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What To Watch For At Long Beach

What does one watch for at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach? Other then the beautiful human scenery, of course…

With the LBGP set to run for the 38th time, the home of the Queen Mary is the Grand Daddy of Indy car road or street races. It sets the template for on-track action as well as off-track opportunities for spectators, including concerts and an Automotive Expo that demonstrates why Southern California really is a mecca of car culture.

It’s sometimes easy to forget at Long Beach that there’s a race going on. In fact, there are several, topped by the headling IZOD IndyCar Series event (broadcast Sunday at 3:30 ET on NBC Sports Network), a three-hour American Le Mans Series ‘sprint’ race and the popular Toyota Pro Celebrity Race.

Since we’re focusing on Indy cars, here’s what to keep an eye on at Long Beach this weekend:

1. Can Chevy storm from the back?
– One of the key tenets of the new IndyCar Series engine rules package is durability. Engines must run 1850 miles between rebuilds or changes, or the relevant car will be docked a 10-position grid penalty at the next race.

At a test session at Infineon Raceway this week, the Chevrolet engine expired in James Hinchcliffe’s Andretti Autosport car. Subsequent teardown led Ilmor and Chevrolet engineers to believe that the problem in Hinch’s engine could be systemic to all the Chevrolet engines, which could produce an embarrassing or catastrophic failure.

Chevy decided to change the engines in all eleven of its entries prior to the Long Beach weekend. That’s eleven unauthorized engine changes, and therefore eleven Chevrolet drivers who will be moved back 10 positions from where they qualify.

Which means Will Power is likely to start from 11th place in his Team Penske/Verizon entry…

“We are still learning the limitations of the new engine controls calibration,” said Chris Berube, Chevrolet Racing IZOD IndyCar Series Program Manager. “Through our testing in Sonoma, as indicated by an engine issue, we uncovered a problem that we believe could affect all engines. So, as a result, we feel it is prudent to change all engines prior to the start of the on-track activities this weekend.

“This is certainly a decision that was not made lightly,” he added. “We intently discussed the situation with our partners and our teams prior to determining that this was the best course of action to preserve the integrity of the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series.”

Sebastien Bourdais of Dragon Racing will also be dropped 10 places on the grid due to a change of his Lotus engine.

2. Can Dario bounce back?
– Dario Franchitti’s season has gotten off to a very slow start by the four-time IndyCar Series champions’s standards. Franchitti has struggled to come to grips with the different handling characteristics of the DW12 chassis and turbo engines, and his own offseason testing program was compromised because the DW12 was not suitable for drivers who use their right foot to brake until a new pedal set was introduced in early March.

There are signs that Franchitti’s championship campaign is about to get back on track. He looked racy during the final stint at Barber Motorsports Park, and he and his Ganassi Racing teammates dominated the recent test at Infineon, with Dario setting a time more than a second faster than the existing Indy car track record.

Franchitti won at Long Beach in 2009 and knows he needs a big haul of points this weekend. With the Chevys set to start 11th or worse, it’s an excellent opportunity for him to capitalize.

3. Andretti’s Abilities
– Andretti Autosport won the last two years at Long Beach, with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2010 and Mike Conway in 2011. Hunter-Reay was also strongly in contention last year before dropping out with a mechanical problem, so look for him to contend this weekend despite the Chevy grid penalty.

Conway has moved to AJ Foyt Racing this year and early indications are that he has boosted the Foyt team’s road racing form. Conway earned Foyt’s first Firestone Fast Six appearance since 2007 at Barber and went on to finish seventh.

4. Continued Surprises?
– The biggest surprise performer of the season so far is Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsport, with a pair of top-six finishes. Pagenaud could have fared even better had he not been assessed a – you guessed it! – ten place grid penalty for an unauthorized Honda engine change in the season opener at St. Pete.

Bourdais is the other driver to watch if your eyes aren’t glued to the front of the field. The four-time Champ Car sanctioned Indy car champion is a multiple winner at Long Beach and he’s made his underpowered Lotus do some amazing things so far in 2012. He may be starting from the back at The Beach, but watch for Bourdais to emerge with a hard-earned top ten finish.

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