Later tonight, millions of people around the world will surround their televisions, laptops, tablets and smartphones to watch a new episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones. The show, now in its seventh season, has become famous for its unpredictability. People watch intently knowing that at any moment their favorite character could be lost as others rise.
For fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series, that’s become an all-too-familiar feeling.
The Chevrolet Dual in Detroit was a wild weekend for the IndyCar paddock. Coming on the heels of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, and amid myriad rain delays among other forms of motorsports across the United States, the race was open to audiences both new and unexpected.
For better or worse, those that saw it are probably still scratching their heads.
With difficulty passing, only 70 laps per feature and scattered showers throughout the weekend, pit strategy was the name of the game. Drivers dove down pit road at seemingly random times as each team attempted their own formula to get to the checkered flag first. A cacophony of crew chief talk filled the in-car radio while eyes were trained toward the race on pit road and the weather radar all at once.
Confusion abounded. Such is the style of IndyCar racing, specifically on road courses. There’s never a dull moment during one of their races, though both those covering and following struggle to keep up.
Green-flag races can yield any number of finishes, but the real roulette wheel of the weekend came in the form of caution flags.
At the halfway point of the second Dual, it appeared that Helio Castroneves might be en route to his first victory in nearly two years. But thanks to an untimely caution on lap 49, Castroneves was instead left with a disappointing 14th-place showing.
Incredibly, drivers on near-similar strategies to Castroneves found themselves in contention to win 20 laps later. Why? Simple: they got lucky.
Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay had just made their way to pit road when Jack Hawksworth stalled to bring out the day’s final yellow. The result? They all competed for the victory and took the top three positions on the podium.
The certain level of randomness to IndyCar weekends is sometimes what makes them great, but it can often have a substantial effect on the championship battle.
Castroneves was in position to close his gap to Pagenaud in the points to within 50 at one stage in the race. Instead, courtesy of Pagenaud’s runner-up performance, Scott Dixon’s fifth-place rally and Castroneves’ misfortune, the Brazilian finds himself third in the standings, 86 points back as the field heads to Texas Motor Speedway.
Even after earning the race win, Team Penske’s Power took part of his post-race press conference to address the fairness of IndyCar’s caution procedure.
“That’s IndyCar racing,” Power said. “Sometimes it’s just very frustrating because it can be just pure luck where the yellow falls.”
Power then added a suggestion – looking at the technology used by Formula One.
“Now if you look at Formula One, you have these… virtual safety cars,” said Power. “We can do that. We can slow everyone down to the same speed on the track, whatever that may be, 60 miles an hour, go around on a limiter until everyone pits, and it prevents that.
“It’s an easy fix and we should do it. It even makes it safer. Everyone slows down to a limited speed where they have it on their dash. Then, we can pack up and have restarts and all that stuff as well. It makes it a lot safer in the pits. It makes it more fair on the track. It makes it more sportsmanlike, you could say, so it’s not a lottery.”
Perhaps Power is right, or perhaps IndyCar’s current rules add much-needed excitement and intrigue. It’s more up to opinion than fact which format is better. But the fact that a race-winning driver is willing to address the “luck” factor of the racing should be enough for IndyCar to examine the current format and determine if a better alternative is out there.
The randomness of IndyCar is what allows drivers like Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi to earn surprising finishes, but it often does so arguably at the expense of fairness to the drivers and teams. For years, that’s been acceptable because no better format existed to supersede it; perhaps now a time for change may be on the horizon.
Or perhaps it won’t. Trying to determine how a race format plays out will likely prove as unpredictable as determining the winner of either of the weekend’s races in Detroit. Much like a college exam, neither answer is wrong; it’s determining which is more correct that may prove difficult.
Until that decision is made, we’ll continue to watch these races knowing anyone in the field could rise or fall at a moment’s notice.