Inaugural COTA Race Fares Well on Paper

Ed Jones chased through COTA esses by IndyCar race leaders

What might have been labeled a humdrum debut at the NTT IndyCar Series’ newest track was suddenly and irrevocably altered when James Hinchcliffe and Felix Rosenqvist tangled in Turn 19, bringing out a caution that benefited some and destroyed the day for others.

For the first 45 laps of the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas, Team Penske ace Will Power was decisively in charge. Eventual victory seemed inevitable for the Australian as he maintained his lead despite both Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta nipping at his heels throughout the opening three stints.

The situation at the front seemed static, but, behind the leaders, overtaking was indeed happening. Roughly the first third of the race saw the completion of 101 passes and 88 more were executed between Lap 17 and the checkered flag. With 4,835.38 miles turned by the 24-car field at COTA, there were more passes per mile and position passes per mile in Austin than at the St. Petersburg curtain raiser.

The length of the circuit might have made it appear that the cars were separated. However, as the numbers indicate, competition remained tight, fulfilling a common expectation in IndyCar.

Pato O'Ward chases Santino Ferrucci into COTA IndyCar Turn 1
The 2019 INDYCAR Classic seemed processional at points but featured enthralling battles at others. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

On-track action aside, a win for Power from the pole might have had a larger effect on observers’ reactions than the race’s ultimate fate. In an era when INDYCAR is keen to promote its premier series as one in which anyone can win, a race without a lead change and dominated by one driver runs counter to the message.

That the race’s only lead change — when Herta took over from Power on Lap 46 under caution — didn’t come on track but in the pits doesn’t quite live up to INDYCAR’s own standards. While it’s true that the result of the first IndyCar race at COTA lives up to the notion that anyone can win, the method by which it was achieved is perhaps unideal.

Furthermore, forward progression didn’t come easy for those outside the lead group, either.

“It’s great to get a top-five finish after the weekend we were having,” 17th-place qualifier Sebastien Bourdais said after coming home fifth. “… It was a very static race — not much going on. I didn’t really go anywhere. Then, toward the end, some guys decided to gamble, but I had to stop and then try and run fast. The guys ahead of me didn’t go anywhere.”

Whether or not a proper lead change occurred and despite Bourdais’ specific experience, close racing was prevalent from the second through 24th positions. A trend can hardly be gleaned from the two data points created thus far in St. Pete and Austin, but passing in 2019 looks to be heading in the right direction.

Analysis comes after the fact, making it easy choose data that backs up calling the first INDYCAR Classic a race worthy of IndyCar and its world-class drivers. Without the data, the inaugural INDYCAR Classic could be remembered for nothing more than Power’s loss. The numbers demonstrate that few raced alone in the Lone Star State.