IndyCar Reaction: GP of Alabama 2012

Honda Indy GP of Alabama

Barber Motorsports Park
Birmingham, Alabama, USA

Not only was this race a vast improvement over St. Pete, it was the best IndyCar race held at this track since the series first started visiting in 2009.

Race

I don’t think there was a ‘magic bullet’. A combination of several factors helped the racing here including the raceability of the car/engine package, the teams and drivers still getting a handle on the new equipment leading to mixed strategies and setups, and the new rules and interpretations coming from the series allowing drivers race each other.

The other great thing about this race was the mix of names running in the top five or six. Okay yes, so the top two featured a Penske and a Ganassi driver, but at least in the first half of the race it was not the Penske driver anyone would’ve tipped based on 2011′s form.  You could even, at a stretch, argue the same about the Ganassi driver, I certainly assumed Franchitti would be fighting for wins. No the fact that James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and others are involved is great – this is exactly what the series needed.

The eventual winner came from nowhere but it wasn’t the characteristic easy, scythe-my-way-through drive we’re so used to seeing from Will. It looked like a lot of hard work, and yes, luck too. When the other runners struggled with tyres in the pit stops it allowed Will through, without those problems he might’ve only finished what, 2nd? 3rd?

Add to that some close racing right the way through the pack and we had an enjoyable, fun race! You couldn’t really say that about the past three runnings of this event. I don’t think we’ll see anybody calling for this venue to be chopped from the schedule now. At least – nobody sane.

Leading results:

1. Power
2. Dixon
3. Castroneves
4. Rahal
5. Pagenaud
6. Hinchcliffe
FL: Power 1:12.3912

Drivers

Isn’t it great to see Helio Castroneves back at the front? Two races, two podiums. I’m a fan of Helio and I’m glad to see him back where he belongs. We might see some real intra-team rivalry at Team Penske this season.

Two races down, and two races where Scott Dixon has smoked the other Honda runners. What secrets has he found which the others have missed? Why on Earth can’t Franchitti get his head around this car? It is almost the same situation at the sister Ganassi team with Rahal finishing 4th, and Kimball slow all day then registering a DNF. Rahal seems to be driving better than he has in a few years, it was good to see him at the top end. Somehow Franchitti dragged his car into the top ten in the dying laps of the race.

One of the drivers of the race was Simon Pagenaud. All race long he was fast, racy and made several passes on drivers who didn’t seem able to fend him off. There’s a strong chance he could win a race this year. He’s enjoying a pretty good transition from LMP cars.

Sebastien Bourdais put in a similar performance from the back end of the grid which saw him finish 9th, not bad at all in a Lotus-powered car for an underfunded team.

I was also impressed by James Hinchcliffe in what was more than just a solid run, I think it says something when even a 6th place finish looks disappointing given his run in this race. Offer Andretti Autosports a 6th pre-race and they’d have grabbed it after their recent years. His was still the first AA car home. I’m impressed because I assumed Hunter-Reay would be top dog in that team this year. I thought RHR was running higher than 12th but that’s where he’s listed in the results.

I was also struck by Marco Andretti, a fighting drive which I thought would be rewarded with a solid top 6 or 7 finish, yet somehow he dropped to 11th at the end. Regardless of ultimate finishing position it was a statement of intent for the year – he’ll be fighting. Good to see it. Perhaps the minor wing damage sustained earlier finally took its toll. On that note it is good to see these new cars don’t have the fragile front wings you sometimes see in other series, hopefully it’ll encourage drivers to give it a go.

Mike Conway finished 7th. Did you see him? I don’t remember seeing him. Stealthy.

As at St Pete Rubens Barrichello spent most of the day in the 16th-20th area,until the final stint when he somehow got into the top ten. I have no idea how he did this, I think TV missed it. We saw him making a few passes but I never saw it explained how he made up 10 places. He eventually saw the flag 8th, a good recovery given where he’d been all day.

Where was Briscoe? He had to pit very early in the 2nd(?) stint after eating up his tyres. I’m surprised. Similar questions about Wilson and Kanaan. These experienced drivers were supposed to be up front. What’s going on? Wilson’s car looked evil.

Race Control & Rules

It was a good day for Race Control. They kept things under local yellows for as long as they could. Starts and restarts were controlled and released at the right times. The only real black mark was the initial safety car period for Servia was too long, once the car was clear it seemed to take at least another 2 laps before going green.

Some complained the change in ‘blocking’ or ‘defending’ would ruin the racing. Well.. it didn’t! It helped it. The best example of it was the battle between Hunter-Reay, Viso and Barrichello. Rather than being forced to take the racing line, they were all allowed to choose their line into the turn 5 hairpin, and for two of them it didn’t quite work out as planned.

A new rule I hadn’t heard about this year was seen for the first time at this race. Once within 20 laps of the finish, prior to a safety car restart all lapped cars were sent through the pits and told to form up at the back of the train. GREAT idea. I first heard it as an idea during fan discussion about F1′s ‘lapped cars may overtake’ at Sidepodcast. I had no idea a series had actually come to the same conclusion. It worked brilliantly – it gets the lapped cars out of the way without giving them back their lap and without endangering the competitors, which both happen under the F1 rule. The only thing they have to watch for with this new rule is cars reaching pit exit before the back of the train on the racetrack has passed them, because IndyCar doesn’t close the pit exit.

Snippets

The NBC Sports Network broadcast was much better than last week’s effort by ABC/ESPN. The cameras were pointing at the right things, the feed was being sent to our screens, the commentary and pit reporting was top notch. Even the odd mistake from Bob Jenkins wasn’t as bad as the bleating on Twitter made it out to be.

The only thing I found wrong with it, was the tone. It seemed a bit.. calm. Not a lot of energy, with the possible exception of Jan Beekhuis! Jan’s input is invaluable. After recently watching some races from 2010 where Wally Dallenbach wasn’t present, I was glad to hear his input again from the 3rd chair. The pit reporters were excellent and I can’t fault any of the team, but even so I did miss Lindy. I’m also not quite sure why Robin Miller is there.

Now we’ve got two races under our belts I’d like to state my conclusions about the new cars and engines:

- I love the way these cars look on the racetrack now the livery designers have been set loose on them. They look good at speed.

- The exception: Those rear wheel guards. Don’t like ‘em. Especially when viewed from the rear.

- Those engines sound really boring.

- I’ll put up with a crap engine note if it produces good racing without turning into a fuel-mileage race. Fuel strategy and fuel saving is fine and good when some of the cars are doing it and some are not. It isn’t fun when they all do it.

- If you’re looking for an IndyCar podcast I recommend More Front Wing.

Championship

1. Castroneves 86
2. Dixon 84
3. Power  77
4. Hinchcliffe 60
5. Pagenaud 58
6. Hunter-Reay 53

No surprise to see the ‘big two red car’ teams at the top, but not in the order we might expect. Who would’ve picked Helio to lead after two rounds? Not me. Dixon and Power are less surprising and I tip these two to be our title protaganists this season.

What of reigning champion Franchitti? He’s down in 10th, tied with none other than Rubens Barrichello on 37 points (and Rubens breaks the tie with a best result of 8th). Of course these are early days yet when a win is worth a massive 50 points.

It is worth noting the impressive starts from Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud to be in the top 5. Will it last?

IndyCar does not operate a teams’ championship, however there is an engines’ championship which I think is based on the first car home:

1. Chevrolet 18
2. Honda 12
3. Lotus  8

Next Race

April 15th: Grand Prix of Long Beach

The streets of Long Beach are a tough test with close concrete barriers, a very bumpy track surface and a short lap. Like many street races it is difficult to pass here, but unlike some others it is not impossible. Outbraking somebody into Turn 1 at the end of Shoreline Drive is the best shot, though if your rival makes an error through the corner on to the back straight it is possible to get up alongside them there.

These cars seem able to take more hits than the old cars and the ‘bumpers’ around the rear wheels (and those strong front wings) apparently encourange more passing attempts. LB can be a of a yellow-fest, let’s hope that’s not the case this year.

The ALMS will again race on Saturday evening, with IndyCar racing on Sunday in what has become a modern classic double-header meeting. The ALMS race should also be worth a watch.

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Filed under 2012, IndyCar, Race Review

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