BEST OF THE REST

It was sunny and windy Thursday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as all the teams made ready for this weekend’s 38th consecutive running of what is often called the biggest street race in America. At the Media Lunch much of the talk surrounds Thursday’s surprising news from Chevrolet that it was changing the engines in all eleven cars it’s running in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series.

At Monday’s open IndyCar test at Infineon Raceway, the Andretti Autosports Chevrolet of JAMES HINCHFLIFFE had issues and the team kept him and his two teammates, MARCO ANDRETTI and RYAN-HUNTER REAY in the paddock until the problem could be diagnosed. The drivers weren’t able to get much, if any, testing done that day.

Chevrolet’s CHRIS BERUBE, IndyCar Program Manager, said “This is certainly a decision not made lightly.” After Hinchcliffe’s problem, there was concern all the Bow Tie Brigade could be affected, and the thought was not to take a chance that something could occur during the Long Beach race.

IndyCar’s rule regarding engine swaps before the allotted mileage limit calls for a loss of ten qualifying grid positions for any unauthorized engine replacement. This means half the 26 car field will be relegated to the back: all the Chevy drivers, plus SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS/Lotus Dragon Racing Lotus, who lost an engine during the Barber race and didn’t make  the need for an engine replacement known within the allotted window; and ORIOL SERVIA/Dryer Reinbold Racing Lotus for replacing an engine prior to the Barber race.

JR Hildebrand
JR Hildebrand

J.R. HILDEBRAND/Panther Racing wasn’t present at the Sonoma test, but knew of Chevrolet’s concerns. However, the engine swapping of the entire lot came as somewhat of a surprise. Hildebrand was not that worried about starting back. His goal is to outqualify all the other Chevrolet drivers – be the best of the rest. JR had nothing but good things to say abut Chevrolet’s handling of the situation, with sharing among the teams. He was impressed that Chevrolet as a manufacturer took the initiative to be proactive.

Hildebrand thought this unexpected scenario would leave to more fan excitement, with so many fast drivers starting back. He pointed out that MIKE CONWAY, who won last year’s race, was penalized ten grid positions last year and had to make ‘real passes’ on ten cars.

Hildebrand and ED CARPENTER/Fuzzy Walker/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet each said, separately, that they were pleased at how well things have been going this season considering so many variables –  new car, new engines with not that much testing. The 2012 schedule is already busy so more testing isn’t that easy to arrange. I asked JR if adding an additional day of test/practice to each race weekend would help, but he said no. It wouldn’t be realistic to think a discovered problem could be changed during a race weekend. Everyone is in the same situation.

There has been some media attention paid to the whole idea of losing ten grid position for an unapproved engine swap during the developmental phase of the new programs. However, Hildebrand and Carpenter each pointed out that to change the rule now wouldn’t be fair to those already penalized – no way to make it all equal.

The Thursday weather was cool but dry. But, for Friday The Thirteenth, rain is forecast. In all the 38 years at Long Beach, it has never rained on race day.

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