SONOMA, Calif. – The venerable road course at the south end of wine country has been tweaked, tightened and ever so slightly lengthened.
IndyCar's drivers will find out this weekend whether the changes are enough to keep Penske Racing from opening yet another celebratory bottle.
Sonoma Raceway's modifications mostly received praise Friday as the drivers began preparations for the weekend. Three of the track's 12 turns have been delicately altered in an attempt to create more passing opportunities while putting even more emphasis on driving ability at a well-liked track where fuel-mileage racing has dominated the past few years.
"I definitely think there will be more action in the race, for sure," James Hinchcliffe said.
After seeing almost no lead changes in any of the past three IndyCar races in Northern California, Sonoma fans are hoping for a race that's just as tight as the series championship chase. Although 15 drivers are still alive, just 28 points separate the top four heading into IndyCar's final three dates, setting up what could be a mad scramble for the win.
The biggest change appears to be in Turn 7, which was tightened into a hairpin U-turn that will test drivers' braking acumen while creating opportunities to pass that didn't exist in the previous layout. Sonoma also widened the exit of Turn 9, improving an already existing passing zone in the "Bus Stop."
The entrance to Turn 11 is 200 feet longer now, while the turn itself is even tighter before the drivers head to the finish line. Track officials also added 10 laps to the race, going from 75 to 85.
Sonoma hopes it all adds up to an event that tantalizes drivers who already say the course is among their favorites.
"I was definitely tempted to test out a couple of the new passing zones, but that would have been a bit overzealous for the first practice," Ryan Briscoe said, grinning. "It's going to be tempting."
Altogether, the changes could allow more side-by-side racing and attempts at slingshot passing — or maybe the drivers will figure out how to minimize the changes' effect before Sunday.
Several drivers already had tested on the track since the changes, including a session last week. They're still brainstorming ways to make the changes work for them.
"We learned what not to do, which is almost as good as learning what to do," Hinchcliffe said. "This isn't statistically the strongest track for our team. We showed up here (last week) ... with a couple of different concepts. Unfortunately, not one of them really took. We'll see. I do have faith in the team. We've had some pretty bad Fridays that have turned into some really good Sundays. Hopefully we can make that happen this weekend."
Penske's drivers haven't had much trouble here lately — but their dominance is reflective of the reasons Sonoma made its changes in the first place.
Will Power has won the last two IndyCar races in Sonoma with little competition: He led all but six of those 150 laps over the past two years. Dario Franchitti's wire-to-wire victory for Target Chip Ganassi racing in 2009 was even better — or worse, for anybody who likes drama.
Penske's drivers can't explain the team's dominance in Sonoma, but they finished 1-2-3 in last year's race, with Helio Castroneves and Briscoe following Power onto the podium.
"It's funny that sometimes a team just seems to click with a track," Power said.
And even with all the alterations at Sonoma, Power's pre-eminence hadn't changed Friday. He led the practice session as the only driver topping 109 mph, beating Briscoe in second.
"Slowing the car down more, it's a little bit more difficult now," Briscoe said. "The guys that were quick here, the teams that were quick here, are quick here still. We still have that same gap to close. It's about sixth-tenths of a second, which is a lot. But we desperately need to close that."