by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
Fresh off of a successful weekend in Long Beach, where Scott Dixon took a popular win, the Verizon IndyCar Series has arrived in the deep South for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
The Series returns to the purpose-built, natural terrain road course for the sixth consecutive year. The event has become a favorite of drivers and fans alike, and remains a popular off-season testing spot for the Series as well.
As a race course, Barber Motorsports Park has a ton of personality. The facility sits on the outskirts of the city of Birmingham, and features 17 turns over 2.38 miles with over 80 feet in elevation changes. With a track width of just 45 feet, passing is tricky, but not impossible.
In addition to hosting the Verizon IndyCar Series, the track’s calendar features two-wheeled racing with the Moto America Series, as well as a number of Vintage and Historic events.
Named for Birmingham native, George Barber, who took 63 race wins driving Porsches in the 1960s, the facility also houses the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The five-story complex features more than 1400 beautifully restored race cars and motorcycles, including an impressive display of Lotus Formula One cars from several different eras.
The track winds through wooded areas and around rolling grassy hills. If you take the time to stroll around the grounds, many of the hillsides are adorned with interesting works of art in the form of giant sculptures.
Some of these border on the macabre, and include giant ants, spiders, lions, ostriches, and armadillos. Suffice to say, Barber Motorsports Park is truly unique in many ways.
As a race, the first three IndyCar weekends at Barber were won by Team Penske cars. Helio Castroneves took the inaugural 2010 win, followed by back-to-back wins for Will Power. Andretti AutoSport driver, Ryan-Hunter Reay, has been victorious in the two most recent outings at the track, and is hoping that he can turn his 2015 season around and pull off a three-peat.
With the major complaint being the very late delivery of the aero-kit to the Honda teams, Hunter-Reay remains optimistic that the Andretti AutoSport team may be able to lead the charge in turning the inequity around.
“We’re dealing with a completely different car now, a different package, so things are going to need to be reworked a bit,” said the 2014 Indy 500 winner. “We didn’t have the best test that you could imagine at the Barber open test, but we certainly found some things that worked and I think we found a direction.”
Personally, I don’t see a three-peat by Andretti AutoSport as being entirely out of the question, but my crystal ball tells me that in order for this to happen, Hunter-Reay will need some fortuitous happenings to come his way. Perhaps, this will be in the form of an off-cycle pit strategy, or some well timed cautions. We will find out on Sunday.
The smart money really rests on Team Penske and the resurgent Chip Ganassi Team. Team Penske’s Will Power is looking to get his season kick-started after a poor run at Long Beach. The defending Series Champion set the fastest time at Barber during pre-season testing, and will have his sights set on catching up to his teammates, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves, who currently sit atop the point-standings.
Teammate challenge notwithstanding, Power will also face stiff competition from Ganassi drivers, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, who occupy the third and fourth spot in the standings. Dixon comes into the weekend with the momentum of his Long Beach win, and Kanaan has been impressive in all three rounds of the young 2015 season.
A bit deeper in the field, Sebastien Bourdais looks stout in the KVSH entry, and Josef Newgarden appears poised to break through in the CFH Racing car. Other drivers you may want to keep an eye on include Simon Pagenaud in the fourth Team Penske entry, and Graham Rahal. Currently, the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan team seems to have the best handle on the Honda aero-kit configuration.
In a few program notes, Sage Karam will be back in the #8 Ganassi entry after being replaced by Sebastian Saavedra for Long Beach last weekend. Simona de Silvestro will sit on the sidelines again as Michael Andretti continues his quest to find the much-needed funding that will keep her in the fourth Andretti AutoSport car.
Carlos Huertas was replaced in the Dale Coyne car last week, as funding issues surfaced. Rocky Moran Jr. was given the ride for Long Beach. Moran quickly found the Long Beach wall in the early practice sessions, breaking his thumb in the process. The untimely injury put Moran’s IndyCar debut on hold, yet again.
Conor Daly, with the foresight to have his helmet and driving suit in his luggage, was drafted in the 11th hour. With no practice time, and without a custom seat, Daly kept the car in one piece and finished seventeenth.
Despite a solid performance out of Daly, Dale Coyne Racing will put Rodolfo Gonzalez in that car this weekend. The former GP2 driver and Marussia F-1 test driver will get his first start in the IndyCar Series.
The Venezuelan driver tested with the team in the off-season, and will be trying to make the most of the opportunity.
Practice will commence Saturday morning at Barber MotorSport Park, with qualifying scheduled for the afternoon. While the weather may be quite wet for qualifying, skies are expected to clear Sunday setting the stage for a beautiful race day.
Television coverage of the Grand Prix begins at 3:00 pm EST on Sunday April 26th on NBC-SN. As always, you can stay in the loop all weekend long with the IndyCar 15 app provided by Verizon or online at www.indycar.com.