I cannot even begin to write about the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama without thinking “last year was weird”. The Grand-Pee (which I will never find not-funny) got red flagged over a spring storm, only to resume twenty-four hours later. It’s a beautiful facility and 2019 is my first year at the facility. Fourteen turns and some more elevation changes (not as much as COTA). Drivers have a hairpin to navigate in Turn 5, a difficult right-left-right in Turn 8, and finally “courage corner” in Turn 12.
Rain Rain Go Away
We all have to say this before we start discussing this race. 2018 was the race of rain. The weather wasn’t all fun and games. We had drivers in some situations. Charlie Kimball got off track and into the fence. Kimball says Ed Jones bumped him, Ed said he didn’t, and Race Control agreed with Ed. Will Power lost it on a restart, spun right in front of RHR, and hit the wall even before turn one, not just hit – smacked it. This was after Newgarden had two moments of “OMG”. The race was postponed after that (not immediately after that but they did go back to red flag shortly).
Monday – the race restarted. A timed race of an hour and fifteen minutes. What I find curious is that people thought this race was boring. Sure, Josef Newgarden got onto a tear and jumped way out ahead. People need to stop focusing on the front end of the race and watch the whole field. Zachary Claman DeMelo and Spencer Pigot got tangled up together, slid across the track, and then unhooked and continued the race. Will Power’s team had his car on the track within fourteen minutes of the race starting. The team could not work on his car during overnight red. Dixon started passing people on a charge – including a very good pass on Zach Veach. Then the last ten minutes of the race, the rain had started, and everyone rolled the dice on if they should put on wet tires or not. Sebastian Bourdais stayed out as Newgarden switched tires. It was risky and he had the lead, but the rain just got to be too much and he had to pit – it cost him the lead. Also, the race to the finish between Bourdais and Dixon was a drag race on a wet track. It wasn’t boring – it was thrilling.
Going into the race, will it be Josef’s year again? Are we going to see the young rookie Colton Herta continue? Or will another rookie ( Rosenqvist or O’Ward) step up? Road courses are more of an even field than ovals. Having a slew of road courses up front on the schedule was interesting.
This year? It was weird. It started off weird with a kerfluffle in the tires provided by Firestone. Somehow the alternate tires (red) provided were of an older compound. It ended up that drivers found the black tires much quicker in practice sessions. Those practice sessions were something of a mixed bag. Half the field couldn’t find the right balances, and the others seemed to find it. No matter if you found it or not, drivers were sliding off the track and right into the gravel (and by gravel, this is the big pieces of gravel) pits. For the third practice session, I sat on the hill seeing turns 2 and 3 and we saw everyone bite it. Jack Harvey spun like a top. Zach Veach is now ATVeach. Ryan Hunter-Reay went right into a gravel pit and then steered the car right now. Moments later Eric Marcisson went into the gravel pit, lost the car, and wedged a piece of his car under the fence. The AMR safety team had to come back after practice was over with a saw-zaw and cut it out. Drivers struggling to find the balance in the cars is partially to blame. It also is the fact that there were multiple tire compounds on the track as there were four other series racing on the track.
Even more surprising and jaw-dropping was at the end of qualifying there was no Penske and no Andretti in the Firestone Fast Six. You had to drop all the way down to seventh (Will Power) and eighth (Alexander Rossi) to find a driver from two of the perennial teams. Aside from Scott Dixon, of course, he ended up qualifying third. Outside of Dixon, it was a Firestone Fast Six of the smaller teams. Rahal Letterman Lanigan locked in the first row with Takuma Sato winning the pole and Graham Rahal qualifying second. Graham later spoke on the moment, indicating that the team knew about the writings and discussions of their team and this was a great moment. (I cannot confirm they’ve read my latest review of the team – written HERE).
Graham was elated about qualifying, he was soon complaining about his car during the race. The team had to restart the car’s electronics and later on, it just stopped. Done. His car coming to a stop and Max Chilton going into the tire barrier at Pit In caused the races single caution period. When looking back at the prior year, seven laps of yellow seems almost laughable. It was a great race though; pit stop strategy came into play. Teams attempting two-stops or three stops, or three stops that were at the beginning of the pit window and two stops that were at the end of the pit window. Races aren’t won and lost in the pits, races are won and lost on pit strategy.
The race started off hard for the whole field. The Push-to-Pass feature wasn’t properly working for any of the teams. It appears that the amount a driver had left wasn’t fully showing up on the timing and scoring screens of the teams. That did resolve itself. The race also started off bad for Ed Carpenter Racing, and never got any better. Ed Jones was penalized for jumping the start and had to serve a drive-through. He would finish the race in nineteenth (up two spots from where he started). Spencer Pigot was hit with an unsafe release penalty and had to restart at the back of the field. Spencer started the race in sixth, tying one of his better starts (since last year’s Indianapolis 500). He never fully recovered from the penalty and ended the race in seventeenth.
AJ Foyt racing had one of those races that was bad, but one driver showed themselves better than the other. Matheus Leist was a lap down, and he’s allowed to drive hard to get that lap back. While he was driving to get his lap back, he was allowing the faster cars to pass and not fully impeding their race. That shows a true racer, and again I have hope for him. Tony though…Tony didn’t have a great race and I’ll just let his “what are they saying” quote we media members get emailed to us – do the talking: “We shot ourselves in the foot. We need to do a better job. We had a top-12 car and they miscalculated the fuel twice – that’s a very bad mistake that shouldn’t happen and it cost us.” Guess they’re still not fully turning that team around.
Harding Steinbrenner Racing could have let this race absolutely destroy them. The #88 car ended up with a fuel cell issue and they had to pull it behind the wall. For most – it would mean time to pack it up and shut it down. They got the problem fixed and Colton finished the race. Sure he went from ninth place to twenty-fourth place and was thirty-nine laps down, but he did finish the race.
There is a common theme of ‘the race was boring’ when you watch an INDYCAR race on television. Perhaps announcers focus on the first ten cars. At this race, there was movement throughout the field. Marcus Ericsson, Simon Pagenaud, and Patricio O’Ward were putting on clinics throughout the race. Hard-charging and making moves. Ericsson finished as the biggest mover, finishing the race up thirteen spots. Both Pagenaud and O’Ward also finished higher than where they started.
Of course, though, the victory goes to Takuma Sato! He achieved his first pole on a road course this weekend (but not his first victory on a road course – he won Portland just last year). It was his race, the track had chosen him as the winner. He suffered a spin on Turn 8 near the end of the race, but was able to keep the car and won the race.
A few words about Barber Motorsports Park. The television broadcast cannot capture the elevation changes and the beauty of this place. The track folds in amongst itself. It’s surrounded by trees and there are small forest like oasis in the midst of the track – but I’ve yet to find a bad spot to watch the race from. You can park yourself on hillsides and watch twisting turns, or in the trees and watch cars stream through multiple turns and straightaways, or way on top of a crest and watch them head towards the front straight away. It’s outstanding.
We’re three races into the series now. In each of the three races, we’ve had three different winners. You actually have to go all the way to seventh place before you find a repeat team. This is a very interesting season already. Forty-four points separate first (Josef Newgarden) from fifth (Colton Herta). Strategy in how many pit stops played a big part in this race. Also…we’re only two races away from the biggest race of the season. Oh yeah, it’s also the first oval.