For the motorsports aficionado, this Sunday is about as good as it gets with three historically significant races encompassing Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR all on one glorious day. The action begins in the early morning with the broadcast of the “jewel in the crown” of the Formula One schedule: the picturesque Monaco Grand Prix. Next up in the afternoon it’s the 96th running of the Indy 500 from the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway, before we round things off later in the evening with NASCAR’s longest, most grueling race – the Coca-Cola 600: the only 600 mile race on the NASCAR schedule. So, whatever your particular racing penchant is, there is absolutely something for every petrol-head out there this Memorial Day Sunday.
We’ll start with the Formula One race around the Streets of Monaco, which is the sixth event of a 20-race calendar this year. To date, we’ve seen five different winners in five races including two first time winners – Nico Rosberg and Pastor Maldonado – along with one apiece for the two-time champions – Sebastien Vettel and Fernando Alonso and the 2009 champion Jenson Button. This variety has certainly been a positive in 2012 after current champ Vettel authored a 2011 season that bordered on the insanely ridiculous. Yes, he had an embarrassingly superior car, but it’s worth a look at his stats: In 19 races he won 11 times, picked up 15 poles, finished in the top three (a podium finish) on 17 occasions (for an average finish of 1.3) and led 739 of the season total 1079 laps. For those counting at home, that’s a whopping 68 percent of the laps.
This year, he’s not quite having it all his own way, but his win in Bahrain where he led from the drop of green flag to the flourish of the checkers suggests he’s getting back to 2011 form (not to mention a share of the points lead with the wheelman extraordinaire Fernando Alonso.)
I’ve been lucky enough to drive the basic layout of the course – albeit in a 1960’s Land Rover with just a smidge less horsepower than the F1 beasts – and it really is quite something. Not only is it beautiful but you also get the sense for just how hard it must to stay on course, especially in the rain. It’s a point made by Frontstretch’s resident F1 columnist and my great friend, Andy Hollis on this site earlier this week. “But the thing many fans enjoy more than anything at this race isn’t the unpredictability; it’s the in-car footage. You can feel the concentration as the drivers tear around the circuit, never more than a few inches from the barriers as breathtaking video brings their “job” to life like no other course on the circuit.”
And speaking of tracks which are unlike any other, Sunday afternoon heralds the “greatest spectacle in racing” — the Indy 500. This year will mark the 96th running of an event that first began all the way back in 1911. If you think today’s drivers are brave, then those pioneers of motor racing were on another level of bravery altogether. The first ever Indy 500 race, on May 30th, 1911 was won by Ray Harroun in the “Marmon Wasp”; a car you can still see at the speedway’s “Hall of Fame Museum.” Harroun is also credited with the invention of the rear-view mirror – controversial technology back in the day – and this was the first race in which it was used. Good stuff.
Fast-forward a century and the DW-12 chassis is certainly a different looking beast. This year IndyCar has introduced not just a new chassis but also a new body style and two new engine manufacturers – Chevy and the currently much maligned Lotus – alongside the incumbent Honda. It’s a raft of changes that has to some degree shifted up the pack. Four-time champion Dario Franchitti in the powerhouse Chip Ganassi team has struggled all year long while perennial Will Power has done the exact opposite, winning the last three races on the bounce. The season opener was won by teammate Helio Castroneves giving Team Penske a season sweep of the checkers so far. A fifth win is far from out of the question. Ryan Briscoe, off to a slow start in 2012, sits on pole and while Power has not run especially well on the flat 2.5 mile rectangular oval, Castroneves has excelled winning three times (2001, 2002, 2009). But as we saw last year with Dan Wheldon and JR Hildenbrand – anything can happen. Expect just that this Sunday.
And last but not least there’s the Coca-Cola 600 – NASCAR’s longest race on the sport’s home track: Charlotte Motor Speedway. Given the way the “aero” races have run this year I’m not expecting an instant classic, but I’m hoping to be surprised. Changes brought in for the All-Star Race to combat the dreaded “aero” issue seem to have made at least some small amount of difference. For drivers this good that might be all they need.
This time last year Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas while leading the field on the final lap into turn four. Perhaps Sunday night the ultimate nightcap on a day of racing will be the long-awaited, oft-discussed win. The one guy I’ll be watching closely is Jimmie Johnson. With a win at Darlington and another in the All-Star Race when he essentially punked the field, that No. 48 Chevy looked mighty strong. He’s my pick for victory this weekend but given the way my Fantasy team is looking this year, you might be wise to go against my option.
One final point this week: What a joke that All-Star Race was. I’ve got no beef with Jimmie Johnson or Chad Knaus who developed and executed a strategy that worked to perfection, but it seriously made a mockery of a race that is already in danger of becoming something of an afterthought. To see first Johnson and then the next two segment winners, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, lollygagging at the back of the field essentially posting testing or practice laps made me want to puke. Again, that’s just smart strategy, but you’d have thought someone at NASCAR headquarters might have worked this out as a possibility. The long and short of it is that the All-Star race was much like this season overall – over hyped and under delivered.
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