Bourdais goes for broke in Birmingham

Photo by John C. Olsakovsky

Editors Note: Our Friend and TheParcFermé Indi podcast co-host John C. Oslakovsky visited the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this weekend in Birmingham, Alabama and has kindly decided to share his thoughts on the race with us here. Once again, John’s Indycar event plans were altered by the weather though thankfully on this occasion it didn’t involve Tornado’s in Texas!

Words and Photo by John C. Olsakovsky

As much as I would have liked, I enjoyed the resumption of the 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama like everybody else. In fact, I didn’t have the luxury of watching on NBCSN, as I was driving west on Interstate 20, so streaming IMS Radio on the Verizon IndyCar Series app had to do.

After Sunday’s attempts to get the rate in were thwarted by Mother Nature after only 23 laps, Monday’s restart was scheduled for 11:30am, which was sunny and breezy, but with a storm system approaching. One hour and fifteen minutes were on the clock, and completing the scheduled 90 laps wasn’t happening.

You would expect that the teams would restart in the same state they stopped Sunday afternoon, but that’s not the case. Teams were allowed to change from Firestone wet tires to the slick compound of their choice with the caveat they had to run both compounds during the race, just as if the race started dry. Teams could also fill cars with fuel and make setup changes for the dry running conditions.

These announcements were a bigger blow to Will Power who spun on a restart when he hydroplaned on a puddle and smacked the pit wall bringing out the caution that ultimately ended Sunday’s running. Team Penske wasn’t able to work on Power’s car until the rest of the grid rolled out on track. Other teams who were on alternate fuel strategies from Sunday’s cautions were out the window to boot. Nonetheless, Tony Kanaan ducked in on the pace lap to take as much fuel as possible to help with their one-stop strategy.

The idea of a level playing field is all well and good, but Josef Newgarden was having none of that. The reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion has won twice in three years and considers Barber Motorsports Park his home track, with his hometown of Nashville, TN being only a few hours drive away. His dominance yesterday in the rain carried over today, and was launched from a cannon out of Turn 17 once the green flag flew.

Behind him, Sebastian Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi were hoping to make the remainder on a single pit stop while teammates Wickens and Hinchcliffe restarted on the harder compound black wall tires hoping everyone on red tires ahead of them would use up their tires. Every strategy was to counter the blistering pace by Josef Newgarden, and none seemed to be as effective as Newgarden’s sheer pace. Twenty laps after the green flag, Josef had nearly twelve seconds on the field. Running full-bore like that isn’t good on fuel mileage, of course, and pitted on lap 49, handing the lead to Bourdais

Bourdais took his stop five laps after Newgarden, which commentators calculated to being a lap or two short. Scott Dixon went a lap further than Bourdais, showing his mastery of the light throttle. As fast as Newgarden was up front, so was the changing Alabama weather. Sprinkles of rain were reported with about 20 minutes left in the race. With rain coming, the question is when to take wet tires. Josef pitted his scheduled stop and took wet tires then. That seemed disastrous, as the track wasn’t ready for full wet tires. Firestone doesn’t provide an intermediate tire, like Pirelli does for Formula 1, so it’s slicks or treads.

Bourdais stayed out on slicks and put on a masterful display of damp driving. Craig Hampson, Bourdais’ engineer had the crew get wets ready and Sebastian would make the call when to take them. He timed his stop poorly, staying out one lap too many. The rain came hard enough for the wets to have the speed and it was over. Despite the seemingly too-early call to take wets, Josef Newgarden was able to soldier on through 82 of the scheduled 90 laps when the race was called for time.Bourdais’ efforts wound up with a two-wide drag race through the final two corners with Scott Dixon for P5.

The Schmidt-Peterson duo of Hinchcliffe and Wickens both looked strong late in the race, before and after the rain came. Andretti continues to be improved, with Ryan Hunter-Reay finishing second only after Alexander Rossi went off in the heavy rain in the last two laps. Josef was the only Team Penske driver to shine. Will Power’s car was repaired and made enough laps to pass Max Chilton for a point and PAgenaud was mired mid-pack due to poor qualifying. The complete finishing order:

1 Newgarden, Josef (1)
2 Hunter-Reay, Ryan (28)
3 Hinchcliffe, James (5)
4 Wickens, Robert (R) (6)
5 Bourdais, Sebastien (18)
6 Dixon, Scott (9)
7 Rahal, Graham (15)
8 Sato, Takuma (30)
9 Pagenaud, Simon (22)
10 Andretti, Marco (98)
11 Rossi, Alexander (27)
12 Leist, Matheus (R) (4)
13 Veach, Zach (R) (26)
14 King, Jordan (R) (20)
15 Pigot, Spencer (21)
16 Binder, Rene (R) (32)
17 Chaves, Gabby (88)
18 Kanaan, Tony (14)
19 Claman De Melo, Zachary (R) (19)
20 Jones, Ed (10)
21 Power, Will (12)
22 Chilton, Max (59)
23 Kimball, Charlie (23)

There were a few wild moments over the weekend that didn’t involve rain. Everyone was pushing the braking zone in Turn 5, aka Charlotte’s Web, during practice. There were quite a few offs, but nothing serious. Jordan King found the limit in Turn 2 and promptly exceeded it, resulting in his car needing repairs. King’s 14th place finish is solid, when you consider the rear end was mangled on Saturday.

The really wild ride was Zach De Melo and Spencer Pigot, however. De Melo passed PIgot in Turn 5, and Spencer came back on him and seemingly didn’t brake into Turn 6. The result was the two cars locked up in what looked like a rail slide across the kerbing in Turns 7 and 8 into the Museum Turn. Miraculously, both drivers kept going and were able to finish the race, albeit De Melo a couple laps down.

De Melo was the source of quite a bit of controversy, as he was racing lead-lap drivers pretty aggressively while two laps down. Pagenaud had some words with him post-race and Zach proved he is no stranger to the f-bomb.

The championship standings look like a two-horse race between Newgarden and Rossi, who have 158 and 145 points, respectively. There are points on table for making the Fast Nine in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, as well as the race itself worth twice the usual points. There’s a cluster of four drivers; Bourdais, Rahal, Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay who will all be in the mix should those two falter. Thus far this season, the championship battle is not just driver vs driver, but team vs team and manufacture vs manufacturer as well. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Remember to tune in later this week to the next podcast episode of TPF Indi for a full recap of the event.

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A deeper look at Barber Motorsports Park is forthcoming.