The road and street courses are undoubtedly the best opportunity for a non-Penske/Ganassi team to run at the front of the field. These circuits allow for a talented and brave driver and a smart engineer to team up and cancel out any deficiencies in their chassis’ speed, providing them a chance to run well if not outright win (see Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne’s victory at Watkins Glen in 2009).
Not only did Long Beach give us an upset winner, but there were also a host of other underdog and Cinderella stories coming out Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
First, have a look at winner Mike Conway. Reminiscent of Will Power’s return from his back injury, Conway has been lightning quick since joining Andretti Autosport I his return season after breaking his leg and back at Indy one year ago. If not for bad luck, this victory may have come in St. Pete. His win is the ultimate feel-good story coming out of the weekend and will serve as a jolt to an Andretti team that has endured a roller coaster start to the season.
But, the stories don’t end there. In fourth and fifth were Canadians James Hinchcliffe and Alex Tagliani. Normally, the tough, bumpy surface of Long Beach tends to eat rookies alive, exemplified by the rough days for Sebastian Saavedra, Charlie Kimball, and J.R. Hildebrand. However, in the case of Hinchcliffe, the opposite happened. When all around him began falling victim to the craziness of the second half of Sunday’s race, Hinchcliffe kept his nose completely clean and soldiered home to fourth, this after losing his primary car to a fire on Friday. His run, along with Oriol Servia’s charge back up to sixth, continues the resurgent effort from Newman/Haas Racing.
In the case of Tagliani, his team has been one of the nicest stories since joining the series last year. Now under the watch of Sam Schmidt, they tend to have the speed to be the “giant killers” of the grid. All they need is a little bit of luck. Circumstances played out in their favor on Sunday, and if that continues to happen, expect this bunch to give the Penske and Ganassi teams headaches throughout the season.
Helio Castroneves: The 2011 Bowling Ball
Fans of the website Speed.com will know that journalist Marshall Pruett has coined the humorous “Golden Bowling Ball” award, granted to the driver who hits the most objects (either walls or cars) in a given weekend. Undoubtedly, Castroneves, already a recipient for his role in the St. Pete mess, will receive his second award of the season after his performance on Sunday.
Though humorous, there is an astonishing fact about Castroneves’ mistakes this year. When Ryan Hunter-Reay got into Ryan Briscoe last week at Barber Motorsports Park, he was given a penalty. When Paul Tracy hit and spun Simona de Silvestro Sunday in Long Beach, he was given a penalty. In the case of Castroneves, who also punted Justin Wilson out of his way in turn 11 just before the first round of pit stops, no penalties were issued for incidents that seemed just as bad, if not worse, than the aforementioned penalties.
Additionally, the discussion of E.J. Viso’s troubles (now six crashes through three race weekends), and how he deserves some type of punishment for his antics, leads many to further believe that Castroneves deserves some sort of penalty, as each has been the series’ demolition men through the first three races.
Though no penalty has been issued to the three-time Indy 500 champion, he very well may be on a short leash, or should be at the very least. Sparking a pair of pileups in two races is not a good thing to have on your resume.
Not many were very happy about the staggered restarts on Sunday. The length and width of the front straightaway, along with the proximity of the start/finish line to the final corner, resulted in a conservative approach on part of the drivers. Only the first couple of rows were ever two-by-two, with the rest of the field single-file and staggered.
Though not popular, it was a somewhat necessary reaction on the drivers’ behalf; the tight confines of street courses, especially Long Beach, don’t often favor multiple cars going side-by-side into a turn. As much carnage as there was in the second half of the race, it would’ve likely been worse had the starts and restarts resembled those from the first two events.
Plus, staggered though they were, the restarts remained plenty exciting with lots of overtaking, especially at the front of field.
Though different from the first two races, the starts and restarts on Sunday weren’t exactly bad.