Sonoma Historics 2015 – the Grand Prix cars

Maserati8C

It’s never easy growing up in the shadow of a bigger sibling.

For years, the Wine Country Classic stood in the shadows of the nearby Monterey Historics, an event that established the genre and featured some of the world’s most valuable vintage race cars. Sonoma’s event, by contrast, was smaller and decidedly less ambitious.

Although the two events were managed by Steve Earle’s General Racing, Sonoma took on new meaning after Earle parted ways with Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2012. With Mazda Raceway now running its own historic motorsport “reunion”, Sonoma has now become an event in its own right.

In 2014, Earle merged his company with SVRA, Tony Parella’s historic racing series. Parella and SVRA have quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in historic racing, as evidenced by a new and successful historic event this week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

SVRA re-imagined the Sonoma event as a “gold medallion” invitation-only weekend. Gold Medallion cars were selected on the basis of historical provenance and racing history, as well as historical accuracy of preparation. It is not a significant departure from Earle’s concept for the event, but it’s different from other SVRA meetings. It’s also a great thing for those who enjoy cars with a rich history.

By selecting a group of significant cars to feature, Sonoma has assembled a collection that rivals any historic event. The collection spans the history of grand prix racing and sports car racing, with Alfas, Maseratis and Ferraris from the days before the sport we know as “Formula One”, and every conceivable year and class (and nationality) of sports cars up through the 1980s. If it was raced anywhere – in IMSA, Can-Am, F1, SCCA, Trans-Am, FIA sports cars, or Le Mans – it was raced at Sonoma.

Divided into 12 classes, there was something for everyone. We’ll start with the grand prix cars, which began in the 1920s with a Bugatti Type 35, and included some fantastic examples of the Maserati 8CM, below:

Maserati8

1935 Alfa Romeo 8C-35:

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1934 Alfa Romeo P3:

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1928 Bugatti 35B:

Bugatti 35B 1928

1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 MM Spider

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An American race car of the same period, a 1935 Ford Sprint car:

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FordSprintCara

For a few years in the early Sixties, F2 supplanted F1 with a smaller engine formula that favored the British “garagistes”  derided by Enzo Ferrari. Lotus, Cooper, Ginetta and others quickly stepped in.

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Gineetta

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By the Seventies and Eighties, “aero” had taken over, and wind-tunnel designs proliferated. Ex-Didier Pironi Tyrrell, below.

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Living Legends: Sonoma Historics ready for new era

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The Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival opens May 28-31 at Sonoma Raceway, marking the first time the event will be operated by the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (“SVRA”).  In late 2014, SVRA merged with General Racing (Steve Earle), founder of the famed Monterey Historics. With Earle having moved his event from Monterey to Sonoma six years ago, Sonoma now stands on its own as an event on the historic racing calendar.  Hopefully, SVRA’s size and market share will allow the event to continue to grow.  As part of its “gold medallion” celebration, SVRA plans to focus on cars that are presented as-raced.

Allard will be the featured marque for this year’s invitation-only event.  Just mentioning “Allard” evokes the great Bill Pollack and his fabled wins at Pebble Beach in 1951 and 1952.  Fitted with a massive Cadillac engine, Pollack’s Allard managed to beat fellow Californian and future F1 champion Phil Hill.  Bill is celebrating his 90th birthday this summer, a true legend among road racers in California.

IndyCar at Sonoma: Lessons in commitment

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A wise college coach football coach once said to me: “In a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.”

I thought a lot about commitment as I stood on the exit of Sonoma’s turn 3-3a complex for Sunday’s morning warm up.  As the cool of the morning began to ebb, and the shrill howl of twin turbos sliced through the air, I watched 22 drivers approach the same corner, looking for truth in tenths of seconds.

What I saw proved the old coach’s point. Turn 3-3a is a devilish left-right flick: entered from a downhill slope out of Turn 2, the turn dives left, then climbs up and slightly to the right on exit. On the other side is a long downhill straight, putting a premium on exit speed out of 3a. Imagine the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, taken in reverse. The entry is fast, the car leaning left as the driver muscles it to the right, all while standing on the throttle. It’s a lesson in commitment and which drivers have, as they say, “rather large attachments”.

Team Penske’s Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya come through early, Montoya carrying tremendous exit speed and the raw aggression that has won him races at Monaco, Indianapolis, and Daytona. Power shows more nuance but no less speed through the same complex.  Castroneves isn’t far off from his stablemates.  Then the Ganassi cars appear, Dixon and Kanaan just a blur in their red and white Target cars, fully dialed in.  Although Power is the polesitter, Dixon and Kanaan look quick in morning warm up.

Later, much later, as Dixon stalked Mike Conway for the lead in the waning laps of the race, a Chevrolet engineer attached to Conway’s team explained Dixon’s pace: “Dixon rolls the car through the corner like nobody else. Carries more speed into, and out of, the corners.” It also helps conserve fuel, which ended up costing Kanaan a shot at winning the race.

Then it’s time for the Andretti drivers to take on 3-3a.  Hinchcliffe is slow getting out of the garage, but Ryan Hunter-Reay is in full attack mode.  The engine coughs, sputters and blurps as Hunter-Reay bumps against the rev limiter, pushed beyond its limits by the aero load and the demands of the driver’s right foot.  Gravity wants to send the car into the sky; locked in an eternal struggle with its opposite number, downforce, which wants to plant the car and compress the driver into his seat. The Firestone tires scream in anger, testing the limits of adhesion.

And that’s how you know who is committed. Guys on the rev limiter are pushing hard, making the corner work for them, using all of their skills and relying on bravery for the rest. A group of cars come through that are off the rev limiter, who are fighting the car and the corner, whose revs drop as they struggle with the sudden change of direction. The newer drivers struggle the most, Munoz, Huertas and Saavedra look lost at sea. They choose a different apex than Power and Dixon, setting up more for the entry than the exit, where speed matters more.

There are critical tenths to be picked up at corners like this; tenths that mean the difference between P1 and P20. Never leave something on the table. Wily veterans know this. Young drivers have to learn.

A group of drivers who occassionally get 3-3a right come through. Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais are quick on occasion, like Sato and Conway, but none can pull of the kind of metronomic consistency that guys like Power and Dixon display lap after lap.

And in that sense, Turn 3-3a presents a microcosm of the IndyCar pecking order, a hierarchy revealed in a single turn. The quick and the ballsy tend to be with the elite teams; the rest struggle for consistency from week to week. You can see why Power does so well at Sonoma: he’s quick, but he’s off the rev limiter, which means he knows the precise mixture of steering input and throttle for quick in-quick out. It’s the smoothness that won him pole, a course record, three wins and a second at this circuit. Dixon used the same skills to pull out a win after Power faltered in the race.

It’s all a matter of commitment.


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Illustration: Ryan Briscoe approaching Turn 2 at Sonoma, with the Turn 3 just beyond. Below, Hunter-Reay exits 3a.

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Look at Kanaan’s head in the photos above and below to get a sense of the lateral forces opposing him as he exits the corner.

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The turn exits to a downhill straight. Exit speed is key.

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IndyCar at Sonoma: The song remains the same

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The cream always rises to the top.  Unless it’s already there.

With three wins and a second at Sonoma in the last four years, Will Power has long been the class of the IndyCar field when it comes to the twisty, wine country road course. As Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya noted at a press lunch on Wednesday, “We’re all chasing Will” at Sonoma.

And chase they did.  With sublime car control that allows him to be on the throttle before most other drivers at Sonoma, Power took the Verizon pole award for Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix with a blistering 1:17.41, just shy of his own record pole at Sonoma.  On Saturday, Power advanced to a Firestone Fast Six that included championship rival and teammate Helio Castroneves, who fell prey to a foot fault along turn 9 that left him P6. IndyCar race control had also warned drivers about using too much of the pit entrance lane to set up for entry into the hairpin at turn 11.

Josef Newgarden and James Hinchliffe rounded out the fastest four, the Canadian seeming almost surprised to have made it this far after a tumultuous day that included multiple spins. Earlier in the week, Hinchcliffe had expected better things from his Andretti Autosport teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had tested at Sonoma. Hunter-Reay failed to advance to the Firestone Fast Six, and Hinchcliffe looked like he had wandered into the wrong press conference.

For Newgarden, from minnow Sara Fisher Hartman Racing, prior tests at Sonoma paid off with a spot on the front row next to Power. Heady company indeed for a man who’s future plans remain uncertain.  If this was the time to impress, Newgarden hit all of his marks. “We’ve been here a couple of times this year (for tests) and I’m figuring it out.”

Earlier in the week, Montoya had tried to explain what gave Power such car command at Sonoma.  “We share data at Penske, ok? And so we ask Will, ‘What are your brake reference points for this turn or that?'”, the Colombian said.  “And Power, he looks at a little patch of dirt near the corner and says ‘There.’  And you are thinking, ‘What is he talking about?'”.

Indeed, Montoya is still wondering, as he never made it past the first round of qualifying.  That was deflating, given his confidence following a series of Penske tests at Sonoma. Power was immediately on the pace, as was Castroneves, who needs Power to falter in order to claim that elusive IndyCar title. In practice, Power broke his own lap record with a 1:17.239.

Power doesn’t have a simple explanation for his success. He felt relaxed in each session, against his better instincts from a track universally described as “technical”.  “This track makes you overdrive it,” Power said. “It’s easy to make mistakes.”

One can only wonder what Newgarden is expecting when he and Power reach the top of the hill tomorrow afternoon at Sonoma’s tight Turn 2.  The race is on NBC Sports Network at 1:40 PDT.

Helio

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Newgarden

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