The IZOD IndyCar Series opened their season this weekend on the brand spanking new Sao Paulo street circuit. Despite the short amount of time that Tony Cottman and his team had to bring this track from napkin sketch to sold out event, the race weekend looked to be a very successful coup in the heart of Brazilian racing madness. Granted though, there were a few hitches in this weekend’s giddyup.
The first major problem of the event occurred during practice sessions when the IndyCar drivers discovered that the Brazilian National Curling Team could have used the concrete Sambodromo straight as a practice rink. This prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the drivers and old guard internet haters of all things IRL progress oriented. But, instead of canceling the event, installing a chicane, or only starting six cars who had the proper tires, Tony Cottman and his crew postponed qualifying, stayed up all night and grooved the concrete straight and came out again this morning for a short practice session and qualifying.
As for qualifying, much of the IndyCar media (read Robin Miller) have been lamenting how the final round of qualifying would be dominated by the five entries from Ganassi and Penske, but at least for the first round, this was not the case. Dario Franchitti started on pole for Ganassi, followed by Alex Tagliani (FAZZT), Justin Wilson (Dryer & Reinbold), Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti), Will Power (Penske) and Tony Kanaan (Andretti). Maybe things would have been different if the Sambodromo straight had been ground before first practice, but regardless, this mixture of teams and drivers in the fast six would prove to be a harbinger for the final standings for the event.
The race got underway under threatening skies but immediately was halted by the second major problem of the event. Most of the lead pack made it through the tight turn 1 chicane unscathed, but the supposed road course veteran Takuma Sato forgot that IndyCar’s don’t have carbon fiber brakes and proceeded to use Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon to stop his car. Adding insult to injury for KV was Mario Moraes doing the same thing, but with much more calamitous results. Mario’s attempt at late breaking put his car into an uncontrolled sideways skid which saw his sidepod make contact with Marco Andretti’s rear wheel resulted in Mario’s car coming to rest on top of Marco’s cockpit. Fully mounted. Marco walked away uninjured, but images from Indy last year are probably dancing through Marco’s head. All told, turn 1 claimed Sato, Mario and Marco.
As I type, I am sure a certain man in a rumpled Speed TV sweatshirt is expounding on Wind Tunnel about how he told us so. How turn 1 was too tight and they should do standing starts in IndyCar. Personally, I prefer the traditional rolling starts, but I could go either way. But lets place blame firmly where it belongs. Sato and Moraes have gained reputations as over aggressive drivers, and today that reputation once again proved to be well founded. KV is going to keep a few autoclaves in Italy busy pumping out replacement parts for all the crash damage that Sato, Moraes and Viso rack up.
Another major concern this weekend was the surface quality. This track was thrown together at a breakneck pace and it looks like surface quality was not of the highest concern. This was clearly seen when Hunter-Reay passed Simona De Silvestro for the lead. His car was throwing sparks out from underneath it as the bumps took him for a wild ride, but kudos to RHR for making it stick and legging out a substantial lead until the rain came out around lap 30 and brought out a red flag due to the 10 minute monsoon that hit the track. This again brought up questions about the track preparation because the race wasn’t stopped because of the rain, it was stopped for massive water pooling on the surface, even though the Versus crew took great pains to tell us that they left the crown in the road to make sure that water would drain. Apparently they forgot to mention that corner marshals with brooms were part of their rain plans. The rain didn’t only affect the drivers and the surface, it also knocked out timing and scoring and all power to the media center.
When the race again got underway, it was relegated to a timed race that would see us end on lap 61, 14 laps short of the planned 75 lap distance. By the time the race got back underway, most of the surface was completely dry, so half the field immediately pitted and switched back to slicks after getting precious few laps on the rain tires before the red was thrown. Ryan Hunter-Reay lead this procession into the pits but was followed closely by Ryan Briscoe who took the lead away from him in the closing stages of the race. Ryan Hunter-Reay kept the pressure on Briscoe though and Ryan ended up parking the car in a tire wall on lap 54, bringing out a full course caution that insured most of the field would be able to make it to the end without any more stops.
With only a few laps to go in the race, Will Power proved too much for Ryan Hunter-Reay and took the lead from him at the eventful turn 11 hairpin at the end of the 0.9 mile straight. Clearly, Ryan hoped to return the favor on a later lap, but Will Power sprinted off into the distance insuring his race win. Ryan finished second, but was followed by Vitor Miera (Foyt), Raphael Matos (de Ferran Luczo Dragon) and Dan Wheldon (Panther) making for a very diverse top five, especially when you consider that Penske and Ganassi accounted for only one of those cars.
Simply put, this event was a sellout. It was fantastically well attended and supported by the home crowd. The track layout was a huge success making for one of the best street course layouts I have seen and the diversity of the results speak volumes for the setup challenges that the course imposed on the teams. Yes, the surface needs to be smoother and better drainage needs to be looked at, but in my opinion Sao Paulo was a resounding success, especially given how quickly this circuit had to be built from scratch.