Phoenix Grand Prix review: heroes and zeroes

ISM Raceway served up a surprisingly entertaining Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix last weekend. Here we rate the IndyCar drivers and teams that shone bright like a diamond, and those that turned out to be cubic zirconia.

Newgarden wins, Wickens impresses (again)

Reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden took his first win of 2018 despite a valiant effort by rookie Robert Wickens.

Josef Newgarden ISM Raceway Penske IndyCar
Josef Newgarden celebrates his Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix win with his Penske crew. (Image: IndyCar/Owens)

Wickens – in only his 2nd IndyCar race and first on an oval – led with 10 laps to go following an Ed Jones shunt. Both Wickens and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe elected to stay out whilst the majority of the field pitted for fresh rubber.

Unable to keep the hard-charging Newgarden at bay, Wickens came home 2nd ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top 5 with Hinchcliffe fading to 6th followed by Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud.

Robert Wickens Alexander Rossi ISM Raceway Phoenix IndyCar
Robert Wickens & Alexander Rossi take the applause of the ISM Raceway crowd. (Image: IndyCar)

2018 Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix – heroes

Hero – Robert Wickens

Our tip for rookie of the year honors is making a case for winning the entire IndyCar championship. After storming St Petersburg, Robert Wickens looked like a driver with the experience of Rick Mears on Saturday night.

Never far from the front all race, the Canadian impressed as he threw more shade on his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe. Wickens efforts to keep reigning champion Josef Newgarden at bay in the final 10 lap dash to the chequered were particularly impressive. Especially as Hinchcliffe faded to 6th on the same strategy.

Robert Wickens IndyCar ISM Raceway
Wickens leads the field at ISM Raceway. (Image: IndyCar)

The former Mercedes F1 tester has proven he can run streets courses and now short ovals. He’s already proven on road courses and assuming he can hook up the superspeedways, we could have a legitimate rookie season title contender on our hands.

Hero – Alexander Rossi

Rossi had the car to win the Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix. But then he ballsed up his first pit stop and gave himself a mountain to climb. But boy did he climb it.

From last to 3rd place was astonishing. In the midst of a host of drivers complaining that passing at ISM Raceways was near impossible, Rossi cut through the field like a piece of carbon fiber slicing a tire open. The American’s ability to maintain regroup after a mistake is quickly becoming a very potent weapon.

From a fans perspective this fight to the front was particularly satisfying because there was no clever strategy. No off sequence pit stops. This was just pure speed and daring overtakes.

Phoenix was a missed opportunity for Rossi. It might come back to haunt him later in the championship but it was in any case a text book example of damage limitation.

Hero – Ryan Hunter-Reay

A top 5 finish was a reasonable reward for the night’s most daring overtaker. In the face of grumbles up and down the field that passing on the higher second groove would still elude IndyCar in Phoenix, Hunter-Reay made a habit out of sweeping round the outside. Leaving tentative rivals astonished and glued to the white line.

Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti Autosport IndyCar ISM Raceway
Sparks fly as Ryan Hunter-Reay races into the top 5 at ISM Raceway. (Image: IndyCar).

Pitting for tires with 10 laps to go undoubtedly benefitted RHR’s cause. Whether he had the outright speed to go with his brave overtakes is questionable. Certainly when compared with the rocketships of Rossi, Newgarden and the super consistent Schmidt Peterson cars.

Hero – the universal aerokit

Whilst IndyCar racing at ISM Raceway is still a long way off the excitement offered at other tracks, the lower downforce aerokit certainly spiced things up.

There were wobbles, crossed up moments and increased tire degradation to mix things up a bit (although the greater number of tire marbles on the high line did compound the one groove problem).

The fact backmarkers played a more significant role than in recent years was a God send. Without it we would have been limited to a few frenetic laps immediately after each restart.

Honorable mentions

Though Wickens showed up all of his fellow rookies, Pietro Fittipaldi showed good pace early on and Kyle Kaiser was solid on his debut. Both ended up in the wall prematurely but showed potential.

Shout out to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crews that helped Sebasiten Bourdais get started on pit road during the formation laps. IndyCar might be extremely competitive but it is still a big family.

2018 Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix – zeroes

Zero – Will Power

Whingeing Will Power made his first appearance of the 2018 IndyCar season. Caught napping by an aggressive Rossi unlapping himself, Power left the door wide open. The American took advantage and Power slid, rather gracefully into the wall.

In car and post-race Power was back to moaning about other drivers instead of reflecting on his own mistakes. According the former IndyCar champion, Rossi was to blame for having the audacity to try to unlap himself.

Power’s attitude is hugely frustrating: he just seems unable to drop the silly mistakes and subsequent blame game. Without that lapse in concentration the Aussie could and should have been rampaging to the front in the closing laps with his Penske teammate Newgarden.

Zero – Matt Leist

After astounding everyone with his pace at ISM during pre-season testing, Matt Leist came back down to earth hard in the Nevada desert.

But his disappointing form on race day was not the source of his zero rating. Anyone who watched the F1 Bahrain Grand Prix and witnessed the incident that left Ferrari mechanic Francesco Cigorini with a broken leg will understand why.

Leist’s questionable half-donut on pit road was an accident waiting to happen. The IndyCar official that was running to assist him could have easily ended up seriously hurt had he arrived on the scene ever so slightly earlier. Yes the adrenaline was pumping and the AJ Foyt Racing rookie believed the spin to be of his own making. But you simply don’t try that in the pit lane.

Zeroes – Carlin Racing

Things are not looking great for the much vaunted Carlin Racing. Drivers Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton faced the ignominy of the being among the first cars to be lapped before finishing 2 and 3 laps down, respectively.

At no time during the race did either car look like it might make progress through the field. To add insult to injury, the tiny Harding Racing outfit has managed back-to-back top 15 finishes with Gabby Chaves.

Two races down and a 17th place finish for Charlie Kimball on Saturday night is their highest placing so far. Carlin need to get to grips with the new aero kit and Dallara chassis quickly, and both drivers need to step up after two very difficult races.

Pre-season Chilton and Kimball were vocal in their criticism of Chip Ganassi Racing’s ‘focus’ on Scott Dixon and Carlin’s great promise. Kimball in particular predicted Carlin would surprise many in 2018. The Californian was partially correct: Carlin’s complete lack of pace is surprising.

Race rating: 4 out of 5

This will seem like an outrageously generous rating but in the context of past IndyCar races at ISM Raceway, the 2018 Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix was a thriller.

Admittedly once we were into the middle of each tire stint, it was processional and the second groove never truly materialized. Nevertheless, there was more excitement and intrigue this time around compared to any of the previous races here since IndyCar returned in 2016.

After 3 years of effort and investment, ISM Raceway has no contract with IndyCar for 2019. Hopefully this year’s race will be enough to convince both parties there is still untapped potential. With more cooperation – and perhaps Will Power’s radical ‘second groove only’ practice proposal – great racing can be a regular feature at this historic venue.

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