IndyLights – Andretti Autosport Strikes Back

So far the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights Championship has been dominated by Sam Schmidt Motorsports. In past years, Andretti Autosport, when they were in partnership with AFS Racing, had fielded back-to-back championship winners with Raphael Matos (2008) and J.R. Hildebrand (2009). Up until the Toronto race, SSM drivers had won five of the six races, only losing the Barber race to Team Moore’s Victor Garcia (who may have been running with an illegal suspension). While there’s no doubt that the SSM staff is extremely talented, and they have been working on these cars for years, their dominating success in recent seasons has lead to some dark rumors as we’ve mentioned earlier in regards to the Milwaukee debacle.

One of the unfortunate victims of the unpleasantness in Indy Lights, resulting in O2 Racing Technology’s withdrawal and INDYCAR’s subsequent suspension of O2RT and Mark Olsen, was Peter Dempsey. Dempsey started the season very strong with O2RT, but after Milwaukee he was left without a car. In a last-minute deal, Dempsey signed a one-race with Andretti Autosport to drive at Toronto. Dempsey was strong during the first two street races of the season at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. He finished on the podium at St. Pete, and lead several laps at Long Beach before being caught out by the bumps leading into Turn 9. Coming to Andretti Autosport Dempsey had pretty high expectations. He revealed to us on Friday that anything short of having both his and Stefan Wilson’s Andretti Autosport cars on the podium would be counted as a failure.

Strong words from Dempsey, for sure, but a bumpy street course can be a great equalizer. Driver strength can count much for more on a course like Toronto than it does at a 1.5-mile oval. It was obvious from the second practice session on Saturday that Andretti Autosport had two extremely quick drivers in their cars as Peter Dempsey and Stefan Wilson would set the two fastest times of the day. During qualifications, Stefan Wilson would end up setting the fastest lap time, but his quick lap came during a local yellow period. According to Rule 8.3(E) a driver cannot improve his lap time when there is a local yellow condition, therefore Wilson’s potentially pole-winning time was discounted and Sam Schmidt Motorsport’s Esteban Guerrieri took his fourth pole of the season. Surprisingly, the rest of the SSM crew lacked the pace they’d shown earlier with Newgarden slotting up behind both Wilson, Dempsey, and Belardi Auto Racing’s Anders Krohn to start in P5. Daniel Harrington in the #77 and Victor Carbone in the #3 would start in P7 and P10. One might think that qualifying in the top-10 is a good effort until you realize that there were only 13 cars total on the grid!

Sefan Wilson leads the way. - Photo by Jim Haines,
Esteban would keep the lead on the start, but would spin out in Turn 3 on cold tyres following a restart on Lap 20. This put Stefan on point, and he quickly ran away from the rest of the field and would win his first Firestone Indy Lights race after leading the field by a country mile before a full-course caution and the time limit brought the race to a premature end. Esteban did recover to finish in impressive fashion, working his way from dead last after his spin to finish fourth.

“What caused the spin: “It was the low tire pressures. It takes at least one and up to two laps to get the pressures up. I got a bit of understeer in the entry to (turn) three, and when I got on the power it just came around. It was really stupid, but I just lost the rear. We had even been practicing with low tire pressures and to push hard. But apparently, we didn’t practice enough so we will continue working on it.” — Esteban Guerrieri, #7 Sam Schmidt Motorsports

The best battle of the race was between Peter Dempsey and Josef Newgarden as they struggled for position for twenty-two laps! It was a battle that would end in tears for Newgarden on Lap 34 as he attempted to squeeze his car into a too narrow space and snapped his front wing on Dempsey’s right rear wheel. Dempsey’s tyre would survive the contact, and he would finish in P2 alongside Wilson. Gustavo Yacaman would succeed to P3 following Newgarden’s demise and take his second podium in a row.

“At first, I thought it was great racing. Everyone was giving each other room and being nice. If anything, it’s a big learning experience for me this weekend. I can already guess what advice Sam (Schmidt) is going to give me. I probably should have known, with Esteban spinning, to be conservative and score some points. I really thought I had a great run and was trying to run Peter clean. I also thought he was running me clean and then he just ran out of road there when I was going to the inside of him. It was a shame to lose the front wing like that when it was a race where there were good points to be had.”

The day turned out exactly as Dempsey had predicted with both Andretti Autosport cars on the podium. In a season so strongly dominated by a single team, and all the subsequent drama that has surrounded Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the Firestone Indy Lights officials, it’s great to see Andretti re-emerge and perform so strong. Belardi keeps threatening to break onto the podium as well, as Krohn would finish P5 and Goncalvez after starting near the back in P11 would climb to P6.

“I’m so proud of all the work that Belardi Auto Racing and the Liberty Engineering guys did We’ve had a rough time now for the past two months with one crash and two DNFs, so getting up into the top five again was priceless and something we really needed. For a while there it looked like we might have a shot at the podium, but didn’t quite have the pace for that today. However to me this fifth place finish is everything right now because it puts us right back where we belong in the thick of things and hopefully moving forward. With Edmonton coming up maybe we can get a podium. I’m so thrilled and it’s great to see all of the Toronto fans out here.” — Anders Krohn, #9 Belardi Auto Racing

The next race is a double-header at the newly configured City Centre Airport Circuit in Edmonton. While there’s a bit more room than at Toronto, the racing surface is very similar offering lots of bumps and multiple transitions between asphalt and concrete. It should be interesting!

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