HPD Blog

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Paddock Report - Toronto 7/12/09

Once again, I’ve managed to get a bit (!) behind on these reports, but I’ll do my best over the next couple of days to get caught up, starting with the Honda Indy Toronto.

It was great to return to one of my favorite cities, anywhere. Toronto is just such a cool city, with everything you’d find in New York or Chicago, but on a slightly smaller – and much more polite! – scale. It was my first time back to T.O. in a couple of years, and the first time for Honda to be back for “The Indy”, as the locals call it, since 2002.

When we arrived, last week’s race at Watkins Glen (July 5) – the most exciting race of the season on EITHER an oval or road course – was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Dale Coyne was passing out cigars (genuine Cubans!) with commemorative bands on them celebrating his team’s first CART/Champ Car/IndyCar win) to just about everyone he saw, and I think some of his guys were still hung over from the post-race party at Seneca Lodge….

As many of you know, Honda Canada was the title sponsor in Toronto, and they did a fair bit of activation in the weeks leading up to the race. And, although the weekend crowds were not at the levels of the peak CART years, it was a healthy turnout and hopefully (given the action-filled race that followed), something that can be built on in the coming years.

Despite a very short turn-around from The Glen to Toronto, there were a couple of new paint jobs on display here: at Vision, Ed Carpenter had the dark gray, William Rast paint job that Ryan Hunter-Reay had run earlier in the year; Tony Kanaan traded “Nestle Pure Life” bottled-water blue for his customary 7-Eleven Green; and then, there was Will Power’s gorgeous, retro-yellow Penske Truck Leasing paint job, looking for all the world like the ’87 Indy 500-winning Hertz car of Al Unser, Sr.

Toronto marked the return of “The Thrill from West Hill”, Paul Tracy, back with KV Racing and supported by the Ontario Honda Dealers Association. His red and white paint scheme was dedicated to woundedwarriors.ca, which supports injured Canadian soldiers. Finally, Quebec (parlez-vous Francais-Canadien???) was represented by the return of Conquest Racing and Alex Tagliani. Both would have featured roles in the race on Sunday…

To me, the track looked pretty much the same as I remembered it from more-than-a-half-decade ago, but a couple of drivers (Wilson, Tags, Tracy) said it felt a bit rougher than they remembered. Don’t know if the track has grown some new bumps, or if current-generation Dallaras are just a bit stiffer than the previous Champ Car Panozes (Panoi? Ponzis?); but if I had to bet, I’d say it’s probably a result of stiffer wheel rates on the IndyCars.

Meanwhile, it was not the finest of Fridays for Andretti Green Racing, at this, a race they’re promoting. Only “DateHideki@Indycar.com” Mutoh escaped the day unscathed:

· Marco Andretti spun braking for Turn 1, very gently touching the wall. He continued.

· Tony Kanaan very nearly crashed at Turn 8, getting very hard on the brakes and just barely missing the tire barrier, while flat-spotting (ruining) his own.

· Danica Patrick, on the other hand, was not able to continue after the rear end stepped out as she exited Turn 5. She made hard contact with the inside wall, causing substantial rear-suspension damage that ended her day.

· TK ended the day 10th; Marco 15th; Danica 21st and Mutoh 22nd.

Rookie Rafa Matos (who HAS run here previously in Atlantics) ended the day on top of the time sheets, followed by Justin Wilson, Will Power and “Bobby D” Doornbos. The common link – cue up CSNY’s “Déjà Vu” – they’ve all been here before.

Saturday morning, IndyCar practice had barely started when the skies opened up to the point where the session was halted, which, literally, precipitated a 30-minute “all skate” once things were semi-dry again.

…and the rain did nothing to improve AGR’s weekend, as Kanaan lost it in the final corner and made HARD contact with the wall. Next was Marco. Same corner, but just his nosecone paid the price. Completing the trifecta, Ed Carpenter also spun and hit the Turn 11 wall, damaging a couple of A-arms.

And these guys weren’t the only ones, just those I could track easily from Pit Lane. Frankly, nearly everyone who bothered to go out ended up having “issues”. Several decided that it was better to park their cars, and quite a few others never made bothered to complete a lap in the session.

By the end of the session, E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes were the only drivers on track. More on this pair, later.

BTW, if you haven’t seen them already, check out Paul Tracy’s blogs on the Racer.com website. They’re a hoot. For example, take his description of taking out his IndyCar on the greasy, diesel-fuel-stained, wet streets of Toronto: “Bambi on skates….” Still, he was quickest of the 18 cars that actually bothered to post a lap time.

Although it was getting drier by the minute, the Indy Lights race was declared a wet race, so all drivers were required to start on wet tires. So pit stops – from teams not accustomed to making them – would figure in the outcome.

Mario Romancini was the first to stop for dry tires, at the end of Lap 1. But the stop took a full lap and left the Andersen Racing driver at the back of the field.

By Lap 9, pretty much everyone had changed to dry tires, with Richard Philippe being the last. Indy Lights pit stops are a little more difficult - not only do the cars have to be manually jacked, each stub axle has a wheel-retaining safety pin that has to be removed. Definitely not the seven-second pit stops we're used to in IndyCars.

Unlike their IndyCar brethren, the AGR/AFS Racing team dominated. J.R. Hildebrand managed to pass teammate Sebastien Saavedra in the pits. All credit to the crew - their two cars were over 15 seconds ahead of James Hinchcliffe in third when the stops wrapped up. On the other end, Vision’s James Davison went from second to eleventh on his pit stop.

Quickest guy on the track, Saavedra was all over the back of Hildebrand as they encountered lapped traffic. Saavedra used a lapper as a “pick” and checked out. J.R. was next for an AGR/AFS 1-2, with local boy James “Hinchtown” Hinchcliffe a VERY popular third. An interesting race, but no classic.

On to IndyCar qualifying and – I’m really not trying to pick on AGR here – but Kanaan spun at Turn 8 in his newly repaired car and stalled. Before he could get cleared, teammate Hideki Mutoh came around the corner, had nowhere to go and plowed into the tires to avoid hitting Tony. Hideki's damage was confined to the nose, but it just goes to show how, on some days, bad can pile upon bad.

In the second round of qualifying, Ryan Hunter-Reay brought out a local yellow when he spun at Turn 8. Raphael Matos touched the wall with his right rear but was able to come back to Pit Lane under his own power. But the news from the second group was who advanced and who didn't. Both Team Penske cars missed advancing, as did Scott Dixon. Alex Tagliani set the fastest lap in the second round.

In the final round, Wilson went out on scuffed ‘reds’ (tires) early, then switched to a set of sticker ‘blacks.’ Graham Rahal held the pole for a bit, until beaten by Dario Franchitti. Franchitti decided he could do no better and pulled onto Pit Lane. From there, he watched as Rahal, Tagliani and the rest were unable to improve. As usual in road-course qualifying these days, it was a cool session with Dario leading Power, Rahal, Wilson, Tags and a pleasantly surprising Mike Conway.

In fact, Conway was singled out by Franchitti in the press conference, with the pole-sitter saying the Dreyer and Reinbold Racing driver had done a hell of a job in his first visit to Toronto. Conway was the only member of the Fast Six who had not raced at Toronto before. Conway has had a tough rookie season, with plenty of speed but (as even he would admit) too many crashes. However, he finished sixth at the ‘Glen a week earlier, and a lot of people were hoping Mike had finally turned things around.

Let’s close out Saturday with some Toronto Trivia:

One of the signature TV shots you see here features something called Princes’ Gate: a large, vaguely arch-like sculpture with an angel on top, behind Turn 1. It was built in 1927 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the confederation of Canada. It’s similar, yet very different, to the founding of the good ‘ole U.S. of A. However, when it was heard that two of the sons of the British King (George V) were visiting, the structure/memorial was given its current name.

The angel on the top is actually called the "Goddess of Winged Victory", and is modeled after the statue of the Greek goddess Nike found at the Louvre. The statue was replaced with a copy in the late 1980s because the original was falling apart. No idea if that deficiency was blamed on the two sons of the British monarch as well, but further modifications to the Princes' Gates are now protected under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Thank you, Cliff Claven.

After humidity on Friday and Saturday’s rain, Sunday featured the best weather of the weekend, and also the largest crowd. As mentioned previously, it wasn’t anything like the “old days”, but still encouraging.

In the race, Dario got very lucky on the timing of his final pit stop to help him pull away and win for the third time this season. Franchitti managed to get on Pit Lane just seconds before it closed for an incident between Rahal and Carpenter on Lap 59.

Franchitti was then moved in front of Paul Tracy by Race Control, putting him into second place behind Helio Castroneves. Franchitti passed Helio on Lap 65 and cruised to the win, never being challenged despite a couple of late restarts.

So, one of the “Big Two” teams won, once more. But, for a time mid-race, it looked like a fairy-tale ending just might be possible, as Tags and PT spent a number of laps running 1-2.

After sitting out the last three races due to financial constraints, Conquest Racing DROVE from Indy to Toronto in its Honda-provided Odysseys. The Hyatt Regency Toronto footed the team’s hotel rooms in exchange for some on-car exposure, and the Rexall Edmonton Indy and King Tut Exhibition sponsorships were joined by those of Sears Canada, Craftsman and The Keg, or Eric Bachelart’s team would not have made it.

Tagliani made a great start and tucked in behind Franchitti as they funneled through Turn 1. After Franchitti pitted on Lap 24, Tags led 21 of the next 35 laps and appeared to be in the catbird seat, despite all the different fuel strategies separating the field.

But, just as in 2001 at Toronto, when Alex had everyone covered but lost to Michael Andretti because of a bad break under caution, a full-course yellow flew just as Dario pitted on Lap 59 and, by the time Tags pitted after the packup, he was shuffled back to 11th place.

Tags’ efforts earned him steady cheers during all three days, but his old sparring partner from CART, PT, stole the show. Starting 15th, Tracy immediately picked off five positions and began his march to the front. To appreciate what “The Thrilla” means to his hometown and to this race, one only needed to stand back and listen.

When he slid under Conway for third place on Lap 28, the fans watching the big screen roared their approval. When he muscled Scott Dixon out of the way for second on the next lap, the grandstands were vibrating and suddenly, the only two Canadians in the race were running 1-2.

As mentioned above, Franchitti pitted moments before the full-course yellow waved on Lap 59. That both ruined Tags’ chances and led to Dario beating his old KOOL teammate, Tracy, to the blend/timing line as he exited the pits.

When three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves missed Turn 1 on Lap 65, Franchitti made the easiest first-place pass of his career and Helio was saving all the fuel he could to make the finish.

Running full-rich, PT ran down Castroneves at the end of the long Lakeshore Drive straight on Lap 66. The two were almost side-by-side heading for the left-handed Turn 3, but that wasn’t gonna last – and didn’t – as the pair locked wheels going through Turn 4. Tracy was out on the spot, while Castroneves limped into Pit Lane and retirement.

For maybe the first time in his career, Helio heard boos – long and loud. Then, the crowd behind the pits began chanting “Helio sucks”. Tracy defused a public lynching by stopping Helio as he walked back to the paddock, and they shook hands.

Other notes of interest from TO:

-- Both Ryan Briscoe and Will Power sustained cut tires from contact right at the green (or just BEFORE, in the case of Power) and rebounded with alternate pit strategies to finish on the podium.

-- Mario Moraes had his usual up-and-down day - he went from leading on fuel strategy to hitting or touching so many cars that we lost count. Heck, Moraes hit E.J. Viso from behind after the checkered flag on the backstretch, as the pair carried over some bad blood from the race.

-- Alex Tagliani wore a King Tut headpiece in driver introductions. Yeah, he looked silly, but ya’ do what ya’ gotta do to get a ride (see also: Alex Lloyd’s pink firesuit and paint job at Indy).

-- Late in the race, however, Alex “blotted his copybook” and plowed into the back of Tomas Scheckter, sending Scheckter into the tires. Scheckter did his post-crash trademark “tossing of the gloves”, when Tagliani came back around following the incident.

-- As for AGR’s performance, it was kind of the same as it’s been all season - Danica Patrick turned in a quietly consistent finish in sixth (running the last 37 laps on her set of ‘red’ tires), Tony Kanaan had a crash (he made contact with the wall that broke his left-rear suspension), and Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh were on track but were not factors.

-- Mike Conway also had his “typical” day – showing flashes of great promise, followed by a mistake that knocks him from the race. He seems really talented, but really, really needs a good race. Soon.

-- Before the race started, I noticed that several teams brought out not one, but two spare nose assemblies to keep in the pit area. That seemed like a good indication that we would see a full-contact IndyCar Series race - and we did.

Leaving the track on Sunday night, fans taking the time for one last look at the big screens could see “Floyd”, a large, plastic, pink flamingo. Floyd actually existed - zip-tied to the catch fence at the end of pit lane. The message next to Floyd's picture kind of summed things up well - "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. Thank You, Toronto".

All in all, this was a really good race, one of the best of the season (along with Watkins Glen). There was passing, there was blocking, there were unforced errors, and some forced errors. There was contact that did not cause a crash and some that did, plus a little officiating controversy and even a little incidental contact after the checkers.

Finally, when all was said and done, the fastest car won. All-in-all, a great day at the races.

P.S.

Plans for an Indy 500 movie focusing on the inaugural 500 in 1911 are moving ahead, as is the construction of a replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from that first “500”. The model track (actually a one-mile oval) will be a part of the new Prairie Hills Motorsports Club in Lake Village, Indiana (southeast of Chicago).

Pre-production for the flick has begun and casting is supposed to start in October. Filming is scheduled to start in May, 2010. For more details, the website
http://www.prairiehillsmc.com/facility/the_track.html is a link to the Prairie Hills Club and the “500” track, and you can read more about it at http://www.ibj.com/html/detail_page_Full.asp?content=40912

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