2014 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach
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Published on Tue, Apr 15, 2014
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
Drivers have contested the streets of Long Beach for forty years now. Names made famous by the place include Al Unser Jr., a special guest at the track on Sunday, and Mario Andretti, also in attendance as part of his son’s team and driving one of the series’ demo cars. But it was some fresh faces who made the history this year.
Not that the drivers on the podium Sunday have no history at the track. Winner Mike Conway also took the crown in 2011. Runner-up Will Power has won it twice before, in 2008 and 2012. Carlos Munoz won in Indy Lights last year and finished third in the big show Sunday.
The likelihood that this would be the podium when the day began was pretty much nil. Indeed, the three podium finishers looked like the cat who ate the canary (he was not a vegetarian, obviously) sitting behind microphones at the end of the race, and there were lots of reasons for that.
Mostly, things happened as they did because, in a loose paraphrase of military language, the race was “overtaken by events”—events like a crash that removed a handful of cars including the leaders and a situation where the probable winner, Scott Dixon, who led 22 laps in two stints including to lap 77, ran out of gas and had to pit with just two laps remaining.
In fact, Conway, whose career looked very much in trouble when he bailed on his ride at the last race of the 2012 season, the oval in Fontana, was as surprised as anyone to have gained the late lead.
He indicated that he had used his “push to pass” power boost at the right time, on the last restart. “I managed to get by Will, after my guys had a good call in the pits. It was a great job by the whole team. On that last restart, I had to get by Will, because he had one push to pass left. I knew it was going to be hard to keep him behind.” He did get past Power, but that didn’t put him in the lead. Wait for a moment to get that story.
Backing up to the beginning allows for a recap that makes sense of the way things ended. The start in Long Beach this year was from a standstill. This is a mimic of F1, and many thought it would be a disaster. Normally, the series launches from a rolling grid, and that’s thus what drivers are used to. The fear was that the standing start would cause havoc.
Nothing happened at all, and the 23 cars dashed for the first turn with nary a dust ball in their wake. Power commented after the race, “I loved it. I passed a lot of cars on the start.” He chose the Bridgestone “red” tire—a more grippy compound that would also wear faster.
Things proceeded apace for the longest time. Twenty laps in, 20 cars were on the lead lap, and Ryan Hunter-Reay was leading from the pole. In fact, he paced laps 1-26 before stepping aside for a pit stop, then resumed the point for laps 29-53.
Cautions were few early, with none until lap 27, when Sebastian Bourdais nosed himself into the wall in turn eight. That meant four laps of yellow. But what happened was that when Bourdais hit the tires, he set off a local yellow at first. The series was slow to throw a full-course caution, with that coming out after the leader had done his service. It was almost like they didn’t want to trap Hunter-Reay in the pits. Of course, one assumes that the series calculating in this way is not possible. Dixon took the lead, but he had not stopped, and when he did, Hunter-Reay took the lead back.
Behind Hunter-Reay, by the way, Power pitted early, alone, on lap 22, and before the caution, the leader was up by about 3.5 seconds. The best battle behind these guys was Munoz and Oriol Servia, the latter of whom would eventually finish the race in seventh.
In other surrounding action, Montoya pitted from mid-pack under yellow. Takuma Sato, who won the race last year, was 19th. And Briscoe retired after having been in and out of the pits three times.
Shortly after the green on lap 31, Power shoved Simon Pagenaud into the tires, punting him in the left rear. They were seen having heated words after the event, and Power commented on what happened in the post-race interviews. “He’ll probably pay me back at some point on the track” in the future. “It’s on me. I hit his back tire with my front wheel.”
From the looks of it, he was right to take the blame. There was no space for him to get even a wheel inside the other driver’s rear.
Lap 34 of 80 came, and the pack was tight. The top three were 8.064 seconds separated, and there was only a little more to fifteenth, which was 12.247 seconds back of first. The running order at halfway? Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Newgarden, Power, Castroneves in the top five. Study that, or don’t waste your time, because none but Power would be amongst the top runners by the end of the show.
Then the caution flew again, once more for Bourdais, who nosed it into the turn ten tires this time. Once more, four laps elapsed before the cars were underway at full tilt, and Hinchcliffe pushed Hunter-Reay for the lead with Newgarden just .828 seconds behind them. There were 20 on the lead lap, and Power was fourth, but he was pressing the third-place car. That seemed like it would be the battle that would captivate fans for the remainder of the race.
On lap 50, three rookies rolled in the top ten, and twenty cars were on the lead lap still. Power looked under Newgarden but could not pass. Helio Castroneves had worked his way to fifth overall. (He would eventually end up 11th.)
With 53 laps of 80 gone, a pack of cars pitted. Power went out on red tires (the more grippy compound) after pitting first. Hunter-Reay and the second place car pitted after this, and coming out of the pits, they got ahead of Power. Shortly after, the mess that would determine the finishing order began.
The best way to describe this is from two angles. First, the result: Newgarden was leading, yet he ended up resting on top of two other cars. Next, the events: He had chopped over Hunter-Reay for a pass coming out of the pits, and they went together into the left, or outside, wall. The green flag was waving out of the nearby hole long after this happened, inviting cars to come along and create the dog pile, taking out more contenders. How?
H in turn four. It was unbelievable. I saw them get together; Ryan and Newgarden got together and then Hinch piled into them. It’s racing, but I’ll take it.”
With this event came out a super-long caution, from laps 56-63, and when it was over, the following cars were marked as having made contact—Castroneves, Kanaan, Sato, Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay, Newgarden, and Hawksworth. All of this happened in turn four, and for some, it was almost delayed reaction—Sato, for instance, piled into some of the other cars as much as six seconds after the initial incident.
But in the event, the waters parted for Power, who steered clear of the others and took third. Ahead of him were Justin Wilson and Scott Dixon. Behind him was Mike Conway. But Wilson went outside on Dixon and was bumped into the wall, taking him out of the top pack. And then the last caution came out, just five laps later, a two-lapper (68 and 69) which was caused by a spin by Graham Rahal, who nosed into the tired on turn 11, the hairpin before the front straight.
On the green flag, it was Dixon-Conway-Power, and that looked to be the podium. Three rookies still invaded the top ten (Munoz in fourth, Russia’s Mikhail Aleshin, and Carlos Huertas), and there were 12 cars on the lead lap. The top five were 1.8 seconds bunched. Munoz was looking inside Power for third.
By lap 77, the top three were just .885 seconds apart, and the top six, 2.135. Then the incredible happened to Dixon, and he had to pit for fuel with two laps to go. This gave the lead to Conway and left Power to pressure him from behind in what would be futile in the end.
If you’re stats-inclined, here are some numbers for you: There were five leaders on the day, with Hunter-Reay leading 51 and Dixon 22, but Conway just three, including the only one that matters. Saavedra and Newgarden also led briefly. Four cautions took 18 of 80 laps, and the race was just under two hours. The average speed was about 82mph with a .9 second margin of victory. The fastest lap was at 102 miles an hour, which equated to a hair under 70 seconds, and that was set by Castroneves on, get this—lap 76. Charlie Kimball came in dead last and ran only 41 laps.
Power leaves Long Beach with the points lead, but he’s not impressed. “I’m not thinking about that crap. It does me no good. I’m just racing to win every race.” This in the shadow of a near miss a couple of years ago where Hunter-Reay won the championship after coming on after mid-summer against an idling Power. The championship was decided in the final race at Fontana.
About his finish, he said, “You don’t get these gifts often in racing, but I’ll take it. On the grid, we were fourteenth, and we would have been happy with a top five, so second’s okay.” Young Munoz, who won the Indy Lights race at the LBC last year, now has two podiums in his five IndyCar starts dating back to Indy last year. He said that he was not keen on having things turn out the way they did, and he was less sure than Power seemed to be that he liked the idea of his podium finish. But perhaps that’s youth—he still believes that he can win every weekend. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Juan Pablo Montoya, back from a failed and miserably long NASCAR career, finished fourth, his season best (in only two races) and has been top-five thee times in five starts at Long Beach. In victory lane, an overjoyed Conway said, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m actually here,” and he added, “Second would have been good, but awesome. Awesome.” To think that his career might have been over a year and a half ago, but now, the idea of having a tandem of specialists—Conway on street and road courses, his owner, Carpenter on ovals—is incredible for their team. And that’s a pretty good word for this year’s Long Beach race altogether—in-credible, in the root sense of the word—hard to believe. Also part of Brian Kennedy’s coverage of the 2014 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach: I Saw it for Myself in Long Beach Seen & Heard in Long Beach on Sunday [nggallery id=lbgp2014c]