The final round of the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to California’s Sonoma Raceway this weekend for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

With it being a ‘double points’ finale, there are six drivers still in contention for the championship crown but on a weekend which was meant to be a joyous occasion, it will be a sombre one following the tragic death of Andretti Autosport driver Justin Wilson at last round’s caution-filled ABC Supply Pocono 500.


The Circuit

Sonoma Raceway

2015 IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma
Date 28-30 August 2015 Lap Length 2.2 mi / 3.703km
Free Practice Session 1 Fri 14:30-18:00 Free Practice Session 2 Sat 10:45-11:30
Qualifying Sat 15:05-16:20 Warm-Up Sun 10:00-10:30
Race (85 laps) Sun 14:07-16:30

Session times quoted in Pacific Daylight Time (GMT – 07:00)

Sonoma Raceway is a permanent racing circuit located on the landform known as Sears Point in the southern Sonoma Mountains in California’s wine-growing Napa Valley region.

The IndyCar Series uses a modified 2.2-mile (3.7-kilometre) version of the circuit, which includes the Carousel, which makes it longer than the NASCAR Sprint Cup layout and shorter than the full 2.52-mile (4.06-kilometre) track.

It is one of the most difficult tracks upon which to set up a car, with an almost constant sequence of elevation changes and blind corners commanding a driver’s total concentration. The first half of the lap is very much a ‘follow my leader’ succession of twists and turns until the exit of the plunging Carousel double left-hander that feeds onto the track’s longest straight.

That ends with a slow right-hand hairpin, a site of a number of incidents in previous years where sometimes over-ambitious passing moves are attempted. It exits onto another sequence of twists before a rather clumsy chicane that feeds onto a short blast before the final corner, which is another right-hand hairpin bend.


Rewind to 2014

Last year’s Sonoma Grand Prix was the penultimate round of the championship year, and proved pivotal in ensuring that a dramatic season would go down to the wire at the final race at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway.

An earthquake struck the region in the early hour’s of the morning of the race, and while it didn’t affect the scheduling of the event, it certainly gave the field a very restless night of sleep.

Will Power had won pole position and led at the start, but behind there was plenty of drama as his Penske teammate and main championship rival Hélio Castroneves was involved in a multi-car accident at Turn 2 that led to the Brazilian having a lengthy pit stop for repairs.

It looked as though Power would leave the weekend with a hefty points haul to help his quest of a maiden championship title, but the Australian’s joy last until Lap 7 when he spun after his turbo lagged, lighting up the rear wheels and looping his car around. It was a costly incident, and he ultimately finished in tenth place.

The closing stages of the race came down to a battle of fuel conservation, with the entire field winding down their fuel mix in the hope of making it to the chequered flag without having to make another stop.

The battle came down to four drivers: Mike Conway (Ed Carpenter Racing), Tony Kanaan (Chip Ganassi Racing), Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and Scott Dixon (Ganassi).

Conway passed Kanaan for the lead after a restart at Lap 40 and led for a further 19 laps, but he was in full conservation mode and that allowed Rahal to nip through into the lead.

Rahal’s fuel numbers were even worse, and he was forced to pit for a ‘splash and dash’ with three laps remaining, handing the lead back to Conway, whose fuel meter was looking dire. His tank was on fumes, and so Dixon was able to pass the Englishman at Turn 1 to claim his second win of the season; Conway’s tank ran completely dry and he tumbled down the order to finish fourteenth.

The wash-up was that Power exited the weekend with a 51-point advantage over Castroneves in the title fight, while Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) was still in with a remote mathematical shout of snatching the crown for himself.

Scott Dixon, 2014 Grand Prix of Sonoma

Scott Dixon claimed victory in a race dominated by fuel strategy.


The Form Guide

It will undoubtedly be an emotion-charged final race of the season as the IndyCar Series marks its first fatality since the loss of Dan Wheldon at the 2011 finale as Las Vegas Speedway. Like Wheldon, Wilson was universally admired by drivers, teams and fans alike.

Golden Gate Bridge parade

Will Power led a parade across the Golden Gate Bridge to honour Justin Wilson.

The championship will commemorate his memory in true style, with a parade of IndyCar DW12s having taken place across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the lead-up to the event.

James Hinchcliffe – who has made a remarkable recovery from his life-threatening crash at the Indianapolis 500 – was part of the parade in the IndyCar two-seater.

All of the drivers and teams will carry tributes on the helmets and cars, while the start of Sunday’s 85-lap race will be preceded by a minute’s silence.

Wilson’s team, Andretti Autosport, has confirmed that it will race the Englishman’s #25 entry this weekend in his honour, and have announced that Spanish veteran Oriol Servià will pilot the team’s car.

There will be three other changes to the field which contested last weekend’s ill-fated round at Pocono Raceway. Luca Filippi will once again take over the controls from oval-racing owner/driver Ed Carpenter in the #20 CFH Racing Chevrolet, while Venezuelan pay-driver Rodolfo González will do likewise at Dale Coyne Racing where he is back in the cockpit in place of Pippa Mann.

The field will have one extra car, with Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin making his return to the championship with a third Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda entry.

Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya has led the title race since its outset at St Peterburg in March, and he will come into this weekend with a 34-point advantage over his closest title rival, Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

Former champion Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) sits third in the standings, 47 points adrift of Montoya, while the Colombian’s Penske teammates Will Power and Hélio Castroneves are 61 and 77 points behind, respectively and are very much outsiders in the race for the title. SFH Racing’s Josef Newgarden remains a long shot in sixth place, 87 points behind.

There will be 100 points on offer for the the race-winner, with additional championship points (1 apiece) for the pole-winner and anyone who leads the race. The driver who leads the most laps overall will get an additional championship point.

The mathematics of it all means that Montoya will claim the title should he finish first or second, but he can also win it by finishing third and scooping all the bonus points provided Rahal doesn’t win the race.

Dixon could claim the crown for himself, but that will rely on both Montoya and Rahal finishing outside the top-ten at the very least – and both championship rivals will have to notch up a DNF in order for Power, Castroneves or Newgarden to really come into the equation.

Images via IndyCar Series and Motorsport.com

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Michael Terminello

Journalist at MotorsportM8
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