pole position at this past weekend’s race and he set the fastest race lap. For whatever reason, though, putting it all together during a race to score a victory seems all too elusive in recent years, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Is it age? I don’t think so, but I don’t have a good handle on what is missing from his overall skill-set.

Andretti Autosport’s Reliability
After having three drivers in the top-10 at St. Petersbug, two in the top-5, and Alexander Rossi narrowly missing the top-10 in eleventh, all four Andretti Autosport machines suffered mechanical issues. The team finished in 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th place. Only Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball was behind the Andretti quartet after being taken out by contact with Will Power on Lap 1.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is interviewed along pit lane following the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach — Photo by: Richard Dowdy, INDYCAR
Marco Andretti was the first of the four Andretti Autosport drivers to suffer issues, but a sensor issue in the early laps of the race caused his car to sputter and lose drive. The rest of the squad ran strong for the majority of the race, with Ryan Hunter-Reay leading the race twice during the ill-fated afternoon. That didn’t last, however, as Alexander Rossi after running up front in the later stages had his Honda engine fail on Lap 63. Takuma Sato’s motor was next to expire, and Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered an electrical failure similar to Marco’s.

“We had a good showing for DHL and Honda today, but I don’t know what happened. It was something electrical. I tried cycling the car a few times and it didn’t fire. Then, once we had sat (in the runoff) for a few moments, we tried flipping a few switches and it fired back up again but it was too late to rejoin the race. It felt like the same issue we had at Pocono (2016). It really hurts when it’s that close to the end and I was closing on (Hinchcliffe); we were going to have a good showdown there at the end. That’s why this sport can be so rewarding and so cruel, there’s nothing you can do. Frustrating for sure but today it was out of our hands.” — Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport

So what’s the deal with the Andretti Autosport cars? None of the other Honda-powered machines suffered the same race-ending failures, and every single one of the Andretti Autosport cars ended up parked at the end of the race. Is this a case of catastrophically bad luck, the infamous Andretti Curse spilling over to other races, or does it point to a fundamental problem that’s hampering the teams success? Whatever the issue is, they’d better get it sorted by May.

Charlie Kimball treated like a football. …again
In the first two rounds of the IndyCar season, Chip Ganassi Racing driver Charlie Kimball has yet to complete a lap. In fact, in two races, he’s only successfully negotiated five corners. It’s not like Kimball has a history of tearing up equipment, although he is know to be a difficult person to pass. During the 2016 season, Kimball brought his car home every single race. So what’s new this year? At St. Petersburg, Kimball was clearly not at fault as Graham Rahal squeezed him into the inside wall as the two came out of Turn 2 and approached Turn 3. At Long Beach, however, the circumstances weren’t so clear cut. Kimball was battling Will Power for position when, after thinking that he had cleared Power’s car, he turned down toward the apex of Turn 4. Power made contact with his right rear sending both of them into the concrete barrier at the corner’s exit. Both cars were damaged, but only Kimball’s car was unable to resume competition. In this incident, which was ruled a “racing incident” by Race Control, an argument could be made that Kimball should have realized that Power was likely still on the inside, just as a case can be made that Power should have relented and yielded the corner knowing that he didn’t have the position. Either way, it results in an extremely unfortunate start to the 2017 season for Charlie.

So those are my take-away points from the race. What stories did you see or follow? Do you agree with my assessments above, or do you think I’m way off base? Let me know in the comment section below. Just remember to do so with civility and decorum.

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I don’t know of another driver who seems more sincere with calling racing a team sport than Hinch. His race yesterday was a demonstration of that. He drove superbly, benefitted from a bit of strategy, and had clean and quick pit stops. It was a solid performance by the team as a whol and I couldn’t be happier for him. A bit biased, but whatever. Marco’s weekend started out so promisingly and he was even pipped to do well in the race despite not qualifying very well, but that team had some terrible luck. I imagine they would gamble a… Read more »

John The Race Fan

Graham Rahal has shown a lot more humility and accolades for the efforts his team puts in to give him a capable car most weeks. That’s refreshing, considering Graham has historically been a master of the blame game.

The Dixon call to change strategy was very un-Ganassi like. Not only does Chip employ some of the best strategists atop pit boxes, they rarely make a faulty call. This time, they did.
Dixon picked up the slack and rallied to challenge for a podium spot. That’s teamwork personified.