IndyCar at Mid-Ohio: Practice & Qualys & Pace Cars, Oh My!

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Finally! It’s Raceday here in Ohio! A lot has happened since we touched base Friday evening… between the series final practice, qualifications in the format of Firestone Fast 6, plus morning warm-up’s today, I think we need to take a look back and see what we might be in for this afternoon!

Practice 3 – Saturday, August 2nd, 2014– 10:00 AM ET

The third and final practice round at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Verizon IndyCar Series had a few out-of-the-ordinary moments but only one of them forced a red flag. That incident was Sebastian Saavedra overshooting the carousel and ending up stalled in the grass. Car & driver were undamaged and returned to pit lane on their own after the Holmatro Safety Team gave him a tug back to the track.

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The other moments may have even gone unnoticed in general & been relatively non-substantial in the grand scheme of things, but they still stick in my mind! The first was when Andretti Autosport driver, James Hinchcliffe was heading into the esses. The back of the car swung out to the point it almost looked like he was drifting. For those of you not all that familiar with open wheel racing: these cars don’t do that. Thankfully, Hinch was able to catch it before it went off course. He did it so smoothly that it almost looked like he did it on purpose. And if you ask him about, knowing Hinch, he would respond  with something like, “Aw yeah… yeah, I meant to do that. Duh!” In all honesty, my immediate reaction was that it looked fun and I kinda wanted to experience it…

I didn’t get to drift, but this morning I did have the privilege of taking a hot lap on the track with an IndyCar driver. Those esses are NO JOKE. Just… wow. The whole track was incredible and I loved how he pushed the Honda Performance vehicle to its limit – going into the keyhole at 93 mph and making it feel like we weren’t going make some of the turns, knowing full well he had complete & total control of the car at all times. Probably why I always feel confident going for laps in pace cars – these drivers are the best in the world and for me… getting around a road & street course without a “WOO!” escaping me is, thus far, is impossible. I blame them for that… but more importantly, I thank them for it. Who needs coffee when you get the adrenaline jolt from a lap at Mid-Ohio at 8am on a Sunday?!

Speaking of adrenaline jolts, we have four amazing support series racing with us this weekend in Lexington – Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, USF2000, Pro Mazda & Pirelli World Challenge Racing. These drivers have all put on amazing shows this weekend in the wet and the dry conditions. There all have one last race today & we are sure to be in for a showcase of world-class talent. If you are at the track, make sure to stake out a spot on one of the many hills or a seat in the grandstands and take in all the action!

One series that has accompanied the Verizon IndyCar Series at multiple race circuits this season, but is absent this weekend, is the Stadium Super Trucks. These goes combine off-roading, monster trucks & open-wheel by racing at tracks throughout the country, adding jumps to the courses and producing shock, awe and laughter from spectators & media alike. Many in the IndyCar circles have fallen in love with this series and I think even some of the drivers were craving the off-road aspect. That leads me to the next set of “moments” from Practice 3 this morning that I still have engrained in my mind. Both Will Power (Team Penske) & Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) went off-road on their last laps – kicking up dirt & throwing up grass and never coming off the throttle. While these may not have been intentional stunts, I had fun tweeting about them and was pretty impressed that they both seemed un-phased by the detours. Like I said, these drivers are the best in the world… a little terrain change isn’t going to scare them.

At the end of the practice session yesterday morning, the quickest 3 were:  Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport), Scott Dixon (Ganassi Racing Teams) and Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing).  This is an interesting top 3 as they all have something to prove this weekend.

Hunter-Reay is looking for his 4th win of the season and also focused on staying in Championship contention since this is our last month of the racing in 2014. Points are tight and every finish is going to matter from here on out if he wants to fight for the Astor Cup in Fontana. When asked how he feels about chasing the Championship at this point in the season vs leading it, he admitted:

“Chasing is more fun, but leading you have that points cushion. If something goes wrong, you  have a shot at the Championship still… I guess my whole career I’ve been chasing, so I think that is the way it should be.”

IMAG1147IMAG1216The defending IndyCar Champion, Scott Dixon, has won at Mid-Ohio four times in his IndyCar career, with the most recent being in 2012. He & his Ganassi Racing teammates have fought all year to try and bring home a victory to Chip in 2014. Unfortunately, those efforts have given them nothing better than podium finishes. Dixon & his teammates will have the opportunity to make that win happen today – and I can guarantee you this much, we’re all going to be treated to some incredible strategy and nail-biting driving as they aim for that goal.

Justin Wilson has not found a P1 finish yet this year, but his Dale Coyne teammate & Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate, Carlos Huertas has. Wilson has been impressive on track all weekend, clocking fast laps, including in warm ups this morning. That front-of-the-pack mentality is exactly what Wilson needs to hold on to as he makes his way through the field this afternoon. He will start from P8 in the Honda Indy 200 today.

Qualifying – Saturday, August 2nd, 2014 – 2:00 PM ET

After an intense downpour around lunch time, the track was free of puddles and standing water in time for the DW-12’s to take the track and qualify as scheduled. The Firestone Fast 6 was exciting as always, with a lot of the quickest drivers receiving penalties for going off course due to the slick track. Ryan Briscoe (who I feel has a pretty good chance to win this weekend), Takuma Sato & Scott Dixon all received penalties for causing red flags. They each lost their two fastest laps and therefore did not advance to the second round (Top 12). We could have had a very different battle for the Verizon P1 Award, had these 3 moved forward.

The second round of qualifying gave us a great cross-section of IndyCar teams – Juan Pablo Montoya & Will Power (both Team Penske), Justin Wilson & Carlos Huertas (both Dale Coyne Racing), Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Mike Conway (Ed Carpenter Racing), Tony Kanaan (Ganassi Racing Teams), Ryan Hunter-Reay & Carlos Munoz (both Andretti Autosport), Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing), Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing), and Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing). Nine teams represented among the 12 cars – this is one of the many reasons the Verizon IndyCar Series can rightfully claim the title of being the most diverse racing series on the planet. We used to have “big teams” and “small teams”, making it relatively easy to guess who would win races or poles, etc. Over the past few years, this season in particular, that differentiation has been harder and harder to make. Sure, the bigger teams have data from multiple cars & drivers and of course that assists with strategy and making changes to the car, but actual victory has been pretty evenly dispersed. We’ve yielded so many different race winners last year and this year, that there is no way to call one driver or one team, a dominating force. I like that about this series and many others do as well, which can be seen when you look at the increasing television viewership numbers as of recent. We have a long road ahead, but we are on the right path and doing things the right way as a series to paint the BIG picture of success.

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I’ve led you on one of my tangents and I would apologize, but I kind of enjoyed it – hope you did too. Getting back to the qualifying results though – the field of 12 was narrowed down to the Firestone Fast 6: Bourdais, Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, Munoz, Newgarden & Power. After a record setting third round of qualifying where ALL the cars set fastest laps on the last lap of the session, KVSH Racing driver of the No 11, Sebastien Bourdais , collected his second Verizon P1 Award of the season. Bourdais earned P1 for the last IndyCar race weekend in Toronto, during qualys for Race 1. He ended up winning that race. That yields the question on whether he can repeat that feat today in central Ohio. If we stay dry at the track, which is likely but not a definite as of now, we could see very different cars advancing to the front of the field, than the ones that ran fastest on a damp track yesterday. Either way we are in for a great afternoon and possibly three years in a row of caution-free racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The Honda Indy 200 from Mid-Ohio in Lexington, OH will broadcast live on NBC Sports at 3:00 PM ET this afternoon.

Stay up to date on everything happening with the Verizon IndyCar Series! I’ll be trackside all weekend bringing you live updates & event details about the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio SportsCar Course!Make sure you bookmark my MTAF Wheels author page, like my public page on Facebook & follow me on Twitter! MTAF Wheels is also on Twitter & Facebook!