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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Rossi Stars in Amazing Race Again

It was a home game for Alexander Rossi and he won convincingly. Rossi led 71 of the 85 laps in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and never faced a serious challenge for the lead. He pitted ahead of the mid race caution that caught out two of his biggest challengers, Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon. Rossi drove a perfect race, blasting ahead on restarts and executing flawless pit stops. While he was breezing along, there was quite a bit of drama behind him.

In turn 1 Graham Rahal bumped Simon Pagenaud, knocking him out of the race. Rahal served a drive through penalty but fought back to finish fifth.  Bourdais and Dixon engaged in a great battle for second. Bourdais made one of the greatest passes I’ve ever seen, darting between Dixon and backmarker Matheus Leist. Race control deemed the move illegal as Bourdais’s right side tires crossed the line marking the pit exit lane. Officials ordered him to relinquish the spot to Dixon. He did- for about half a lap.

Josef Newgarden went to a three stop strategy, which didn’t work out for him. He finished seventh. Teammate Will Power had the last shot at stealing the victory from Rossi on the last restart but could only get within 0.71 of a second at one point. Power had twice as many push to pass seconds as Rossi when the race resumed, but burned it quickly and still couldn’t catch him.

It was another good street race with the new aerokit. There was passing and strategy. the yellows fell at times that made for an entertaining event. The first two street races have been so good I’m tempted to make a return to Belle Isle this year.

Notes

Rossi has been on the podium all three races this year and four of the last five races. He has two wins and two thirds.

Robert Wickens, the star of the previous two races, struggled most of the weekend and had a gearbox issue. he finished 22nd.

Andretti Autosport had a great day with Zach Veach coming in fourth in just his third race and Marco Andretti getting his second top 10 of the season. Veach nearly caught Ed Jones for third after the final restart.

The only down part for the team was Ryan Hunter-Reay’s awful day. He got clipped by Dixon in turn 1 at the start, later had a flat tire, and then got stuck in the hairpin traffic jam that also ruined Bourdais’s comeback. He ended up 20th.

Tony Kanaan had his second straight top 10.

Is Matheus Leist in over his head? He seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time all day, interfering with the leaders. He has been the least impressive driver in the field this year.

500 Field at 35

Two announcements this week brought the field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 to 35.

The worst kept secret in the paddock became official when J. R. Hildebrand got the ride in the second Dreyer and Reinbold car.

James Davison, who filled in last year for Bourdais in the 500, will drive a third car for A. J. Foyt Racing with sponsorship from David Byrd.

I’m planning a series on past Bump Days beginning the first week in May. I will highlight some of the more memorable moments of bumping.

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

 

Quick Thoughts on Phoenix

Josef Newgarden won. Alexander Rossi was the star. Robert Wickens continues to impress. Passing and the racing was better. The finish was great. The crowd was small.

IndyCar’s first short oval test of the UAK 18 had mixed results. There was more passing, but it wasn’t always easy. Leader Sebastien Bourdais needed several laps to lap the last car in the opening stint. The beginning of the race looked like it was going to be a repeat of first two races here. After the first of two caution flags, Alexander Rossi gave the fans something to hold their interest. A lap down following his drive through penalty for hitting of his crewman, Rossi was determined to unlap himself. He sliced through the field, eventually regaining his lap on the track. He had the fastest car all night. Rossi even led some laps before finishing third. Until the final restart, most drivers st a he’d single file, saving g tires. It made me almost wish for a fuel saving race..

Newgarden, who took fresh tires during the yellow, roared to the front and passed rookie Robert Wickens with two laps to go.

Takeaways

Despite the new aero package, passing was still difficult. The tire degradation didn’t help create as much passing as hoped.

Robert Wickens  had another great race was again leading with two laps left. He will get that first win before Indy.

Alexander Rossi’s second straight podium puts him in a great position to fight all season long for the title.

Will IndyCar return to Phoenix? I think the race, which was the best of the three in this set, was good enough to warrant a return. I’m concerned that IndyCar left without a renewal. Both sides sound like they’re interested. Attendance was said to be slightly better.

Sebastien Bourdais’s day got off to a bad start and kept getting worse. He cannot afford another race like that this early in the season.

Why did the last caution take so long? I understand wanting to sweep the track, but no one was using that part of the track anyway.

Race control deserves credit for its judicious use of the yellow. They could have thrown three more but didn’t. Teams might need to adjust strategy to not expect as many cautions this year.

Back Friday with my Long Beach preview.

 

 

 

IndyCar’s Very Good Day

The day began with the announcement that Michael Shank Racing has become Meyer Shank Racing. Jim Meyer l, CEO of Sirius XM, is joining the team as a partner. This is a huge boost the to MSR. The deal is for all of MSR operations and might help speed up the timeline to make the IndyCar team full time. As of now Jack Harvey is still scheduled for just six races. It’s another big step in this year of IndyCar resurgence.

Qualifying for tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Grand Prix continued the drama from St. Pete. At one point rookies were 1 through 4 on the pylon. Simon Pagenaud went out 13th  and took first place. The next eleven drivers could not beat his 188..148 mph average. Sebastian Bourdais, the last driver on track, snatched the pole with a 188.539 speed. This is the second consecutive race where a Penske car has lost the pole to the last car on track. It is just the second lifetime pole for Dale Coyne Racing and the 34th career pole for Bourdais.

Night practice didn’t help provide clues to whether passing will be better in the race. Faster cars easily got by slower cars, but I didn’t see many cars running equal speed attempt to pass each other. The qualifying speeds, lower than those of the last two years, indicate drivers are lifting. The increased difficulty driving these cars was not as dramatic as at St. Pete, but turn 2 could get a thumping or two tonight.

A Word about Bourdais

We are watching a legend perform in Sebastien Bourdais. A four time CART champion, winner of 37 races and 34 poles, he continues to exceed at an age when most drivers are starting to slow down. Add in his remarkably quick recovery from his horrific accident at Indianapolis last May, you have the ingredients of a legend. We need to appreciate him while he is still driving.

Back with a race wrap up Sunday or Monday.

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.