Friday, August 22, 2008

Sonoma Preview

Sears Point aerial view
Infineon Raceway was built in 1968 and originally named Sears Point Raceway, not after the department store, but after its location on Sears Point which is the 15,000 acre parcel of land purchased by Franklin Sears on the northern end of San Pablo Bay. The 2.52-mile natural terrain road course was first put to competition use in December of 1968 for an SCCA endurance sports car race. It wasn't long before the facility began hosting both IndyCar and NASCAR events along with the SCCA events. Among some of the first drivers at the track are legendary racing names: Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue, and Al Unser, Sr. However in 1970, the track was closed by then owner Filmways and open-wheel racing didn't return until 2005 when Tony Kannan became the 2nd driver to win at Infineon, the first and only previous driver to win being Dan Gurney.

Infineon Track Map

Last Year:
Dario leading at Infineon Raceway Last year's race was full of drama and excitement, not so much from any legitimate passing, but from several on-track scuffles. The most dramatic scuffle was between teammates Dario Franchitti and Marco Andretti. Dario was leading the race, and the series championship as Marco was exiting the pits. As they both turned into Turn 2, Marco made contact with Dario's left front wing. Marco was out of the running, and Dario's left front wing was damaged, crippling his car. When the green flag waved again, both Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves made it by Dario. Tony Kannan, Dario's teammate, ran interference for him while in 4th to protect Dario's position in the championship. This move was viewed by few as being a good teammate and by many others (most notably all the drivers behind Tony) as blatant blocking. Scott Dixon went on to win the race with Helio close on his heels. Dario limped across the line in 3rd saving valuable points for the championship. Had Kannan passed Dario and continued to race with the leaders, Scott Dixon very likely would have been the 2007 IRL champion.

Friday Practice:
Session 1:
Good news! New sponsors for a couple of drivers! Marty Roth now carries decals for the Men's Warehouse, and PCM in addition to the Visit Mexico City sponsorship will also carry the Imperial Capital Bank. The speeds and performances during Session 1 were really no surprise. Kannan topped the charts with a 1:17.3920 followed closely by Helio and Danica with Power and Briscoe rounding out the top 5. There was a couple spins by the usual suspects, but no damage was done.

Session 2:
Turn 3a claims its first victim. Hideki got loose making approaching the apex of the turn and slid out toward the wall. Fortunately, the run off area was large enough that although he bumped into the wall, most of his speed had been scrubbed off and no damage was done to the car. Watch this corner on Sunday. It will be action packed! Helio topped the 2nd session times with a 1:17.1703. The mild surprise of the session was the great performance by Oriol Servia who posted a 1:17.4712. Here's a summary of the combined practice results:

1. Helio Castroneves - 1:17.1703
2. Tony Kannan - 1:17.3920
3. Oriol Servia - 1:17:4712
4. Will Power - 1:17.5851
5. Vitor Meira - 1:17.7236

What to Watch:
In spite of having a transporter fire in the middle of Wyoming that destroyed both of Team Penske's primary cars, look for both Briscoe and Castroneves to be fast this weekend. After all, Briscoe set the current course record at 1:16.4913 to take the pole of the 2005 event. Dixon will be reasonably quick, but his performace on road courses this year is not at the level it was last year. Dixon doesn't need to win in order to mathematically clinch the championship. If he leaves this race 86 points ahead of Helio (he's +78 now), the championship is his even if all he does is show up for the starting grid and parks it at Belle Isle and Chicagoland.

This course is VERY technical, so look for the road racing skills of the drivers to really become evident. Watch how the drivers turn into Turns 2 and 3a. Both of these turns are righthanded over-crest turns. The driver needs to begin the turn long before they can see the apex. Also as the cars come up over the crest of the turn, the susupension unloads and the car becomes very light. Throttle control upon exit for these two turns will be critical. Bruno, Oriol, Wilson, and Rahal are some of the new drivers that will do well and find speed after the first few practices, but Briscoe, Helio, and Kannan will be the top three battling for the lead. Dixon will hang back, and Wheldon will struggle as usual on the twisty tracks.

A wild card to watch out for is Tomas Scheckter. He and Luzco Dragon Racing are back in town with the #12 yellow and black Symantec Special. He's never done especially well in the past at this track, but his new team really seems to have things together. In their last outings, they showed significant speed and will very likely make a top 10 finish for the first time at Infineon.

Marco will have a new paint job on his car promoting the new animated Star Wars movie coming out this weekend. Lets just hope that this year, all that expensive paint remains on his car and doesn't get rubbed off onto someone else's.

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