IndyCar: Five talking points from Long Beach
The third round of the 2016 IndyCar season produced yet another fascinating race around the iconic Long Beach street course.
With Helio Castroneves on pole once again and no full course cautions whatsoever during the race, the result was eventually determined by the second round of pit-stops.
Simon Pagenaud managed to extend his lead in the drivers’ championship, despite a pit-exit infraction after his second stop.
Grand Prix Times’ Andy Young digests five talking points from a thrilling race weekend around one of the world’s most famous street courses.
1. Pagenaud finally wins for Penske - but should he have been penalised?
After finishing second during the first two races of the season, Pagenaud finally made his championship intentions crystal clear with his first victory for Penske at Long Beach.
The affable Frenchman joined the iconic outfit last season, but failed to finish any higher than third on two occasions.
After struggling throughout 2015 and ending the season a woeful 11th overall in the standings, Pagenaud’s start to the 2016 season has been inspiring.
However, his first victory of the season was overshadowed by a pit-exit infraction after his final stop.
After pitting a lap after reigning champion Scott Dixon, Pagenaud exited the pit-lane and put two wheels over the ‘bleed line’ at the exit of the pit-lane, therefore enabling him to rejoin the action literally just ahead of Dixon.
This soon became the lead of the race after Charlie Kimball pitted, however uncertainty surrounded the Penske racer’s lead as race control investigated his wrongdoing.
Eventually Pagenaud was struck with only a warning for the infraction, with the race stewards - which are this year headed by veterans Arie Luyendyk, Max Papis and Dan Davis - issuing a further post-race statement to back-up their decision.
“Simon Pagenaud's actions during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach were deemed an infraction per Rule 22.214.171.124,” read the statement.
"The penalty for this infraction ranges from a warning (minimum), putting the driver to the back of the field (mid) and drive-through or stop and go/hold (maximum).
“INDYCAR race stewards determined his actions were not severe enough to warrant a harsher penalty than the warning that was issued.”
Whilst Chip Ganassi and Dixon may well disagree with the race stewards decision, there is no denying that Pagenaud has certainly made himself a serious championship contender.
During my analysis of the Phoenix Grand Prix last time out I stated that Pagenaud needed only to secure a top five finish at Long Beach and then enjoy a competitive month of May, which would enable him to reach Detroit as a firm championship contender.
After the first three races, it seems as though Pagenaud will instead enter the coveted month of May as a strong championship favourite already!
2. Super Sato and his push to pass antics
Takuma Sato is certainly regarded by many as a specialist around the streets of Long Beach, particularly after his sensational victory back in 2013.
Throughout the weekend Sato looked exceptionally competitive in his #14 A.J. Foyt Enterprises machine, only just missing out on progressing into the Firestone Fast Six during qualifying on Saturday.
During the race Sato saved the majority of his push to pass applications until the final few laps, enabling him to pounce on several drivers during the final phase of the race.
After successfully overtaking Tony Kanaan for fifth, the Japanese racer soon closed the gap to St. Petersburg race winner Juan Pablo Montoya and attacked the Columbian.
However, Montoya was having none of it and he defended heavily into Turn 1, so much so that race control were forced to investigate his defensive techniques.
Eventually race control confirmed that no further action would be taken on Montoya, with Sato still striving to find a way around the former CART champion.
Eventually Sato was forced to settle for fifth, however the former Formula 1 racer ended proceedings as the fastest Honda-powered driver and enjoyed himself immensely.
“We're very pleased about today's result. When I needed to, I pushed like hell,” explained Sato after the race.
“Passing Kanaan and challenging Montoya for fourth, that was a thrill.
3. Power in need of a win
Despite missing the opening round of the season in St. Petersburg due to illness, Will Power has remained adamant that he can remain a championship contender at the sharp end of the order alongside the likes of Dixon and Montoya.
However, after finishing a relatively competitive third at the Phoenix Grand Prix last time out, the Australian racer struggled somewhat around the streets of Long Beach, finishing a distant seventh after losing several positions during the latter stages of the race.
The 2014 champion lost considerable time during his second and final pit-stop, after the refuelling hose initially failed to connect to his car.
After finally receiving more fuel and four new tyres, Power had lost three places and rejoined the action down in seventh position.
Despite his competitiveness and superior Chevrolet engine, Power was ultimately unable to attack those ahead of him, including Tony Kanaan and Sato in the Honda-powered A.J. Foyt Enterprises machine.
Although Power blamed the necessity for fuel saving for his lack of competitiveness during the final laps of the race, the Australian driver now languishes down in eighth position in the drivers’ championship, behind both Penske team-mates and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
There is no denying Power desperately requires a victory at Barber or Indy to reignite his championship chances, especially after team-mate Pagenaud’s highly competitive start to the season.
When Power fought for the championship between 2010 and 2012, he picked up at least one victory each year during the first three races.
During his championship-winning season in 2014 he won the opening race of the season and finished second in Long Beach.
So far Power has missed a race, finished third and finishing a very distant seventh. Therefore the pressure is well and truly on as the IndyCar fraternity head to Barber.
4. Chilton’s questionable technique at Turn 5
Max Chilton’s debut in IndyCar so far has certainly been an entertaining affair, with the former Marussia F1 driver making a name for himself in only his second race at Phoenix after battling hard around the one-mile oval alongside veterans such as Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais.
Despite overheating problems during his debut race weekend at St. Petersburg - which affected all four Chip Ganassi Racing cars - Chilton has definitely adapted well to the IndyCar Series and managed to finish a respectable 14th position at Long Beach.
However, the Briton’s road to that 14th position was entertaining to say the least, after adopting a rather questionable line at Turn 5 during the early stages of the race.
On three occasions Chilton cut inside the kerb at Turn 5, enabling him to close up on the car in front drastically.
Eventually race control became aware of his technique, clarifying the ruling over the track limits and ultimately preventing Chilton from cutting the corner again.
Despite cutting the corner consistently on three occasions, Chilton failed to gain a position using this technique, although it did create amusement in the NBCSN commentary booth during the race.
Overall Chilton is certainly making a name for himself in IndyCar, with the 24-year-old currently sat 13th in the drivers’ championship, six points ahead of fellow rookie Conor Daly and 11 ahead of fellow F1 refugee Alexander Rossi.
So far Chilton is the only rookie to have secured a top ten finish, but most surprisingly this came on an oval, which should keep his confidence high for the all-important Indianapolis 500 next month.
5. First caution-less Grand Prix of Long Beach since 1989
This year’s Grand Prix of Long Beach was the first to run caution-free since way back in 1989, when Al Unser Jr took one of his six victories around the legendary street course.
Before this season the race had only even run caution free on two other occasions - 1985 and 1987 - such is the high rate of attrition normally expected at Long Beach.
During the race practically the entire field was forced to conserve fuel, with no full course caution whatsoever during the race to enable them to save fuel naturally.
Normally in IndyCar a team or driver may elect to pit early or save fuel, therefore attempting to perfect the ‘alternate’ strategy.
This strategy was carried out perfectly by Daly and Kanaan during the season-opener at St. Petersburg, when the duo qualified way down the order but elected against pitting during the first caution period, therefore enabling them to rise through the order to lead when the initial leaders pitted.
At Long Beach several midfield drivers pitted during the early stages of the race, with some potentially hoping for an early caution period which would’ve enabled them to rise up through the order as the leaders pitted.
But because there was no caution period whatsoever during the race, many drivers were left on a three-stop strategy whilst others were left conserving fuel.
This led to some drivers being incredibly dissatisfied at the end of the race, with Kanaan in particular stating that the race should be extended in the future to prevent the necessity for fuel saving and allowing a three-stopper to become the traditional strategy for the leaders.
“We have to force this race to be a three-stopper by extending it,” exclaimed Kanaan to motorsport.com.
“That gives us enough fuel to go racing. It’s a bit strange to have no cautions, especially at Long Beach! But we have to be prepared for that.”
Regardless of whether the length of the race needs to be extended, the main reason for the non-existent cautions this year is almost certainly down to the increasing level of quality up and down the IndyCar paddock.
Gone are the days when the field would consist of 15 or so experienced drivers and five inexperienced rookies, each one of them prone to binning their cars in the tyre barriers.
Each driver on this year’s grid is entirely capable of not only keeping their car out of the walls at Long Beach, but more than likely even finishing on the podium!
It’s a sensational situation for IndyCar to find itself in. 21 drivers all capable of finishing a race on a street course cleanly and competitively!