The Verizon IndyCar Series is en route - or in many cases already on-site - for its third race of the 2015 season.
The 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach takes place this weekend on the 1.968-mile, 11-corner Long Beach, Calif. streets. The “Indy 500 of street course racing,” according to 2014 pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay is one of the most highly anticipated events of the year.
It isn’t just the Hollywood-centric, picturesque aspects of the venue that entices drivers, teams, suppliers and close to 100,000 fans to the 200mph Beach Party abutting the Pacific Ocean. The Long Beach circuit hasn’t changed very much over years, even as the city has grown up around it. It’s fair to say this longest running street course venue in the United States has a life of its own - and customarily beautiful So Cal weather to complement its pounding heartbeat.
No rain in California
In 40 years, it has never rained on race day at Long Beach and this year looks to continue that trend, with sunny skies forecast for Friday and Saturday and, perhaps, some patchy fog in the early morning on Sunday, race day. Temps will hover in the mid-70s the first two days and drop to the mid-60s, which should aid the hard-breathing engines and also change some of the settings for INDYCAR’s new aero kits.
Racing is a sport of momentum, and there are two drivers with plenty of that quality coming into this race - the second of three straight weekends of competition that crazily sees the IndyCar Series traipse from New Orleans to Long Beach and then back to Alabama. Certainly the “good hands man” Juan Pablo Montoya has a lot going for him, winning the first race of the year at St Petersburg and leading the most laps before James Hinchcliffe used superior strategy skills and fuel mileage to take the win last weekend at NOLA.
Winglets and swamps top the stories in 2015
Both of those races weren’t exactly the prettiest or cleanest we’ve seen from the Indy cars; St Pete revealed Chevrolet and Honda aero kits and, unfortunately, displayed their tendencies to litter that race track with only slight provocation. INDYCAR reacted by mandating better securing of the widgets that now differentiate one manufacturer from the other. The Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana took place on swampland and that was evidentiary when cars left the track, something they did with regularity during the timed contest that had constantly changing wet-to-dry-to-wet conditions.
In between St Petersburg and New Orleans, Chevrolet took one for the team when it realized that the valve springs placed on 11 of its 12 engines were likely to fail before the stipulated 2,500 miles allowed before teams may change out their engines. Losing points for the infraction might hurt Chevy now (Honda placed first and third at NOLA) but they will be back and we’ll easily forget about this little problem Chevrolet had with its supplier.
Big penalties handed down today
Hard to say if we’ll readily forget the penalties handed down by INDYCAR after the NOLA race.
Ryan Hunter-Reay (RHR) took a 3-point hit for his part in the race-ending caution when he squeezed Simon Pagenaud off the track, the Frenchman sliding through the swampland and returning to the circuit to spear countryman Sebastien Bourdais and RHR. The Andretti Autosport driver is on probation for three races, which means it’s unlikely we’ll see a repeat of his shenanigans at last year’s Long Beach race, where RHR attempted a pass in the fourth turn, a space too slim for passing - as he discovered, ending the race for about a quarter of the field.
Francesco Dracone has been fined $10 grand for hitting chief mechanic Todd Phillips, as nice a guy as one could find on the INDYCAR circuit, as Dracone entered his pit box way out of shape on the damp pit road at NOLA. Phillips was so lucky to sustain only minor injury to his leg as he attempted to vault the car. Dracone is on probation for six races (if he continues with the team for that long).
Other minor penalties after New Orleans included wrist-slaps for failing to keep a helmet visor down (Marco Andrretti, a crew member at Dale Coyne Racing), Andretti Autosport for failing to keep a tire within a pit box and going over the wall without a helmet (KVSH).
No Simona this weekend
We’ll see 23 cars lining Shoreline Drive’s pits this weekend as Andretti Autosport has elected to not to bring a fourth car for Simona de Silvestro, the fourth-place finisher in New Orleans. And rather than watching rookie Sage Karam in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 8 machine, Sebastian Saavedra returns to competition with backing from AFS fire sprinklers, his personal sponsor for the past few years. Karam will be back for the Indianapolis 500, where he made his INDYCAR debut and should have received rookie of the year awards for racing to ninth place from 31st grid position.
Expect the usual suspects to be strong here, and that includes not just Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and the four members of Chip Ganassi Racing. It also means we should look forward to exceptional drives from the likes of Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais, Takuma Sato (who won here in 2013), Graham Rahal and Josef Newgarden. Some of the newcomers could surprise, like Gabby Chaves, who has run here in Indy Lights and Stefano Coletti, whose race chops can’t be denied.
The racing action starts Friday morning and continues past the INDYCAR contest. In addition to the Indy cars, the Indy Lights championship has its second race weekend of the year, and the popular IMSA series has its 100-minute Sports Car Showcase for Prototype and GTLM classes, along with the rollicking Pro/Celebrity race, entertaining Stadium Trucks, Pirelli World Challenge and Super Drift. From morning to night, sun-up past sundown, Long Beach certainly is the place to be.