Friday, April 3, 2015

How Juan Pablo Montoya Won St. Petersburg

The 2015 season opener is in the books, and Juan Pablo Montoya has reminded us all that he's a rare talent. After Will Power dominated the first two thirds of the race, he came out in front after the final round of pit stops and took the win. Power made a mighty effort to catch and pass the Colombian, but wound up with nothing but 2nd place and a broken eyestalk wing. The ABC broadcast didn't really give any details about how Montoya pitted trailing Power, but was over 3 seconds ahead of the 1 car after his stop. Oh, they replayed both pit stops, where Power's team hiccuped and cost their driver 0.3 seconds, but didn't offer any clues as to where the 3 second lead came from. I had a theory, but needed the data to back it up.

Enter Sometime last year, they added a "Section Results" link on their Stats page for each race. It's exactly what it sounds like. The track is broken down into several sections, and every driver's time for every section of the race is tabulated. Of interest to me were the special pit stop related sections. Labeled "PI to PO" (Pit In to Pit Out), "PO to SF" (Pit Out to Start/Finish), and "SF to PI" (Start/Finish to Pit In), they fill in a lot of details that turn out to be very important to the race. I zeroed in on the "PO to SF" stat. This indicates the driver's time from Pit Out, with fresh (i.e. cold) tires, back to the Start/Finish line. For my purposes, this number is more useful than a raw lap time because it eliminates the time spent on Pit Road, when the cars would be stopped or at reduced speed and pit stall location would affect which lap the driver was actually on during his or her stop.

I theorized that Montoya had a killer out lap that helped him make up some serious time on Power. (Montoya's speed on cold tires was one of the trademarks of his 1999-2000 tour in the CART series.) Both guys are seriously fast and likely knew that this single lap would be a deciding factor in the race. Will Power needed a very fast out-lap, and he got one. His PO to SF time was 58.4933 seconds, the fifth fastest Green Flag/Cold Tire out-lap turned all day. Impressive as that may be, Montoya's was even better, at 57.6254 seconds. That 0.8679 second difference, combined with a 1-second shorter trip down pit road and another 1-second faster lap the following time around, gave Montoya the advantage he needed to keep Power behind him and win the race.

What really struck me about these numbers wasn't that Montoya was faster than everyone else, it was how much faster he was than everyone else. Here are the top ten Green Flag/Cold Tire out-laps of the day:

1. Montoya  57.6254
2. Rahal 57.9905
3. Pagenaud 58.3941
4. Filippi 58.4633
5. Power 58.4933
6. Bourdais 58.5243
7. Coletti 58.5609
8. Andretti 58.5751
9. Castroneves 58.5764
10. Kimball 58.6023

Notice Montoya's next-closest rival is Rahal, at 0.3651 seconds back (apparently he harnessed his anger at Indycar officials into something good). It's another 4 tenths back to number 3. The rest of the top 10 are clustered at 0.8-1 second behind fast time. In short, Montoya was notably faster than the next-best guy on cold tires, and much, much faster than some of the best drivers in the sport. The Juan Pablo Montoya of old is back, and it's good to see him! I'm looking forward to the rest of the season!

I realize that there are a lot of factors in lap times-were some drivers hampered by debris, slow traffic, damaged wings, damaged engines, a need to save fuel, etc, but this is probably the best analysis that can be done with the tools available. It will certainly be interesting to see who does well on cold tires over the course of an entire season.

Big thanks to Indycar for posting these stats. I spent more time thinking about the race, and was able to use the data to further explore and engage with it. Keep sharing all the information and data you can! It can only make fans more enthusiastic!

The other big topic from Sunday's race was the amount of debris shed by the cars that unfortunately caused some caution flags, and most regrettably, a spectator injury. Yes, I mocked this concern last week. It appears that there will need to be some changes in terms of component mounting and competitor behavior. I don't doubt that Indycar will address these issues sooner rather than later. The consequences of doing otherwise could be dire.

I have a few more blog post ideas, and practice will open for another race (at a brand-new track!) in one week. 2015 is on! Stay tuned...