Track Problems Slow IndyCars At Baltimore

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 3 2011

The pits at the new street course in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Predictable new track blues prompted a four-hour delay before Friday’s opening practice for the IZOD IndyCar Series’ inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix.

After crews addressed potential safety issues relating to fencing lining the 2-mile, 12-turn street circuit, the tight, bumpy and freshly paved temporary layout played to generally positive reviews.

“Obviously, the fans and drivers are disappointed with the delays, but there’s always some growing pains with a first event,” said Graham Rahal of Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing.

One 75-minute session  – condensed from two scheduled practices totaling 2 hours, 15 minutes – was completed, with Verizon Team Penske’s Will Power posting the best lap time of 1 minute, 22.1739 seconds. Series championship point-leader Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing was second fast at 1:22.2162, while Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves (1:22.2846) was third of the 28 entries.

Additionally, championship leader Josef Newgarden was quickest in the lone Firestone Indy Lights session (1 minute, 27.5145 seconds) in the No. 11 Copart/Score Big/Robo-Pong car to lead four Sam Schmidt Motorsports drivers at the top of the time sheet. Conor Daly was second (1:28.0619), followed by Victor Carbone and Esteban Guerrieri.

“They did a really good job creating the circuit,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. “You are working the entire time, and it’s a pretty cool track. It takes a lot of commitment and there are several technical bits. It’s bumpy, and I think it will be a great race. It’s very tricky in certain places but that’s typical of a street course. I think if they didn’t have the chicane we would have more passing there, but overall I like the course. It’s challenging with a lot of corners and the technical requirements.”

Power trailed Franchitti by 47 points entering last Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma in the wine country of California. But his victory on the 2.303-mile, 12-turn Infineon Raceway road course, coupled with the bonus points for qualifying on-pole and leading the most laps (71 of 75), pulled Power to within 26 points of Franchitti after the Scotsman finished fourth.

“It was just a perfect race,” said Power, who earned his series-leading fifth victory of the season. Power also paced a Team Penske 1-2-3 finish as Castroneves was second and Ryan Briscoe placed third.

Franchitti, the three-time and reigning series champion, said the Baltimore layout kept him busy in the cockpit of the No. 10 Kellogg’s Dallara/Honda.

“I’m just figuring my way around,” Franchitti said. “I still think there’s a couple of areas that I could improve on. I’m pretty busy out there hanging onto the thing. It was a tough day for the fans because of the wait, but they stuck it out and on that first lap the stands were pretty full there. Whatever modifications that need to be made to the track before (Saturday’s qualifying) need to be made soon, because we want to make sure that it’s a good day for the fans since they’re very excited to be here.”

A 60-minute practice session is scheduled for Saturday preceding the three rounds of qualifications. Pole qualifying is set for 12:10 p.m. (EDT) and will be televised by VERSUS at 6 p.m. Live coverage of Sunday’s race will begin at 2 p.m. (EDT) on VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network.

Sunday’s Firestone Indy Lights Baltimore 100 will be televised by VERSUS at noon (EDT).

Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing said the track is presenting challenges for drivers and team engineers.

“It’s full of different types of surface and has bumpier and smoother areas,” said Servia, driver of the No. 2 Telemundo Dallara/Honda and 19th after the session. “It will come down to who gets the best compromise from their car to be at the top. I think it’s fun. There are a couple of areas that could be a little better, a little faster. But for a first guess, I think they did a very good job with the track.”

James Hinchcliffe, also of Newman/Haas Racing, contrasted his practice session with the bicycle tour he took around the circuit earlier in the day.

“It definitely feels a lot tighter in a 650-horsepower car than it did on a bicycle, so you really appreciate just how tight and tricky some of these sectors are,” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 06 Sprott Dallara/Honda. “At the end of the day, they have done a good job with the track. The front is really bumpy but the rest of the track is quote smooth and pretty nice. It’s a good layout with some technical parts.

“It’s really tricky and difficult to get one full lap together will all your best sectors, so qualifying is going to be a serious test. The car ran well and the setup, off the transporter, is pretty good so we’ll keep tweaking at it a little bit, look at some video and data and I’m sure I will improve a bit and the car will improve a bit, too. We’ll just take it one session at a time.”

Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports acknowledged the rough surface definitely will need to be addressed by the INDYCAR sanctioning body and event officials.

“We know there are some improvements to make to the track,” said Tagliani, driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda. “But when a promoter goes to this much work to put on a world-class event, we need to be appreciative of that. I mean, there’s a big crowd here. The turnout is fantastic for a Friday. It’s their first year, but they’ve done a good job, and again, we need to recognize them for that.

“I can promise you that they’re so happy that we’re here that in Year 2 they will be a lot more aggressive in the track preparation. But this is normal for a first-year event. For us, it’s going to be a big challenge for the crew and me. We made a change in the last six minutes and we really jumped up. We know where we need to work, and we couldn’t really fix it on pit lane. We’ll get it fixed, and we should be a lot better (Saturday).”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 3 2011
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