HOUSTON – It was an eventful weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series in the Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, which had its share of action on the racetrack and subsequent controversial officiating decisions that led many drivers and teams to question the credibility of Race Control.
The man who has to answer that: INDYCAR President of Competition Derrick Walker.
Walker and Race Control penalized Marco Andretti on Saturday and fined him on Sunday morning for “failure to yield to the blue (move over) flag.” Andretti was the last car on the lead lap when the leader, Takuma Sato, was coming from behind. Andretti was maintaining the same pace as the leader of the race and trying to keep from dropping one lap down but INDYCAR waved the blue flag, ordering the Andretti Autosport driver to move over and let Sato by.
Andretti did not move over and continued racing in front of Sato, believing he was holding his racing line and not impeding the leader’s progress. After several laps, however, INDYCAR black-flagged Andretti, forcing him to serve a “drive through” penalty.
Andretti was able to fight back to an eighth-place finish on the lead lap and thought the issue was over until he was fined $2,500 and placed on probation for the next three races.
INDYCAR also fined Andretti Autosport $2,500.
Andretti was in front of race leader Sato after he was punted by teammate Carlos Munoz early in the race. Andretti Autosport did not want to bring Marco into the pits because he was the third quickest driver on the track.
Sato’s general manager, Larry Foyt, thought Andretti was using “team tactics” because Sato’s main competition at that time was Andretti teammate James Hinchcliffe. At one point, Sato led Hinchcliffe by 4 seconds but that lead evaporated quickly once Andretti was in front of him.
Walker said the penalty was for refusing to follow an instruction by Race Control but, contrary to reports, Walker said he did not create a new rule so the last car on the lead lap could be given the blue flag; he made a request for Andretti to move over because the wet track did not give Sato another lane to attempt a pass on Andretti.
“If you look at the rule book the rules are there that you can make that call,” Walker said. “What was new about we did was previously the last car on the lead lap was always allowed to fight to stay on the lead lap. Because it interfered with the race leader initially we asked him to move out of the way.
“It was different but it was certainly not a new rule. I want to set the record straight on that.
“The rules are there plain to see but what has traditionally not happened in the past is the last guy on the lead lap has to move out of the way. It’s really an oval track rule to give a guy a chance to stay on the lead lap, we don’t ask him to move out of the way because there is room to overtake an oval. On a road course this was the first time it came up and we called it that way because Sato went from a 4-second lead to barely a half-second lead in a matter of a few laps. So we thought Marco’s car was in the way of the lead cars from racing so we issued the blue flag.
“What happened after that, where Marco was wrong, in the sense he ignored Race Control direction. It was a unique situation but it was taken as a new rule and it’s not.”
Walker believes the conditions of the wet race course limited the drivers from having the full use of the course to pass other cars such as Andretti. But the case can still be made that Andretti fully believes he had the right to be there and do all he could do to stay on the lead lap.
That is why the penalty and subsequent fine was such a controversial issue over the weekend.
“He (INDYCAR President of Competition Derrick Walker) is accusing us that we were doing that on purpose,” team owner Michal Andretti said. “All Marco was doing was trying to stay on the lead lap because his race wasn’t over. It was only Lap 12. You are going to fight to stay on the lead lap because he had a shot to win the race if the yellow came out. I’m very, very disappointed about that.
“When they told us we asked, ‘What if Hinch (James Hinchcliffe) wasn’t in second and it was another car. Would you have called it?’ They said, ‘Oh yeah, we would have called it.’ Now, they say we were holding them up?
“What they tend to do here is make the rules up as they go along and that is very disappointing.”
Marco Andretti said with 70 laps to go in the race he was “fighting for my life.”
Walker, however, said a lot of thought went into the process before Race Control made the unusual decision to issue the blue flag.
“We were listening to radio communications and heard that team talking amongst themselves but that didn’t necessarily mean they were guilty of anything; we couldn’t prove it,” Walker said. “It was a damp racetrack and the leader was stuck behind him. As Marco said, he never attempted to overtake him once but it went on too long. Marco picked up his speed and his lap times were better but it was too late because we still had initiated that blue flag and the blue was still in force and the fact he disregarded that, we could not ignore that.”
The controversial decision to issue the blue flag to a driver still on the lead lap was a major topic at the race course on Sunday among the other competitors.
“You can’t do that; plain and simple,” said three-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. “There was an uproar about it Sunday morning. Marco had a right to stay on the lead lap. All we all ask for is consistency.
“I think the rules change week-in and week-out so it is unclear what is allowed so the consistency is horrible. They have set back and then this week there is another change to the rule. I think even under the yellows today, they let one yellow go for two laps and then, another yellow, they left a car in the fence to get hit just so the leader could pit. I don’t get it.”
Team Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya was not happy with third-place finisher Jack Hawksworth after the race. Montoya was battling for a podium finish but his run-ins with Hawksworth dropped him to seventh at the checkered flag. He questioned why Race Control never issue a warning to Hawksworth for driving him off the course and vowed he would take the action into his own hands in the future.
“The 98 ran me off the road three [explicit] times,” Montoya said of Hawksworth. “What happened to the warning? I was beside him three times and he just drove me off the road like I’m not even there. I understand the new rule if you are beside somebody you are supposed to share the road, equal responsibility. His equal responsibility was to drive me into the wall three different times and they didn’t do anything about it. They are too inconsistent about it, to be honest.
“If you want us to race like that I’ll race like that and give him the ‘Chrome Horn’ and put him into the tires and stop dealing with amateurs and rookies like that and clueless drivers. They are just clueless. I know they are trying to prove a point but they are absolutely clueless and have no idea how to run a race.
“We were lucky to finish the race. We got a flat tire at the end.”
Will Power’s suspension failure left him more upset with INDYCAR officials than with any of the drivers on the race course, because it was a problem that has happened to other drivers earlier this season in the May 10 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
“We asked INDYCAR, when it happened back at the Indy road course, to do a modification but they wouldn’t let us,” Power said. “It happened to Josef Newgarden, it happened to Juan Pablo Montoya and today the same thing happened to me – the shims came loose and rattled, then bang.
“Spec part, mate – you gotta love Dallara.”
Until his car failed, Power looked like he was going to gain points with a podium finish.
“Considering we were up to third in one stint, we were looking pretty good until that thing started rattling loose,” Power said. “It was great racing.
“We worked so hard for that, then to end up where we are really annoys me, man. Considering that we asked to have that part modified, and nothing got done, it’s frustrating. It’s so dangerous. If that had broken in the fast corner around the back, you’d have had the same situation as Dario Franchitti (whose career ended in a crash last year at Houston). You can’t have failures on these cars – they’re too fast.”
Walker was in the Team Penske paddock afterwards to listen to the team’s concerns on both issues.
“As we know street racing is a contact sport,” Walker said. “When you have cars with this much power, this size with this much grip and you put 23 of them on a closed course like this, you are going to have a lot of driving that isn’t as pretty as it should be. It’s very physical.
“These may be spec cars but there is a wide variation in performance between driver and driver. I think the series is very close and very competitive and right now there is not a lot between them. Dale Coyne and Sam Schmidt have actually elevated their game and doing a really good job. I think the competition level has heightened dramatically.”
As the President of Competition, Walker realizes he is in charge of the “Complaint Department” and he had plenty of complaints over the weekend that he believes detracted from two action-packed races.
“I judge the weekend by the excitement on the track; I’d say it was a pretty good Houston event,” Walker said. “I saw it was pretty physical racing. On Race Control you are looking at 16-18 screens.
“People tend to focus on the negativity of Race Control rather than the great stories that came out of here this weekend. Every race we have we have had some great races but there are always issues we have to deal with and that is why we are here.”
Race Control is in place to make sure the competition is conducted fairly but this past weekend at Houston its decisions became a central part of the storyline.Derrick Walker, IndyCar, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, Will Power