2014 Belle Isle Grand Prix’s In Review
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Belle Isle. It is not a place famed for great racing. The track has had some major layout changes which were designed to make the racing better. Could the DW-12, double headers, and new layout rewrite the narrative about Belle Isle? That depends on who you ask. The racing was much better than the old Belle Isle; unlike some of the pre-DW-12 Indycar road races the top five after qualifying were not the same at the end of the race. On the other hand the races were largely stratagey based. There was hope for a close battle for the lead; the reality was a lot of anti-climax. The race was O.K. The question is whether or not just O.K racing is good enough. Many people will say it is, but I am not quite so sure.
Double Header Format: The double header format is used by Indycar at a few of the street courses. Promoters and people who attend the races are big supporters of it. Drivers and teams however often find the format very challenging as it pushes them to their limits in terms of physical, mental, and logistical capabilities. I am not know as a major advocate of the teams interests, but I too have mixed feelings on the double headers. As a blogger I find them a bit confusing in terms of coverage. With two races (plus the other races I watch over the weekend) trying to remember who did what to who can be a bit tough. There is also an issue of time management for fans watching with two races. The ABC races are thankfully uploaded to ESPN 3. Plus, does anyone really want to watch two races at Belle Isle? If Indycar were to try this format at another track, like hypothetically Michigan International Speedway or Road America, or Iowa or even the Indy GP, maybe it would be a bit easier to judge. Another thought is that if Indycar is going to run two races a weekend, perhaps they should run a shorter race? Most other series which run double header formats (Pirelli World Challenge, AMA Pro Racing) run two sprint races over the course of the weekend.
Fighting for the Lead: I was a bit disappointed with the amount of action for the lead. Yeah there were a couple passes (Conway, Briscoe) but overall it was pretty much pass in the pits. Or in the case of race 2, watch Helio sail off into the distance. Rahal and Power had an interesting finish, but can you really call it a great battle when Rahal never passed him, or even came up to his side? I would say no, you can’t. There were some good battles on track, but for the lead they were very rare and mostly strategy based. There was a lot of anti-climax both in race 1 and also in race 2. Race 2 was especially bad as two late race restarts saw… absolutely nothing happen for the lead. Whether Power was hanging aback on purpose or simply not fast enough, Helio won unopposed. Before one pitstop Helio had a 38 second lead, and until the yellow flag had over 9 seconds on Power. Power did not challenge Helio at all on either restart. Some people say they want to see the best car win. Be that as it may, watching someone win so easily does not make for compelling television.
On Track Battles: The race did have some good battles for position. The contrast with the old Indycar is clear. Another interesting thing I noticed was the ability to pass in unusual areas. I feel a lot less negatively about RHR’s wreck at Long Beach after seeing some of the risky passing attempts work at Belle Isle. That was good, and ABC actually showed us some of the action in the field. Rahal in race 1 and Power in race 2 provided the most excitement/passing and enjoyment. The divergent strategies at times helped and at times hindered the on track action. In the end the race was not what I would call action packed, and most of the passing appeared to be done in the pits, but it was not as bad as some of the past Indycar races at Sonoma and Edmonton where the top five after qualifying were the same top five, in the same order, at the end of the race.
James Hinchcliffe, Qualifying Vs Racing: As a James Hinchcliffe fan 2014 has been a bit disappointing. Hinch has drastically improved his qualifying but the actual races have been more challenging. Hinchcliffe has started 2nd five times this year, but has a single top five to show for it. No podiums either. Hinchcliffe might have got a podium on Sunday however as he tried to pass Kimball on the last lap he got pushed into the wall. Hinch survived for a 5th place finish however. Belle Isle was a fairly good weekend for Hinchcliffe; he was the best Andretti car. Hopefully he’ll build on this for a great comeback in the 2nd half of the year.
Will Power’s Contact Filled Weekend: Contact was the name of Will Power’s weekend. He struggled both days in qualifying, only to be much more competitive when the race started. However he also made contact on both days. First with Pagenaud which has led to an escalation of their rivalry. Then on Sunday he made a massive dive which took out Newgarden and Rahal. This gave Power a drive through penalty. Power has certainly become a polarizing driver this season. He also finished 1st and 2nd which allowed him to retake the points lead.
Ryan Hunter Reay Disaster: Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Belle Isle weekend started off well as he led in first practice. Then he made contact with the wall in second practice, and never looked back. Qualifying was a disaster both days. Both races were disasterous as well. Race 1 would have been an average finish had he not crashed on the final lap. Race 2 saw mechanical issues take him out of the race. At least he won the Indy 500, and got the double points.
Rahal Redemption: Graham Rahal entered Belle Isle as the only full time driver without a single top ten. Race 1 from Belle Isle changed this. Rahal finished second. Race 2 had him get wrecked by Will Power at the start and he never recovered, ultimately either crashing or suffering mechanical failure depending on who you ask. More importantly than just finishing 2nd was the fact Rahal made legitimate on track passes and fought hard. He looked like a real racer. Now if only Rahal can carry this forward. I was re-watching the epic 2009 Chicagoland race the other day and Rahal was very competitive their as well. If he could just get it together Graham could be a threat everywhere.
Unlikeable Rookies: I’ve changed my mind on Hawksworth to a point. But I still can’t stand Alishen or Huertas. I also find the cheering of these two, from fans, journalists, and announcers a bit disturbing. Indycar does not need a sanctioned Russian bank sponsored ride buyer or random Colombian to win races. It is fine to talk about them, but when they get large amounts of airtime then there may be a problem. Instead lets focus that positive energy on more deserving people, like Newgarden, Rahal, Pippa, Servia, Karam, ect.
Is This A Strategy Game? I accept that strategy is part of racing. But I do not think that strategy should be the main part of racing, and this year Indycar seems to have had way more strategy than on track action. ABC’s covered the Indy GP, Indy 500, and both races at Belle Isle. I have heard more about fuel savings and race strategy over the course of these races than I’d care to. Indy GP was a pure strategy race, and had we not seen the yellow at lap 150 the Indy 500 would have been the same. Belle Isle saw a lot of strategy as well, though I believe in race 2 the strategy was somewhat negated by the final couple of yellows. I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable race fan, and I understand at least part of the strategies used, but I honestly could not give a full recap of the race and explain who used what strategy and for what reasons. Great way to attract new fans, right? I am fine with some strategy and an occasional fuel mileage race, but it feels like that is the default setting for Indycar, and that is a problem. I do not know of a solution though I really think removing the fuel knob would help. It would make fuel saving more driver reliant, and less predictable. If I wanted a strategy game, I’d go to MatrixGames.com!
ABC’s Best Broadcast: Belle Isle was ABC’s best broadcast. They were much better on showing racing through the field than at any other ABC race. Certainly much improved over the Indy GP where they only showed the leaders. Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear are not good commentators. They aren’t as annoying as the Waltrip brothers, but Goodyear and Cheever do not add a lot to the booth. They also make odd comments, fight with each other, and still seem to have some grudges and resentments from their racing careers. All of this negatively impacts their ability to commentate. They also have a basic information issue. They at times do not understand the rules as well as Alan Beswick or Pippa Mann. Can someone please replace them? Preferably NOT Dario. I guess if Dario does get it, that is okay as long as he doesn’t complain about safety, close racing, ovals, or show pro-Ganassi favoritism. Much more preferably, get Paul Tracy, or another likable driver who wants to commentate.
Fence Climbing: Helio won the pole both days, and won the second race. Helio’s was very fast all weekend. Every year, people want to write off Helio. Every year, Helio wins races. Last year he contended for the title and it appears this year he will be in the thick of the fight for the championship as well. Power usually gets the accolades for being faster at road and street courses so Helio’s win and the speed he showed over Power could be a major sign of improvement from Helio. Will 2014 be Castroneves’s year for his first Indycar title? Also Helio reminds me of a celebrity chef. I mean that as a compliment, by the way. I don’t really watch those shows, but I know people who do and have thus seen a number of them. Helio’s personality would fit if he were a celebrity chef. Since those shows and those chefs are more watched than Indycar this is not a bad thing. Perhaps that should be his next reality TV venture.
Race Control and Penalties: While many people are upset with Race Control, I am not. Less is more when it comes to penalties, especially on the tracks Indycar runs. If drivers don’t push and make high risk moves, what would we have had left at Belle Isle? Even more fuel savings and strategy. I like what Barfield is doing and hope that minimalist penalties continue.
The Future of the Isle: Belle Isle’s future is secure. Sponsors re-upped and a multi-million dollar repaving is planned before next years race. I have very… mixed feelings on this. While I understand that it is good to have money put into Indycar, and Belle Isle is Penske’s race, it is very…. frustrating, to see money and attention put into events like Belle Isle and Barber and Mid Ohio and Sonoma rather than in tracks which produce better racing. It reminds me of a quote from Game of Thrones, “The worst ones always live.” Yes Chevrolet needs a race in Michigan, but there is a track in Jackson which has produced great open wheel racing. On top of that it is concerning that the State of Michigan, which allegedly has no money and cannot fund education, is involved in some funding for remodeling at Belle Isle. As someone who’s a Public History major, I do like to see money spent on historical places, and Belle Isle is a historical place. So I have some very mixed feelings on that one as well. Money spent on Indycar is good, but I really would like to see it at a better track. I really hope that the repaving includes some more widening and passing zones.
Overall: Belle Isle was much improved this year over some of the races ran in the past. But it still is a pretty big come down from Indianapolis. I personally did not enjoy Belle Isle. I really am not thrilled about the long term future of the place either. According to what I have read, people who went their had a great time. That is wonderful, but does not make compelling television. I hope that the repaving includes some new passing zones and that one day Belle Isle turns into a Montreal like track. I am not holding my breath.
Overall I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by Indycar this year. Outside of Barber no race has been horrible, but outside of the Indy 500 no race has been that great either. There has been an inordinate amount of fuel saving and race strategy in my personal opinion. Things have improved from the past, but there is still more that needs to be done. I do not have all the answers, but I really hope that the series continues to look for improvements and does not just give up and say things are good enough. Road and street racing can be compelling. The Pirelli World Challenge series has great racing (though Belle Isle was also a bit disappointing), Tudor United has good moments, and despite Marquez’s dominance MotoGP featured a great race for the LEAD. I started watching Indycar for exciting races and on track action, not race strategy and fuel mileage.
Now it is on to Texas. Texas has produced great Indycar races in the past, but the removal of downforce to prevent pack racing has also prevented any close racing. I hope that this year we see some classic Texas action, rather than another spread out processional race. I am not sure if I can handle another strategy/pass in the pits race.