Monday Crew Chief: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach
All weekend long, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi was the benchmark, quick in practice, a Verizon P1 winner, and equally dominant to take his third career Verizon IndyCar Series triumph at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Even with a decent number of full-course cautions and penalties that shuffled up the order behind him, the NAPA Auto Parts Honda pilot was effective in two key areas. The first being restarts; no other competitor was able to keep up with the No. 27 Dallara for more than a couple of laps. Secondly, Rossi was a bullet off of the final hairpin at turn eleven, allowing him to carry extra momentum through the Shoreline Drive front straightaway.
After some had questioned whether the former Formula One test driver would manage to keep his seat at Andretti Autosport after 2016, the California-based runner has broken through in year three and has the right to lead the IndyCar points table in advance of the event at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park in six days time. While the hottest shoe for the famous second-generation team owner grabbed the brass ring this past weekend, there were two others from the Honda quartet who also garnered a bit of street cred for themselves.
One was Ohioan Zach Veach, who despite the impressive muscle shown by fellow rookie Robert Wickens at St. Petersburg and Phoenix, made many positive strides forward at Long Beach. After taking a pair of 16th-place results at the same two venues, the No. 26 Honda driver took advantage of the yellow flags and more importantly, kept his nose clean to just narrowly miss the podium in fourth-place.
Also benefiting from clever strategy was Marco Andretti. While sixth at first glance is not necessarily a permanent return to the top half of the order for the third-generation of the famous racing family, the performance is witness to the positives of good fortune and controlled aggression. Some improvement in qualifying could prove beneficial.
Forward-thinking luck, however, was absent from Ryan Hunter-Reay at Long Beach. While the lap-by-lap outputs from the DHL Honda pilot were in fact quite similar at times to his teammate Rossi, more roadblocks than one can put up with certainly ruined the 85-lap distance for the former Toyota Grand Prix champion.
Contact with Scott Dixon on the opening lap relegated the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner to the tail of the field. Further contact with the barriers on circuit number 45 pushed him back further and two more incidents all but sealed the deal. 20th at the checkered flag is softened by the opening two rounds top-fives; however, a return to advancing movement is now very important if a second Astor Cup is to be within range.
Elsewhere along the curved pit lane at Long Beach, success and failure were equally handed out. Team Penske lost one of its three potential threats at the start when contact with Graham Rahal stopped Simon Pagenaud’s race before it began. Still, Will Power showed the old road course dominant traits he is known for, overcoming his Chevrolet engine limitations to chase Rossi to the finish. A runner-up effort bumps the Australian back to a realistic range of P1 in the overall standings, yet a backing up of this showing at both Alabama and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course would be recommended to brace it. Fresh off a triumph at the ISM Raceway oval in Phoenix, reigning series title holder Josef Newgarden quietly claimed a seventh-place result at Long Beach, continuing his trend of taking something from nothing.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Sunday report card is more or less, a glass half-full. The yellow flags benefited 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Ed Jones, who fought off a persistent Veach to earn a third-place posting, matching his career run last year at the Indy 500. For now, though, the overall performance numbers still suggest that the Dubai-resident has a way to go before becoming a regular victory contender.
Unfortunately, four-time series king Scott Dixon for the second-consecutive street race ran afoul. This time, it was not via his own doings like at St. Petersburg; at Long Beach, it was via the rulebook. When Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman de Melo brought out the third caution flag on Lap 61, both the New Zealander and Sebastien Bourdais bolted for the pit lane. What looked to be a shrewd strategy play, was tarnished when lead IndyCar official Kyle Novak tagged both pilots for entering a closed pit for service.
While the Frenchman took his lumps during the caution period, Dixon stayed out believing he had legally pitted, a move that was thumbed down by officials with a black flag after racing resumed. A late-race mash-up at the turn 11 hairpin gave a few places back to the Iceman before settling for 11th at the checkers. Although not championship-killing showings in the first trio, the PNC Honda crew are another bunch looking to change its outcomes in the next few events.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal may earn the Toyota Grand Prix’s award for perseverance. After having his hopes shattered by an avoidable contact drive-through penalty for his opening lap meeting with Pagenaud, the road racing ace used the final 84 circuits to sneak away with a fifth-place output. Takuma Sato unfortunately, would suffer a greater setback in terms of contact as a late-race get together with Hunter-Reay led to rear suspension damage and 21st at the climax. The Japanese chauffeur has often been criticized for overaggression since joining the IndyCar ranks in 2010 and could this represent a return to this more undesired form? The final two preps before the Indy 500 may tell much for the opportunities tied to a successful championship defense.
21-year IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan has continued to make the most of what on paper is a below-average seat at A.J. Foyt Racing. An eighth-place finish, coupled with a more mature and careful tact taken by fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist (13th) and one could say that Team Penske’s new pursuers in the GM “Bow-Tie Brigade” could very well be the Texas two-some, at least perhaps until the Indianapolis oval takes center stage.
After strong showings in the first two rounds of 2018, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports dropped off the radar at Long Beach, despite strong grid placements. A mismatched set of tires in the first stint removed Honda commercial extraordinaire James Hinchcliffe from the final equation, although a ninth at Lap 85 represented a solid emergency plan.
A lucky escape, however, was not in the cards for fellow Canadian Robert Wickens. After being the talk of the paddock in the opening two stanzas, a faulty electronic control unit ended the ex-DTM pilot’s shot at a third-straight showstopping performance. Despite continuing several laps off the pace, a 22nd-place should be quickly forgotten, yet the challenge from Zach Veach in the newcomer of 2018 battle has intensified somewhat.
For the second-straight weekend, Chicago-based Dale Coyne Racing was hampered by ill-fated scenarios, with multi-time ChampCar king Sebastien Bourdais front and center. After two brilliant overtakes on Scott Dixon for P2, the first of which was nullified by IndyCar for exceeding track limits, the Frenchman appeared to have the pace necessary to threaten Rossi’s domination possibly. Of course, as the Kiwi suffered, the No. 18 machine also ran afoul of the pit closure, ironically caused by his teammate Zachary Claman De Melo.
The final nail in Bourdais’ coffin was driven late at the infamous hairpin, when the veteran was spun around by Ed Carpenter Racing prospect Jordan King, knocking him back to 14th at the finish. Canadian comrade Claman De Melo, was never a factor for the top half of the order and stumbled to 22nd, with the crash ultimately ending his run.
The rest of the fleet had their own dramas at Long Beach. After running at the tail of the pack in both Florida and Phoenix, Carlin Motorsport showed some glimpses of a more positive future as Charlie Kimball secured the squad’s first top-ten at the senior level. Despite not being present at the ISM Raceway oval, the new Meyer-Shank Racing conglomerate showed zero rust as Jack Harvey quietly snuck away with 11th at the finish, topping several top dollar outfits.
Long Beach was another sub-par road race for Ed Carpenter Racing, despite a valiant showing for Jordan King (18th) in the primary machine. Unfortunately, a possible top-ten was dashed by penalty after the British driver ran into Bourdais in the final laps. ECR comrade Spencer Pigot suffered through another dose of hard knocks, as gear selection woes held him back in position 15 on the final lap. Neither Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser (16th) or Harding Racing’s Gabby Chaves (19th) made a major impact this past weekend at Long Beach.
With a comfortable 23-point cushion over defending champion Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi represents the first serious threat to ripping away the No. 1 plate for 2019. With Andretti Autosport outclassing Team Penske in each of the opening two road course rounds to date, the Captain’s men must perform some form of a reversal in the following two showings. This would enable some sort of defensive posture, which is required with a twisty layout heavy schedule. If Alabama and the IndyCar Grand Prix follow the current path, a new Astor Cup trophy-lifter may be the ultimate destination after 14 more battles.
FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury
The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularOpenWheel.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.