Monday, December 17, 2018

Year of the Street Circuit

Staged on existing roadways, street circuit race weekends are the result of sticking a square peg into a round hole that’s just square enough to make success possible.

Extra room can only be removed and not added when designing the layout of a temporary racetrack carved out of city streets. High in both risk and reward, the street circuits around St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Detroit’s Belle Isle and Toronto’s Exhibition Place put a premium on passing and provide little room for experimentation — let alone error.

The confines of street circuits can easily stifle excitement, pushing fans to stake their interest in races at permanent facilities. Labeling either road courses or ovals their preference given their predispositions about what venues matter most on the schedule, well-meaning IndyCar followers are quick to disregard the wonder that is muscling a race car over natural bumps and slippery crosswalks within inches of concrete barriers in a handful of North America’s most fascinating locales.

Surprisingly, those who dislike street races were proven wrong five different times in 2018 as the cars and stars of IndyCar ignored speed limits and other traffic signs in most every corner of the continent while destroying the boring parade stereotype of street circuit racing.

With a universal aero kit meant to reduce downforce and heighten difficulty debuting over and over at each stop on the IndyCar calendar, the 2018 season has seen neither ovals nor road courses prevail in the excitement category. Instead, racetracks that disappear days after the checkered flag have hosted the most enthralling contests of the year, through the final street race of the year in Toronto.

Highlighted by the debut of the new-look car, it was hard to not be excited about the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. But while the frontstretch of the St. Petersburg circuit is a wide airport runway, that scene quickly changes as Turn 2 launches drivers into a course that’s as narrow as it is picturesque.

Fans watch 2018 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Fans were treated to a show under sunny skies at the debut race for the universal aero kit on the streets of St. Petersburg. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

Having formerly belittled the St. Pete track by judging it a glorified go-kart circuit, I was entirely proven wrong as the new season began in March. An impressive 366 passes during the season opener came out to an average of more than three per lap. Five of the day’s fastest drivers exchanged the lead 11 times, joining the total passes number as a new entry in the Indy car record book at the track.

An almost-decent oval race in Phoenix stood between the St. Pete event and the return of street racing in Long Beach. Turns 1 and 9 of the Long Beach circuit are ripe for passing but quirks like the fountain section and the hairpin align this track with St. Pete as one where edge-of-your-seat action would be limited if the drivers were any less motivated. Once the Southern California race began, however, five drivers traded the lead six times to contribute to a passes-for-position figure of 134.

Contests on the road courses at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were next and featured 146 and 190 position passes, respectively. After the field of 33 completed 428 passes during the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500, a segment of it headed north to the Motor City where the two Chevrolet Dual in Detroit races produced an average of 71 position passes — almost exactly one per lap.

The oval races at Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway saw the execution of the most passes per mile of the season to date but not the most position passes per mile, indicating increased traffic rather than heightened battling, similar to the other oval event in Indianapolis.

Scott Dixon leads group through Toronto turn
Street circuits put Indy cars up against bumpy roadways and even slippery crosswalks. | Photo: Adam Pigott / Spacesuit Media

Between those two ovals came IndyCar’s trip to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and Road America where fewer position passes per mile were completed than at every other race up to that point with the exception of Phoenix and the two least-frantic street races, held in Detroit.

Toronto followed Iowa and despite the track being as deceivingly tiny as St. Pete, the 85-lap Honda Indy Toronto featured 148 position passes, edging out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama — which, admittedly, was soaked — by two.

With fewer total miles being turned by the field than during any of the four other street circuit races, the Toronto event is second to only St. Pete in passes per mile this year, both total and for position, despite the supposed ease of passing on road courses in comparison.

March’s St. Pete race stands as the benchmark through 12 races with the most position passes per mile. The street events in Long Beach and Toronto strengthen the yearlong averages while Detroit was less exciting on paper.

RoundRacePassesPosition PassesMiles CompletedPasses per MilePosition Passes per Mile
4123217064506.80.0640.034
1St. Petersburg3662834411.80.0830.064
2Phoenix280985443.170.0510.018
3Long Beach2001343729.360.0540.036
4Barber2021463933.000.0510.037
5INDYCAR GP2141904965.800.0430.038
6Indianapolis 50063342814335.000.0440.030
7Detroit 196823682.450.0260.022
8Detroit 2144603642.500.0400.016
9Texas6882426801.120.1010.036
10Road America1611254848.910.0330.026
11Iowa9552345406.020.1770.043
12Toronto1841483307.670.0560.045

But the numbers only serve to tell part of the story. Looking beyond the data, skid marks left by championship contenders Robert Wickens, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden as they lost the lead at critical moments in St. Pete, Detroit and Toronto remain on the track surface despite the fencing, grandstands and roar of engines vacating town.

These moments didn’t just impact the unfolding championship; they lifted passionate fans off the couch as they shouted at their TV — or the large screen across the street from their trackside seat.

And, thankfully, it isn’t just mistakes and negative occurrences that have contributed to the excitement during the street races in 2018.

Wickens nearly won the first IndyCar race he started but instead accomplished something even more impressive: he made street circuit racing look easy.

Rossi owned the Long Beach weekend but a battle between open-wheel greats Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon kept the intrigue level high, as did Will Power’s attempt to reel in Rossi and the battle for the final step of the podium between Ed Jones and Zach Veach.

Despite its significantly lower passing figures, the Detroit doubleheader was endlessly thrilling on both race days. Cooperation throughout the field allowed incredibly tight passes to be completed in the Raceway at Belle Isle Park’s handful of passing zones, including Turn 3. There, Rossi handed the lead to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps of Sunday’s Race 2 after Hunter-Reay turned a series of qualifying-caliber laps to catch his Andretti Autosport teammate and find success with a three-stop strategy.

A frantic opening lap on the streets of Toronto set the tone for one hour and 37 minutes of unrelenting action. Benefitting from gorgeous weather as was the case at the four previous street races, the event generated anticipation and satisfaction as drivers chased and eventually entered wheel-to-wheel duels with their closest competitors.

Josef Newgarden laps Toronto IndyCar track
Racing between concrete barriers on city streets is an art. | Photo: Adam Pigott / Spacesuit Media

Of course, the street races haven’t run fully without disappointment and the visits to permanent facilities have been anything but boring.

A win for Wickens in St. Pete would’ve been popular, just as one for Marco Andretti in Detroit would’ve been had he translated his Race 1 pole into the Race 1 victory. Valiant drives to climb to the front in Long Beach and Detroit ended in major disappointment for Bourdais. Newgarden’s contact with the wall as he led the field to the green flag on a restart in Toronto ruined the opportunity for a battle for top honors between the American driver and eventual winner Dixon.

These letdowns are unavoidable in the unpredictable arena that is IndyCar and they don’t detract from the thrill of the street races in 2018. Each time North America’s premier open-wheel championship borrowed city streets this year, a stirring chapter was written in the story of the 2018 season.

While fans should hope the road courses and ovals that make up the remainder of the schedule produce more excitement than their temporary counterparts did, it would be a mistake to ignore the captivating shows put on at street circuits this year.

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Aaron Durant

Editor-in-Chief

Away from The Apex, Aaron enjoys reading books and articles as well as playing the drums, snowboarding and trudging through an endless queue of podcasts.