HPD Blog

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Paddock Report: Mid-Ohio 8/09/09

Mid-Ohio: is there a more aptly-named race circuit, anywhere? You get off the interstate somewhere north of Columbus and south of the swingin’ metropolis of Lexington; cruise through a dozen miles of countryside, down some two-lane surrounded by corn fields and related agricultural flora; dodge the odd Mennonite buggy or 2; bop up over the top of a small hill and – whoop – there it is: the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Yep, in a lot of ways, going to Mid-Ohio is like returning to the glory days and venues of CART at its mid-90s best, at circuits like Laguna Seca, Road America, Michigan Speedway and New Hampshire. All were/are fantastic race tracks located somewhere east of nowhere. All had great racing (most years). All had huge crowds and plenty of atmosphere.

All had big-time traffic issues, too (well, there is a price to pay for fame and popularity…..).

Thanks in no small part to the huge turnout from Honda of America Manufacturing associates, Mid-Ohio is just like that. Since rejoining the IndyCar Series in 2007, big crowds and big atmosphere have been a hallmark of the Mid-Ohio IndyCar weekend, along with a big race schedule including the American Le Mans Series, Indy Lights, Formula Atlantic and SCCA World Challenge – a lot of everything for anyone who loves road racing.

Since we all left Kentucky a weekend earlier, the first round of driver “musical chairs” had begun, beginning with Robert Doornbos. “Bobby D” had been unhappy for some time at Newman Haas Lanigan (and the antipathy was returned in equal measure from teammate Graham Rahal), so Doornbos took advantage of an “out” in his contract after 10 races to bolt to HVM Racing, where he had driven with some success – including a thrilling wet/dry win at St. Jovite – in Champ Car.

Replacing Doornbos at NHL – for now – was veteran and all-‘round good guy Oriol Servia. One of a half-dozen experienced drivers on the sidelines, it was great to have the Spaniard back where he belongs, behind the wheel, even if its just for a few races until a suitable (ie..funded) replacement is found. Alex Lloyd is that likely replacement for ’10, and he’ll be driving for the team at Homestead next month.

Meanwhile, Mario Moraes was absent from Mid-Ohio due to the death of his father earlier that week. The senior Moraes was a genuinely nice guy, a gentleman of the old school, and an enthusiastic supporter of his son’s racing. We all knew he had been struggling with cancer for some time, but it was still sad to hear that he had finally lost the fight.

In Mario’s place, KV Racing tracked down “part-time” wheelman Paul Tracy at the Sturgis motorcycle festival, and brought him in to drive the #5 car.

It’s not a driver change, but Dale Coyne Racing arrived in style at Mid-Ohio, the team’s transporter featuring a brand new “wrap” showing an image of the team celebrating in victory lane at Watkins Glen. It was striking, really cool looking, just like a real, grown-up race team.

Back to drivers. He wasn’t at M-O, but it didn’t take long for word to get around that AGR would be running a FIFTH car at Sonoma for Franck Montagny, with the car prepped and run by shop-based staff and a couple of guys “borrowed” from other teams for that weekend only. Is it a try-out for 2010? A fifth voice added to the chorus of driver opinions in the engineering sessions? Or are they shopping a potential sponsor for oh-10 with a traditional Sonoma “wine & dine” job? It’s just one more issue in the virtual “Peyton Place” that AGR has become this year.

Also on the AGR front, and following up on my “damper discourse” from Edmonton, it was interesting to learn that the team had switched from Dynamics-brand shocks to Penskes at Kentucky, where – coincidentally? – Kanaan has one of his strongest outings this season.

For years, AGR had an exclusive deal with Honda-owned Showa for their damper program, and it definitely worked to their advantage (along with big-time Honda horsepower…..). But that all went away some time ago. Penskes are probably the most popular dampers in IndyCar, but among some teams, there’s always the feeling that a little sumthin’ sumthin’ is “held back” from the customer units, compared to the dampers run by #3, #6, and sometimes #12.

So if you’re an IndyCar team owner or engineer, and you don’t want/trust Penskes, where do you go? Ohlins are an option, as are Dynamics, distributed by one Carl A. Haas Automotive Imports (hmmm, is that any relation to the ‘Haas’ of Newman Haas Lanigan? Yew betcha).

An intelligent and good guy, Alan O’Leary, heads up Dynamic, and NHL is certainly having a relatively competitive season. But AGR is equally, certainly, struggling, so Changes Are Being Made, and one of them was the switch from “Brand D” to “Brand P” on all four AGR cars at Mid-Ohio.

But that’s [more than] enough about dampers. Because, as much as success at Toronto was about getting the car to make rapid left/right transitions; Edmonton was about working over the corner exit bumps; and Kentucky was about aero and “Push to Pass”; Mid-Ohio was All About Tires.

In a nutshell, on a warm and humid day, Justin Wilson’s car was excellent on the alternate “Red” Firestones. Starting from the outside of the front row, Wilson pulled off a cool, unusual pass of pole qualifier Briscoe coming out of “Thunder Valley” (thanks, “Push to Pass”!) and simply checked out during the first stint, holding a six-second lead over the field at the first round of pit stops.

But Scott Dixon was dominant on the regular “Black” compound. And this is not the first road course rodeo for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixie sat back in third place for the first 22 laps, conserving fuel. Then, when all the major players pitted on Laps 29-30, Scott turned up the wick, cranking off three successive maximum effort laps before he finally pitted, the last of the front-runners to do so.

It wasn’t enough to get in front of Wilson, as the tall Brit had just been TOO strong, and the gap too large prior to the pit stops. But it did get Dixon around Briscoe for second, and right on Justin’s gearbox as he exited pit lane.

Believe me, if the rules allowed for it, Wilson and his Coyne team would’ve run Reds all race long …

With Dixon now on Black tires and quicker, all he needed was an opportunity: a bobble by Wilson, a full-course yellow, or maybe a little ‘help’ from lapped traffic….

Hu-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-o, Milka……

Going down the long M-O backstraight, the leaders came up on Milka, running pretty much in the middle of the road, as usual. Wilson hesitated, just briefly, trying to figure out the best way to pass Duno through the “Madness” sequence of down-up-up-and-down-hill corners (that’s a right, left, left, right for those of you playing along at home).

That hesitation was all Dixon needed, and he was past both Wilson and Duno in less time than it took to write this sentence.

Wilson, running a long stint on his final set of Reds, hung close behind. But the Coyne braintrust tried keeping Wilson out just one lap toooo long on fuel… Justin ran dry coming into the Carousel, coasting into his pit box with an empty tank. This also cavitated the fuel pump, so he stalled while trying to leave the pit box. Game over.

Dixon romped to a huge, 29-second margin of victory for his 20th IRL win (a league record) and 21st overall, including his CART win at Nazareth in 2001. He still has a ways to go to catch all-time leader A.J. Foyt (at 67), but is only a couple behind both Helio Castroneves and teammate Dario Franchitti. Others at the top of the all-time win list include Mario Andretti (52), Michael A. (42), and Al Unser and Paul Tracy (both at 38).

Dixon also took over the IndyCar points lead. Incredibly, it’s the 12th time the championship leader has changed in 13 races this year.

As for AGR, in general, the team was much more competitive than it had been earlier this season, although once again NONE of the drivers made the “Fast Six” final qualifying group on Saturday. Still, Mutoh finished a hard-charging fifth, battling Ryan Hunter-Reay (having his own very strong race) for fourth all the way to the finish. Marco was just behind in sixth. Danica had a decent race going until being punted out by Mike Conway. Kanaan actually qualified best of the lot (eighth) but a decision to go “off sequence” as early as the seventh lap doomed his chances. Did the shock change work? The jury is still out.

Some final M-O notes:

  • Blisters - we saw blistered tires for the first time in a long time. Trackside Online reported that both Briscoe and Wheldon blistered the right front on red tires. Wilson’s Reds always looked good. Funny how often “identical” cars can perform so differently.
  • I must confess I’m not a “twitterererer” yet. But it definitely has caught on in the paddock and you can follow along with any number of IndyCar and Indy Lights drivers through the course of a race weekend – and often during their lives away from the track as well. Leading tweeters include Tony Kanaan, Paul Tracy, Tomas Scheckter, Will Power, Pippa Mann and James Davison. In addition, Vision Racing is VERY active on the Twitter scene, and has been hosting regular “tweet-ups” at race weekends this year.
  • Gil de Ferran held a press conference to announce he is retiring from driving (again) at the end of the season. He said he is going to expand his race team to include the IndyCar Series in 2010. Film at 11.
  • As mentioned at the top of this recap, there was a huge crowd of campers at Mid-Ohio. This track isn't really located near...well, anything, but they do a fantastic job in getting people to show up. The fans come out early, stay all weekend and are very knowledgeable on their racing. DID you see the overhead video during the TV telecast of the race? The place was FULL!
  • On the silly season front, in addition to de Ferran, both Fernandez Racing and Highcroft Racing are working to put together an ICS effort in 2010. Dale Coyne says he’ll have a pair of cars next year, and HVM is also planning on a two-car effort.
  • Paul Tracy was his usual entertaining self on his blog, carried on both his own website and the RACER magazine site. PT is both forthright and funny, and while you may not always agree, you'll always be entertained.
  • James Davison picked up his second career Indy Lights victory, both coming at Mid-Ohio. But unlike last year, when he lucked into a win under very strange circumstances (in the rain, the leader mistook the white flag for the checkered and pitted on the last lap), this year he dominated, leading from flag-to-flag.
  • It was Vision Racing's first win in any category, and team owner Lauren George is another entertaining blogger (her stuff can be found on the Vision website).

-- Dan Layton


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