Race Report: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

SONOMA, Calif. Aug. 30, 2015—The day began in tears and ended in tears. A touching tribute to Justin Wilson, the popular British IndyCar driver who passed away Monday from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway, left steely eyes moist at Sonoma Raceway.

Two hours later, when Scott Dixon edged out season-long point leader Juan Pablo Montoya by winning the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to snare the Astor Cup and the Verizon IndyCar Series title right out of Montoya’s hands, there were tears of joy in victory lane.

Dixon, who entered the race third in points, capitalized on the double point bonus in the season finale which allowed him to tie point leader Montoya who finished sixth in the race. The tie breaker – the driver who won the most races - went to Dixon who claimed three victories to Montoya’s two.

In a much quieter celebration in the ABC Supply pits, Takuma Sato emerged from the No. 14 cockpit, elated with his ABC Supply team’s performance. Sato, who started 18th, finished eighth through a combination of smart driving, consistently fast pit stops and an off-sequence pit strategy to gain track position.

Sato pitted early – on lap six and again on lap 22 - so when the full course yellow came on lap 33 for a tangle between Will Power and his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya resulting in Power spinning out, strategist Larry Foyt told Sato to stay out to gain track position which he did, jumping from 19th to seventh on lap 35 when most of the field pitted. Sato pitted twice more, with the final pit stop coming on lap 62. He dropped back to 18th but several cars still had to pit.

Meanwhile Jack Hawksworth had climbed from his 25th starting slot to eighth by lap 51 as he too was using an off-sequence fuel strategy. When he pitted for his final stop on lap 62, he fell to 19th but as others pitted, he climbed back to 15th. A full course yellow on lap 65 for James Jakes off track excursion closed up the field. The drivers who hadn’t pitted ducked into the pits for their final stop which allowed Hawksworth and Sato climb to 10th and 13th respectively.

A few laps later, Hawksworth was running ninth when, by his own admission, he made an aggressive move past Carlos Munoz resulting in their both spinning and bringing out another full course yellow on lap 72.

Hawksworth pitted for a new nose while his teammate moved from 12th to 10th. Sato gained a couple more spots when Sebastien Bourdais tangled with Graham Rahal vying for sixth on lap 77. Rahal, a championship contender, dropped to 20th and then Bourdais joined him after serving a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact.

With four laps to go, Power charged past Sato (nearly taking him out) to take seventh on the track. The move gave Power enough points (three) to overtake Rahal in the standings for third place in the championship. Sato finished 14th in the drivers’ standings.

Qualifying Report: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

SONOMA, Calif. Aug. 29, 2015—“It was a tough qualifying session for us,” Takuma Sato said after climbing from his car.

And so it was. Sato will start 18th while Jack Hawksworth will start 25th. Hawksworth lost power and oiled down the track as he made his way back to the pits before he could lay down a lap on the faster, alternate (red) tires.

Sato posted a time of 1 minute, 17.55 seconds (110.702mph) around the picturesque 2.3 mile road course. “We struggled for speed throughout the practice session but then the car was improved after the first run in qualifying, so I had a positive feeling,” Sato said. “Unfortunately there was a bit of traffic on course when we were on our quick lap, so we weren’t quick enough to get through to the second segment.  Last year we made a good improvement in the warmup session on race day, so I guess we have to do that again.”

Indeed, after qualifying 14th last year, Sato was able to snare a fourth place finish in the event through a combination of an improved car set-up and savvy race strategy.

Hawksworth also struggled for speed this weekend. The team made changes to the car for qualifying but never got the chance to see whether it would be fast enough to break through to the next segment. He posted a time of 1 minute, 19.04 seconds (108.627mph).

“We went out there, did a couple laps on the black tires, came in for the reds [tires] and made some changes,” Hawksworth said. “It felt a bit better but then we had an engine issue and lost power. It was not a good day. We’ll try and have a good one tomorrow.”

Will Power won the Verizon P1 award with his time of 1 minute, 16.25 seconds (112.589 mph). Rounding out the Firestone Fast 6 were Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya and Graham Rahal.

The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network starting at 4 p.m. ET.

Notes & Quotes: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

Takuma Sato: No. 14 ABC Supply Honda
Jack Hawksworth: No. 41 ABC Supply Honda

TAKUMA SATO On:

Sonoma Raceway: “Sonoma is one of the most dynamic road courses in our recent calendar, so I always love racing there but it is quite challenging to put everything together. The track is initially low grip as it is nicely surrounded by a dry and sandy environment but as the track rubbers down, it gets faster and faster. Although I said the track is low grip, it is only so in the low-speed corners, and it’s well known that this is one of the most physically demanding tracks in the Verizon IndyCar Series due to the many constant high-speed and high G-force corners. The car’s set-up can be quite tricky too as both mechanical grip and aerodynamics demands are really high. For the race, with relatively a lot of elevation change, a long lap, and a couple of heavy braking areas, the fuel mileage becomes very important. Last year I had strong fuel saving with good pace, so we were very competitive and that trend should continue this year.”

The aero kit at Sonoma: “There are so many high-speed corners, the effect of the new aero kit’s increased downforce could be big here. We haven’t tested here with this year's aero kit so it is a little unknown but we have good data from the previous road courses so it should work really well.”

Double points for season finale: “It is going to be an exciting finale as six contenders are eligible for the Championship. For us it is a good opportunity to move up in the Verizon IndyCar Series point standings. We had our best finish at this challenging track last year so we will be doing our best to finish high again.”

On Justin Wilson’s passing: “I am extremely sad. I couldn’t find the words… impossible. It is going to be very hard for all of us to race in Sonoma after we lost our friend Justin Wilson. He was a great driver, but a better human being and everyone loved him. We shared a good time in F1 and IndyCar both on and off track and I will never forget it. This sadness hits massively in the motorsport world but we need to continue racing, which he loved. We will race for Justin’s parents, his wife Julia, daughters and entire family and sport with our deepest condolences.”

On the danger of racing cars: “Racing is hard. I think there are two separate subjects when we talk about the danger of racing. The safety environment has been massively improved in the last 20 years, and it is nothing like it was before. Nowadays, a driver can walk away even after 100G impact in a 200mph accident and I had some but I was never injured. Having said that, it doesn’t mean racing is safe, it is still dangerous in some degree. Likewise you need a driver's license to drive a car on public roads because the physical energy that a car has is enormous when you use it in wrong way. You have a huge responsibility and you must follow the rules because then we all can enjoy our cars on the road or on the track. But there is one significant difficulty we have been facing in the formula car category which is related to the open cockpit. We are well protected from a side, backward and even forward impact but it is still very difficult to avoid from flying debris directly in front. The sport is looking into this problem, and it will improve in the future but right now it is very difficult find an immediate solution for this specific type of accident.”

JACK HAWKSWORTH On:

GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma and Sonoma Raceway: "It's been a very difficult few days for the sport with the news of Justin's passing. However Justin was a racer and one of the great ambassadors for our sport and with knowing that I'm sure he would be pushing for us all to put on a great show this weekend. Sonoma is one of the most interesting circuits on the calendar; it is low grip and almost street course-like in some places, but then it's extremely fast and high grip in other places. The race in Pocono did not go well for us despite having a decent car in the race due to an issue at the first pit stop and then being squeezed under the apron later in the race. It was extremely disappointing but I'm hopeful we can put that behind us and finish out the season strong this weekend on one of my favorite circuits.”

What he likes about Sonoma: “I like the challenge that Sonoma brings. The contrast between fast and slow corners, high grip and low grip and then the huge elevation changes make it one hell of a race track. It's also in beautiful area and the weather is always great!”

The best place to pass: “The best passing zone is probably down into the hairpin after Turn 6. If you can get a nice run off Turn 6, then you should be able to have a go at the car ahead into the brake zone. Historically it's not been the easiest of circuits to pass on though, so qualifying and strategy will be crucial.”

Justin Wilson’s passing: “I only knew Justin for the short time that I was competing against him but it quickly became evident that he was not only a great racer and true professional, he was also a top guy. There was never even a shade of arrogance with Justin; I admired the way he raced on the track and carried himself off it.”

The danger of racing cars: “Racing can be dangerous and always will be. It's a part of our sport and although accidents and incidents like this are extremely saddening, we should remember that every driver and crew member is given the choice to do this and we all do it because it is what we love doing. Justin's death came whilst he was chasing his dreams and enjoying his passion, there is no better way to live.”

Justin Wilson, 1978 - 2015

We at AJ Foyt Racing are deeply saddened to learn of Justin Wilson succumbing to his injuries. A true ambassador of racing, he was respected by his peers and admired by so many people here and abroad. Our hearts go out to his wife Julia, their two young daughters, and his brother Stefan and their parents. In memory of Justin, we are sending a donation to the fund set up for his children. We encourage you to do the same. Wilson Children's Fund, c/o INDYCAR, 4551 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222. RIP Justin.