Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 25, 2015

From Start To Finish, A Day For Speed

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously announced this post was delayed by one day. The regular schedule resumes on Thursday.

While most of us celebrate Christmas in December, fans of auto racing adhere to a different calendar. For devotees of speed the day laden with gifts comes every May. It is at the end of the fifth month, just as spring is starting to look forward to summer in earnest, that the schedules of the three major sanctioning bodies align and the biggest day of racing in the entire year unfolds. It begins with the Grand Prix de Monaco, the most prestigious Formula One race of the year. At midday the command to start engines is given for the Indianapolis 500, the self-styled Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Finally as the sun sets on the east coast NASCAR’s Coco-Cola 600, the longest race on the stock car circuit’s schedule, gets underway at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year it was a day that produced high drama as well as reminders of the problems gnawing at all three racing organizations.

Set against the glitter of the Cote d’Azur the Grand Prix was run through the narrow streets of the tiny principality for the 73rd time on Sunday. The confined course with its tight turns may make for slow speeds compared to many stops on the Formula One circuit, but it also often produces unpredictable outcomes, with this year’s running proving no exception. Defending series champion Lewis Hamilton led this season’s points race coming into Monaco, and when he won the pole and led lap after lap on the layout where passing is difficult, the Englishman appeared headed for his fourth victory of the year and first at Monaco since 2008.

But with just 14 of the 78 laps remaining the drama escalated when 17-year old Max Verstappen made contact while trying to pass the Lotus driven by Romain Grosjean. Not yet old enough to carry a driver’s license in his native Belgium and seemingly oblivious to the difficulty of the Monaco course, Verstappen had made several successful passes during the race. But the collision with Grosjean sent the young driver’s car into a barrier at high speed. While Verstappen wasn’t injured his Renault was torn apart, with debris all over the track, bringing out the pace car.

With workers busy cleaning the running surface Hamilton made a critical blunder. As he drove past a large television screen set up for spectators he thought he saw other drivers pitting. With a comfortable lead he decided to do the same, only realizing once he was off the track that his closest pursuers had stayed out. The blunder dropped Hamilton to third and allowed his teammate Nico Rosberg to take over the lead, with Sebastian Vettel sandwiched between the two Team Mercedes drivers.

With all the cars now on cold tires the race’s final nine laps were a taut affair, but in the end neither Vettel nor Hamilton could catch Rosberg, who won at Monaco for the third straight year. While the result was great for the 29-year old German it continues a dominance by Mercedes that is threatening to turn Formula One into a one manufacturer series. Mercedes supplies four of the ten teams running this year, just as it supplied four of the eleven that raced last season. But Mercedes cars have now won five of the six starts in 2015, after winning sixteen of nineteen races on the 2014 schedule. That may make for impressive television commercials for the manufacturer, but it doesn’t make for a competitive series. That in turn only increases the financial pressure on Ferrari, Honda, and Renault with each passing race.

Many hours after the open-wheeled race wrapped up on the Riviera the big stock cars of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series took to the mile and one-half oval in North Carolina. The good news story of the night was the victory by Carl Edwards, his first in almost a year and his maiden win since leaving Roush Fenway Racing after more than a decade to drive for Joe Gibbs. That move also took Edwards from Roush’s Fords to the Toyotas of Gibbs. While the manufacturer competition within NASCAR isn’t as lopsided as it is in Formula One, Ford seems to be the poor stepchild of the three automakers fielding cars. Through twelve races this year Fords have won just twice, trailing the four victories by Toyotas and the six by Chevrolets, widely viewed as the top car in the series.

The greater challenge for NASCAR lies in the handling characteristics of its Generation 6 cars. Particularly on the mile and a half tracks that dominate the circuit passing is a challenge and side-by-side racing is limited as a result. While there were 22 lead changes during the Coco-Cola 600 most of those occurred because of pit stops. In the end, Edwards won the race largely because of the fuel strategy employed by crew chief Darian Grubb.

Late in the race his closest pursuer, Martin Truex Jr., as well as others on the lead lap, were forced to pit for a splash of fuel or risk not making it to the finish; while Edwards was able to stay out. A win is a win of course, and Edwards is now virtually certain of making it into the season-ending Chase for the Championship. But a fuel strategy victory makes for less than compelling viewing by the fans in the stands or those watching on television.

Although it is quite possible that racing fans got all the compelling viewing they could handle earlier in the day, during the Indy 500. There Juan Pablo Montoya completed his comeback to the IndyCar Series after an unsuccessful foray to NASCAR with one of the great come from behind victories in the history of the venerable race. Fifteen years after winning at Indy as a rookie, and in the midst of his second season since returning to the series, Montoya was the victim of a rear end collision during a caution early in the race. The incident forced him into the pits for repairs, and he emerged in 30th place, dead last among the cars still running.

For much of the 500 pole winner Scott Dixon and Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan traded the lead back and forth. Unhindered by the confined quarters of Monaco or the design of the stock cars, the IndyCar open-wheeled racers slung around the track as if shot from cannons, passing each other with abandon. Montoya did that best of all, gradually making his way up the standings; and finally rejoining the mix at the front with just a handful of laps remaining.

With the lead changing almost every lap Montoya’s move to the front past Will Power with three circuits remaining seemed like it might have been too early. But with artful driving the 39-year old Colombian held off Power’s best efforts and won by a car length. Yet for all the thrills provided by the race at the old brickyard, the challenge for the series named after its most famous race remains achieving higher recognition.

The long and acrimonious breakup of CART, which eventually led to the formation of the IndyCar Series, sapped open-wheeled racing of the goodwill of racing fans. Even as that period recedes into history the series remains a distant second to NASCAR in terms of American fan interest. For a few hours Sunday afternoon, Montoya and the other IndyCar drivers reminded racing fans all across the country of just what they’ve been missing.

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