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

 

Sebring Recap= Mixed Day for Indycar Drivers; ABC out?

Cool nights and very hot days made the 66th 12 hour race at Sebring an endurance contest for the fans as well as the drivers. It turned out to be a great race with some late drama as usual. The final two and a half hours had some great battles for the lead. At one point after dark, both the Prototype and GTLM classes had three way fights for the lead. IMSA’s restart procedure in which the cars line up in groups helped. It made for exciting action.

Indycar drivers had a mixed day with a couple class podiums, some major disappointments, and some midpack finishes. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the top finisher with a second place overall in the Wayne Taylor car co-driven by Jordan Taylor and Renger Van Der Zande. Former Indycar driver Mike Conway  joined Hunter-Reay on the podium in the third place entry for Action Express. He teamed with Felipe Nasr and Eric Curran.

Other Indycar related finishes:

The Penske team did not fare well, retiring early in the contest. The car of Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finished 40th overall. Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal dropped out first in 41st place. In general, the number 7 of Castroneves, Rahal, and Ricky Taylor has been the faster of the two. Taylor qualified third.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GTLM machines did slightly better. Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, and Richard Westbrook finished 4th in class and 13th overall. Sebastien Bourdais dropped out in 39th place, last in class.

Car 55 with Spencer Pigot led late and was in contention for the win. On a pit stop with 41 minutes left, the car would not restart. They finished a lap down, 6th overall.

The best story of the weekend was Michael Shank Racing’s car 93. A brake failure and heavy wall contact in Thursday evening practice destroyed the car. The crew worked tirelessly to make repairsr and presented the car for Saturday’s pre-race warmup. From starting in last place the trio of Lawson Aschenbach, Mario Farnbacher, and Justin Marks led some laps and eventually finished seventh in class.

Next year Sebring will be interesting. After IMSA runs the traditional 12 hour race, the WEC will have its own 12 hour race about 90 minutes later, beginning at midnight. This sounds like a logistical nightmare to me. Exchanging pit equipment, podium ceremonies, pre-race for WEC, all in less than 90 minutes might make for a more interesting show than the race. The response from the fans will be interesting as well. I talked to several fans at the track about it. Most are not sure how this will work. There is a lot of skepticism about this idea.

ABC Out of Indycar?

A tweet sent out Saturday by a weatherman in Macon, Georgia, said that 2018 will be ABC’s final year covering the Verizon Indycar Series. The tweet was taken down and Mark Miles said it was a little premature. If true, it means that NBC will be the sole carrier for Indycar next year.

ABC has covered the Indianapolis 500 for 50 years. Since their new deal with Indycar that split the races between ABC and NBCSN, their coverage has been rather weak. There is no chemistry in the booth, they seem to always have the wrong camera shot on screen, and worse, it seems like they care very little about their product. Even their 500 broadcasts, which should be one of their crown jewels, has not been great.

I will have more to say after an official announcement. I’m thinking it will come just before or during the Phoenix race weekend.

Servia Enters the 500

There was an announcement that slipped through the cracks St. Petersburg race weekend. Veteran Oriol Servia will enter the 500 in a car in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan stable run by Scuderia Corsa. Corsa has an association with Ferrari and runs sportscar programs in the US and Europe. I don’t see any interest beyond the 500. It’s nice to have some more international flavor to the race.

Sebring Preview- Penske, Ganassi Look to Recover from Difficult Rolex 24

The second part of the 36 Hours of Florida takes the green flag at 10:40 am Saturday morning. The 66th 12 Hours of Sebring is the second race in the IMSA Weather Tech Series. Like the Rolex 24, several current  Indycar drivers and a handful of former Indycar drivers will participate. Indyccar  team owners Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, and Michael Shank also have full time teams. This is Penske’s first full year in this series.

The Penske and Ganassi cars had a rough start to the season with various mechanical issues and a crash pushing them out of contention. Helio Castroneves nearly won the pole at Daytona and his number 7 Acura prototype was in the hunt for the first half of the race. Ganassi’s Ford GTLM machines had a variety of issues that kept them from challenging for the podium.

I’m looking for both teams to be among the top challengers this year. In the prototype class, Penske will have a tough battle with the Cadillacs of Wayne Taylor Racing and the  Action Express cars which dominated at Daytona.

In GTLM Ganassi’s Fords will have to fend off the Corvettes in a fight between American manufacturers. The Porsches and Ferrari also could be in the mix. GTLM is the most competitive class due to its smaller field.

The GTD race is wide open as always. Ferrari usually does well at Sebring. I’m looking for one of the Shank cars to be on the podium here.

A list of Indycar drivers, both current and former, and what car they’re driving this weekend. Current full time Indycar drivers in bold:

Prototype-

#6- Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud

#7- Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal

#10- Ryan Hunter-Reay

#31- Mike Conway

#38- Pato O’Ward (IndyLights)

#52- Sebastian Saavedra

#90- Tristan Vautier

GTLM-

#25- Connor De Phillippi

#66- Sebastien Bourdais

#67- Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe

GTD-

#64- Townsend Bell

#86- Katherine Legge

The race will be televised on FS1 and FS2. The finish is on FS2 from 6-11 pm.

Back with a wrap-up next week.

 

Season Preview Part 3- Big Teams Will Still Contend

This is likely the group from which your 2018 Indycar champion will emerge. It won’tbe easy. I see as many as seven contenders from this group, with two teams having multiple contenders. Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud could stage one of the greatest title fights Indycar has seen. Each team won  at least one race last year. I expect that to be the case again.  A reminder- the order I talk about the teams does not indicate any prediction of season results.

Team Penske

Another year with this team in the championship hunt. Penske drivers should again dominate qualifying on the road/street courses and will probably do well at some ovals, too. Defending champion Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power will  each win races. I don’t think they will win as many combined as they did in 2017, but they should win nearly half of the events. The key is where thel finish in the others that will determine their title hopes.

Newgarden will not relinquish his title willingly. Pagenaud, who had a strong title defense in 2017, will be a threat to win at every road /street course. He showed huge improvement on ovals last year as well, winning Phoenix and nearly winning Gateway. Power lurked near the front all season but early DNFs doomed his chances. He has had to fight back from low finishes at St. Pete the last two years.

The new aero packages should favor the Penske cars. The question is, will the new package allow other teams to catch  them? I think there will be a closing of the gap.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

RLLR has been the best of the smaller teams the last three years. A single car team until now, they usually have one dominant weekend a season and have another race fall their way. In 2015 Rahal left Mid-Ohio just nine points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya. This year could be even better.

Finally, Graham Rahal gets a teammate to help with setups. Not just any teammate, but defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who is known to be very good at helping his team in that department. Rahal has been in the top 5 or just outside it for the last three years and has won races for three consecutive seasons.

Sato was fastest at the Phoenix Open test. Rahal also showed speed. The first part of the year is where this team has struggled. If Graham can have success early, he can make a real run toward his first Astor Cup. Sato won the 500 last year and a pole. He still needs to be more consistent and stay out of trouble.

I think Rahal will be in the top four at season’s end. I’m not picking him for fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing

The addition of sponsor PNC full time on Scott Dixon’s car and downsizing to two cars put the Ganassi team in great shape for another title run. Dixon is the only driver holdover from 2017. Tony Kanaan is now with A. J. Foyt Racing, and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton now are teammates at Carlin Racing. Ed Jones will be Dixon’s teammate in the NTT Data car.

The contracted operation allows more focus on Dixon and should help Jones as well. The main goal, however is putting the 9 car in victory lane more than once and bringing the title back to CGR. Their chances are good.

Jones will have a steady season and could help his teammate by taking points away from some of Dixon’s chief rivals.

Andretti Autosport

The armada is coming. Look out for these guys. Two strong title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi will be frequent visitors to the podium, including the top step. Promising rookie Zach Veach will lead a strong rookie class. Marco Andretti has renewed hope to improve his results with the new aero package.

Hunter-Reay should return to winning after a drought that seemed to begin with the manufacturer’s aerokit.  He is one of the early favorites to win his second Indianapolis 500. Huner-Reay sounds very enthusiastic about the new configuration.

Rossi is on the verge of a very special year. He came on strong at the end of last season, capped by a strong performance at Watkins Glen. He will win well before Labor Day this year, and likely more than once. Fans will need to pay attention to where he will finish at Sonoma. This could be his championship.

Veach has waited a very long time for his chance to be in Indycar, and I expect him to take full advantage of it. He is more ready than any rookie ever has been. Veach should have many top 10s and possibly a couple of top 5s.

Marco and his crew chief Bryan Herta have displayed a lot of excitement about the coming year. We have heard this before from Marco, but the results have never matched his preseason optimism. Will this year be different? I think they might, but what is the bar? What will constitute improvement? I would like to see better qualifying performances- 2nd round on road/street courses consistently with an occasion Fast 6 for starters, and more race presence with results in the top 10 becoming routine.

This will be a very good year for Andretti Autosport. Rossi will rival Josef Newgarden for attention and points.

Tomorrow, a season preview with my rock solid predictions. That means my picks will be dropping like rocks by Long Beach. Thanks for reading this week. Look for my posts on Wildfire Sports in a day or two. I will let you know when they are up.

 

 

 

 

Windscreen Testing, News, and Thoughts

Indycar continues to make progress in safety with its announcement Friday of the first windscreen on track test next Thursday at Phoenix.  The trial for the new safety component comes the day before the open test at ISM Raceway ( still can’t used to calling Phoenix that yet). One of the major questions is whether the drivers see out of the screen in all directions and during daylight and night conditions. Is the view blurry or distorted? The wind tunnel tests apparently were satisfactory enough to proceed to on track testing. I’m at least as interested in this test as I am seeing how the cars will race at Phoenix. Chip Ganassi Racing with Scott Dixon driving will have testing honors. The test will be three sessions of 5-10 laps, one in full sun, one at dusk, and one at night. The runs will occur between rookie sessions.  The series still needs to test for how the screen performs in the rain and do more intense ballistic tests.

I love the look of the screen. It reminds me of the windscreens on the roadsters of the ’50s and early 60’s. The size of the screen almost gives the car a roadster look, adding to the retro feel of the new aero design.

The screen is manufactured by PPG, and it is composed of a material called Opticor. This is the same material used in fighter jet canopies. Indycar has not set a timetable for putting the windscreen on the cars. I would not look for them this year. I applaud the series taking a careful, well thought approach to this safety feature. They have come up with an aesthetically pleasing screen that I hope serves its intended purpose well.

News

Updates:

Some big news broke after I published this morning.

First, Scott Dixon will have a full year primary sponsor, PNC Bank. No terms were announced although Chip Ganassi Racing has an announcement scheduled for tomorrow at IMS. This will be Dixon’s first full time sponsor since Target left. Here is the car:

FB_IMG_1517849100885

I think reversing the red and blue would be a better look. The car reminds me of Charlie Kimball’s old livery.

The second bit of news involves Dale Coyne Racing and a return of two familiar names top Indycar. Jimmy Vasser and James Sulivan have partnered with Coyne and Sebastien Bourdais  The new team name is Dale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan. Seal Master will sponsor the number 18 for nine races including the Indianapolis 500. Speculation continues that Coyne will enter a fourth car at Indianapolis for a driver that has driven for the team before. I’m excited I might get to wear my Dracone shirt again. A source hinted about this at Daytona.

 

Dale Coyne announced, as expected, car 19 will be shared by Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi. Still to be determined is which races each will drive. DeMelo drove in Indy Lights last year, winning at Road America. He also drove in the Indycar season finale at Sonoma for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, DeMelo maintained a respectable race pace. Fittipaldi,  grandson of 2 -time 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi,  spent last season in Formula V8  3.5, notching six victories and winning the championship. He will have an oval test at Phoenix. Coyne said he was not opposed to running both driver in the Indianapolis 500. He also indicated Pippa Mann will also be in the race.

This announcement means Conor Daly will not have a full time ride  for 2018 unless a last minute deal emerges at Harding for a second car. Indycar needs to find a way to do a better job of keeping its popular drivers. It is a money over talent game, and Conor lost out. Daly still might get something for the 500.

Chip Ganassi Racing has scheduled a major announcement tomorrow morning at IMS. Speculation is that they have a sponsor for Scott Dixon.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports unveiled the liveries for their three cars last Thursday. The big news is that Robert Wickens will have number 6 instead of Schmidt’s traditional 7 this year. Speculation is the 7 is being saved for Danica Patrick. If that is the case, I don’t see where any one-off has the right to demand a number be reserved for them. Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso took whatever number they were offered. Sometimes the series tries too hard to attract certain drivers at the expense of others.

The SPM cars look great. James Hinchcliffe will be in the same Arrow livery of the past few years. Wickens’s car is red with Lucas Oil sponsorship, and Jack Harvey’s number 60 displays Sirius XM on the sidepod. Harvey currently has six races planned with an eye toward possibly adding more.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan announced the return of Total Oil as the primary sponsor on the 15 at Long Beach. Total sponsored Bobby during his 1992 championship season. RLL will have more sponsor announcements soon. It sounds as if they had a great off season procuring sponsorships.

I will be exploring the Everglades and Key West the rest of the week. If I’m not eaten by a Burmese Python, I will be back on the 14th with thoughts on the Phoenix test. The test will be live streamed on Indycar.com. Because of the time difference, I hope to watch the evening practice.