IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield seems to need a lesson in physics, specifically Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.
The laws of motion are the ones that essentially say that a body at rest stays at rest, a body in motion stays in motion. It all has to do with something called inertia, which the 17th Century English physicist described as the innate force that makes an object want to stay at rest or keep moving.
Barfield needs to understand inertia because it is the reason that Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay should have been penalized for a jump-start late in Sunday’s Baltimore Grand Prix.
On a critical restart with five laps left, Hunter-Reay lagged a couple of car lengths directly behind leader Ryan Briscoe of the Penske Team, and then used the gap to get up a head of steam as the race was about to go back to green, pulling out to pass the Penske driver they approached the zone where the restart would occur.
Although the Andretti driver said he let off the gas for an instant just before the green flag waved and then hit the accelerator again, it certainly didn’t look like he slowed at all, blowing past Briscoe like the Penske car was standing still. It goes back to that inertia thing.
Eventual winner Hunter-Reay sped off into the distance as Briscoe tried in vain to follow. Another driver, Sam Schmidt’s Simon Pagenaud used the same tactic to get by Briscoe, who reclaimed second by the end of the action.
“The fact is, you’re supposed to pair up. [Hunter-Reay] hung back about two car lengths out of the chicane and then he accelerated from two car lengths back before I accelerated and that’s not how the restarts work,” Briscoe said.
“When the pole sitter accelerates they wave the green flag. Not when the second-place guy accelerates from two car lengths back, which is what happened.”
Even if Hunter-Reay’s telemetry showed he backed off for an instant as he claimed – something Barfield seemed to confirm – he still jumped the start.
It’s the same reason why 100-metre sprint competitors aren’t allowed to run up behind the rest of the field in the starting blocks. Runners already in motion when the starter’s pistol fires would have a huge advantage because they wouldn’t have to break the inertia of being at rest and they’d accelerate to top speed more easily.
Oh, there’s also that pesky thing called the IndyCar series rule book, which appears to back Briscoe’s argument.
IndyCar Rule 22.214.171.124. stipulates that the cars must line up in double file format, while Rule 126.96.36.199. directs the leader to maintain the pace lap speed until reaching a point designated by IndyCar near the start/finish line – in Baltimore it was this “acceleration zone” marked by two cones – when “the leader shall accelerate smoothly back to racing speed and the green condition will then be declared.”
Neither happened on the final restart in Baltimore; instead, the flag waved an instant after Hunter-Reay made his break just before the cars hit the first cone and at a point where he had an unfair speed advantage on Briscoe.
At the least, race control should have thrown a caution after the botched start and tried again because the green was waved incorrectly and Hunter-Reay was given an unfair advantage. Strangely, Barfield, who has several camera angles and slow-motion replays at his fingertips, saw a completely different restart.
“Just at the time he’s probably about three-quarters up alongside and the green flag came out, so there’s no reason he would have paused at that point because they were already in the acceleration zone,” said Barfield, as he explained Hunter-Reay inertia advantage perfectly to reporters after the race.
“I can see where there are some upset people, but the timing of the acceleration zone, when the flag came out, the speed Briscoe was going, the speed that Hunter-Reay was appropriately going to get alongside, it was completely within the rules that that was a no call.”
Barfield explained that Briscoe was free to go before the green flag once they got to the first cone, although he failed to mention that things couldn’t have played out that way because the starter had already waved it before he reached it.
The bottom line here is that the starter is directed by the rules to throw the green flag when the leader hits the throttle after he reaches the acceleration zone. That didn’t happen in this case because the second-placed guy – hesitation or not – was already accelerating past the leader before they got to the zone and the starter waved the green anyway.
That was also the view of Canadian racer Paul Tracy, who tweeted to Briscoe after the race: “You definitely got shafted today!!!!!
“You could see on TV rhr (Hunter-Reay) and pag (Pagenaud) came off the last corner wide open and never lifted. You are the one that is to decide when to go.”
Hunter-Reay’s win kept his championship aspirations alive. He’s now 17 points behind another Penske driver, Will Power of Australia, with one race to go. Drivers get 50 points for a win.
Unfortunately, this incident just adds to IndyCar’s poor record in race control. The series has been dogged by inconsistency and disastrous calls from race control over its history, and it cannot afford to keep that going. Last season, its former race director Brian Barnhart was in the spotlight for his inconsistent rulings and a disastrous decision to restart a race in New Hampshire in the rain that caused a five-car pile-up. He was removed from race control late last year.
Barfield was hired to reverse that tide and has done a good job most of the time. Regrettably, mostly won’t cut it for the series that remains a poor cousin to NASCAR and continues to struggle to attract viewers. IndyCar races aren’t on network television in the U.S. and having officiating that makes it look like a minor-league series won’t help it gain any traction with television executives or fans.
Even more troubling is that Barfield also took the same line as his predecessor when reporters asked about the quickly waved green flag. Rather than admit a mistake was made and take responsibility for it, Barfield defended the starter’s actions, saying that “based on what he was looking at all day and the two cars side-by-side there, I think he did what he could and what he had to under the circumstances.”
In this case, cynics might argue that “what he had to do” was make sure that a U.S. driver Hunter-Reay was in the title hunt to the last race of the year. A drive-thru penalty to Hunter-Reay with five laps to go would have put him at the back of the field and handed the season championship to Power.
It’s no secret that IndyCar feels a U.S. driver winning the season championship is what the series feels it needs to build some inertia of its own. The Baltimore ruling means the series instead gets to promote a “winner-take-all” showdown with a U.S. driver in the thick of the action, which will only bring accusations that IndyCar manipulated the outcome of Sunday’s race because it was desperate to make it happen.
Even if unfounded, the suspicion alone can only be bad for the credibility of the series and the sport.
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