IndyCar Barber postscript
Of course, Colton Herta and Takuma Sato went out and won the next two races.
So, without my head totally around the 2019 NTT Data INDYCAR Series, we will proceed with our 2019 AR1 Barber Postscript.
I think any discussion of this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama should begin with the very simple acknowledgement: Chevrolet seemed out to lunch.
AR1 President Mark Cipolloni, who I rely on for the engineering type questions, notes that Barber favors the better low-end torque of the Hondas as opposed to the Chevys, which appear to have better top end power. One thing I think we can certainly ascertain from the weekend is that Chevrolet is currently and has been in recent seasons highly dependent on the performance of Team Penske. Think about it: if Penske is off on a given weekend as they were at Barber, who in the Chevy stable makes The Bowtie a real threat?
When it comes to potentially winning races at the moment, probably no one. And if you really start to think about it outside of the Penske stable, the top Chevrolet threats would be Spencer Pigot, the one member of the Bowtie Brigade to qualify in the top-6, and Carlin’s Patricio O’Ward. Pigot and O’Ward are Indy Lights champions and obviously fine talents, but them and their teams do not appear ready at the moment to compete for wins.
So, what about the rest of the Chevy stable? Get this: Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist, Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Ben Hanley, and Ed Jones have exactly 0 top-10 finishes through the first three races.
This is really simple: we’ve known that Chevrolet has been heavily dependent on Penske in recent years. However, that dependence is greater now than it’s ever been.
Penske’s difficult weekend allowed for many of the Honda teams to come to the front, none more prominently than Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Takuma Sato.
We’ll talk more about Sato and RLL in a moment, but first a few brief words about Honda.
It’s one thing for Honda to have Andretti and Ganassi at the front, but the encouraging thing about the last two races in my opinion has been the emergence of other Honda efforts. We all know what Colton Herta did at COTA. This past weekend, RLL locked out the front row with Sato and Rahal. Furthermore, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastian Bourdais qualified at the front and ran in the top-5 all day before finishing third.
Last, the Schmidt Peterson stable turned in a strong performance with James Hinchcliffe finishing fourth and rookie Marcus Ericsson charging to seventh-place after starting 20th. In other words, this Honda performance was not merely one team stepping to the fore; this was a comprehensive beating of the Bowtie Brigade.
Going back to his Formula One days, the book on the likable Japanese driver has always been simple: very fast but very, very accident prone. Yes, Sato could put a Foyt car in victory lane with a dominant performance in Long Beach. But the bad seemed to always outweigh the good, and ‘No Attack No Chance’ seemed to mean a greater likelihood of a Dallara on the toe hook than a favorable finish. Who, after all, can forget Sato running over the back of Ryan Hunter-Reay on pit lane a few years at Pocono? And who can forget the numerous (and well-deserved) Dallara factory overtime jokes from his days running with Mario Moraes and EJ Viso at KV Racing?
But as the old saying goes it’s easier to slow a fast guy down then speed a slow guy up. And perhaps, age has tempered Sato’s signature aggression just that little bit that was needed. With his win at Indianapolis in 2017, Portland last season and dominant drive at Barber this weekend, Sato, at 42, is unquestionably driving better than he ever has. And there are indications that the best may be yet to come….
Although ’m one of those purists that would rather have the television broadcast focused on the race, I understand NBC’s decision to give David Letterman all the airtime they could. His cars were at the front of the field nearly all race, and love him or hate him, Letterman is infinitely more famous than the entire IndyCar field combined. Furthermore, maybe it’s just me but does anyone else think Letterman sounded very confident about RLL’s prospects?
Granted, no one team has had a significant edge too long during the DW12 era. However, I got the sense from Letterman’s comments that RLL’s Barber form was not a one-off, a la Graham Rahal at Detroit a few years ago. We shall see.
That was my sentiment about a decade ago when I heard the IndyCar Series would be running a race at Barber Motorsports Park. Sure, Barber was a state-of-the-art design, but would the track really facilitate good racing? After all, a quick glance at a track map of the Alan Wilson-designed 2.3-mile layout, makes the track appear to be more a series of flowing switchbacks with no real long straights leading into heavy braking zones. How would high downforce, turbulence producing Indy cars overtake I thought?
And did the powers-to-be really think a road course 50 minutes from Talladega would be a huge draw?
I can’t really offer any commentary on the local market. As for the track, what I initially saw as Barber’s drawbacks have actually turned out to be its strengths.
No track currently on the IndyCar schedule has the variety of corners that barber does. Nowhere do those corners come at the driver faster than at Barter. And while the track does not feature the traditional long straights followed by heavy braking zones, Josef Newgarden has shown over the last few years that one doesn’t need a long straight to find their way past. Furthermore, the runoff areas allow for drivers to race close even coming to the point of contact, without ending their day. We saw this a few years ago with Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, then this Sunday with Newgarden and Rossi.
I’d offer that Barber is as racy a track as any the IndyCar Series visits. And that’s something I never thought I’d say.
Brian Carroccio is a senior columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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