Sunday, October 26, 2008

Race Report: Briscoe sends Aussies home happy

It just had to happen, an Aussie winning the Australian Indy Car race, and it was Penske's Ryan Briscoe who did it, this with a little help from fellow Aussie Will Power who screwed things up spectacularly. In a bit of a surprise the race did not feature rain, something which is normally seen at Surfers and also in a little bit of a surprise most of the drivers were fairly well behaved on the track, with one notable exception, more on that later......

At the green flag there was some jostling and down at the back there was a spot of bother at the back when Mario Moraes and Vitor Meira tangled, pitching Meira into a spin and doing some cosmetic damage to Moraes's car. A few laps later this slight damage would turn into bigger damage as the suspension broke, pitching Mario into a wall and bringing out the caution flag. Will Power led from the start, looking very comfortable with a stable 3 second lead over countryman Briscoe before the yellow and after the caution he pulled out a lead again. This lead came to a horribly embarassing end for the polesitter when on lap 17 he screwed it up royally at turn five, clipping the wall. He limped down to turn 6 and pulled off course, handing the lead to Briscoe. A sheepish Power was apologetic when he talked to the cameras, taking full responsibility for his error which is refreshing, as excuses and finger pointing seem to be the norm in most forms of racing as opposed to manning up and taking the blame. From then on it was pretty much all Briscoe, relinquishing the lead briefly during the pitstop shuffles but led until the end. Meanwhile down in the field there was trouble here and there. At one point Danica Patrick got on television for all the wrong reasons by running into the back of Helio Castroneves. Her broken front wing and Helio's punctured rear tyre said it all about who was to blame for the incident as she went for repairs. The biggest and most notable incident came on lap 22 when there was trouble in the midfield as Road-Course slowpoke Ed Carpenter and the excitable young Graham Rahal came together, pitching Ed into a spin. This blocked the track and both AJ Foyt IV and Danica Patrick came around, got flustered, and stalled their engines. A frantic Danica was seen on TV waving her arms to get restarted, but it was lesson two from the Danica Patrick school of how not to run an automobile race. This whole mess brought out the safety car (a legitimite Safety Car for a change) and the resulting pitstops screwed a few people's races, most notably Dario Franchitti. What happened was that most drivers pitted just before the caution came out, shuffling Dario to the lead. Unfortunately for Dario the pits are closed after the Safety Car comes out and so he had to let everyone bunch up behind him before making his stop, dropping himself down the pack. He tried to charge hard to return to the front but dropped the ball on lap 29 and spun, bringing out the third and final caution period. When the race restarted the order was Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Alex Tagliani, and Ryan Hunter Reay, the last two having very good races. There wasn't a whole lot of action at the front, but there was one incident between Tagliani and Hunter-Reay in the pits where Tags slowed more than Hunter-Reay was expecting and Hunter-Reay made light contact with the rear of Tagliani's car. Nothing serious but the pitstops did allow RHR to leapfrog Tags. The real action was over fifth, sixth and seventh between Oriol Servia, the accident-prone EJ Viso, and Helio Castroneves, who recovered nicely from the assault by Danica. There was plenty of passing, EJ Viso got himself in hot water first for blocking (being forced to cede a place to Servia) and then for cutting the chicane, which earned EJ only a warning. In the end he held of Castroneves, but there were some hairy moments (as there often is when people get close to Viso) but rather surprisingly there was no contact at all. In the closing laps Briscoe had a two second lead over Dixon but had it erased via a third display of terrible driving from Ms Danica Patrick, who was being lapped and did not seem to realize that she had mirrors and spent the better part of a lap holding up Briscoe. Whether she takes driving tips from Andrea De Cesaris or she was exacting revenge on Briscoe for their contact during the Indy 500 we will never know, but suffice to say the Penske people were none to amused with her and walked down to the AGR pit to ask some questions. This was definitely a day to forget for Danica Patrick and only adds fuel to the fire of the detractors. This allowed Scott Dixon to close up on Briscoe and the two raced hard until the end of the race, with Briscoe holding out. The final notable incident was on the last lap when Ed Carpenter, another driver not having the best of days, stuffed his Vision car into a tyre barrier. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third, another good road course result for him. After his little love-tap on Tagliani in the pits (not the first time this kind of incident happened between those two) he managed to pull away to grab the podium place while Tagliani held on to fourth, coming under pressure from Servia in the closing laps. This was a very good race for Tagliani, scoring a much needed result for Conquest, Enrique Bernoldi who? Fifth went to Servia, who saved face for KV racing after Power's horrendous boob, followed home by the always exciting Viso, Castroneves, Hideki Mutoh, Graham Rahal, and Dan Wheldon. 13 drivers were on the lead lap and there were only five retirements. Moraes after his crash, Townsend Bell for "contact" although due to TV issues I don't know who or what he hit, Tony Kanaan with a Mechanical failure, Will Power with a brain failure, and Ed Carpenter with a case of crashitis.

The three stars of the race are
1st Star: Ryan Briscoe,
2nd Star: Alex Tagliani
3rd Star: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Three Boobs of the race
1st Boob: Will Power
2nd Boob: Danica Patrick
3rd Boob: Ed Carpenter

Now a word about television coverage. I am very unhappy with how race coverage was made available. Firstly the race was only on ESPN classic in the United States, not exactly a common channel, and secondly it was not on television at all here in Canada. OK, this kind of thing happens with a non-championship race but I can let it slide. The big problem was that race coverage was not available on the IndyCar website as it usually is. It was on ESPN360, a service only available in the United States and only available through certain Internet Providers. Those not blessed with these conditions were stuck listening to the radio and the live timing service, with the exception of the more resourceful of us who managed to find some semi-legit video streaming elsewhere. This is a downright stupid way to try to market a sport and encourage potential sponsors as one of the basic ideas of marketing is to get your message out to as many people as you can for the least amount of money. I do not know how much the IRL pays ESPN to put their coverage on the IndyCar website, but I can't imagine it not to be worth it. The IRL only served to alienate and piss off it's most loyal fans, which is something the league can't afford to do in such delicate economic times. Way to go IRL.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Talking IndyCar

After some time off without blogging (sorry for no Chinese GP report, did not have time to see the race). I am back and talking about the IRL with a preview of tonight's non-championship race in Australia as well as some news and rumours.

Will Power will be on pole for the Surfer's race, on a track that rewards experience and Road Course skill. The Surfer's track is very fast for a Street course with some high speed chicanes that leave no margin for error. This is also an event that usually features rain and surprise winner, in fact the only driver to win at Surfer's more than once is Sebastien Bourdais, who won there twice, more on Mr. Bourdais later. The starting grid highlights the experience and road course skill required with drivers like Alex Tagliani qualifying very well in 7th while the oval specialists like Danica Patrick, AJ Foyt IV, and Ed Carpenter were in all sorts of trouble and start near the back. This is a street course where passing is possible, rewarding the bravest and most talented drivers, thus I think that we will probably see a Ganassi victory tonight, with Dario Franchitti as my favourite, although he starts fourth as opposed to Dixon's second. Dario has won here in the past (1999) and has made a total of six starts at surfers. He appears not to have missed a single beat in Open wheelers after his unfortunate foray into NASCAR and has looked very strong. The Aussie pair of Will Power (1st) and Ryan Briscoe (3rd) will be the crowd favourites and also have a real good chance of winning this, as does dark horse Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2003 winner here, who lines up 5th. This could be a very interesting race, unfortunately here in Canada we won't be able to watch it live as TSN2 has decided to re-air a CFL game that they just finished showing on TSN instead of showing something live, thanks TSN.

The Rumour mill
The Rumour Mill starts turning in the French directon of Sebastien Bourdais. His future at Scuderia Toro Rosso in Formula One is up in the air, despite some really good performances recently and the four time Champ Car champion is pressuring team boss Gerhard Berger to clarify his future sooner rather than later. He is also looking for alternatives and has said he would want to come back to North American if he loses his job. Whether this means a return to Indycar remains to be seen, but in this hack's opinion it is not bloody likely he will be in a Dallara full time next year. For starters there are very few good seats available unless a top team decides to expand and I can't imagine Bourdais wanting to drive for Dale Coyne or Dreyer and Reinbold. Newman/Haas/Lanigan have yet to formally confirm Justin Wilson in the 02 car for next year and some people are suggesting that they are waiting on Bourdais for a decision, but I still don't see Bourdais replacing Wilson. I think the most likely scenario for Bourdais is the ALMS. He is a Le Mans boy through and through and desperately wants to win the famous 24 heures. He also has close ties to the Ambitious Peugeot Sports Car team who are rumoured to be interested in running some ALMS races next year. Bourdais will probably race for Peugeot in these select ALMS races and in the European LMES for them with maybe an appearance in the Indy 500. It would be great for the IRL to have Bourdais in a third NHL car, but not necessarily at the expense of Justin Wilson.

There are rumours of yet another small Indy Only team moving up to full time for next year. The team is Jason Priestlay's Rubicon race team who, according to Curt Cavin, have lined up somewhere around $6.5 Million dollars from 19 companies and are looking to run full time next year. $6.5 Million is a decent chunk of change, but still would be tight for a one car team and close to impossible for two cars. No word on who might be the drivers, but their 2008 Indy 500 drover Max Papis is planning to run some NASCAR races next year and with the money they have they will be hard pressed to pay an establised veteran like a Paul Tracy the money he will want. If this materializes I hope that they bring in someone from Indy Lights or Atlantics like a Richard Antinucci, an Ana Beatriz or Atlantic driver Jonathan Summerton. Many fans are clamouring for more American drivers in the series and small team are ideal to bring these young talents into the top flight. Although hiring drivers out of Europe may help the international exposure of the series, a lack of North American stars and drivers coming out of the feeder series sort of defeats the purpose of having a feeder series at all. The team may be able to snag an unemployed veteran like Tomas Scheckter or Darren Manning, but the series would be better off with new young talents.

Surfer's Paradise appears closer to a full time stay on the IndyCar schedule, although nothing is confirmed. Race Organizers have been quoted as saying the race will happen, but others are saying that a decision will be finalized within a few weeks or so. The stumbling block is the date. The Australian organizers want the race to be run in late October, but the IRL wants it in late September. The problem with September is a conflict with the Aussie Rules Football playoffs, which the organizers fear will sap fans from the race. The IRL wants to twin the event with the Motegi race, which is scheduled for September 19, making the 26th the most logical date for the Australia race. The Aussies want the race as the season finale, but the IRL wants the title showdown on an Oval in the United States and have promised that honour to Homestead-Miami speedway on October 11th. Theoretically they could push Homestead back by two weeks and run Motegi on October 4th and Surfer's on the 11th, but it may be too late for that as it could come into conflict with other events at those tracks, particularly Homestead which has a NASCAR race in early November. Hopefully an agreement is reached as Surfer's is a great event, but bickering and complication is what the IRL is all about so I will only believe any news that is officially confirmed as there is alot of negotiation still to come.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Race Report: Fernando 2.0

The 2008 Japanese Grand Prix was certainly an entertaining one. Even in the dry weather the Fuji Speedway circuit has proven to be a track where overtaking is possible and with the title contenders getting it spectacularly wrong in the opening laps the door opened for a winner from another team, and the man who took the bull by the horns was two time champion Fernando Alonso, who drove an incredible race to easily win the race from Robert Kubica and Kimi Raikkonen (remember him?). The race had numerous incidents, assloads of controversy and plenty of overtaking, making for a good spectacle. The fun and games began at the first corner when pole sitter Lewis Hamilton made a poor start and attempted a daft maneuver to regain the lead from Kimi Raikkonen. This resulted in Hamilton making contact with the defending world champion and forcing a bunch of cars wide, allowing Robert Kubica to lead Alonso and with the McLaren's and Ferrari's 5th-8th. Further back there was more drama as the scattering cars resulted in veteran David Coulthard getting tagged by someone. A couple of corners later his suspension broke, pitching the scot into the barriers. Lewis would end up getting a drive through penalty for his efforts which was justified. The next talking point was the following lap at the chicane complex at the back where Felipe Massa rather cruelly punted Hamilton into a spin, dropping the championship leader to the back of the pack and leaving him with a wounded McLaren. Felipe would get a drive through of his own for that boneheaded move. So as things calmed down it was Kubica from Alonso, but with Alonso running with a lot more fuel. At their first pitstops Fernando managed to leapfrog Robert, which essentially won him the race while ahead Jarno Trulli, Sebastien Bourdais, and Nelson Piquet took their turn at leading the race before they pitted. From then on the race at the front was between Kubica and Alonso, with the double world champion winning the battle. At the end of the race Kubica came under pressure from Kimi Raikkonen, resulting in a ding-dong battle which Kubica won. The second place, coupled with Felipe and Lewis's woes vaults Kubica back into championship contention. The Pole is 12 points back with two races to go, but with the two contenders working so hard to lose the championship there may still be an opening for him to surprise, or at least remain in contention going into Brazil. This race also featured some potentially job saving drives from Nelson Piquet and Sebastien Bourdais. Piquet finished fourth, right on the tail of Kimi Raikkonen, while Bourdais finished sixth on the road, ahead of Sebastien Vettel. Bourdais would cruelly have his points taken away after a ridiculous penalty for an incident with Felipe Massa. Bourdais came out of the pits and had the inside line while Massa tried to go around the outside. Bourdais had nowhere to go and Felipe chopped in front of him and clipped the front of the Toro Rosso, pitching his Ferrari into a spin. Somehow, maybe after too muck Sake, the stewards managed to rule that Bourdais was at fault when in reality he was a passenger in the whole mess and gave him a 25 second penalty, dropping him to tenth. This decision crucially boosted Felipe Massa to 7th, and an extra point, cutting the gap to Hamilton to five points. The Bourdais farce lifted teammate Seb Vettel to sixth, Massa to seventh, and Mark Webber to 8th, the "A" Red Bull team getting soundly beaten by the "B" team again. Of the other teams, Williams had yet another shitty day with Nico Rosberg being nowhere and Kaz Nakajima busting his front wing in the first corner shenanigans and finishing last. Honda as usual were crap again, this time Barichello beat Button while neither Force India finished the race, Sutil having a puncture break his suspension and Fisichella a broken gearbox.

This race has proven two things, one that Fernando Alonso is still probably the best driver in F1 and that Formula One needs to have permanent stewards. The Bourdais penalty went against Race director Charlie Whiting's orders and could have an important impact on the championship. I hope that the issue of stewarding gets addressed because the FIA does not need dubious stewarding decisions to be the main headline as opposed to the fact that the race was pretty entertaining when all is said and done.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Future of Roth Racing

Roth Racing, in their first full(ish) season were perpetual backmarkers who were saddled by an owner-driver who was out of his league and terrible management decisions regarding driver choices and it appears that the shit is about to hit the fan for this team once and for all. The word on the street, according to Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star, is that the IRL told Marty Roth that they would not renew his racing license. The 49 year old Roth (the oldest driver in the IRL this year) was apparantly outraged and has now decided to put his team up for sale. The team is reportedly asking $2 Million dollars for their factory, four cars, and two transporters and have already laid off a number of staff. Regular readers will know my opinion of Roth's driving abilities, but the team had some good people in the backroom who were able to put together some decent cars, especially on the ovals, and they had some good runs in the season, so long as it was the car that Roth himself was not driving and his staff could make a pretty good crew for a potential buyer. There are rumours that one of these Indy-only teams, like Rubicon Racing (owned by actor Jason Priestlay) could be interested and can afford the initial price tag, but can't afford to keep paying the remaining staff until they get some sponsorship ready, and Mad Dog Marty is naturally unwilling to foot a wage bill for a team he no longer owns. This will probably end up with the rest of the assets and staff being acquired individually by the existing teams and Roth Racing ceasing to exist. Although I will be happy to see Marty Roth out of the cockpit, it will be sad not to see what the team can do when not managed by an egotistical buffoon. If someone like Derrick Walker could put something together to buy the team and make it competitive. The issue, as always, is money and while Walker has management skills, he does not have enough money to buy Roth out and pay the staff until he gets the sponsorship to put the team on the ground. Walker would be more likely to buy the cars and transporters only and wait until he gets the necessary cash to build a team, leaving Roth's existing staff to join existing teams, but this scenario would be highly unlikely. Obviously a good solution would also be for Marty to step out of the cockpit and concentrate on management, putting someone like Jay Howard (who Marty is still paying not to drive) in the car, or cars, but with Mr. Roth's ego that could never happen. One less car in the grid will leave Stanton Barrett as probably the league's chief backmarker, unless Milka Duno keeps racing, and will deny a worthy driver (like erm, JAY HOWARD) an opportunity in the IndyCar series. Sad that despite the progress the league has made we still have clowns like Roth making the league look amateurish.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The dropping of the Canadian Grand Prix

In recent weeks there has not been a heck of a lot to talk about in the open wheel racing world, but today we all got a real shock, and that shock was the dropping of the Canadian Grand Prix from the 2009 Formula One schedule. Montreal has been a fixture on the F1 calendar for the last 30 years, with one exception being 1987 where a sponsorship row got the race canceled. There was no indication from any news source that this was going to happen and when the world motorsport council released their preliminary schedule in June there were no asterixes next to Montreal, no conditions, it was a done deal, the Canadian Grand Prix was scheduled for June 7, 2009, the 47th Canadian Grand Prix in total (if you count the pre-F1 years on the 1960's).

This will come as a major shock to the car manufacturers who are pressing the FIA to have more North American presence for Formula One and it will come as a major economic shock to the city of Montreal. The Grand Prix is the biggest event of the year with hundreds of thousands of tourists descending on Montreal for the weekend spending millions of dollars in the hotels, shops, and (especially) bars and restaurants. The Canadian Grand Prix is a major party, and there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that NASCAR or the IRL could create anything close to the same buzz that the Canadian Grand Prix creates year after year. Montreal and Quebec are the closest things you will find to Europe on the North American continent and the province of Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve are Formula One crazy and show their support for the race year after year by doing something that most other Grands Prix struggle to do, pay money to go and watch the race. Every year for the last few years the race has been a sellout and setting records in the process. This year alone over 300,000 people descended on the Ile Notre-Dame over the three days of the race, most likely (I would have to check some figures) the biggest attendance of the year for the three days of an F1 race. Not only is the Canadian Grand Prix well attended, it is also massively popular among the drivers and teams, with the buzz and atmosphere of the city-wide party being passed on to the drivers and teams.

One wonders what the reasoning for axing Montreal could be, as there was no indication this was coming and the FIA have yet to say why Montreal was dropped. There had been some issues with the circuit breaking up this year, but that was temporarily solved by a patching mechanism this year and is very easily fixable, and the other reason could be transportation costs, although I can't imagine it being much more expensive to fly from Europe to Montreal than it is to fly to Singapore or Shanghai..... There have also been suggestions that the FIA has decided to leave North America to NASCAR, but to me that seems silly. If the FIA were to do that it would indicate to me that they have no clue about Quebec, and they are incredibly stupid to abandon one of the largest and richest markets for cars in the world. The likes of Honda, Toyota, and BMW sell massive amounts of cars over here every year and know full well that an F1 presence over here will only help, not hinder their sales figures, so I can't imagine that the new Formula One Teams Association had much to do with decision. This also does not appear to be one of Mr. E's money grabs where he puts pressure on the organizers for higher fees because in June they had come to an agreement for 2009. To me this all points to the greed of FOM and the FIA. They saw that the teams wanted a summer break and were not about to drop a European race so they looked at the calendar and decided to drop the race that payed less in race fees than the likes of Bahrain, Singapore, Abu Dhabi et al, and tag Montreal is it!!! This is a ludicrous decision that lacks foresight and only smacks of a quick money grab at the long term detriment of the sport. Watch out Melbourne, you are next....................