Friday, August 29, 2008

Detroit Grand Prix Preview

John Watson in his McLaren-Cosworth
Although open-wheel racing has been around the Detroit area pretty much since the birth of the automobile, grand prix racing didn't come to motor city until 1982 when Formula 1 held the Detroit Grand Prix, alternately called the United States Grand Prix East. Although Alain Prost took the pole, it was Irishman John Watson who claimed the victory in that first race. There were many who would eventually find their way to Indianapolis in the race including Eddie Cheever (P2), Nigel Mansell (P12), Eliseo Salazar (P17), Roberto Guerro (P18), and Raul Boesel (P23). That year was remarkable because the US played host to three Formula 1 GPs, the other two being at Long Beach (USGP West), and Las Vegas. Originally, the Detroit GP was held around the Renaissance Center downtown and the track was hard on both car and driver. The racing surface was very rough and included a railroad crossing! The circuit was also very narrow with concrete barriers surrounding the track with little run-off room. This resulted in a high level of attrition. By 1989, F1 had had enough and terminated the Detroit GP, but CART stepped in and raced at the current location, but not the current configuration, on Belle Isle. Michael Andretti won the pole of that innaugural race at Belle Isle, but at the end of the day it was Emerson Fittipaldi, winner of that year's Indianapolis 500, who emerged victorious. Belle Isle was also the location of Helio Castroneves first major open-wheel victory, finishing first in both the 2000 and 2001 GPs. 2001 was the last year for the CART races at Belle Isle, and racing didn't return until Roger Penske organized a complete revamping of the circuit in 2007. The area was made much more accessable and many of the fan areas and paddock areas were paved to avoid the mudpits that the paddock had become in previous years.

Belle Isle Track Map as of 2007

Last Year:
2007 was the first year that the IndyCar Series raced at Belle Isle, but it was not the first time for many of its drivers, including the last driver to win at Belle Isle, Helio Castroneves. Helio picked up right where he left off by taking the pole position. Sadly for Helio, he made a bold move on the #2 of Tomas Scheckter which put both of them into the tire barrier. This allowed Tony Kannan to race away to his fifth win of the season. The real story of the day, though, was the epic battle between Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon for the series championship. Dixon had a 4 point lead going into the Detroit race, but when Buddy Rice ran out of ethanol and suddenly slowed, Dixon clipped his wheel while trying to overtake him. Dixon's car then rolled into the path of Dario blocking his further progress. The AGR pit was furious with Michael Andretti yelling out immediately, "He did that on purpose!" Did he? Did he not? Its still a debate and one that will surely be revisited this weekend. Here's the clip, you be the judge.

Dixon's day was done, but Dario did get back underway and gained seven points on Dixon retaking the championship lead by 3 points with one race left in the season.

Friday Practice:
Session 1:
The morning session took place on a semi-wet track with the cars starting on treaded tires. Its likely that the teams didn't aquire much data about the track or car setup except for doing a leak check. The forecast for Saturday and Sunday, as per fellow Garager Cassie, is for sun and temps in the 80s. Right now, the temperature is a misty 69F. Not to let the whole session go by without some excitement, Marty Roth stuffs his car under the tire barrier in Turn 12. Of all people on the grid, Marty most needed the practice on this track and his run in with the barrier certainly won't help. Toward the end of the session, the track did dry out and the teams were able to run on slicks, but the track temps were still way below what they'll be come qualifying and race day.

Session 2:
The afternoon session provided better conditions with the track dry and temperatures closer to what is expected for the weekend. Helio topped the charts with a 1:13.2059. Unfortunately for Helio, the driver he's chasing for hte championship was right behind him in time. Dixon posted a 1:13.6996. Vitor Meira and Ryan Briscoe were third and fourth on the charts with the big surprise being Danica rounding out the top five. It's not surprising that Danica was fast, its surprising that she was fastest among all of her teammates including Tony Kannan. Tony was two tenths off of Danica's pace with Hideki and Marco, along with Wheldon, well back in the pack. This is the first day of practice, though, so look for TK to improve his times by qualification tomorrow afternoon. Here are the combined practice times.

What to Watch:
Watch pit road. This is where most of the passing action will take place. Although improvements were made to the Belle Isle circuit, its still narrow and a difficult track for passing. Last year many people tried, and failed. As Kannan put it, "Crazy race behind me, so I think it was a good thing to stay in the front." The first turn of the race will be very important! Being out in front at this track is key to running well. If one is stuck mid-pack, there's a high likely hood of being involved in a "racing incident" or just outright getting punted out of the way. Once the race starts, don't bother too much with the leaders. They'll be doing what they can to stay clean. That is until they come into the pits. Pit stops is where the lead will change hands. This greatly favors Penske and TCGR with their top notch pit crews and race strategists. Mid-pack will be a lot of fun to watch. Expect quite a bit of midfielder and backmarker carbon fibre to litter many of the turns. Last year was a "crash fest" as Buddy Rice put it, but this year there will be even more cars on this very narrow circuit.

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