Words by John Olsakovsky, Photos courtesy of INDYCAR Photo
I will always have a sentimental soft sport for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (or #HIGPA for the hashtag-inclined). Having lived in the Birmingham area and attended the very first IndyCar test at Barber Motorsports Park, I’ve fallen in love with the facility and the event, to the point that I feel pangs of homesickness not being able to be there in person. The old whinging that Barber is a motorcycle track and that passing is difficult have been squashed in the eight years that the Verizon IndyCar Series has raced at this jewel of a circuit, dubbed “The Augusta of Motorsports” for it’s sprawling park-like feel, hidden sculptures and world-class museum.
Going into this year’s event we saw a rebound from the Team Penske, with only Josef Newgarden missing out on the Fast Six qualifying session due to a tire strategy gamble that didn’t work at the time. The run for pole saw Team Penske dominate, filling the top three spots with Power, Castroneves, then Pagenaud. That left only scraps for Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe to round out the Fast Six. Penske was the only Chevrolet-powered team to have pace, with the entries from A.J. Foyt Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing languishing in Rows 8-10 on the grid.
Race Day dawned with rain for the morning warm-up and support races. Many teams eschewed the morning warm-up, erring on the side of caution during the wet session. Helio Castroneves spun during the warm-up, bringing out a brief red flag in that session. The rain cleared, allowing the track to be mostly dry by the green flag at 2:42pm central. The rain washed any rubber off the track and lowered the ambient temperature to about 66F at race time.
Even before the green flag, Marco Andretti had his gearbox stuck in first gear, leaving him stranded in the pits for formation and pace laps, as well as the start. Right from the green flag, Newgarden was on a charge, but he wasn’t the only one. Through Turns 3 and 4, Hinch and Hunter-Reay ran side-by-side and banged sidepods, with Hunter-Reay losing a piece of his front wing, which landed on track in Turn 4, bringing out a full-course caution on Lap 3. The caution minimized the damage to Marco’s day, as they were able to get the gearbox problem fixed (under the keen observation of their esteemed visitor, Fernando Alonso) and back on track under the caution three laps down. Meanwhile, Ryan Hunter-Reay pitted for a new front wing.
On the restart, Will Power checked out the same as he did from the beginning. He led until the first round of pit stops around Lap 20. Josef Newgarden’s tire gamble in the Fast twelve during qualifying may not have paid off, but it allowed him to start the race on sticker blacks, which was the tire of choice in the cooler temperatures. The delta between blacks and reds wasn’t all that great, so the higher wear of the red tires made them less desirable. As a result, Newgarden got around teammate Simon Pagenaud on Lap 17, before teams starting peeling off to pit lane amidst reports of sprinkles that turned out to be just that: sprinkles.
Helio Castroneves was the last of the Penske drivers to pit on Lap 23, but Scott Dixon proved his fuel-saving prowess by pitting ater than the rest of the leaders, on Lap 24, having taken over the lead from Helio. Dixon’s pit stop handed the lead back to Will Power, now with a hard-charging Josef Newgarden less than a second behind! Power was able to keep Newgarden about a second and a half behind, controlling the pace comfortably until Spencer Pigot went off in Turn 6 on Lap 63.
The caution allowed everyone to pit for fresh tires and a full tank of E85 ethanol to take them to the checkered flag. Everyone except Charlie Kimball, that it. Power is able to beat the masses off of pit road right behind Charlie Kimball for the restart, whom he dubbed “the most dangerous driver on the grid” recently. Kimball didn’t need to make a fuel number like the field behind him, so he took off from the restart on Lap 68, building up a two-second gap to the group that just pitted, led by Power, Dixon and Newgarden.
About Lap 69, Newgarden surprises Scott Dixon with a gutsy but clean inside move in Turn 14a, and Josef set off after teammate Power. Again, Will kept a lead of “just enough” until Lap 74 when he gets a radio message about low tire pressure from his crew. For two laps, he tried to diagnose the tire while holding off Jose Newgarden and Scott Dixon, but Power was forced to pit on Lap 77, handing the lead to Josef. For a few laps, both seemed to have to save a little bit of fuel, but once both teams confirmed they were good, it was game on! Mostly, it came down to the push-to-pass. Dixon had nearly a minute’s worth of boost while Newgarden had about half that amount. The Ganassi star made good use of it with a few charges, but Roger Penske’s new kid was masterful in driving a defensive line, forcing Dixon to use up his push-to-pass allotment.
Penske proved that whatever hampered their performance the past two races is no longer an issue, with only Scott Dixon in third breaking up the dominance at the top of the grid. Had Will Power not suffered his cut tire, it would have been four of the top five spots instead of three out of four. Penske was certainly on point this weekend, and they wanted the entire paddock to know it! The only other Chevrolets were languishing at the back, protected from the dreaded DFL by Marco’s early gearbox problems.
Sebastian Bourdais had a quiet, yet strong run to finish eighth, maintaining his points lead over the consistent Scott Dixon by 6 as we head into the moth of May. Newgarden, Pagenaud and Hinchcliffe are all within 15 points of the lead, and with the Indianapolis 500 counting double points, the championship landscape could change dramatically after Indianapolis. For now, we can pause briefly to take a deep breath and savor the fantastic race at Barber before we get into the short almost-oval of Phoenix International Raceway.
|1||Josef Newgarden||Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet|
|2||Scott Dixon||NTT Data Honda|
|3||Simon Pagenaud||Menards Team Penske Chevrolet|
|4||Helio Castroneves||AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet|
|5||Alexander Rossi||Andretti Autosport/Curb Honda|
|6||James Hinchcliffe||Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda|
|7||Tony Kanaan||NTT Data Honda|
|8||Sebastien Bourdais||Sonny’s BBQ Honda|
|9||Takuma Sato||Andretti Autosport Honda|
|10||Mikhail Aleshin||SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda|
|11||Ryan Hunter-Reay||DHL Honda|
|12||Max Chilton||Gallagher Honda|
|13||Graham Rahal||Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda|
|14||Will Power||Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet|
|15||Charlie Kimball||Tresiba Honda|
|16||Ed Jones (R)||Boy Scouts of America Honda|
|17||Carlos Munoz||ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet|
|18||Conor Daly||ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet|
|19||Zach Veach (R)||Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet|
|20||Spencer Pigot||Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet|
|21||Marco Andretti||Andretti Autosport Honda|