Barber Preview- The UAK’s First Road Test Could Be a Wet One

The ninth edition of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama gives us our first look at the new aerokit on a natural road course. The car is great on street circuits- racier, harder to drive, better to attempt a pass with. Will it meet these standards on a road course? I think it should come close. The elevation changes, three straights, and slow curves should make this harder to drive car quite a handful. I will be spending a lot of time in turns 1, 2, and 3.

Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most beautiful tracks in the United States. The venue sits in a park with gorgeous landscape and whimsical pieces of art scattered throughout the property. The museum is one of the best motorsports museums anywhere. I’m interested to see if they’ve enhanced their Dan Gurney exhibit this year.

Barber  has become a more competitive track since the introduction of the DW12 chassis. The first two races, in 2010 and 2011, were rather tepid affairs with little passing. In 2012 Will Power won from ninth place on the grid. He did have the fastest car that weekend but was caught out by a red flag situation in qualifying. In 2016 Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal waged a spirited battle for the lead. Rahal took the lead briefly but made contact with a lapped car and soldiered home to his second straight runner-up finish.

Only five drivers have won this event, three of them twice each. Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race. Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Josef Newgarden, the defending champion, have a pair of victories here. Simon Pagenaud won in 2016. Power has won the most poles.

Scott Dixon has not won at Barber, but he has more podium finishes than anyone else here. He was second five times and third twice. 2016 was the only time he missed the podium. While he has been quick this year, he has spent a lot of time having to fight his way back through the field from an incident or penalty.

Points leader Alexander Rossi  does not have much of a record at Barber. This will only be his third race here. Based on the three events so far this year, he will likely make his presence known this weekend. His teammate, Hunter-Reay, has a great resume in Alabama. Andretti is a team to watch this weekend.

Team Penske has dominated this track with poles and they have five wins in the eight races to date. They have to be considered the favorites going into the weekend. This year, though, they will face the most competition they have had here in Andretti and possibly Coyne and Schmidt-Peterson.

All four of these teams have fought hard so far this season. Sunday will give us a big clue as to how the year might play out. I’m looking for a long multi-team battle through the end of the season.

My pick for Barber- Will Power. His race in Long Beach showed he has shaken off his issues from the first two races and he is at a track he usually dominates. I would not be shocked if he repeats Rossi’s Long Beach weekend.

Rossi will retain his points lead as the series heads to Indianapolis for May.

Race coverage begins at 3pm Eastern Sunday on NBCSN.

The latest weather forecast has Sunday as a very rainy day. It might be a race run completely on rain tires. This package has yet to run in the rain. If it is going to rain, I would rather see a dry start and then rain. My second preference would be a wet start and then a drying track with rain returning late in the race. The weather could make for some amazing strategy.

“Bump Tales” Begins May 4

A weekly feature, “Bump Tales,” starts Thursday, May 3. I will share stories of some of the more dramatic Bump Days of the past. Bonus editions will post on May 18 and 19. It will give you something to read during the rain (or possibly) snow delay on Saturday.

 

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The Long Beach Winding Road

Just two races into what has been an entertaining Indycar season to date, we have seen a great mix of new names and familiar names. It’s hard to believe Alexander Rossi is only in his third year in Indycar. We’ve heard Robert Wickens’ name so much it’s hard to remember he is a rookie in this series. I think we will once again be hearing those two names, along with the names of some veterans we haven’t heard from much yet this year at Long Beach this weekend.

While a pair of races don’t create a trend, there are some things forming a consistent pattern. Wickens is a darn good driver. Rossi has quickly learned the tracks and has fully embraced Indycar. In  2016, no one would have been shocked if he didn’t come back in 2017. But then the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 happened, and Indycar had a new star.

We can also see strength from the smaller teams which appears to be sustainable over the long run. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan have had two strong weekends and that should continue in California. While neither may have the season champion driver, they will be in contention for a long time. These teams will be more than spoilers.

Long Beach is the second longest running event on the Indycar schedule. This will be the 35th Indycar race on the streets.  There has been a race at Long Beach since 1975, when Brian Redman won the Formula 5000 race. The following year F1 began an eight year run. In 1984 CART took over and Indycar in some form has raced in Long Beach ever since.

Sebastien Bourdais is one of several current drivers who have won here. Bourdais has three victories, and Will Power has two. Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud also have won.  Can the young guns overcome all the experience on this narrow track?

We know the new cars race better than the Honda/Chevy kit versions, but will that make for a better race? I don’t expect the kind of show we saw at St. Pete. Long Beach doesn’t have a long wide runway for a front stretch. Passing will rely on mistakes, tire degradation, and pit strategy. There have been some dramatic races here as well as some parades.

Who will win? Alexander Rossi should pull into Victory Circle this time. He was in a position to win last year before engine failure knocked him  out of the race. With the win, Rossi will take the points lead to Barber next weekend. Wickens will have another strong race, but might miss the podium.  Oh, some of the veterans might make a splash as well.

Back Monday with a recap. The race is on NBCSN at 4:30 pm ET Sunday.

 

Photo: Ryan Hunter-Reay  pit stop in Phoenix last Saturday.   Photo by Mike Silver

 

Phoenix- Double Edged Test for Indycar.

Above: A. J. Foyt on his way to winning the inaugural race at Phoenix in 1964.

A classic track and the new aerokit  come together Saturday night, testing Indycar on two fronts. USAC began racing at Phoenix in 1964. The track was a staple on the circuit through 1978,  hosting two races, one in the spring, and one in the fall. There was no spring race in 1973.  CART held races from 1979 off and on through 1995. The current Indycar series raced at Phoenix from 1996-2005, then returned in 2016.

Will this new car make for a  better race and will that lead to better attendance? Those two questions  may decide if Phoenix remains on the schedule. Attendance in 2016 was low, and the race didn’t help the crowd grow last year.  The original deal ends after this race. The last two races at Phoenix ISM Raceway were rather dull affairs. Scott Dixon won in 2016 after first Helio Castroneves and then Juan Pablo Montoya had tire issues. The leaders had difficulty lapping the slower cars. Last year, the leaders had the same problem passing cars. Simon Pagenaud won after inheriting the lead from  the way the cautions fell. Once he got to the lead, he was not going to be passed. Phoenix has never allowed much passing. It has always been a one groove track, but I remember some great races there.

The new aerokit creates less downforce and should lead to more tire degradation. This combination should lead to more passing late in a tire stint. Depending on when the caution periods occur, we could see a great show. Where last year many races were  about fuel management, the game this year could be tire management. I much prefer tire math over fuel math.

Late word is a second groove will be rubbered in, perhaps before each session, to allow for more passing opportunities. Indycar must not be sure that the new aero package will work.  This is a gimmicky fix to the problem. I know the race needs to be good, but I’d like it to be naturally good.  Added horsepower for all races might help, for instance.

From the open test in Phoenix before the season began, it looked like the cars could run closer together. Whether they can pass remains to be seen. Rahal Letterman Lanigan had the fastest team with Takuma Sato. Will they be quick this time as well? Team Penske has dominated the last two years here, winning the pole both years and the race last year. Look for another strong showing from them.  Matheus Leist was quick in the test, but spun four times in the final session. He is quick, but needs to manage his speed to have success. How will Robert Wickens do in his first oval race?

A team I wouldn’t count out this weekend is Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi had strong showings in St. Pete. Marco Andretti also was competitive. Zach Veach had some early issues but was the highest finishing rookie. If Hunter-Reay’s car is working right, watch out for him to contend late in the race.

My fearless predictions: I think Ryan Hunter-Reay returns to Victory Lane this week.

Bonus prediction: Graham Rahal heads to Long Beach as the points leader.

Watch for updates from Phoenix Friday and Saturday on twitter (@tutorindie) and a brief post or two in this space.

 

 

 

Formula 1 Opener Validates Indycar’s Forward Direction

Yesterday’s Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, the season opener for the premier international open wheel series, provided a lot of validation for the positive steps Indycar has taken lately. F1 has done two things poorly that Indyccar has done correctly. First, the halo. Yikes! Second, the US television situation.  The messenger is definitely the problem there.

The halo, a bar attached around the front of the cockpit, was rushed into service this year. It may deflect some flying debris, but Indycar’s windscreen, which is still undergoing testing, makes a lot more sense. The halo ruins the esthetic of the cars. At some angles it makes them look WEC prototypes. It intrudes in the on board camera shots. Does the driver have that same obstructed view? If so, that may negate any safety benefit the device is supposed to provide. Another issue I noticed during the pre-race- when a crew member was strapping a driver in the car this morning, he had to bend over the halo to tighten the belts. He looked very uncomfortable doing his job. I would not be surprised if the crew members who did he belt tightening don’t all have sore ribs today.

Indycar is taking their time testing the windscreen. Since the first on track test at Phoenix, they are evaluating the feedback from Scott Dixon, and plan to test on track at a road and street course before putting it on the cars next year.  Formula 1 seemed in a hurry to get the halos on the cars this season. I think it would have been in their best interest to evaluate  it longer.

The US television rights for Formula 1 are no longer in the very capable hands of NBC. Instead, ESPN is carrying the Sky Sports feed from the UK.  Why a network that doesn’t care about motorsports received the right to do this is beyond me. First, Sky Sports airs the races commercial free. ESPN does not run programming that way, so ads were inserted into the commercial free broadcast. Many were side by side, but they were in a break at the restart and the return from breaks offered no review of anything that may have been missed. I don’t see why Sky should have to alter their practices for ESPN. ESPN needs to figure out a way to have all the ads pre and post race.

As far as the Sky Sports broadcast, I liked their presentation and the graphics. Paul di Resta is difficult to understand with his heavy Scottish accent, and the announcers were sometimes not keeping up with the track action. There was some good tracking of the battles going on, and in this race, there were many.

Indycar’s new TV deal with NBC next year, as I and others have said, is a huge boost for the series. NBC’ s coverage and promotion should help exposure grow considerably. Formula 1 in the US has always been a small niche within the small motorsports niche, and it will likely shrink more with this broadcast arrangement.

The race itself was better than most Formula 1 races. There was a lead change for the win, and some good battles throughout the field, including a fight  for the lead. The problem is, there are maybe three F1 races a year that are considered good, and one has already been spent in Round 1.

The next race is Bahrain on April 8, the morning after the Indycar race in Phoenix. If the Phoenix race is as good as anticipated, the side by side  race comparison can only help Indycar further. By the way, Phoenix will be on NBCSN. The tv side might look better also.

A Great Boost for Indycar- The NBC Deal

Yesterday the announcement everyone knew about became official. Beginning in 2019, NBC will be the exclusive television home of Indycar. Eight races will be on NBC proper, with the remaining races on NBCSN. The Indianapolis 500, of course, will be one of the eight. The others will be announced later.  I will venture some guesses in a bit. This deal is a huge boost to the series. Indycar is at last on a network that seems to care about it and produces a great race broadcast. I like most parts of the agreement.

Another component to the deal is streaming. I am not a techno whiz, but here is what I understand. Some practices and qualifying sessions which are not televised will be on the NBCSports app or NBC.com. MRTI races will be on NBC Gold, a paid subscription app. My understanding is that Indy qualifying will be shown live on television. I hope that’s the case.

NBC will include the Indianapolis 500 in its “Championship Season” promotion along with other major events it covers like The Kentucky Derby  and the Tour de France.

ABC, which had shown Indycar races since 1956, and the 500 since 1965, had shown little interest in producing quality coverage of the 500 or the other races the past several years. It will be interesting to see how they run out the string. Will ABC make their last Indy 500 a great broadcast? Will they produce the same tepid show we’ve seen the last couple of years despite some incredible races?

Back to the NBC package. My main concern is Mazda Road to Indy races being on the pay app. This arrangement does not help help the up and coming drivers establish name recognition and hinders their ability to attract sponsors.  Indy Lights now has a large field one year and a small field the next. More Indycar teams need to run MRTI teams to keep this feeder system viable. Taking this series off broadcast television is not the way to go.

A positive is having a solid network broadcast package should help teams and the series attract sponsors. I could see a company signing on for the eight network races, which gives a team at least a half season of sponsorship, and perhaps lead to a full season deal.

Another advantage of the arrangement is better coordination with NBC’s NASCAR coverage. NBC covers the second half of the stock car season. Does that mean the eight Indycar races on NBC  will be front loaded?  It’s likely the two series will not be on against one another. Will one follow the other? If so, the series that doesn’t believe races should go overtime should be first to avoid bleeding into the next broadcast. Indycar can set the stage for NASCAR.

My guesses for the eight races on NBC are St. Pete, Phoenix, Indy, Road America, Iowa, Pocono, Mid-Ohio, and the season finale. This schedule showcases the diversity of tracks the series runs, and it includes the season opener and the finale. It might provide the impetus to move Iowa to a Saturday night race and move the finale to Gateway.

Overall, I am very excited with this television deal. The next step is a new series title sponsor for 2019. This broadcast package may help that process move more quickly.

 

 

 

Rookies Came to Play on Pole Day; Wickens Nips Power at St. Pete

At the star of the weekend the big question was how would the Indycar rookies fare against the strong veteran field in the opening race at St. Petersburg. The answer is, “Very well, thank you.”  Three rookies made the Fast Six in a slippery, wild qualifying session. The pole and a new track record were both claimed by newcomers.

The first round saw Marco Andretti dropped from the final transfer spot after a penalty for impeding another driver. Alexander Rossi received the same penalty which kept him out of  the Fast Six. Then the sprinkles came. It wasn’t a hard rain, just enough to make a slippery turn one even more slippery. Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud nearly collided at the end of the runway, with Dixon just squeezing around the stopped Menard’s car. Pagenaud later brought out a red flag as his engine stalled after another spin in the same area.

Dixon failed to advance as well. He started round 2 on blacks while everyone else was on reds to get in a lap before conditions worsened. Another surprise was Josef Newgarden not making it out of the first round. His car has not looked good all weekend. All the havoc provided openings for the rookies.

The Fast Six had three Hondas and three Chevrolets with six teams represented. Will Power, Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Matheus Leist, Jordan King, and Ryan Hunter-Reay  fought for the pole. In round 1 King set a new track record with a lap of 1:00.0476, another strong statement by a rookie. Power took the early lead and appeared to have yet another St. Pete pole in hand, but Wickens, the last driver on course, beat him on the final lap by 7 hundredths of a second.

Qualifying is one thing, racing is another. Several rookies have never done pit stops or managed fuel. Wickens said in the press conference he needs to make sure he knows the start procedures for tomorrow.  Several fast cars are starting mid pack or worse. They should come to the front. It should be quite an entertaining race tomorrow. Back Monday with a race recap.

 

Season Preview, Part 2- Smaller Teams Look for Bigger Results

First, some personal news:

Beginning this weekend I will be covering Indycar for Wildfire Sports, a sports site carrying podcasts and written content. I am very excited for this opportunity. Please give them a look at wildfireradiosports.com. I plan to continue this blog, probably with a slight change in content. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. You helped make this happen.

 

The four smallest established teams in the paddock expect better results this year thanks to the new aero package. TheHonda teams are especially optimistic that equal aero with superior Honda power will yield higher finishes. Each of the teams featured today have at least one driver new to the team. All but one driver was not in Indycar last year.

A. J. Foyt Racing

Foyt turned over their driver lineup for the second year in a row. They now have former series champion and 2013 500 winner Tony Kanaan and rookie Matheus Leist. Kanaan has struggled the last few years with Ganassi. He is looking for a fresh starts. I’m not sure this is the best team to get better results with, but his talent may help improve the team’s standing.

Leist drove in Indy Lights in 2017 and won the Freedom 100 in dominating fashion. He also won at Iowa. Still, I think he could have benefitted from another season in Lights. Leist spun four times at the Phoenix test. He will have a challenging year.

Overall I don’t look for much improvement from Foyt Racing. The constant change of personnel makes it difficult to produce decent results. Kanaan may be able to get a few top 10s, but anything beyond that would be a major accomplishment.

Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan

This team has some unfinished business. Sebastien Bourdais was poised to be a championship contender last year, winning the St. Pete opener and on his way to the pole at Indy when the horrendous crash occurred. Bourdais was sidelined until Labor Day weekend.

2018 begins with a full time sponsor and a partnership with former team owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan. This may be the boost that Coyne needs to move his organization closer to the front consistently. Look for Bourdais to be in the thick of the title fight.

The second car will have two part time drivers, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi. DeMelo drove in Indy Lights last year and had an Indycar debut at Sonoma with Rahal :Letterman Lanigan. After a slow start to the weekend he showed a decent race pace. I thought he was one of the most improved Lights drivers last year, but I still think he could use another year’s experience. DeMelo will run at St. Pete, Long Beach, Barber, Detroit, Road America, Pocono, Toronto, and Gateway.

Fittipaldi is the grandson of former series, world, 2-time 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi. He raced in Europe last season and did well. He performed well in testing, but he is still a rookie on a low budget team. I think he will be interesting to watch. Fittipaldi’s seven races are Phoenix, GP of Indy, the 500, Texas, Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma.

Ed Carpenter Racing

2018 sees some shuffling and one part time addition to the Fuzzy’s Vodka backed team. Owner Ed Carpenter will continue to drive the ovals in car 20 and rookie Jordan King, who comes from F3 and F2 with respectable credentials, will take over the car fro the road and street schedule.

The 21 car will have Spencer Pigot, last year’s road and street driver of the 20. Pigot is a major talent who should do well in a full time seat. Last year a series of mechanical issues cost him some great finishes. I anticipate fewer problems and some top 5s this season.

Carpenter always qualifies well at Indianapolis, but has very little good fortune in the race. Could this be the year their fortune changes?

The 20 and the 21 will have different liveries this year. Last year the two cars were a spotter’s nightmare as they were pretty much indistinguishable in the race. When both cars carry the Fuzzy’s sponsorship, the 21 will be green and the 20 will be black.

Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports

I always start the new season with high hopes for this team.  There are some flashes of brilliance but not a consistent result for the entire schedule. 2018 could be different. James Hinchcliffe returns and his teammate, Robert Wickens, is someone he grew up with. Wickens was headed for an open wheel career which got derailed and spent last year in DTM.  This is the strongest two car lineup SPM has had in a while.

Adding Leena Gade as lead engineer is a huge hire for SPM. She is one of the top engineers in the world. It will not take her long to get these cars competitive. Gade is also a strong, articulate  advocate for equal opportunities for women in sport. I am very glad she is in the Indycar paddock.

There were some issues with Hinchcliffe’s car at Phoenix, which hopefully will be resolved by the April race. Wickens showed good speed at the Sebring test. He has a smooth style.

The team has added several partners in the offseason. The biggest deal is with New Era as the team’s apparel provider.

I think Hinchcliffe will win a race this year as he did last year. Wickens will have several good runs and likely finish second in the season Rookie of the Year chase.

Tomorrow concludes my team previews with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Andretti Autosport. On Friday I will have a full season preview with predictions you can take to the bank, or anywhere else that has a trash can..