Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Armchair Course Marshall

This weekend the Indycar series continues its swing north of the border as it returns to a reworked Edmonton airport circuit. Nothing happened there last year, did it? Oh, wait, yes it did. And its fallout continues to affect the series, at least in the eyes of die-hard fans.

To refresh your memory, Helio Castroneves was leading the race late when, on a late restart, he took an unapproved line through turn 1. He was black flagged, but remained in the lead until the conclusion of the race when, despite finishing first, he was not shown the checkered flag and was instead scored last on the lead lap. The emotional Brazilian then went on a memorable rampage that culminated in begging Security Chief Charles for his life. (Citation needed)
Seriously, Helio received that elusive gift-a penalty for blocking. Often discussed but seldom seen, it's a rule that purports to improve the racing by facilitating passing.
As I watched the replay last year, I realized that Helio was, in technical terms, a sitting duck. Will Power had a monster run on him on the restart and would surely have overtaken his teammate. Helio countered by taking a 'bad' line through the corner-one that would have slowed him, but also prevented Power from making the inevitable pass. Castroneves didn't, in my opinion, have much of a choice.

The outcry was fierce, and nearly unanimously negative. I think of myself as a pretty informed race fan, and I'm still not sure I understand why a driver shouldn't be allowed to defend his position.

This event, along with events in races earlier this year (Long Beach, Milwaukee, and Toronto, to name three) have brought up a number of questions, in no particular order, about the officiating:
Why don't they consistently call penalties for "avoidable contact", blocking, and failure to properly restart?
What are the policies for said infractions?
Why aren't penalties consistently handed down?
Why does this climate exist in the first place?

Starting with the last item, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and speculate that this climate exists as a holdover from the Tony George era. While Tony is obviously knowledgeable and passionate, he never struck me as a particularly friendly or gregarious individual-a man of few words who doesn't speak unless he thinks it necessary. These are not necessarily bad qualities, but race fans have grown extremely frustrated with the (non-) calls made this year and last. If this is the culture within the organization (and I will be the first to say that I'm just thinking out loud here, and that I don't know), then it needs to change. We're seeing the beginnings of this, and Al Unser, jr's appearance during the Toronto broadcast was a big step in the right direction.

As for consistent penalties, the officiating team came out and said that Paul Tracy was penalized for a move similar to one made by Helio Castroneves (who was not penalized) because Helio's actions had already sent him to the rear of the field, and serving a drive-through would not have cost him anything. Now this just doesn't make sense. Do the crime, do the time. It doesn't matter whether or not he loses anything as a result, the scorecard needs to show that he was treated fairly and equally.

Yes, I do have some suggestions, some of which are so obvious I can't believe I have to spell them out:
1. Obtain and use the equipment necessary to police the race. Justin Wilson said on Trackside last week that race control had fewer camera angles available than even TV-and I thought the broadcasters were sorely lacking in options. I don't know all the technical details behind this, but something should be investigated.
2. Define blocking and enforce it consistently. Perhaps race control can put together a highlight reel of historical "blocks" and "non-blocks"-called or not-and use it to clarify the rule to drivers, teams, and fans.
3. Define the double-wide restart rule and enforce it consistently. Perhaps this means that the standard for enforcement changes race by race-it's apparently extremely difficult or impossible to line up the entire field in two rows at Toronto and Long Beach. Fine. Tell everyone ahead of time and outline the expectations. For example, "at Toronto, we expect the first two rows to be lined up side-by-side when the race goes green" or "at Milwaukee, all cars should be lined up in two rows when the race goes green". Any driver who does not obey race control will receive one warning. The second time, he or she is moved to the back of the field.
4. Enforce the rules consistently. If someone makes "avoidable contact," he or she must serve a drive-through penalty. If his or her car is too damaged to continue or the race ends before the penalty can be served, then that driver will start last in the next race.
5. Explain penalties and potentially controversially non-calls. Put the information in a "Steward's report" on the Indycar website Sunday night or Monday morning.
6. There shall be no favortism due to driver popularity, points position, team owner, etc.

I think that's all I have in me for brain dumps right now.
Oh yeah, the race. Um, Power is hungry and Dixon is on the cusp of a great second half of the season. So watch them. Rahal's been nigh unstoppable as of late, and Ryan Hunter-Reay looks back in his element. Finally, Tony Kanaan is a perpetual threat and hungry to win one.

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