David Turner writes from America……
After spending the last week in Las Vegas at a Television Expo and Conference (my real job) what better thing to do than jump in the car and shoot over to Phoenix for two days it’s only a short little drive just a few hours so easy.
Worth it? Heck yes. This great one-mile dogleg oval in the desert is demanding interesting scary and cool all wrapped up into one that’s for sure. Even the pit lane for the IndyCars stretches along the main straightaway and into turn one so some teams are even pitting on a curve. Now that requires focus from the driver that’s for sure. More on that soon.
News surrounding the 101st Indy 500 seems to be all focused around one thing ‘Alonso’ and anything about him. News from a very good source is that at the Honda simulator test he did last week before heading back to Europe for this weekends Russian F1 Grand Prix he was on it. Not in a little way either he was straight into his work and started really turning good times and positive feedback to everyone at Honda. Naturally of course come May 3rd and his private test at the speedway it might be a different ball game but the gut feeling is this guy could be on the verge of something very special indeed. I watched him last week at Alabama and his associated press conferences and I have never seen him so relaxed, so free to talk and meet the fans and that can only mean one thing to me, take note everyone this guy is here to turn heads and win a race that’s for sure.
Recently in the US Media he commented how amazed he is from the fan base in the US. He spoke of his F1 trips here where hardly anyone knew who he was, while this trip during a flight delay at a New York airport he had masses of people come up and wish him the best and complement him on the road ahead. Such a different thing for him. He is in for many different things in the coming weeks the U.S. media do things different to F1, the fans are different as well and above all the series is different but its one he is welcomed to and one he seems to be very happy with and so very relaxed about the job in hand. It all bodes well for a great showing at Indy that’s for sure. The pressure will really be on for the Andretti Autosport team as the prepare a total of six cars for the 500 that’s a massive undertaking at any time but now with the world watching on around this one driver the task will be no mean feet for the team to cope with along with looking after its regular drivers and the additional fifth car for Jack Harvey which was always planned for.
Now to Phoenix and Dixon the defending winner here and he is firmly after his first win for season 2017. On the podium every race this season but not the top step (yet) but this is a great start for him in the quest for another championship. Clearly the number one at Ganassi as well when you judge it on pure performance over his teammates in my view.
Friday saw a new twist in the Indy Car series a single two-hour practice session and then a two-hour break and then straight into qualifying.
Practice was mid afternoon and it was hot very hot and several dust storms halted the running at times as the wind built but Dixon was strong in this session and rounded out the afternoon in the sixth spot but it was last weekends race winner Newgarden that topped the afternoon timesheets.
Come qualifying and the evening cooled rapidly as the teams lined up for the single car dash. It was Helio Castroneves that simply stunned every one taking pole position “People don’t realize that qualifying is extremely difficult. I took it to the limit – I had one eye closed and one eye open. Experience is a big part of this and today was really, really good. The conditions were really difficult today in practice – the gusting winds were horrendous. We worked mostly on the race setup (in practice). My engineer did a phenomenal job and obviously everybody at Team Penske – the REV Group car was really fast. Qualifying is one thing – the race is another – but I’m really confident going into tomorrow.”
As for Dixon they slightly miss read how cool it was going to get and he lines up in the eight spot for the race “The ambient conditions changed a lot from practice to qualifying. We found a lot and learned that we were a bit too conservative in qualifying. We came up a little short and we know we can trim out a bit more for the race in the NTT Data No. 9. It was a little bit too easy which means we have room to go faster which is good for the race tomorrow.”
Race day dawned another typical day for the area and was in the upper 20s temperature wise. 4pm saw the 100 lap race for the USAC Silver Crown Cars featuring regular visitor to the New Zealand Speedway scene Jerry Coons Jr, he was to finish the race 5th “The big thing obviously is the change in the back straightaway. When we first started running it, we were kind of used to being really flat. You could run flat-footed through the dog leg and then back up out of it. In first practice with a full load of fuel you could flat-foot it through there, but in practice it was a little bit hairy trying to run through it flat-footed. Our car got a little bit light coming out of it, so that was probably the biggest change, just having to kind of breathe it though there.”
Bobby Santos took the win in a great last 12-lap battle amongst the top 4 cars. It was awesome to see Silver Crown cars return to the track and the history they have with this track and the return of growth to the USAC pavement series.
As the skies darked and the sun set it was time to get into the 250-lap IndyCar race and the fourth of the season for the series. Just as it had the night before as the sun went down the temperature went with it.
It was to become the story of the bright yellow car of Pagenaud that claimed this one and control the race from a pitstop that fell at just the right time. New Zealand’s Scott Dixon battled hard all race and become the “best in class” as he called it becoming the first Honda powered car home in 5th but the big thing for Dixon fans is the points haul and the fact only Dixon and Pagenuad are to have top five finishes in every race this season. One can kinda sense where this might be heading even now.
So it was the reigning series champion Pagenaud who drove away from the field in the final half of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix taking the race win by 9.1028 seconds over teammate Will Power and assuming the points lead after four races of the 2017 season.
He collected his 10th win of his IndyCar career and led a Chevy sweep of the top four positions on the 1.022-mile oval that has hosted 63 Indy car races dating to 1964. It was also win No. 450 for Team Penske in all racing competitions and its 100th on Indy car ovals.
“I can’t explain how excited I am,” Pagenaud said. “Ovals are not my specialty – I grew up in Europe racing go-karts. I learned about ovals when I was 26 years old so I had to learn the skill and the technique that I didn’t know.
“Man, this is incredible. What a win!”
Pagenaud really took control midway through the 250-lap race, running longer while other frontrunners had to stop for fuel and tires. Pagenaud pitted on Lap 140 with a one-lap advantage on the field under a caution period caused when Takuma Sato’s car made contact with the Turn 4 barrier. Pagenaud returned to the track in first place and led the final 114 laps. It certainly is a track that did not provide a lot of passing that’s for sure and there was a lot of talk about the drivers saying let us have more power and less down force here and force us to race harder and pass. Running the road course spec aero on this little oval proved that the grip was there but sadly the passing wasn’t.
Team Penske’s four drivers led all 250 laps, the first time a team has paced every lap in a race since Team Penske did the same thing in the first race of Belle Isle doubleheader last year. Power led 59 laps in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet before finishing second. “It was good night considering where we’ve finished the last few races,” said Power, whose best result this season prior to tonight was 13th. “I’m happy to finish second and get some points.”
Pole sitter Helio Castroneves led 73 laps in the No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevy and finished fourth. Josef Newgarden, the winner of last week’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, led two laps in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevy and ran up front most of the night until contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay forced an unscheduled pit stop and Newgarden finished ninth.
JR Hildebrand finished third in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet the best result for Hildebrand since his memorable runner-up finish in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 when he crashed while leading on the final lap. Hildebrand was pleased with the nights showing after he sat out last week’s race at Barber Motorsports Park while a broken bone in his left hand mended from an April 9 crash in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “The car was just awesome all day,” Hildebrand said. “Excited to get the result for the team, for sure. The car was bitchin’. I think at the end of the race we had obviously one of the top three, but I think we might have had the best car on the track.”
Pagenaud now holds an 18-point advantage in the championship over Scott Dixon, who moved up to second in the points table. Newgarden sits third in the standings, 26 points out of first place.
After the race Dixon said “Obviously, it was a tough night for the No. 9 NTT Data car, and all the Honda entries I think. Chevy had a leg up on us here and they showed that tonight. We tried to keep our nose clean but just didn’t have anything for them tonight. Hopefully we can get some momentum back at the Grand Prix of Indy next month.”
Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing, who led the points entering the night, was caught in a five-car incident on the opening lap when Mikhail Aleshin spun and collected the cars of Bourdais, Marco Andretti, Max Chilton and Graham Rahal in Turn 2. No drivers were injured. Bourdais finished 19th and dropped to fourth in the standings.
The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to an open test on Tuesday at Gateway Motorsports Park, where the series will race under the lights on Aug. 26th so busy times ahead as the month of May kicks off.
The season is now and truly alive and kicking and now we will see who is strong and can cope and who gets lost along the way.
Phoenix great track that’s for sure just needed some passing added to the mix but as for the venue a gem in the sand that’s for sure.