By Amy Konrath
Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines:
1. Unser addresses calls from Race Control
2. If you missed it: Mike Conway Teleconference
3. Newman/Haas duo making waves
4. Of note
1. Unser addresses calls from Race Control: Al Unser Jr. recalls the instance when he punted Mario Andretti during the 1989 Long Beach Grand Prix and went on to when the second of his event-record six victories.
“It was a total accident and I didn’t mean to do it, but the end result was that Mario – a three-time winner of the event – was up against the fence and I went and won the race,” Unser said April 20 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he was watching more than a dozen Firestone Indy Lights drivers test on the 1.5-mile oval. “If we would have these rules implemented at that time, I definitely would have been called for avoidable contact.”
Unser was addressing the distinction between avoidable contact and racing incidents that came to the fore during the 37th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17. Paul Tracy, making his IZOD IndyCar Series season debut with Dragon Racing, was sent to the back of the line as a penalty for avoidable contact during a Lap 25 incident in Turn 11 that involved the No. 78 car of Simona de Silvestro.
Helio Castroneves’ car was involved in two separate incidents within five laps – one involving the No. 22 car driven by Justin Wilson and the other on a Lap 66 restart in which Castroneves had difficulty braking entering Turn 1 and created a momentary logjam by impeding the progress of teammate Will Power and Oriol Servia. Scott Dixon’s car sustained rear suspension damage when it ran over Castroneves’ front wing.
“You never want to crash into a teammate, and certainly that was not something I intended,” said Castroneves, who didn’t receive a penalty for either incident. “I wish I could go back in time and not be so stupid like that, make a mistake so horrendous.”
INDYCAR officials said Castroneves’ on-track actions will be monitored at his “home” race May 1 – the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle – on another temporary street circuit.
“He has our attention because he has made poor choices in two of the three events,” Unser said.
Sixteen camera angles around the circuit plus in-car camera video are monitored by four officials in Race Control – president of competition and operations Brian Barnhart, Firestone Indy Lights chief steward Tony Cotman, director of operations and Star Mazda chief steward Bill van de Sandt, and Unser (Firestone Indy Lights driver coach).
When issues arise, officials confer over the video replays.
“Helio made a poor choice going into Turn 1 and took out his teammate in the process, but he did not improve his position,” Unser said. “As a matter of fact, if we were to have him do a stop and go or put him back at the end of the line – like we did with Ryan Hunter-Reay at Birmingham a week earlier — he would be in the same spot that he ended up because his engine died and he went to the back of the line anyway. He basically served his own penalty.
“With Paul Tracy and Ryan Hunter-Reay, they both improved their position by taking somebody out.”
On Lap 58 (of 90) at Barber Motorsports Park, Hunter-Reay’s car bounced off the Turn 8 curbing and veered into the car he was attempting to overtake, driven by Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe.
“We moved him to the back of the pack for avoidable contact,” Unser said. “We did the same thing with Paul. He was being too aggressive going into Turn 11 trying to make a pass. He overshot the person he was passing and took Simona out.
“We look at what caused the accident. There were definitely two causes for the two individuals that got spun out. Helio was not being too aggressive, he was not trying to make a pass, he was following. It was too much on the fence whether it was a racing accident, a racing incident or did in fact Helio do it on purpose. It was too close of a call. Tony Cotman and I made the call after Brian asked us to review the incident.
“We have to be careful about what avoidable contact is and what a racing incident is because when you really get down to it they’re racing out there.
“For sure, Paul Tracy and Ryan Hunter-Reay were aggressive driving, trying to make a pass and didn’t get it done. They were blatant. There’s the avoidable contact. Helio’s was not.”
Unser equated the role of the four officials to that of an NBA referee.
“If we were to make a call of avoidable contact every time they touch wheels, we’d be penalizing everybody,” he said. “You don’t want to take away the thrill and the drama and the competitiveness of racing.
“We have been consistent on all of our calls this year and we will continue to be consistent on our calls in the future.”
Back to ’89, Unser noted that it was a different era of competition and racing.
“There wasn’t avoidable contact in those days because we had different cars, different tires and different engines from the year before and from our competitors,” he said. “This is one of the things that is a double-edge sword when you have your competitors so close together as it is now. These rules have to be implemented and enforced now because the competition is so close. Everybody has the same equipment, and they’ve had the car now for nine years.
“I think it’s a great thing that the competition is so close, but the other side of the sword is you really have to watch their driving. That’s why we have the avoidable contact rule and the rule of defending or blocking a corner to keep your competitor behind you – like Helio did that at Edmonton last year and was penalized.
“These rules are in place to allow for passing.”
2. If you missed it: Mike Conway Teleconference: IZOD IndyCar Series driver Mike Conwayparticipated in a teleconference today to discuss Conway’s win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Ipitava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle. Below are selected quotes from the call. A full transcript and MP3 audio of the call is available at www.indycar.com/media.
Q. Mike, when you were out of the car last year recovering from your injuries suffered at Indianapolis, did you think a few short months later you’d be an IndyCar race winner?
MIKE CONWAY: You always hope so. I think three races in would have been maybe a bit much. I knew I had the equipment to do it this year. With a real strong team around me, great teammates, things have been going well in the preseason, I knew we had the pace to do it.
Just a case of getting around the weekend and luckily it all came together in Long Beach.
Q. It’s been a couple of days since the win. You’re back in England right now. What has been the reaction amongst the people back home?
MIKE CONWAY: It’s been great. When I landed on Tuesday morning back in the UK, that’s when everything was being put in the papers after the race. Some great coverage in the big national papers here. It’s been really good. Been busy all day doing phone interviews, got some TV stuff lined up. It’s been great. Lots of coverage. It’s gone well.
Q.The next race is the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. You had a pretty good race last year, drove from the back of the pack into the top 10. Is Brazil a place where you think you could gain another win?
MIKE CONWAY: It’s definitely possible. Going to be tough as always. Great drivers in the series. It’s going to be hard.
But I think the team did well there last year. I think they were top two. I think we should have a good starting point with the car there and hopefully can carry on our momentum from Long Beach and get a good result.
Yeah, I like it there. It’s a cool circuit. I’ll be taking opportunities, especially in the last corner. Yeah, it should be a good, fun race. With the weather in the mix, always mixes things up. Yeah, we’ll see. Hopefully get some more good points on the board and try and stay in that top five.
Q. Brazil is a unique schedule. Practice and qualifying take place on the Saturday, with the race on Sunday. Does that affect the way you approach the race weekend?
MIKE CONWAY: Well, it’s kind of good they compact it into two days. At the same time it gives you a little less time to get things done with the car. If you want to make some big changes, there’s not that much time between sessions. Could be a little bit tricky. There’s no time for mistakes either with everything being so compact in the schedule. We got to get it right.
I think we should be OK going into the weekend. It should be a good sign with the car being strong there last year. We have to keep chipping away each session. The main thing is to be there for qualifying and obviously be as sharp as we can.
No, it was a good schedule last year. Makes it more exciting, I think.
Q. You mentioned the last corner of the track. Last year there were 93 passes for position and more than half of them in that corner. Is it the long straightaway that runs into that tight corner? What is it about that last corner on to the main straight that makes it such an enticing passing zone?
MIKE CONWAY: That’s crazy, 93. That’s incredible.
I think it’s the long straight before. You have a slow, medium corner on that back straight. You can stay fairly close to the car in front of you. Yeah, with the ‘push to pass’ you can definitely get things done actually before you get to that corner.
I think that is why it’s pretty close. Even though you can get a toe by, you can slot back in the car in front, make the pass in back again until you get to the corner. It makes it interesting, for sure.
I think maybe there will be opportunities to pass going back into the chicane. Yeah, I think with the long straight, it’s nearly a mile long, one of the longest ones we have on the calendar.
3. Newman/Haas duo making waves: James Hinchcliffe was having one of those “if not for bad luck …” days.
Nine laps into the first practice session of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the carbon fiber of the No. 06 Sprott car was akin to kindling with Hinchcliffe encumbered by a six-point harness.
It was, he quipped, “like a baptism by fire.”
Then, rolling out the Newman/Haas Racing back-up car for the afternoon session on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn street circuit, the Canadian driver fought “a couple of little issues.” In total, Hinchcliffe got in 25 laps for the day and 69 for the three sessions over two days preceding qualifications (33 laps behind the field-high 102 of Charlie Kimball).
“It was not a great thing to happen,” he said.
But race day was an entirely different experience for Hinchcliffe, who was competing in his second IZOD IndyCar Series race. Starting 11th in the 27-car field, Hinchcliffe steered clear of potential trouble on the narrow circuit and re-starts for a positive end to the weekend.
“I don’t know if we expected a top-five finish going into the race after what happened on Friday with the fire but we will definitely take it,” said Hinchcliffe, who won the Firestone Indy Lights race on the street course a year earlier. “After all of the hard work that these guys put it, it’s really what they deserve.
“I don’t think we started where we should have; we missed the setup a bit in qualifying. It was funny being really disappointed with an 11th-place qualifying position, which for a rookie I guess most people think is alright, but such is the level of this team.”
Hinchcliffe, who didn’t compete in the St. Petersburg opener, rose 10 places to 17th in the championship standings and is five points behind Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader JR Hildebrand (No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing).
“There is no doubt we benefited a bit from some others misfortunes but that’s the name of the game,” he continued. “This finish speaks volumes for what this team can do and the car they are giving me.”
Teammate Oriol Servia, driving the No. 2 Telemundo car, picked up two spots in the standings to fourth with a sixth-place finish (his third consecutive top 10). Five different teams are represented in the top five.
“I am very, very happy with how competitive the Telemundo team is,” said Servia, who qualified for the Firestone Fast Six for the second race in a row. “We had a strong performance the whole weekend and the team keeps moving forward. But I do have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth because this was probably the best race car I have ever had in a race and a podium was within reach.
“We’re consistent, we’re always there and the wins will come. We are working hard and it’s paying off.”
4. Of note: Tony Kanaan has officially made up 25 positions in the first three races, but that number could be more impressive if you factor in Kanaan was scored 26th after his first pit stop on Lap 22 at Long Beach and moved through the field to finish eighth (a gain of 18 positions in 63 laps). Kanaan, along with Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Oriol Servia, have posted three-straight top-10 finishes…Fourteen Firestone Indy Lights drivers tested on the 1.5-mile oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in preparation for the oval portion of the schedule, which begins May 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The next IZOD IndyCar Series event is the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle on May 1 on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The race will be televised live at noon (ET) by VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. The next Firestone Indy Lights race is Firestone Freedom 100 on May 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It will be televised live by VERSUS.