Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012 Grand Prix of St. Pete – Sorting Out the First Race Blues

Watching the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on television yesterday, I inadvertently found myself aboard a roller-coaster of emotions.

As the frenzy builds in anticipation of IndyCar’s season opener, a sombre note hangs in the air, a confusing mash-up of joy mixed with sorrow.

It was the first race since the death of Dan Wheldon, and while everyone went off to grieve in their own way during the five month long off-season, the various reminders of Wheldon at the streets of St. Pete – The banners, the orange ribbons, the Lionheart decals – Linger.

ABC also put together a tribute reel that recounted Wheldon’s incident and legacy, interspersed with interviews from drivers and friends who took part on that fateful day. The reel omitted the more graphic elements of the accident, and it was all the better for it – A respectful and eloquent way in addressing a tragedy. 

The tribute made for difficult watching – More difficult than I initially imagined, despite being sheltered from its enormity as the images played on the screen.  Denial likely played a part, but seeing it somehow made it more real than it needed to be.  By reel’s end the inevitable waterworks materialized. One IndyCar blogger acknowledged between the tears, ‘If Dan had known me, he’d be laughing at me right now.’

The City of St Petersburg named a street Dan Wheldon Way in memory of Dan. The street sign was prominently displayed on the catch fence where it formed part of the St. Pete circuit.

'Alas', said the cliché, ‘The show must go on.' Amidst the sadness there was also cause for celebration. The new Indycar was making its feature race debut and underwent much fine-tuning and testing mileage over the winter. Many drivers described the 5-month long hiatus as one of their busiest off-seasons ever, juggling training alongside working with a brand new chassis, adapting to the new hand clutch and ceramic brakes, and getting acquainted with the nuances of setting up the new car for maximum performance.

The headline-savvy manufacturer wars is back, with Lotus and Chevrolet joining the series alongside Honda as engine suppliers. While the push-to-pass horsepower boost has been shelved until the engines have had a chance to sort out their new race blues, turbocharging is back, and with it an aural experience that is much more pleasant compared to Honda’s normally aspirated relics. The powerplants proved themselves reliable but the noises they made left much more to be desired.  Of course new engines also mean an open door to reliability problems, another variable that teams will have to factor in when strategizing race tactics.

It was a pleasant surprise to see everyone getting through the notoriously wreck-prone Turn 1 without incident. Rubens Barrichello, who was ambivalent about the rolling start because he hasn’t done one since his go-karting days, got through unscathed. Personally I find Barrichello’s ‘Rookie’ status in IndyCar laughable, given his vast experience behind the racing wheel. But it was invigorating to see his spirits renewed, and his popularity will undoubtedly help further Indycar’s exposure to new audiences.

Unfortunately, the broadcast was marred by several problems, chief of which was the ill-timed commercial breaks. A lot of the on-track incidents were not shown or commented upon as they happened in favour of the dreaded ads. I completely understand a broadcast director can’t foresee the future, but past races have demonstrated that St. Pete lends itself quite well to crashes and mishaps. Viewers would have had a much easier time following all the action had the commercials take place during the Full-Course Cautions.

As it turned out there were yellows aplenty this year, although mostly due to minor single-car faults. Side-by-side split screens were of some help, but I found myself more informed via Twitter and Indycar’s timing and scoring than what was being shown on television. A number of incidents weren’t shown at all, such as Bourdais driving off the course at turn 8 and JR Hildebrand’s fuel pressure issue in the closing laps of the race. 

The point of watching a race live, aside from the ratings, is the immediacy.  The broadcast director must be aware of everything that is going on both on and off the track at all times and fixate the camera where the narrative is most significant.  Much of the focus has been the battle for race lead, and while that is a big part of the story, it came at great expense to the 20-plus other cars out on track all vying for grid positions. 

Now, while the broadcast was fraught with the aforementioned misgivings, some things worked brilliantly. I had high hopes for the pit reporting again this year, and the Debruhl / Little / Welch trio did not disappoint. Their interviews and comments were informative but not overbearing – Exactly the qualities network audiences are looking for when familiarizing themselves with the intricacies of the sport.

The St Pete race was also Beaux Barfield’s first go as Indycar’s newly minted race director, having earned his officiating experience from the American Le Mans Series. The Indycar Mobile App available on Verizon had an optional in-house view of Race Control allowing race fans to snoop in and see what race officials are up to. When the incident between Helio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter happened, the investigation was immediately made known on the air less than half a lap later, and a decision was made and carried out. (No action was taken due to Carpenter slowing at pit entrance, catching Castroneves by surprise and subsequently rear-ended into Carpenter’s car, spinning him out).  Credit on the speed and efficiency of conveying that message goes to the newly implemented instant text-messaging system. A new feature for 2012, the text alerts enable race control to maintain a clear line of communication between race officials and team managers in addition to communiqués via radio.

Barfield also made the decision to keep the pits open during the full course caution from Carpenter’s incident. When asked why that was so, Barfield said ‘because people were running out of fuel’. A quick look at Indycar’s 2012 Rulebook under ‘Race Procedures’ revealed the following: Upon the commencement of a full course yellow condition, the pit lane is closed.
However, the rule is followed up with an addendum:
b) The pit lane shall remain closed until the Race Director declares the pit lane open.
Now, there is no specific stipulation on when the pit lane can be declared open again – The decision is completely at the race director’s discretion. So Barfield was acting completely within his power to keep the pits open. It’s arguable whether in doing so, Barfield effectively controlled the outcome of the race. Of course, the alternative would be to close pit lane, let the cars run dry, resulting in possibly a longer caution period than there needed to be.  In keeping pit lane open and allowing teams to refuel, Barfield went with the prudent choice and kept the race going the best way he could.

So what of Indycar itself? After all the racing and the celebration, the question of whether Indycar can pick itself up after everything that happened at season’s end last year remains. The renewal couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With new cars, new engines, and a new narrative for a new champion, slowly but surely, the series is shedding the sorrow and moving on to what lies ahead.

Afterall, the show must go on.

Truth In 24 to Spawn Sequel

Back in 2008, Audi Sport partnered with Intersport and NFL Films to create a documentary titled 'Truth in 24', chronicling its preparation and subsequent campaign in the 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The film garnered widespread acclaim from critics and earned cult status amongst enthusiasts, elevating the famed endurance event to new heights.  National Geographic even ranked it Number One on its list of ‘Top 10 Greatest Sporting Events’ in the world, ahead of the Summer Olympics and the Super Bowl.

Now, a sequel is in the works to continue Audi’s story at Le Mans, this time documenting the team’s tumultuous campaign in 2011.  Details remain scarce on what the film will entail but the glossy production values from NFL Films and a swelling soundtrack by composer David Robidoux is expected to make a return.  

Audi Sport released a 14-minute long video on YouTube immediately after last year’s event that should serve as a good barometer to what can be expected from this highly anticipated sequel.