I had an interesting exchange on Twitter during the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday.
The gist of the exchange was that the other party was frustrated by the volume of complaints about how dull the race at Infineon Raceway was - noting, correctly, that the complaints started even before the race did.
Likening the race to a "pitchers' duel" in baseball, my fellow conversationalist was definitely on the "glass half-full" side of Sunday's event, which was won by Will Power from pole position and which featured exactly zero position changes within the top five finishers.
For me, it seemed to smack a little bit of that hipster attitude that has infused social media of late - you know, the impulse to meet criticism of some form of entertainment by saying that there is are nuances to ponder that you have to be smart enough to recognize in order to appreciate it completely.
Still, I get where he's coming from. I have the added perspective of having turned laps at Infineon Raceway and one thing that doesn't translate well onto the TV screen is just how fun it is to drive. The sweeping elevation changes, the unpredictable blind corners, the technical rhythm sections all reward drivers who can balance aggression with precision and patience.
The problem is that you could say the same thing about Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, another tricky, fun-to-drive track that just absolutely does not show IndyCars at their best. Both Mid-Ohio and Infineon tend to put on great races for closed-cockpit cars - the former with sports cars, and the latter with stock cars. The lack of downforce and the ability to lay sheet metal on an opponent without wrecking him contribute to opening up multiple passing opportunities at these tracks for full-bodied cars.
Not so with IndyCars. In Infineon's case, the IndyCars are already at a disadvantage because two of the track's prime passing zones - Turn 4a and Turn 11 - are off the table because of safety concerns. Turn 4a is one of the best passing zones on the entire track, but the way the outside wall juts out to the track surface after the runoff area (a great place to get photos, but not a great place to run into with your car) probably violates a handful of FIA regulations on runoff room for open-wheel cars. Turn 11 has a similar issue, in that the jutting pit wall on the long run into the hairpin is a significant safety hazard for the much-faster and more fragile IndyCars.
The solution for IndyCars is to run the classic Carousel complex of Turns 4, 5, and 6 - but there rarely is any passing in that area because of the blind, tricky downhill left-hander onto the dragstrip. Neither is there a lot of passing in the run down to turn 9a - the "shortcut" out of the esses complex that terminates into a switchback chicane that has absolutely no room for passing. Turn 10a/11a, the abbreviated right-hander that substitutes for Turn 11 in the IndyCar configuration, offers a chance for passing, but because of the reduced radius of the turn versus the original hairpin, the underpowered IndyCars never seem to have the ability to capitalize on an advantage.
The upshot is that the ungainly current-spec IndyCars - built for oval racing and only adapted for road racing - have too little torque and acceleration and are not nearly nimble enough to offset the challenges posed by the track layout. Drivers cannot press an advantage when the rare opportunity presents itself - not without risking an accident, at least. So the race becomes a single-file parade waiting for someone to make a mistake... and in classic Catch-22 fashion, those mistakes in the much-deeper IndyCar fields of the past two years are far less likely to happen.
Understanding all this from a competitor perspective helps to take the edge off of the excruciating dullness that is a byproduct of this kind of competition. It is akin to being a spectator at a chess match; if you love chess, you'll be entertained by two people staring at the black and white pieces, sometimes for long stretches of minutes without even a single muscle movement. If you don't, though - if you are not consumed by all of the intangible and unspoken elements that lay beyond the visible action - then you are going to be nearly catatonic with boredom.
The great hope is that the new 2012 IndyCar will help solve some of these issues and make races at Sonoma more competitive. What's worrying is that it is another item on a long list of ills that the new car is supposed to solve, and there is the very real possibility that the new turbocharged Dallara will fail to live up to expectations.
If the new car doesn't deliver, then what do you do? Learn to appreciate chess, or find something else to watch?
- Well, Will Power, obviously. The guy worked off a third of his debt to IndyCar thanks to his Peak pole award, then flipped another pair of symbolic middle fingers to the field as he absolutely crushed them during Sunday's race.
- Helio Castroneves has been off-camera so long, he needed a crib sheet to remember his sponsors when he was interviewed after his runner-up finish. On another positive note, his team had no carbon fiber to repair after the race, which I'm sure was a great surprise and relief.
- There was only one full-course caution in the whole race. We're putting this in the win column because, as dull as that ended up making the race, it was a welcome change from drivers acting like boneheads behind the wheel at road/street courses.
- Penske Racing got its first 1-2-3 finish in 17 years with Ryan Briscoe finishing third. The podium sweep came on the heels of Penske's Brad Keselowski winning again at Bristol on the NASCAR side. You think the Captain is smiling right now? (No, probably not. Probably just smirking wryly.)
- Big props to drivers James Hinchcliffe (7th), Graham Rahal (8th), EJ Viso (9th), and Martin Plowman (12th) for having strong races.
- Giorgio Pantano, the highly-thought-of European import, impressed everyone with his performance by running sixth at the end of the race. Everyone, that is, except Race Control...
- ...who penalized Pantano back to 17th, last car on the lead lap, for moving to the inside line to defend his position from Sebastien Bourdais. IndyCar rules say that such moves are neither exciting nor legal, and it gave Bourdais the opportunity to hilariously state in the post-race interviews that "this isn't how you race in America."
- Tony Kanaan had the misfortune of being the first driver to DNF the race thanks to a broken throttle cable. The good news: he has a multi-year deal with KV Racing to celebrate.
- The only other DNF was Ho-Pin Tung, the Chinese rookie who brought out the race's only caution period. Given that the IZOD IndyCar Series is likely to stage an event in China next season, I'm sure series officials were "hopin'" for a better result (tip your waitress).
- Bad day for Andretti Autosport, whose best finisher was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 10th. Marco Andretti was so far back that not even a Bryan Herta-esque spinout by one of his teammates could have helped him back into contention.
- JR Hildebrand had a race to forget at his home track, finishing in 23rd and allowing James Hinchcliffe to close dramatically in the Rookie of the Year competition.
- I like Charlie Kimball a lot, I really do. But this season is getting to be legendarily bad for him and his team. How much patience does Chip Ganassi have left?