Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Preview
Often marketed as three-day "festivals of speed," the viability and wisdom of "street races," is often debated.
Proponents contend that urban street races offer IndyCar the best chance to lure a strong race-day crowd, as spectators will be drawn by not only the exotic machines, but accompanying carnival-like atmosphere of sunshine, beer gardens, gorgeous backdrops, and gorgeous people. Likewise, they insist such events can be a financial windfall for the local economy, filling the surrounding hotels, bars and restaurants.
The very vocal opponents of IndyCar street events believe such thinking to be total hogwash. They detest the "Mickey Mouse," layouts, poor sight lines and tight confines, which they say produce processional "follow the leader," type races. Further, these opponents claim such events do nothing to help local municipalities, pointing to numerous events that have failed, where the local municipality has taken a financial bath.
While no one can dispute that numerous events have failed, I might offer that such thinking conveniently overlooks the fact that street races are not the only IndyCar events that have failed. No, plenty of ovals, whether large, medium or small, and permanent road courses have failed too. Likewise, I might offer that the preponderance of numerous failed races on various types of circuits could suggest poor management, rather than a flaw somehow inherent to "street races."
But I digress.
Further, every single promoter going before their local legislature to request funding for such an event can cite Long Beach, as not only an that has flourished on no uncertain terms, but one that has greatly contributed to a sparkling urban revival in a once dilapidated coastal city.
Now, not all will be perfect this weekend. For one, the articles saying the attendance "isn't what it once was," will surely appear. Also, as picturesque as Long Beach is, there is little evidence suggesting anyone outside the sport's legion of diehard fans will see the race, as the TV ratings on NBC Sports Network remain low. Further, despite the surrounding ambience, the tight, narrow Long Beach circuit historically has not lent itself to great racing.
Nevertheless, IndyCar can and should celebrate its 30th anniversary racing on the picturesque streets of Long Beach.
See, aside from Indy, Long Beach has been, is and will likely continue to be the IndyCar's greatest annual celebration; a survivor through decades of infantile, destructive political struggles, and gross mismanagement; the gold standard in event promotion; a reminder of all this great sport can in fact be.
With that being said, let's preview the 30th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Who runs well at Long Beach?
To begin, there will be six former winners in the field:
Sebastien Bourdais (2005, 2006, 2007)
Power has started from pole three times, Bourdais twice. Castroneves and Franchitti have each started from pole once.
Of the remaining drivers who will take the green flag this weekend Justin Wilson has finished second twice; Simon Pagenaud, and Oriol Servia have each finished second once.
Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, and Alex Tagliani each boast one third place finish at Long Beach.
Kanaan and Wilson have each started once from pole.
As for teams, Penske and Ganassi have each won five times at Long Beach. Andretti Autosport has won twice, KV Racing Technology once. The winningest team in race history, Newman/Haas (6 victories), is not entered in this weekend's race.
Who doesn't run well at Long Beach?
Dixon, who is usually good everywhere, has a best finish of fourth in six career starts at Long Beach. The smooth, calculating Kiwi has also never qualified better than fifth.
Also, of note, Simona de Silvestro has never finished better than 17th in three career Long Beach starts.
What is the key to winning at Long Beach?
Yes, while not exactly a shocking revelation, consider this: in the 29 previous runnings, the winner has come from outside the top-5 grid positions a mere five times. Paul Tracy won from 17th in 2000, Michael Andretti won from 7th in 1986, and 15th in 2002. Alex Zanardi won from 11th in 1998. Will Power also won from the 12th starting position last year after an engine change resulted in a 10-grid spot penalty.
Contrarily, the winner has come from the front row in 17 of the 29 runnings.
Yes, starting up front is helpful anywhere. It is vital at Long Beach.
Who are the favorites to win?
Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and Power.
Castroneves leads the championship so far in 2013 and possibly could have won both St. Pete and Barber. He also finished second at Long Beach in 2000. However, it should be noted that Castroneves, has not finished in the top-five at Long Beach since his 2001 victory. Hunter-Reay won from pole at Barber two weeks ago. Power, in addition to his two victories, has three career poles at Long Beach, and a second-place finish.
If I have to pick someone from the non-winners, I'll go with Hinchcliffe. The likable Canadian, who won the season-opener at St. Petersburg, has scored a third and fourth in two career Long Beach IndyCar starts, and won the 2010 Indy Lights race.
What about the prospects for the other former winners?
Bourdais' three wins came with Newman/Haas in the Champ Car days, and he has yet to be a factor this season with Dragon Racing.
Franchitti is difficult to ever discount, however he has qualified 10th and 17th in the first two events, which as mentioned above does not forecast a trip to victory lane.
As for Conway, he was electric at Long Beach two years ago. Still, a top-10 finish in this one-off with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing would probably be considered a good weekend.
Are there any potential sleepers?
Wilson comes to mind as he finished second twice in the Champ Car days. Also, the lanky Brit qualified third for Long Beach last season. However, Dale Coyne Racing has zero podium finishes and a mere one top-5 finish on a street course since unification.
Pagenaud did finish second last year, and I do expect the friendly French driver to score a breakthrough victory sometime this season.
However, Pagenaud's teammate Tristan Vautier is the pick here. Vautier, the 23-year old French rookie has been fast in qualifying, making the Firestone Fast Six at both Barber and St. Pete. Plus, Vautier won 3/5 street races last season in Indy Lights.
Come on! Everyone knows Vautier is bad fast. Give us a real sleeper.
Well, if you insist, how about Charlie Kimball? While we've yet to see any real consistency from Kimball, I couldn't help but notice how confident the 28 year-old American seemed two weeks ago at Barber.
So, who will win?
Looking at past Long Beach performances I'm inclined to say Power. His qualifying and race record at Long Beach are better than RHR's, who has not recorded a top-five finish aside from his 2010 victory.
Still, Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport seem to be currently firing on all cylinders. All four Andretti drivers are in the top-10 in the series standings. The chemistry within the team is reminiscent of the glory years when Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta, Kanaan and Franchitti drove for what was then Andretti/Green Racing.
Further, it's quite possible Hunter-Reay has actually taken a step forward early in 2013. He won pole at Barber, and remember, last season's title run came with only four top-5 starting positions. In other words, RHR managed to win the title without elite qualifying form. The performance at Barber suggests he and Andretti Autosport may have taken a step forward in qualifying form -- a scary proposition for the rest of the field.
In closing, I'm looking for frustration from Penske and Ganassi, and jubilation from the Andretti camp, as RHR stakes an early claim to a repeat title run, in capturing his second win on the streets of Long Beach.
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