SONOMA, CA—Driving a high-speed IndyCar around the scenic Sonoma Raceway road course with its dramatic elevation changes has been called the IZOD IndyCar Series version of a "Roller Coaster Ride."
Nobody knows that better than IZOD IndyCar Series points leader Will Power.
He had spun out coming over a blind crest and his crippled car blocked the track. Rookie driver Nelson Philippe came flying over the hill at high speed and T-boned Power's car. Both drivers suffered injuries with Power suffering a broken back leading the driver to wonder if his racing days were over.
"It's bittersweet," Power told Fox59 on Friday. "I had a nasty accident here I thought might end my career but I've had two great years after that. In 2010 and 2011 I won the race. I enjoy the place. I love the area. I've made changes to the track this year that will promote more passing. It is probably one of my favorite tracks now."
With three races remaining in the season the top four drivers are separated by just 28 points and the top seven drivers included in a 72-point spread. Even four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti is mathematically alive at 108 points out in eighth place with Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe four points behind him in ninth heading into Sunday's GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Power is the points leader by just five points over Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. Another Team Penske driver is third with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves 26 points out followed by two-time IndyCar champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon 28 points back after winning at Mid-Ohio in the most recent IndyCar contest.
But there are some dramatic changes made to this historic and legendary race course in an effort to create more passing opportunities in what is now a 2.31-mile layout. Because of that, all IZOD IndyCar Series teams will be permitted to participate in the opening practice session at Sonoma on Friday and teams will be given a ninth set of tires that can be used in the 75-minute session.
Officials with the raceway in Sonoma and INDYCAR announced the changes earlier this month including:
The entrance into Turn 11 will be extended by 200 feet before drivers encounter the hairpin. This will give drivers more space to out-brake each other and set-up a passing opportunity before the right-hander into Turn 12. The geometry of the modified Turn 11 will mirror the shorter turn used for INDYCAR in previous years.
The exit of Turn 9 (aka The Bus Stop) will be widened by 10 feet on drivers' left, giving competitors additional width in what was already a passing zone. The exit of the turn will now be 50 feet wide.
At Turn 7, instead of the looping right-hander, drivers will now encounter a U-turn. The new turn will force drivers to out-brake each other, similar to Turn 11, and create a passing zone. Previously, drivers could maintain speed as they made the looping right-hander.
Power was one of the drivers that Sonoma Raceway officials consulted on making modifications to the race course.
"Steve Page (president of Sonoma Raceway) has been very proactive making this track a more raceable track," Power said. "That is why we love coming here. Steve is about making the race better and more entertaining for the fans. He did that and asked multiple drivers and that is what they came up with for alterations to Turn 7. They turned that into a hairpin which opens up the entry a bit more and makes you slow up the car that creates more passing. They did that with Turn 11 by opening up the Turn 9 chicane as well. It makes it more fun as a driver."
Last year all three Team Penske drivers swept the podium the first time the team scored a 1-2-3 sweep since 1994 and the second time the storied team has put multiple drivers on the podium at Sonoma. In 2011 Power won the race with Helio Castroneves second and Ryan Briscoe third.
Power is going for his third-straight Sonoma victory this weekend.
In 13 races overall, Team Penske drivers have combined for three race victories from the pole (Helio Castroneves in 2008, Will Power in 2010 and 2011), eight podiums and 11 top-five finishes at Sonoma. Power has led 144 of 150 laps in the last two Sonoma contests.
So after dominating the past two races why would Power want to change the layout of this track?
"That is a good question," Power said. "I don't mind change. I think that is a part of motorsport. Things are constantly changing. You go to different venues; cars are changing, engines are changing and setups are changing and conditions change so that is just a part of racing. Yes, for me, the old track was really good but I love a challenge and see if I do it with a new track as well."
Old course or new layout doesn't seem to matter to Power. He was the fastest driver in Friday's practice session with a time of 1:18.6887 around the 2.385-mile, 12-turn Sonoma Raceway for a speed of 109.114 miles per hour in a Dallara/Chevrolet.
"The Verizon Chevy 12 car felt really strong today," Power said. "It was good to start the weekend out in P1. It will be very important to start up front in the race if you want to finish on the podium. I like the new layout of the track and the track was fast for the first day. The hardest thing today was dealing with the wind. We've had success here in the past -we took the top three spots in the race last year and 1-2 today so Team Penske definitely has had good success here in the part. We'll look at our notes and try to go faster tomorrow. We'd really like a pole position to keep moving forward in the Championship race and we'll see if we can do that tomorrow, we'll see."
Teammate Ryan Briscoe was second quick at 1:18.8782 (108.851 mph).
"I love racing at Sonoma, it's always been one of my favorite events on the calendar, and I'm feeling good," Briscoe said. "We got a fresh Chevrolet engine in the No. 2 car this weekend that's feeling good, and I'm feeling good. We definitely want to win, so we'll see what we can do." (About the success the team has had on this track): "It's been good, it's definitely a driver's track as well. When you've got two good teammates like Will and Helio, it's really just about pushing each other harder. We got back in today in the pits and we look over where each of us might be giving up a little bit, and then we just keep egging each other on to get it absolutely perfect. Last year was perfect, we qualified 1-2-3 and finished 1-2-3. We're hoping to do the same this year, and if we can reverse the podium around, I'll be even happier."
Rookie Simon Pagenaud was third in a Dallara/Honda for Sam Schmidt Motorsports at 1:18.9228 (108.790 mph) with four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti fourth at 1:19.0394 (108.629 mph) in a Dallara/Honda for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
Former Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello rounded out the top five at 1:19.4015 (108.134 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for KV Racing.
Scott Dixon was seventh in a Dallara/Honda, Castroneves was 16th in a Dallara/Chevrolet and Hunter-Reay 19th in a Dallara/Chevrolet to round out the championship contenders.
Power hopes to parlay Friday's speed into the pole on Saturday during the Firestone Fast Six qualifications which begin at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time and conclude at 6:45 p.m.
"It's coming down to the nitty-gritty now (for the championship) so it's important to get everything right," Power said. "It will be very important to start up front in the race if you want to finish on the podium."
So these drivers will have to strap in tight for one of the greatest roller-coasters rides on earth an IZOD IndyCar Series race at Sonoma Raceway. And this is more than just a Thrill Show ride because it will have a major impact on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.