The 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix, at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, CA was by all accounts a great race. There were all the elements for great television. There was pre-race drama, decent on-track racing, some drivers making poor decisions, controversy, and a surprise ending. Obviously, many other people thought so too as the ratings for this last race of the season shattered the previous record for an IndyCar race on NBCSN. The race wasn’t without it’s downsides, of course, and the fact that this is the last IndyCar race of the season is chief among them. So let’s take a look at the good and the bad from this race at what I’ll forever think of as Sears Point.
Disregard the double-points controversy for a moment and think of the championship battle as it had taken shape prior to the Sonoma race. Juan Pablo Montoya had lead championship the entire season and was still in the lead going into the final round. Right behind him, however, was Graham Rahal who was having a career season in spite of being in a Honda. Lurking in third, in very quiet fashion, was Scott Dixon followed by Montoya’s teammate at Penske Racing and the defending series champion Will Power. Everything was set, although most people knew that all Montoya needed to do was keep his nose clean and have a decent race. That story suddenly changed as first Montoya and then Rahal were involved in on-track incidents. Are double-points races gimmicky? Absolutely they are, but even without the artificiality of the double points, we still would have been looking at a series championship that wouldn’t be decided until the final race. The lesson that INDYCAR needs to take from this is that the parity among teams and drivers is pretty darn good and that you don’t need contrivances to create a dramatic championship. All you need to do is step back and let the racers race. The excitement will happen all on its own.
Huge TV Ratings
The GoPro Grand Prix drew the largest TV audience ever on NBCSN, although the numbers still do not match what is typically seen when the series airs on the broadcast ABC network. Regardless, this is still a good sign and a positive step forward for the series as the series, the teams, and the drivers all struggle to find sponsorship. Having growth in the series viewership will make those boardroom sales pitches a little bit easier. Not easy, but easier.
Gabby Chaves wins Rookie of the Year
Gabby Chaves, rookie driver for Bryan Herta Autosport, secured the Rookie of the Year honors with a P14 finish at Sonoma. The BHA squad doesn’t have the abundant resources that the larger teams enjoy and as result it’s been difficult for Chaves to put up any kind of consistently strong results. What he did do was to bring the car home nearly every race and in a position better than he qualified, and at Pocono, he lead 31 laps before suffering a mechanical DNF, his only DNF of the season. Chaves is the reigning Indy Lights champion and made the move to IndyCar this year, and spoke to us about his goals for the season as part of our Cambered Corner interview series. I think Chaves met those goals showed that he does have the talent not only to be present in the IndyCar Series, but to be a contender in the right equipment.
Rule #1 of Motorsport
Anyone who follows motor car racing, even loosely, understands Rule #1 of Motorsport: “Don’t take out your teammate.” Someone forgot to remind Power and Montoya. After the restart for the full-course caution induced by Luca Phillili’s slowing car, Montoya attempted to dive inside of his teammate Will Power as Power moved to defend/block the inside line. The result was that both championship contenders would find themselves in the sand watching the rest of the field, and their championship homes go flying by. Don’t hit your teammate!
This has been a recurring theme all year long. Race Control, if they claim to have actually seen a potential incident, would issue a statement during the race that they’ll investigate the incident post-race. Typically that meant that they’d issue a meaningless fine of some paltry amount the following Wednesday. This race was no different as we had several on-track incidents that should have been handled immediately. The aforementioned Power/Montoya incident is one of those that should have received an immediate ruling from Race Control. The most egregious example of Race Control’s procrastination was their inaction for the gamesmanship executed by Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud. Simon’s teammate, Will Power, and CHF Racing’s top talent Josef Newgarden had been running 1-2 since the beginning of the race and had both pitted on the same lap in adjacent pit stalls. Pagenaud also came in to pit that lap and having the pit stall in front of Power, he paused to allow Power to exit first. Doing so, however, trapped Newgarden in his pit stall. No action was taken against Pagenaud and Team Penske during the race.
Done Too Soon
So here we are not even at Labor Day Weekend, and the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship is at an end with the 2016 season not scheduled to start until mid-March, six and a half months from now. In this age of rapid media cycles, IndyCar has shot themselves in the foot by going from a great championship and amazing season-finale (double-points notwithstanding) to turning the lights off and shrinking back to obscurity and irrelevance for half a year. This is no way to build momentum for a product that is already on the ropes.
So that’s my take on the all-to-early IndyCar season finale. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.