Summer in the USA is synonymous with holidays, and after a well-deserved three week break, the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and teams are refreshed and ready to resume the chase for the 2014 title, with the streets of Houston raring to host this weekend.
|2014 SHELL & PENNZOIL GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON
|Date:||27-29 June 2014|
|Free Practice Session 1||Fri 10:00-10:45|
|Free Practice Session 2||Fri 14:00-14:45|
|Race 1 Qualifying||Sat 10:00-11:10|
|Race 1 (90 laps)||Sat 14:45-17:00|
|Race 2 Qualifying||Sun 10:00-10:30|
|Race 2 (90 laps)||Sun 14:45-17:00|
|2013 Winners||Scott Dixon
* All session times are quoted in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT -04:00 hrs)
Last year’s return to Houston was essentially the third separate attempt at hosting open-wheel racing in the city, each under different governing bodies. First held in 1998 on a layout adjacent to the convention centre, the CART-sanctioned event lasted four years, with Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser and Gil de Ferran etching their names on the trophy.
After a five year break, another attempt was made at hosting a race in Houston, this time as a Champ Car event and with the circuit shifted to its present location. Over two consecutive years, 96-lap night races were won by Sébastien Bourdais during his and Newman-Haas’ period of superiority. After CART folded and Champ Car merged with the Indy Racing League and a few years for promoters’ and fans’ heads in Houston to stop spinning, the third and current return was negotiated, bringing us to the present day.
The southern Texas city has put together its usual tight, twisty and bumpy street layout around Reliant Park, with combatants needing to adopt a steely resolve to handle the second and final double-header race weekend of the season.
At just under two miles in length, the anticlockwise street circuit twists its way through Houston’s famous Reliant Park complex.
The arrival onto the start/finish straight comes courtesy of a sequence of ever-quicker left-hand bends before the drivers have to stand on the anchors for a clumsy left-right chicane at Turn 2, which will no doubt be the scene of some carnage over the weekend.
After a pair of left-handers, the drivers then have a seemingly never-ending right-hander around the Astrodome, which leads onto a short straight and the circuit’s best passing opportunity, Turn 6.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, IndyCar’s last visit to Houston also provided fans with the last time they would ever see the incomparable Dario Franchitti doing what he loved. A bone-chilling accident on the final lap of Race 2 had viewers on the edge of their seats with concern after the Scot’s car was launched into the catch fencing, having made contact with Takuma Sato’s tyre during an overtake attempt. For the most part, the fencing did what it was designed to do and kept the car inside the track boundaries. Unfortunately, some debris was catapulted into an adjacent grandstand, causing a few relatively minor injuries to spectators. But for Dario, two fractured vertebrae and a concussion later proved career-ending, with the Scot heeding words of advice from his treating medical team and reluctantly hanging up his helmet.
Houston Talking Points
Houston brings with it the ghosts of the 2013 season for Hélio Castroneves, who suffered an utterly catastrophic pair of races. Engine failures in both races delivered two final classifications of 18th and 23rd. In two days, the Brazilian’s ubiquitous smile and grin was replaced with heartache and grim concern as Scott Dixon eradicated a sizeable points deficit and turned it into a 25-point lead which would ultimately bring his third series championship.
If anyone is out for redemption from a major career lowlight last season, it is Castroneves. In fact, he could perhaps find some solace in Ryan Hunter-Reay, who suffered the same ignominious circumstances at the season’s last double-header in Detroit.
After three successive podium finishes, Will Power is again at the top of his consistent game and leading the points standings through eight races, with a 39-point margin over team-mate Castroneves heading into the weekend. Qualifying for each of the two events will gift a championship point to whoever sets the fastest time. Power will go into the event full of confidence and with his reputation as the street-course king preceding him, and will be strong. But in a series so competitive across the board, picking a winner is near impossible. Settle in for what is sure to be another Texas barn-burning double-header around Reliant Park, Houston.
Images via XPB Images