The 40th edition of the Grand Prix of Long Beach delivered just about every type of excitement you could ask for in a race. We saw crafty driving, fuel strategy, teammates fighting, impressive runs by rookies, flaring tempers and in the end, an epic David versus Goliath battle for the win.
Mike Conway persevered through all of the drama and took the win for the small Ed Carpenter Racing team. It was Conway’s second win on the streets of Long Beach, and his third career series win. He took the checkers ahead of Penske Racing’s Will Power. Rookie Carlos Munoz finished third in the Andretti Autosport entry followed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud.
“I can’t believe it.” said an elated Conway, “I can’t believe I’m actually here (in Victory Lane). Just an awesome job by the team. I can’t believe it. Two times a Long Beach winner. It’s unbelievable. It’s good to be back here.”
For Conway, it provides vindication that he truly belongs in this series. His first stint in IndyCar ended when he walked away from his ride with A.J. Foyt Racing in 2012, stating that he did not feel comfortable racing on oval tracks. He had suffered injuries in a 2010 crash at Indianapolis, and crashed hard again at the Brickyard in 2012.
Conway’s stock rose a bit when the unemployed driver got a call from Dale Coyne in 2013 offering him a ride for the Dual in Detroit. Conway made the most of the last-minute offer and took victory in race one, and second place in race two.
For Ed Carpenter, the only driver/owner in the series, hiring the British driver for 2014 seemed to make sense. Realizing his own shortcomings on street and road courses, Conway and Carpenter have an arrangement where they split the driving duties for the #20 Fuzzy’s Vodka car. Carpenter runs the ovals and Conway completes the rest of the schedule. Sunday’s Long Beach race proved that this is indeed a win-win situation for the team.
The race started out rather cleanly with Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe sharing the front row. The standing start went off without a hitch, and Hunter-Reay managed to stay out front for the first segment of the race, as Sebastian Bourdais got around Hinchcliffe for the second spot.
We saw a few different tire strategies in play as some drivers chose to pit early and change from the standard ‘black’ tires to the faster and softer ‘red’ tires. Among those pitting early include Ganassi’s Ryan Briscoe and Penske Racing’s Will Power.
Bourdais brought out the first caution of the day running wide off the exit of turn 8. Soon after the green, Power made contact with Simon Pagenaud, sending the Frenchman into the tire barrier. The incident is reviewed and no penalty is given, drawing the ire of conspiracy theorists race fans everywhere. When Graham Rahal draws the ‘avoidable contact’ penalty for an incident with Justin Wilson a few laps later, the Power/Pagenaud controversy is magnified.
However, it was on lap 54 that the complexion of the race changed dramatically. Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe were leading the field when they both headed to pit lane. Sarah Fisher-Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden inherited the lead. On the following lap, Newgarden’s crew put on a phenomenal display of precision pit work that put Newgarden back out ahead of both of the Andretti Autosport drivers.
Realizing that Newgarden was on cold tires, Ryan Hunter-Reay attempted a banzai move in turn four to regain the lead. This ill-fated move started a chain reaction crash involving seven cars, including himself, Newgarden, and his own teammate James Hinchcliffe.
Hunter-Reay seemed rather unapologetic following this incident where he clearly was at fault. “I could have waited a little later, maybe that’s my fault but at the same time I had at least a half a car up along sides of him so I went for it.” said the 2012 series champion, “If we had given each other a little bit of room we both maybe would have gotten through there. It’s down to me to make the pass I guess, I’m not sure… a lot of people say that was my fault. I made the decision at that split second, when he had some wheel spin, to go for it knowing that I was on hot tires. That’s the type of driver I am, I go for it.”
Newgarden didn’t name names, but he was certainly disappointed with the outcome. “I never expected to leave here with a crashed race car.” said the American driver. “There are positives to take away. We had an incredible car, the crew was solid all weekend. When you leave on cold tires and you have guys coming up behind you on hots you’re definitely a sitting duck… An incident in Turn 4 should never happen. You just can’t pass in 4 no matter what, it’s never happened before, it just doesn’t work. So I was surprised that we ended up in the fence. It definitely ruined a lot of guys days.”
Despite the disappointing end to their day, Josef Newgarden and Sarah Fisher-Hartman Racing are ever improving, and have shown that the likeable driver from Tennessee is truly one of the rising stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
During the melee, Will Power managed to just miss the spinning cars and sneak through unscathed, followed by Mike Conway. Target Chip Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon, who had yet to make a final pit stop, found himself in the lead. The 2013 champion opted to stay out, light on fuel and with worn tires, banking on more laps under yellow to see if he could stretch the fuel to the end.
Conway made quick work of getting around Will Power, and began to apply pressure to Dixon. literally ensuring that he could not run in fuel conservation mode. While Dixon did benefit from a few more caution laps, caused by Oriol Servia spinning in the hairpin, he had to take his sputtering car onto pit lane with three laps to go.
With a job well-done, Conway held off Will Power to the line by .990 of a second. With his podium finish, Power maintains the points lead. Conway is elevated to second in points, followed by Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves. The Verizon IndyCar Series will return to action in two weeks time for the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 27th.