Honda Indy Toronto circuit still poses challenge for drivers

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TORONTO – When the changes to the Honda Indy Toronto circuit were revealed last year, the reviews from the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers couldn't even be called mixed. 

Just about every driver asked about the pit lane being moved to the outside of the track and the tightening Turns 9, 10 and 11 to make room for the new configuration worried it would be problematic. Friday practice proved those fears correct with four drivers hitting the wall in Turn 11 as they tested the limits of the new layout. 

A year later, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal hasn't changed his mind about the modifications to Exhibition Place street circuit.

“I liked it better the old way, for sure; no doubt about that,” said Rahal, who won both street races in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear Corporation in early June. 

“I would say the old way was better, but I am a bit of a traditionalist in that sense,” added Rahal, whose father, Bobby, won the inaugural Toronto race in 1986, two and a half years before Graham was born. “It's not a big swing either way, but we all have to overcome it and deal with the same stuff and make the most of it.”

Check out some things to watch for at the Honda Indy Toronto here:

The modifications saw the pit lane switched from along the inside the start/finish straight to the other side of the track, to make way for a new hotel under construction. The pit entry moved two corners up the track, with the cars now heading to pit lane at Turn 9. The pit lane snakes right and left and right along the outside of three turns, which makes things tricky for the crews. It also meant tightening and narrowing the track at Turn 11 just before the start/finish straight, which had many drivers worried about running out of room. 

A voice in the wilderness was reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud, who supported the change last year and looks forward to another weekend of pushing the limits of the new configuration on the 11-turn, 1.786-mile street course. 

“I liked the last complex (Turns 9-11). I was the only one apparently who liked it last year,” the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion and No. 1 Menards Team Penske driver said through a laugh. 

“It gave opportunity for pure driving and (was) not the perfect line and perfect braking, but just adapting to the situation and being on the bumps close to the wall. I thought it was fun and good for the show because it was right on the edge.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Pagenaud praised the changes last year right after going quickest in both Friday practice sessions and before qualifying third for the race. Although he finished ninth, he was in the hunt for the win until a late yellow caught him out. 

Rahal joked that the drivers will always continue to support changes when they feel it gives them even a slight advantage over their rivals. 

“I can't remember how Pagenaud did last year, but I assume he did well and that's probably why he loves it,” Rahal said. “That's the way these things go.”

On the other hand, hometown hero James Hinchcliffe of nearby Oakville wants to race at Exhibition Place no matter what the track looks like. 

He's more pleased by the fact that the Honda engine/aero kit package has been hugely competitive on street circuits and he has a win and a podium for third in two of the four street races so far. It gives the Mayor of Hinchtown “quiet optimism” heading into the weekend. 

“It should be pretty similar to last year,” said the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver.

“The aero kits have stayed the same from 2016 to 2017 and, if anything, it looks like Honda has picked up a bit of horsepower. Maybe at the cost of some reliability, but we are obviously trying to get a handle on that. The hope is that we will be even more competitive there this year than we were last year.”

There's no doubt that a competitive Hinchcliffe, currently 12th in points after 11 of 17 races, fighting for the win will go a long way to make the fans happy when the checkered flag flies. 

In the end, Pagenaud supports the new layout for the same reason: He thinks it offers a better show for the fans.

So, even if a few drivers complain a bit, ensuring fans go away with a smile on their faces is really what it's all about, he insisted. 

“Do the drivers like it? It looks like they don't,” he said. 

“I hope they don't change it too much and we can give a good show to the fans. I think fans like it.”

A pair of Verizon IndyCar Series practice sessions are set for 10:40 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. ET today. Saturday’s schedule calls for a third practice at 10 a.m. ahead of knockout qualifying at 2:15 p.m. All those sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, with a same-day qualifying telecast airing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN.

A final warmup practice begins at 11:30 a.m. Sunday (RaceControl.IndyCar.com), ahead of the 85-lap race that airs live at 3 p.m. on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. An encore race telecast airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN.

Honda Indy Toronto fast facts:

Race 12 of 17 on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule

Track: Streets of Exhibition Place, a 1.786-mile temporary street course; Sunday’s race will be the 33rd Indy car event on the circuit dating to 1986.

Race distance: 85 laps / 151.81 miles

Track record: Will Power, 59/7747 seconds, 107.564 mph (under current track configuration)

Firestone tire allotment: Six sets primary compound, four sets alternate (rookies and drivers outside the top 10 in points may acquire an additional primary set for the first practice session; In a dry-condition race, each car that completes the race must use one set of primary tires and one new alternate set for at least two laps each.

Push-to-pass: 200 seconds total for the race with a maximum duration of 20 seconds per activation.

TV information: Qualifying airs on a same-day basis at 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN; the race airs live at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and has an encore telecast at 7 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN.

Ticket information: HondaIndyToronto.com

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