Random Thoughts On Sonoma

The Verizon IndyCar Series has closed the books on the 2016 season. To say that it was in riveting fashion would be a stretch. Not to be negative, but yesterday’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway was one of the more boring races I’ve seen in a while.

Simon Pagenaud sent a signal that Will Power needed to bring his A-game in Saturday, when he won the pole for yesterday’s race while Power qualified fourth. It added another point to the total that Power would have to surpass to snatch the championship away from Pagenaud.

When the green flag dropped to start the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Pagenaud sent another signal when he immediately pulled away from the majority of the field. For those that were expecting a drama-filled race, they were beginning to suspect that it wasn’t to be. Their fears were confirmed on Lap thirty-six, when Will Power started slowing down during a commercial break. I could see Power being passed by many cars in the little window as the commercial blathered on. I had no idea what the issue was, but if you were a Will Power fan – it didn’t look good.

As the telecast came back from the commercial, it became pretty obvious that it was some type of gearbox issue. Suspecting a yellow to come out at any moment, Pagenaud and the leaders ducked into the pits for service. Power was eventually towed back into the pits and eventually solved the problem with the gearbox control unit. The problem was, he was eight laps down to Simon Pagenaud who was still leading the race – virtually ending any potential drama on who would be the 2016 champion.

For the remaining forty-nine laps, the only drama was whether or not Helio Castroneves would finish third in the championship, giving Team Penske a 1-2-3 sweep in the final points standings. He did.

Not only did Simon Pagenaud win the 2016 championship, he also won yesterday’s race – giving him five race wins for the season and nine in his IndyCar career.

Sometimes, I find a race entertaining while others say it was boring. That will not be the case this time. I found yesterday’s race a drudgery to watch. The only thing that held my interest was the chatter about the silly season which will now get into full-swing, as if it wasn’t already.

So congratulations to Simon Pagenaud on his championship season. There is no question that he deserved it. His stint of winning three races in a row at Long Beach, Barber and the GP of Indianapolis pretty well sealed his fate for the season. A win at Mid-Ohio thwarted a big mid-summer run by Power. He made only one mistake all season – his Turn One crash at Pocono that made things interesting, but ultimately had no effect on the championship.

It’s just a shame for Power, Pagenaud and especially the fans that we weren’t treated to an on-track battle that went down to the final lap. But with the season finales that IndyCar has had recently, none of us can complain very much.

Pagenaud deserved this championship and I look forward to him defending it next year with the No.1 flying proudly on the bright yellow Menard’s car for ten races next season.

TV Coverage: The most scintillating part of the entire telecast was when Robin Miller would drop little nuggets about the silly season. Who knows if any of it was accurate, but it gives us plenty to talk about for the next few weeks.

I got the feeling that NBCSN was expecting a dull race, when they had several previously recorded interviews queued up for their Through the Field segment. We’ve heard Kevin Lee reveal that you can tell how boring a race is by how far they get through the field. As I recall, they got pretty far. But I’ve never seen the pre-recorded interviews before yesterday. It was a nice touch, but I think they were expecting to need lots of filler material.

I was ready to give all of the NBCSN crew high praise across the board, until Jon Beekhuis had his too-painful-to-watch interview with the mother of Simon Pagenaud. He asked the French-speaking lady a long rambling question that ended up with asking how old Simon was when he knew he would be a racer. You could tell she understood about a third of what he said, so she gave a polite answer in broken English about what a dream this was. Jon followed up with the age question and she said she didn’t hear him. For a third time, yelling in her ear, he pressed again for an answer to the age question. By this time, things had gotten awkward and I found myself uncomfortably wishing that Jon would have just let it drop. She finally gave some nebulous answer about since he was little. I was relieved when Beekhuis finally left her alone.

No extra drivers: Normally, the final race of the season brings an added car count. Sometimes, some Indy Lights drivers are brought up or teams will take an opportunity to take a look at a driver many of us have never heard of. I’ve always liked the bigger fields in the last race of the season, but it didn’t happen this year. The same twenty-two full-time cars that ran all season started yesterday’s race – no more, no less. I’m not sure what that means, but I thought it was worth noting.

Get out! Another awkward moment was the extended amount of time it took to get Simon Pagenaud to climb out of his car in victory lane. Sometimes, the driver is held in the car while waiting for the TV audience to return from a commercial break. Then the driver is given the GO sign and the driver miraculously pops out of the car just as the network comes back. It’s all very scripted.

Yesterday, Pagenaud just sat there. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to gather his emotions or if he had mistakenly been told that NBCSN was in commercial break. Whatever the case, it produced a long period of awkward silence as we sat there waiting for Pagenaud to get out.

Still hungry: One thing I kept hearing over and over yesterday was that not winning this championship didn’t hurt so much for Will Power because he had already won one, two years ago. Am I the only one that felt bothered by that sentiment?

I’m thinking that if you are as competitive as most of these drivers, it might even hurt worse because you’ve done it and know what it feels like. I’ll promise you that Scott Dixon’s four championships didn’t take any sting out of the fact that 2016 was a disappointing season for him. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the title in 2012 and now sulks each season when he doesn’t win. If I’m a car owner, I want my driver to hurt when he or she fails to win a race or a championship. It goes back to the old saying – Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.

Will Power was graceful in defeat and knew that the racing gods worked against him yesterday and the situation was out of his hands. But he was still very disappointed and it showed. Winning the 2014 championship was probably the last thing on his mind, other than the fact that it made him even hungrier for another one going forward.

All in all: A great season with lots of close and exciting racing ended in somewhat of a thud yesterday. Sonoma doesn’t normally lend itself to great racing, but yesterday’s race was more boring than usual. It happens. Some of the greatest tracks and venues produce a clunker now and then.

But part of the reason the race was so boring was the way Simon Pagenaud dominated the entire weekend. No one could keep up with him. He can’t help it that he was that good this season. Yesterday was not the first race that Pagenaud has run away with this season. Maybe the other teams need to step up their game to keep up with Pagenaud before we start talking about how boring Sonoma is.

But it was a great season for Simon Pagenaud and I’m happy for him. He deserves to be able to celebrate for a while through the offseason. But everyone will be gunning for him next season – throughout the rest of the paddock and within his own team. He’d better enjoy the celebration now, while he can.

George Phillips

40 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Sonoma”

  1. indycar should end the season on an oval.

  2. All of the teams better step up their game if they have any hope of competing with Penske. If they don’t we can look forward to more snore-vests, like Sonoma in 2017.

  3. You think that was boring? Man, try watching yesterday’s F1. Now that was a yawnfest alright. Driver’s bleating “give me a strategy so I get round him”. Try overtaking maybe? Dreadful…

  4. Lost power at my house about halfway through the race. I sensed that was a good thing, ha!

    Seemed pretty boring to me, a real snoozer of a way to end the season. You don’t have to end it on some crazy Texas style weekend, but maybe something a bit more exciting? I wouldn’t mind seeing Homestead again even, maybe Kentucky? It’s funny that Sonoma is one of the more exciting races in NASCAR and such a snoozer in Indycar, many years ago it would have been a reverse of that.

  5. George I have enjoyed your Twitter postings and this blog this year . Thank you for all your effort and Mrs Oil Pressures patience. By the way did the crowd at Sonoma appear rather sparse to you as it did to me? Wine Country is a great place but dried out vegetation and a sparse crowd did not come across well on television.

    • Hi. I was at the race. The crowd is not sparse. The air temp was 96 degrees and most people were hiding in whatever shade they could find (a lot were actually under the grandstand). As an add on: folks, California has been in a serious drought for five years. As much as a nice green race track is important, it’s more important that we have water for our people, businesses and farms. It’s funny because Sonoma and Laguna Seca look exactly the same in summer, and I’ve never heard anyone ask for the grass to be watered.

      • Anyone from the west will agree and understand your comments on water and grass. People from the east however will not. Easterners have no idea what it means not to just use as much water as they want because it is everywhere and always there. They don’t understand that the whole United States is not just like the eastern states.

      • Amen to that!

      • I was only commenting on how it looked to me watching on television. As a Hoosier I have not experienced a 5 year drought. Having visited the Wine country i understand how nice the area is , I just didn’t think the optics were good. As to the crowd if they are hiding under the bleachers it’s difficult to know that watching TV. I want the series to be successful which means butts In the seats as well as good TV ratings. I have sat on aluminium bleachers in oppressive heat at IMS on a number occasions so I understand the discomfort

  6. Re “no extra drivers”…I think this is the result of the higher costs for engine leases and aerokit parts. We had a huge field (regrettably, too huge) at LVMS in 2011 because the cars were obsolete after that event. With the aerokit freeze in place for 2017, that means the spare kit parts the teams have in stock now will be used next season…and moving up a driver from Lights is likely to result in some damage over a weekend at Sonoma.

    Re “still hungry”…I see your point but putting things in perspective is important or you end up playing mind games on yourself MarcoGraham…. and Will Power admits that he’s let mental things bother him way too much in the past. I’m sure that Power realized he was lucky to be in the mix for the championship after missing St. Pete and he was on fire there for five races to be in that position. I make no effort to hide that I am a huge Dixon fan and chat online with several others, and after that breakdown at RA, we all agreed it was all she wrote when it came to the championship barring huge mistakes by Pagenaud or Power. For Dixon to be in third after that and his mistake at TX was surprising to me…well, it’s really too bad that things ended on a sour note for Target.

    Re the broadcast glitches…yeah, the team was a little off their game yesterday. Seemed strange to hear Diffey doing the play-by-play, to be honest. I am finding myself more and more in the “would you PLEASE stop the yelling” camp and would love to see Kevin Lee move into that role full-time.

  7. David Rinehart Says:

    Every championship does not have to come down to the last lap of the lap race. It’s that kind of thinking that have produced such gimmicks as double points and whatever nonsense they use in NASCAR to crown a champion.

  8. I understand why Indycar has to race at Sonoma. I understand sponsors love it. And being sort of close to San Francisco is a big deal. Sonoma for years has been between the 4th-2nd to last race and everyone was fine with that. Lets go back to that. Because Sonoma as the season finale basically guarantees we’re not getting a dramatic championship battle. There’s no side by side finishes, and probably no last minute passes. I would rather see the season end almost anywhere else (in the United States). I actually thought Boston might have been a decent season finale. Road America is sort of close-ish to Chicago/Milwaukee. Watkins Glen is kinda near New York City (I’m aware Upstate New York is far from NYC). Honestly i think Chicagoland is the best finale location since it’s close to Chicago and produces good racing. Kentucky, Iowa, Pocono (also near some big cities!), a random street course with long straight away’s like Sao Paolo but in the US, or the resurrected Cleveland all would be more compelling than Sonoma.

    In my opinion that was more of a parade than a race. For whatever reason this year, a lot of the road races that might have been dramatic (Road America, Watkins Glen, Sonoma, ect.) have ended up being parades. You could make the case at Glen/America that there was racing through the field, but despite NBC Sports valiant efforts Sonoma didn’t see much of that. I guess it was a fitting and boring end to the least exciting season of Indycar since 2009. Texas was great, Indy was great, seeing Newgarden & Rahal win again was great, and the rest of the season was just a lot of Dixon and Penske.

    A neutral observation; in modern racing, someone can always save enough fuel. If the announcers ever say “some people are trying to stretch it” they always will. Numerous times this year, in both NASCAR and Indycar, people have managed to save fuel when the announcers were sure they couldn’t. Some people may run out, but at least one or two will save enough and win barring a caution. I would imagine this is due in Indycar to telemetry and NASCAR due to better computer simulations.

    Since there’s a lot of people who demand positive comments, there were 4 things that made Indycar worth watching. Newgarden and Rahal backing their strong seasons last year up with a win apiece was exciting. It was good to see them not pull a Danica/Marco/Rahal circa 08 and win once before never winning again for ages. Hinchliffe was good this year even though he didn’t get a win and that was nice. Rossi was the first non RHR American to win the Indy 500 in awhile. And, both Rossi and Newgarden hopefully will have good rides next year. So that’s the positive. Oh, and aero kits are dying so maybe parity will return sometime. Can’t leave that one out.

    • Ironically, Sonoma is one of the best races in NASCAR. I like that the race was run right after the Cup race because I bet we picked up a few extra fans. Too bad the Indycar Sonoma race is kinda dull. The biggest difference is Cup drivers treat Sonoma like Bristol. You can’t pass, but does that matter in a Cup Car? Not if you can push someone out of the way. They also get to run the hairpin before the start finish line. I really wish Indycar ran that. They don’t because it is allegedly unsafe… but is it really more dangerous than Road America/Watkins Glen/Indy/Pocono/Texas? I’m not so sure.

      • Hi Dylan! If you were to come out and visit the track, you would observe that an IndyCar hits about 155 mph as it heads towards that final hairpin. That speed would increase if you used the final hairpin that NASCAR uses. At the end of that straight (if you didn’t make the turn), you would hit a solid wall head on at a speed that is too high for safety. As far as I know, that cannot be changed without a major re-working of the circuit and pit lane (which runs behind that hairpin).

        • Isn’t that what safer barriers are for? I mean I get that to a point, but then the track needs something better at the current Indycar hairpin instead of the thing they use now.

    • Your first remark is interesting, because last year the title was decided at Sonoma based on double points. Rahal put on a great drive yesterday. Some of the best moments in the race didn’t make the broadcast, to be honest.

      • Double points helps, but it’s just not going to be a compelling race 99% of the time at Sonoma and that’s bad when the title is on the line.

        • It’s like a pitcher’s duel, right? Some folks love a 1-0 ballgame because there is a lot happening. In past years at Sonoma, leaders have run out of gas, pit crew have been hit by cars, etc. If anything, what made this race a snoozer was Pagenaud in front with pole, no real challenge unless Power won the race, and Penske cars seemed to protect each other and not race hard at all. The result wasn’t the fault of the circuit, it was partially stage-managed by Penske, and partially by the fact that Power’s car died in the middle of the race, killing the title drama.

  9. “Is that all there is?” Thanks for another season of blogivatin’ George.

  10. After a weekend of pretty exciting football games the Sonoma race left a lot to be desired. However, I enjoyed keeping up with Graham Rahal, Newgarden, RHR and Hinch. They all ran very well and I will expect more out of them next year.

  11. Congrats to Simon Pagenaud to his 2016 IndyCar title. It is indeed well-deserved.

    This may be even be a first, and something of note for the trivia guys: has there been a driver in the past who has won an IndyCar and/or ChampCar, CART or USAC major league title without having won a race on an oval (ever), such as Simon Pagenaud?

    • billytheskink Says:

      ChampCar and CART, yes. USAC and reliably-recorded AAA schedules were overwhelmingly dominated by ovals and such a feat was nearly impossible, unless you won the championship without winning a race (as Tom Sneva did in 1978).

      Drivers who have won a championship, and won races, without winning on an oval:

      – Paul Tracy did not win one of the two oval races scheduled on his way to the 2003 CART championship.

      – Bobby Rahal only took 3 road/street course wins on his way to the 1987 PPG Cup.

      – Al Unser won only the Cleveland airport race on his way to the 1983 championship.

      Also worth noting is Sebastien Bourdais, who won the 2007 ChampCar title without winning an oval because there weren’t any on the schedule. Remarkably, he did manage to win on an oval during his three previous title runs, despite there being a total of five oval races contested during those three seasons.

      • I’m thinking Yannick means Pagenaud has never ever won on an oval in his career. I’m not sure that has ever happened – an IndyCar champion without at least one oval win on his resume. – GP

        • billytheskink Says:

          You are correct, I missed the “ever” in parentheses. Pagenaud indeed stands alone as having won a championship without ever having won on an oval before.

          Given the recent road and street course-heavy schedules, I’m surprised that he is also only the fourth driver to win a championship without an oval win on the season.

          • Well, in fact, I had been interested in both. That’s why I put the “ever” in parentheses. Thanks to both of you for helping me with my curiosity.

  12. billytheskink Says:

    Enjoyable on some level, but very predictable. That seems to be the way with Sears Point races.

    I think a less predictable venue would make for a more interesting season finale. Nevertheless, major kudos to Pagneaud, who simply pulled away yesterday from some very fast drivers who had nothing to lose.

  13. hey George. BORING AND DULL described it. I don’t feel bad for the whiner power. no one felt bad for helio when the title that said whiner recived was jerked out from under him. remember?

    rahal did put some life in this race. and the feel bad for Montoya chorus don’t because he brought on himself. yes agreed over all an excellent season. cant wait to see the changes during the off season .

    • You are entitled to like or dislike any driver of your choice, of course, but Will Power did no whining after the race. He congratulated his teammate and simply said “It was Simon’s year.” And he was once again better than at least twenty other drivers over the season. Like you I am looking forward to the off season changes. Thanks for being a fan.

  14. George, enjoy your off-season! For those of us who were actually at yesterday’s race, big ups to Simon Pagenaud for the donuts at Turn 7 (right in front of us) and getting out of the car to acknowledge the crowd. Nice of him to acknowledge the people in the cheap seats.

  15. I thought NBCSN did a very good job. And it’s always exciting to watch an Indy race (especially in person). I do appreciate the human element and the very brief interview with Pagenaud’s mother acknowledged her presence there, and its significance, and was not intended to provide anything insightful.

  16. Vote for Hinch: 1-800-868-3405

  17. Just did … and twice

  18. Thanks George and Susan for another stellar season. Enjoy you off-season.

  19. James L. Gray Says:

    Although I haven’t been commenting much this year, as others always seem to cover my thoughts much more eloquently than I could, I always enjoy reading your views on IndyCar. Thank you George and Susan for another wonderful year of this great blog. One last thought on this year, although it was a boring race I will say that cars on track is always better than a long off season.

  20. What about ending at Milwaukee? I don’t think Homestead would work because it would be too close to a big NAPCAR race and also it is too gawdawful hot there this time of year with absolutely no shade. Richmond also springs to mind, if you want a really short oval track…

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