Two easy solutions for IndyCar’s biggest recurring problem

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

IndyCar once again faced criticism for waiting to throw a yellow flag when there was clearly an incident on the race track that warranted it.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon was among those most critical of IndyCar race control’s decision not to throw a yellow flag when Agustin Canapino’s No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet was stalled on the race track late in Sunday afternoon’s IndyCar race at Portland International Raceway,

The driver of the No. 9 Honda, who conceded that teammate Alex Palou would have clinched the championship either way, felt he was effectively demoted from a second place finish with a chance to win the race to third place upside.

The decision to wait and let Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist make his final pit stop so that he didn’t get caught out by the yellow allowed him to restart the race in second place behind Palou, gaining him a spot over Dixon, who had been running in second, in third.

Such decisions have become quite common, and many view this as a recurring issue in IndyCar.

Let me be the first to say that I value IndyCar’s commitment to consistency.

While social media was quick to jump on the Penske favoritism bandwagon when similar decisions benefited Scott McLaughlin at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last year and Barber Motorsports Park earlier this year, the fact is that this has been a topic of discussion on numerous other occasions. There is a lot more to it than a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory that holds as much water as a sieve.

IndyCar basically doesn’t want to affect the outcome of a race or interfere with a pit sequence by throwing a yellow flag. But waiting to make a decision just to throw the yellow flag anyway is, by definition, race manipulation, and consistent or not, it’s completely unacceptable.

While it is easy to respect the fact that they don’t want to ruin someone’s race (or even championship) because of an untimely yellow, allowing a pit cycle to play out still ends up ruining someone’s race, as IndyCar is effectively aiding somebody else.

What can IndyCar do to avoid this issue in the future?

The first solution is easy, and it’s a solution that IndyCar used to use without hesitation: when there is a hazard on the race track, throw the caution flag. If it’s dangerous enough to throw a yellow — period — then the yellow should be thrown the moment the danger presents itself. It’s not rocket science.

On Sunday, Rosenqvist gained and Dixon lost. Had IndyCar thrown the yellow when it should have been thrown, the opposite would have been true. Somebody was going to get a raw deal either way. That’s sport.

The difference is that though one situation involved waiting and another didn’t. Strategy is a part of racing. If you happen to be caught out when the yellow flag flies, tough. You can’t always predict how a race will play out. But that shouldn’t become another driver’s problem.

The race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2015 is a perfect example. Dixon, who had already made a pit stop when IndyCar threw the caution flag when Sage Karam spun, ultimately ended up going on to win the championship became of it.

Title rival Juan Pablo Montoya had yet to pit, so he fell from the lead to well down the order. Dixon and Montoya ended the season tied on points, with Dixon winning on a tiebreaker. Had IndyCar waited like they do now, Montoya wins the 2015 title.

The second solution involves the first but with an added step: don’t close the pits until a lap after the yellow comes out on road and street course races. Considering the fact that road and street course races are generally where IndyCar waits to make the call, the change doesn’t need to be made on ovals.

This way, drivers who haven’t yet pit don’t have to wait for the entire field to pack up before they come in for service, inevitably sending them to the back of the pack as everybody else stays out and drivers by.

This solution could, of course, present its own problems, as leaving the pits open for an extra lap could create an increased sense of urgency on a driver’s in-lap. In some ways, this could create an even more hazardous scenario than leaving the green flag out.

The easiest fix would be to mandate a speed reduction for the entire field, allow anybody who needs to pit to pit (each driver gets one chance), and then close the pits before the field stacks up behind the pace car.

Drivers who haven’t yet pit would still probably benefit, as the pace on the race track itself would be much slower than it was during green flag pit stops. This would effectively look something like an abbreviated virtual safety car.

But at the very least, it takes the subjective element of race control’s decision-making process out of the picture when it comes to what’s dangerous and what isn’t.

And it does so while keeping the strategy element alive and well within each race.

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At the end of the day, strategy is a part of racing, and when IndyCar is consistently removing that element from pit sequences to ensure that whoever happens to be leading at the time doesn’t get screwed by the timing of a yellow — and more importantly, prioritizing that preference over safety — it needs to be addressed beyond just post-race frustration in driver interviews.