Friday, April 13, 2012

Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix Preview

A return to Long Beach? Chevy changing out all 11 of its engines? A jumbled-up points battle? New pit rules? This INDYCAR weekend will be insane.

There are certain stops on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule that seem to have a bit of extra vibrancy and life to them. Indianapolis is the main example, of course, but you have to put Long Beach in that discussion as well.

Why is the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix special? Certainly there are older races, but Long Beach still has a proud tradition of winners. The Andrettis and Unsers owned this race throughout the 1980s, and names such as Alex Zanardi, Danny Sullivan, and Paul Tracy have won here as well. Of course, there are many tracks that can claim a great list of winners, but Long Beach seems to fuse it with a certain expectancy of excitement. The street fair atmosphere, the beautiful waterfront vista, and plenty of celebrating fans add to the overall ambience, for sure. Ultimately, perhaps certain events just seem special because they are, due to that perfect formula, and that’s all there is to it.

Let’s go over some quick notes and thoughts heading into another great race weekend:

What To Expect: Will Power strides into town with a hard-fought victory at Barber for momentum, but it’s not as if there won’t be plenty of competition for him this weekend. Scott Dixon has overcome his usual slow start to the season with a pair of runner-up finishes. Meanwhile, Power’s teammate Helio Castroneves looks to continue his bounce-back campaign with another good showing.

Last year’s winner Mike Conway has looked quick so far with the Foyt crew, so don’t count them out yet. Simon Pagenaud will be another Honda driver that will look to keep his quick start going.

Problems in the pits hurt several teams last week, and that should be a key focus in this race. A lot of teams have lost position with a number of pit miscues, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone miss out on a podium again this weekend due to a delay during a stop.

However, the biggest story coming into this weekend has to be….

A Plethora Of Penalties: Yes, this weekend both Sèbastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe have been assessed 10-spot grid penalties for engine changes (Hinch’s occurred during a test, if you hadn’t heard). There’s been a lot of complaining about how the 10-grid penalty for James Hinchcliffe and the others is perhaps unfair. I also feel it’s pretty harsh, but fans have been clamoring for rules in black and white for years. In all fairness, you can’t change something midseason, especially after other drivers have already been penalized. Take a page from sports such as Major League Baseball or the National Football League; realize things are as they are for now, and look at rule changes during the offseason. You won’t see the NFL changing holding penalties from 10 to 5 yards in the fifth week of their season; they review during the offseason, and that’s what IndyCar should do. Until then, whether it’s a Chevy, Honda, or Lotus, teams with a failing engine will pay a price.

And yes, all the Chevys—all of them—will change out their engines this week. In addition to all these, Katherine Legge and Oriol Servia will also be paying the price for an engine change. 10-spot penalties galore on the way. We're about to something very unique take place. This will be, for lack of a better term, freakin' wild. So if there was a time to take it easy on the Chevy picks, this might be it…

Pit Rule Change: Starting this week, pit road will be open for all non-emergency full-course cautions. With last year’s run-in between Sebastian Bourdais and Marco Andretti in the crowded pits, and given Long Beach’s history of numerous pit incidents, this should be as good a trial run as any for the rule change.

More Passing: Long Beach isn’t the pass-happiest course on the schedule, but after the great race at Barber, expectations are pretty high that this weekend can offer at least that level of excitement. If Firestone nails the tires for this race as they did last race, we could be in for a definite show. The logic seems to go, if they can pass at Barber, they can at Long Beach. Let’s hope so, because Alabama was nothing short of excellent.

RHR battled up front until late mechanical issues in '11.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Mechanical Woes Persist: Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato are just two of the drivers that have seen promising runs early in the season end due to broken equipment. We know we’ll have more failures this weekend, we just don’t know who yet.

Weather Weirdness: Offhand, I can’t think of the last time there’s been rain on race day at Long Beach, but it looks as if Friday practice might see a bit of rain this weekend. Nothing’s certain, but limited dry practice time could again force some teams to take some guesses on setup.

Firestone Indy Lights Update: One of my favorite drivers from Star Mazda, American Nick Andries, will making his debut with Bryan Herta’s #28 team this weekend. It’s a big order for the Florida native, but it will be interesting to see if he can make some waves in his rookie debut.

The Lights winners at Long Beach are a pretty impressive bunch: JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, and Townsend Bell have all won here in a junior series, just to name a few. Tristan Vautier has looked sharp early, and Sebastian Saavedra is right there as well. Gustavo Yacaman and Esteban Guerrieri haven’t seemed particularly sharp early, but there’s still plenty of time to get to the top of the standings. Meanwhile, David Ostella and Oliver Webb have looked particularly disappointing early on, and will seek a change of fortune starting this weekend. Remember, this is the last race for Firestone Indy Lights until the Firestone Freedom 100, so teams will have a lot of time to dwell on mistakes or successes after this weekend.

Pole: Will Power. Should we just pencil him in here for every twisty this season?

Winner: I was set to say Ryan Hunter-Reay, but with the engine change penalties, this might be a good week for Scott Dixon or Mike Conway to get the job done. Simon Pagenaud's lurking, too.

Dark Horse: Tony Kanaan. TK is last in points right now, but he’s been good here, and I don’t expect his mechanical woes to continue indefinitely.

Last Driver Standing: 6 bloggers remain in our Last Driver Standing competition. Remember, if their chosen driver fails to finish in the Top 10 this weekend, they’re out of the competition. Each blogger can only choose a driver once during the season. Here are their picks for Barber:

Chris Sheridan, IndySoup: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Eric Hall, anotherindycarblog: Tony Kanaan

Kent M., Racing Mania: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Mike Knapp, 15 Days In May: Scott Dixon

Paul Dalbey, MoreFront Wing: James Hinchcliffe

Zachary Houghton, IndyCar AdvocateRyan Hunter-Reay

Thanks for reading, have an awesome race weekend, spend some time with the family, and we'll meet back here on Monday to discuss!


  1. Don't jump off the Chevy bandwagon too quickly. I think they are still the strongest engine and they will be heard from this weekend. The Chevy teams are too strong to stay in the back all day.

    1. Oh, I think they'll manage ok, but it should liven things up. I think Dixon and Conway will be strong, regardless.