HPD Blog

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Paddock Report/blog - Infineon, Sonoma CA August 2009

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done it; crossing the Golden Gate Bridge never fails to take my breath away. It’s a great way to start off a race weekend at Infineon Raceway – coupled with a stop at the In-n-Out Burger on the 101, at the Redwood Highway exit just north of Sausalito. One double-double, animal style, please….

I’m told that Infineon is one of the most popular stops on the IndyCar circuit for sponsors and their corporate guests, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a great setting, at the base of a proper foothill on which the circuit winds up, over, down, up and down again; with a proper mix of high- and low-speed corners. The Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries are just a short drive away, and it’s less than an hour to downtown San Francisco for guests who want to spend their time away from the track in one of the truly great cities of North America.

Infineon’s facilities are exactly what you’d want for a 21st-century road course. If Mid-Ohio was “state-of-the-art” in the 1980s (and it was, thanks to the late Jim Trueman), then Infineon shows everyone what a proper road course should be like, circa 2009. Starting with amenities for the fans, who can choose from the huge oval-style grandstand overlooking Turns 1-2; the terraced seating over the carousel and downhill esses; motorhome parking and campgrounds at the top of the circuit; or simply wander the hillsides in traditional road-course spectator fashion.

Throw in a mixture of permanent suites and Chalet Village tents for the corporate types, permanent garages for the teams, and a large-enough Media Center with a good view of the track, and you’ve got all the major bases covered.

As a bonus, you have the futuristic Jim Russell Racing School building and an adjoining industrial park, where more than two dozen racing operations have set up shop. A well-run race track should be able to “pay for itself” with its daily activities: schools, corporate days, team testing, etc. The big, “pro” weekends should be profit-making enterprises. Obviously, I don’t have access to Infineon’s books, but from the outside looking in, management appears to be doing everything right.

Finally, the trip offered a chance to catch up with Cali-based friends such as former Comptech owners Doug and Gail Peterson, and Memo Gidley, who lives in nearby Novato. And the Historic Formula One series was a part of the weekend show, giving us a chance to see (and hear!) some beautiful F-1 cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s running in anger once again.

As much as I’ve always loved Laguna Seca, I have to admit that Infineon is the better, and more appropriate, NorCal circuit for the IndyCar Series.

The big off-track news of the week was the long-rumored “breakup” of Andretti Green Racing, with Michael Andretti to be taking sole control of the race team at the end of the 2009 season, while partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree receive the “lovely parting gift” of Andretti Green Promotions, the subsidiary formed to promote the St. Petersburg and Toronto street races.

The deal has been in the discussion stage for some time, but while it’s been officially announced, it is still very much a work in progress. Both companies will get new names – expect something obvious like “Michael Andretti Racing” for the race team – and the possibility of new partners for one or both operations also exists. Then, there’s the issue of which staffers go where. The mechanics and engineers, obviously, will stay with the race team. But where will the front office, marketing and PR people all end up? Things will probably stay quiet until after the IndyCar finale at Homestead, but it’s sure to be a very interesting and busy off-season at 7600 N. Zionsville Road…

Meanwhile, apparent gluttons for punishment, the AGR team made a one-off expansion to FIVE cars at Infineon, with Franck Montagny making his IndyCar Series debut in the additional AGR car, prepped by a collection of shop-based crew, and mechanics “borrowed” from the other four cars. Now sure what this was all about. Maybe AGR “owed” Montagny an IndyCar start as a result of using him in its Acura American Le Mans Series car during the second half of last season; or perhaps they were putting him “on display” for a potential sponsor. In any event, it was one more quality addition to what started out as the largest IndyCar field since Indy.

On the heels of the recent death of Mario Moraes’ father came word that the mother of Ryan Hunter-Reay is also battling cancer. Until recently, she was being treated at the same Houston hospital as Mr. Moraes. At the conclusion of her latest round of treatments, but still too weak to fly commercially, team owner A.J. Foyt made his own plane available for the Hunter-Reay family to fly Ryan’s mother home to Florida. Say what you will about A.J., he has a huge heart.

On track, things got off to an extremely rough start for the IndyCar field. Very early in the session (and after spinning in the same spot just one lap earlier), Nelson Philippe spun and stalled just past the apex of the blind, over-the-crest-of-a-hill Turn 3. I’m sure a lot of you have seen the video of what followed, with E.J. Viso clipping the nose of Philippe’s car, then Will Power plowing into it at 100+ mph.

Fortunately for Philippe, Power hit his car at the best possible place – for Nelson: the dash bulkhead. This is arguably the strongest part of the chassis forward of the engine and as a result, Philippe escaped with a concussion, compound fracture of the left foot (the result of the brake pedal slicing into his foot) and a hairline fracture on his lower right leg. With Philippe already missing his right-front wheel following the Viso collision, a hit further forward by Power might have resulted in multiple, severe leg injuries for Philippe, while a hit further back might’ve been even worse….

All in all, Nelson was a lucky lad in what would have been the first of several races for the cash-strapped Conquest team. He’ll be sidelined until at least Homestead, but hopefully, will be back for ’10.

Meanwhile, I was perhaps even more impressed with the lack of injury to Power’s feet and legs. Despite hitting another car, with only pedals, master cylinders and the frontal “crush box” in-between, Power had NO foot or leg injuries. When I saw the car come back on the wrecker – with all the pedals visible, two master cylinders hanging off the front by their hoses and the third missing completely – I was sure he had significant lower-extremity injuries. I was very happy to be proved wrong.

Power did, however, suffer fractures to his middle and lower back after slamming forward against the dash and steering wheel in the impact. He also suffered (almost incidentally) a concussion. But it’s the back injuries that have ended his season.

Dr. Terry Trammell, “orthopedic surgeon to the stars”, said Power’s injuries are similar to those sustained by Vitor Meira in his head-on impact with the wall at Indy this year. Will also chipped a front tooth (and loosened another one), apparently from contacting the inside of his helmet with his mouth on impact. Something about the angle of the seat/shoulder belts, their mountings, or the seats themselves, is allowing drivers’ upper bodies to move too far forward in events of severe impacts – no matter how tightly the belts are fastened.

Driver safety has always been a moving target, and this appears to be the next area that needs to be addressed.

Anyway, back to the track. At Infineon, qualifying is critical. Starting up front, and dictating the race pace in the early laps, is a big key to success here. And the key to qualifying up front was keeping the brakes cool, calm and collected under the extreme loads generated through a combination of track layout (medium-long straights followed by sharp, slow corners) and the ultra-high grip provided by this weekend’s Firestone “Red” alternate tires.

With the ‘Reds’ on, the braking distances at Turn 4, Turn 7, the Turn 10 chicane and the final hairpin were so short that sometimes, the drivers had trouble making the paddle shifts to change down gears quick enough to keep up!

Dario Franchitti has always liked this place, and he immediately became the man to beat, setting the pace in both the opening practice and more critically, during qualifying. Teammate Dixon, however, had a tougher time of it, with badly overheating brakes keeping him out of the “Fast Six” final qualifying session. Tenth on the grid would make Sunday a l-o-o-o-o-o-ng day for Dixie, and I can only assume that a difference in braking techniques between the two Ganassi drivers might be the reason but, without seeing the data traces, I’m just guessing.

As you would expect, the remaining Penske duo of Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves qualified second and third, respectively. The happy surprise, meanwhile, was the improved performance from AGR. Both Hideki Mutoh and Marco Andretti made the Fast Six (Mutoh bumping out Tony Kanaan to do so!). TK ended up seventh, Montagny eighth, and Danica Patrick 11th. All five in the top 11 is a definite improvement for the entire team. Remember when I rambled on a while back about AGR going from Showa to Dynamic to Penske shocks? That’s the only change I’ve noticed on the cars…
There were some other surprises in qualifying. Mike Conway was very quick in practice, but he wasn't able to move through the second qualifying round. On the plus side, Dan Wheldon qualified 12th. After the trouble the Panther team has had on the road courses, that wasn't too bad at all.

Then, there was Watkins Glen winner Justin Wilson, who didn't make it out of the first round due to a bent lower-rear wishbone. Justin said he didn't touch anything, so perhaps the pushrod was bottoming out and over-loading the wishbone.

Just how much better were the ‘Red’ tires here? Only Helio, Danica, and Conway started on the (black) primary tire, and they were obviously rolling the dice, counting on an early yellow so they could can ditch the ‘Blacks’ and run ‘Reds’ the rest of the day. The rest of the field started on ‘Reds’.

And, thanks in part to HPD’s “push to pass” and the option tires, it WAS an entertaining race, even through Dario dominated at the front, leading every lap for win Number Four of the year. But behind him, there were battles throughout the field and a lot of “hate”, as our friend Robin Miller likes to say.

The race got off to a rough start when Graham Rahal got into the back of Andretti on the first-lap run up the hill out of Turn 2, sending cars scattering and also involving Danica, Kanaan, Viso, Conway and Montagny. Viso was done, ending a terrible weekend for him, while Rahal got back to the pits, only to snap a halfshaft trying to exit. Everyone else continued, albeit delayed to varying degrees.

The rest of the race saw Dario out front, with Briscoe chasing. Helio ran close in the early stages, and threatened to pass his teammate on occasion, but ended up parked out in the desert off Turn 2 with a broken pushrod/wishbone. Hmmm, sounded like too many teams were shock-loading the suspension in an attempt to run the lowest possible ride heights here….

One guy who really, really needed a good finish was Mike Conway, and he finally got one, coming home third for Dreyer & Reinbold after a great late-race battle with Mutoh. Right at the end, Hideki made a banzai (sorry, couldn’t resist) dive inside of Conway coming down the hill into the Turn 10 chicane, but locked up his brakes and, by the time he gathered everything back up again from the crash-that-wasn’t, fell to fifth behind Moraes.

As expected, Justin Wilson passed a lot of cars all day long. But the Coyne boys rolled the dice early in the race, pitting under green to get rid of the hated ‘Black’ tires and go to ‘Reds.’ And Justin never got the yellow he needed to regain his lost track position and make the strategy work. At one point, Wilson also lost the rear end of his car heading into the hairpin. Somehow he didn't hit anyone, and lost only one spot (sixth, to Oriol Servia) when the smoke cleared.

In the final argy-bargy of the day, Andretti was penalized post-race for "avoidable contact" after punting Dixon on the last lap. He was dropped to 14th (behind Scott) as penance.

So ended the final IndyCar road race of ’09, with the points changing yet again, as Briscoe (who may be setting a record for second-place finishes this year) retaking the top spot over Dario and Dixon (who pretty much had a weekend to forget).

  • To me, this looked to be the best crowd yet for the IndyCars at Sonoma. The hillside terraces were more full than I recall from previous years, as was the central grandstand.
  • Firestone had new compounds here for both the primary and alternate tires. The “split’” between the primary (Black) and alternate (Red) was the largest we’ve seen all year, and it definitely helped the show.
  • iracing.com announced a partnership with the IRL to bring IndyCar racing to iracing.com. To all the “non-gamers” out there, iracing.com is an online interactive racing “league”, and now you will be able to race both Firestone Indy Lights and IndyCar Series machines on the site. If you’re into gaming, you should definitely check it out – and keep an eye out for Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger, who both are members (yes, one of the requirements of iracing is that you must use your real name).
  • JR Hildebrand once again spanked the Lights field – leading practice, qualifying on the pole and leading every lap to all-but-clinch the Indy Lights title. That formality figured to be handled the following week at Chicagoland, where all he needed was a finish of 15th or so to clinch the crown. Admittedly, Infineon is Hildebrand’s home track (he grew up in nearby Sausalito) but he still kicked everyone's butt, winning by almost 16 seconds.
  • Unless I’m in the middle of open-heart surgery or something, I always take time out to watch the Historic F1 field at Infineon. Power oversteer is just s-o-o-o-o-o much fun to watch. It’s a reminder of the old days when, as the joke goes, “sex was safe and racing was dangerous”….

-- Dan Layton

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