IndyCar: GoPro GP of Sonoma ‘hot and not’ list

MotorSportNotes presents the final ‘hot & not’ list of the 2015 IndyCar season following a thrill-a-minute finale at Sonoma Raceway. Rating the drivers and teams that excelled and embarrassed during an epic conclusion to the championship.

Hot

Scott Dixon

Possibly one of the greatest drivers in open-wheel racing history did what he needed to do and what he always does. The Kiwi turned it on at the critical time with a fast, fuel-efficient and totally unflappable performance. There were no signs of panic early in the race when Power was disappearing in to the distance and Montoya was cruising in fourth. Winning on count back is as close as you can get however it is very fitting that the ‘winningest’ driver this season (Dixon’s 3 wins to Montoya’s 2) took the title.

Chip Ganassi Racing

Once more they came to the final race of the season in contention and demonstrated how a multiple-car team should play out the season climax. Unlike Penske there was no messing about, no mixed messages on who to race just clear roles for each driver and crew.

Prior to the first full course caution it did not look like Ganassi had much to challenge Power or Montoya. In that sense it would have been fascinating to see how things would have played out if Tony Kanaan had still been in realistic contention for the title. Nevertheless the entire team executed with the kind of precision that has become synonymous with the Chip Ganassi Racing stable. Undoubtedly they were assisted by Penske’s lack of clarity on strategy (more on that later) and hesitance to commit to any particular strategy. Despite that there was still plenty the entire team needed to do to make a fourth title for Dixon a reality. Likely to go down in history as one of their sweetest victories to date.

Tony Kanaan

Happy to play tailgunner for Dixon as he carried out his championship duties to the letter. That in itself was commendable but the manner in which TK went about it took this to the next level. On a circuit that offers up overtaking about as often as Kanye West says something sensible, Kanaan was going where others feared to tread in to turn 1.

Kanaan Dixon

These were not banzai, eyes-shut, ‘throw it up the inside and hope it sticks’ moves – they were brave, beautifully executed and undoubtedly made Dixon’s title possible. A contract extension for one more season would be a fitting reward.

Charlie Kimball

Kimball’s performance at Sonoma was much needed not only to help seal the championship for Ganassi but to bookend a season that was in danger of ending on a whimper. There was nothing fancy or particularly special about the American’s performance. Instead he rolled off a quick and consistent performance to provide further support for Dixon. Longer term, assuming his backing from Novo Nordisk remains, Kimball probably did enough to retain his seat with Ganassi for one more season at least.

Josef Newgarden

Fine, it never came to anything but Josef’s performance at Sonoma was another beautiful synopsis of why this has been his break out season, and why he probably will not be at Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing in 2016. Fast enough to mix it with the leaders at the front, Newgarden looked comfortable for at least a top five finish. Sadly, pit lane dramas haunted the team headed and extinguished the flame of another strong performance.

Josef Newgarden, CFH Racing
Josef Newgarden, CFH Racing

That is not to be overly critical of the CFH Racing team – since their late-season merger in 2014 they have given the super-teams of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti several bloody noses. Mixing it with the big boys however demands high-level performance from every part of the team, each and every race day and that has been sorely lacking at times.

Justin Wilson tributes

From the pre-race build-up and driver tributes, to the skywriting of the number ‘25’ the manner in which Justin Wilson was honored at Sonoma was heartfelt and uplifting. Nothing about Sunday felt staged or perfunctory – this was a community mourning the loss of a great man and celebrating his achievements and legacy. The racing produced by the drivers in such circumstances was fantastic and all credit is due to them. The manner in which the race for the championship came down to the final lap of the final race would have brought a smile to Wilson’s face.

Drivers helmet auction

Not

Team Penske

As MotorSportNotes predicted in our race preview, Penske’s failure to muster their efforts behind a single driver resulted in none of their three championship contenders taking the Astor Cup. By allowing Montoya, Power and Castroneves to race each other in the closing races, they played right in to the hands of the well-drilled Ganassi squad.

Once Will Power had been slotted in to play wing-man to Montoya in the season finale, the damage had already been done. Between Pagenaud’s comedy of errors in trying to help Power in the pitlane, to Power swiping across the nose of Montoya to take them both out, this was one for the IndyCar blooper reel.

Once blood pressures drop and the Sonoma dust settles, Penske will only have themselves to blame for this one. Sunday provided a pretty stark example of why a four-car super team, complete with four championship caliber drivers is not a guarantee for success.

The (questionable) use of full-course cautions

The caution period for Luca Fillipi’s ailing CFH Racing Chevrolet was the turning point for the race and the championship. We had seen twenty-odd laps of typical IndyCar racing at Sonoma: after a mad scramble through the opening corners, nothing much was happening and the field was stringing out. Power was off in to the distance, Montoya cruising in fourth with Dixon and Rahal not in a position to do much about it. This gave the timing of the first full course yellow – and its justification – a very uncomfortable feel to it.

Arguments will rage long in to the off-season about whether it was convenient to have a yellow at that point or that it made for a great race. Bottom line: no motor racing series should be manufacturing circumstances to bunch the field up and create a ‘better’ spectacle. Were that to be the case in IndyCar, the solution is much simpler: go to a better track than Sonoma for your season finale. Everyone with even half an interest in IndyCar knows Sonoma is usually a snoozefest, thus there should be no surprise when it is pretty processional. We did have a thrilling climax to the race but it just felt a bit wrong.

Juan Montoya

Montoya ran a good race and gave it all he could to get over the finish line with his hands still on the Astor Cup. Despite what gloating fans will say, he did not really crash in to his team-mate – there was nowhere to go as Power cut across in front of him in what looked like a desperate lunge. He got lucky with the Bourdais/Rahal incident but put up a good fight until the end.

Montoya Sonoma

The ‘not’ rating for Montoya is purely attributable to his comments post-race. Double-points were not to blame for the result (Dixon would still have won on normal points), Dixon did not have ‘one good race’ (he took the most wins in 2015) but we do side with JPM on that first caution which felt a bit suspect at the time and does not feel any better now.

Many of us love JPM for his fiery temperament and straight taking. But there is straight talking and then there is trash talking. Whether the Colombian or his Penske team like it – aside from the Filippi full course caution – there was nothing about Sunday that suggested this one was ‘stolen’.

Double-points

No one liked the idea of it at the start of the season and sadly the rip-roaring race at Sonoma probably means they are staying for a while at least. IndyCar needs to look at this objectively and not confuse double-points as the catalyst for an epic finale with the real accelerant: an unexpected mix of a questionable yellow, bumbling by Penske, problems for Rahal and Newgarden, and impeccable racing by Ganassi.

Double-points made no difference to the ultimate outcome of the championship which is a massive relief. Maintaining them for the Indy 500 and the season finale is like taking all the worst parts of the NASCAR Chase for the Cup, and condensing them in to two races.

The crowd

For all the crowd-surfing fun after the podium celebrations, a casual glance to the television feeds showed row upon row of empty seats. From start line to finish line around the track there were many spectator enclosures that were as bare as the southern California landscape.

Sonoma is not a suitable race for the season finale: it is a bad track for the IndyCar chassis, it is typically poorly attended and is too far from a major US city. Prospective commercial sponsors will have seen real potential in the thrilling season climax but the empty seats will not have gone un-noticed.

The interminable off-season 😦

It is here and it sucks. The biggest hope is for a late February/early March season opener to be announced soon – and for it to actually take place. Fingers crossed.


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