Opening day of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is in the books, and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsport driver James Hinchcliffe finds himself atop a leaderboard that continues to be dominated by Honda. Hinch, with only nine laps in the afternoon practice, posted the only time of the day in the 1 minute, 8 second range (by a whopping 0.0006 seconds) while the first 14 drivers found themselves within 0.5 seconds of Hinch’s time.
The result is a much-needed boost for the ASPM team after respectable to not head-turning results at the first two races of the season. Unfortunately Hinch’s teammate Marcus Ericsson wasn’t able to find the same speed and wound up 15th on the combined time chart for the day.
It’s been another good day for the rookies, once again led by Harding-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, who was second quick for the day with a fast lap of 1:09.0084, less than 1/100th of a second behind Hinchcliffe. Slotting in third was fellow rookie, Dale Coyne Racing’s Santino Ferrucci, who managed to run 15 laps in the afternoon session despite burying his front wing in the tire barriers mid-way through the session.
On the other side of the surprise coin was Team Penske, which failed to put any of their three drivers in the Top 10 for the day. Will Power was the fastest of the trio, slotting in 11th on the day. Teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden finished 15th and 18th, respectively. We’ve seen Penske’s teams turn weekends around quickly after a lackluster first day many times, so there is no need to count them out at this point. But for a team with so much success on this track, it is shocking to see them so far off the pace after day 1.
The AJ Foyt Racing/ABC Supply cars of Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist continue to disappoint as well. I honestly thought the addition of Scott Harner during the off season was going to bring results following last year’s addition of Tony Kanaan and Eric Cowden. Unfortunately, that teams seems more lost than ever on the road and street circuits. It’s well known their shock and damper program is far behind those of the top teams, but to see them struggling this badly week in and week out is disheartening. In reality, though, the team has shown strongly in recent years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other ovals, so AJ and his team are much more likely to judge their team’s success during the Month of May at Indianapolis rather than early April in Birmingham, Alabama.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the Ganassi team after today’s practice. Defending NTT IndyCar Series Champion Scott Dixon could only muster enough speed to finish the day 10th, 0.4 second off the pace of Hinchcliffe, while Rosenqvist, who led the morning practice, finished the day seventh but was unable to match his time from Practice 1 during the afternoon. In fact, the Swede was the only driver in the paddock to go faster in Practice 1 than Practice 2.
Throughout the paddock, the talk of the day revolved around the Firestone Firehawk tires. It seems that nearly all the drivers were having trouble coming to grips with the alternate, red-sidewalled tires. Marco Andretti went so far as to say, “The Reds seem like Blacks and the Blacks seem like Reds.” Teammate Alexander Rossi echoed those sentiments, saying, “The big mystery to take away from today is the Firestone Reds were a lot worse for me, and it’s unusual for the Reds to be slower.”
One issue that is undoubtedly causing issues for the Firestone tires is the number of various types of rubber being laid down by the various racing series on track this weekend. Tires used this weekend are manufactured by Firestone, Pirelli, Yokohama, Hankook, and BF Goodrich. Someone much smarter than me can probably explain how these different compounds impact each other, but suffice is to say, they don’t help the IndyCar tires work at their maximum performance level.
That being said, the situation is the same for everyone, and all 24 drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series will be facing the same challenges in qualifying tomorrow. Drivers in Group 2 may have a slight advantage as the track will rubber in throughout Group 1, but these guys are professionals and will figure it out during the day.
Speaking of tomorrow, the weather forecast looks like more of the same with some sun but some chances for rain. Unlike today, the rain chances are expected to increase through the day tomorrow. According to the “ultra-reliable-and-basically-infallible” Weather Underground (yes, that is tongue-in-cheek), chances for scattered thunderstorms are pushing 40% at 3:00 pm when qualifying gets underway and increase to 50% by 4:00. However, partly cloudy skies are expected when Practice session 3 is run at 11:00 AM. In other words, the engineers will be chasing a lot of scenarios tomorrow!
That’s going to wrap it up for today at Barber. It’s been a very enjoyable day, and there is still a lot of work to do tonight at the hotel. I will be back tomorrow morning to post photos from today and give some more impressions about some of the various locations around the track I got to this afternoon.
As always, thanks so much for following! Please be sure to leave comments below or interact with me on Twitter.
1:45 PM – Practice 1 is in the books, and to say it was somewhat disjointed would be an understatement. The 45-minute session was paced by Ganassi’s Felix Rosenqvist but was disrupted throughout by three red flags. Five more Honda-powered drivers followed in the pecking order before the fastest Chevrolet, that of Patricio O’Ward, finished in P7.
The session started slowly as most of the veterans waited for the younger guys to dry off the track. Recall the rookies received an extra set of Firestone Firehawk tires for the opening session, so it was to their benefit to head out and run laps.
The first red flag of the session came out when Matheus Leist lost the rear end exiting Turn 6 and made hard contact with the outside guard rail. Leist walked away unscathed by the car sustained damage to the front and rear wing assemblies.
To make matters worse for AJ Foyt Racing, Tony Kanaan brought out the second red flag when he spun exiting Turn 14. Luckily he was able to keep the car off the barriers and drove away without further incident. At nearly the same time, James Hinchcliffe and Takuma Sato also spun their cars, but neither car suffered any damage.
The final red flag ended the session when ECR’s Spencer Pigot spun exiting Turn 17 with only a couple minutes remaining on the clock.
In all, the 24 drivers turned a total of only 204 laps with Rosenqvist, Colton Herta, O’Ward, Will Power, and Marcus Ericsson the only drivers in double digits for laps turned during the session.
As noted, the Honda cars dominated the session as they have most of the sessions this season. Chevrolet-powered cars have had a good history at Barber Motorsports Park, but it appears clearly evident that Honda has the upper hand again in 2019 on the road and street circuits, as least during the practice sessions. The advantage may not be so large that they can pass a Chevrolet-powered car that makes its way to the lead, but in terms on single-car efforts, the Hondas have been clearly dominant this season. However, with so few laps turned in the morning practice, it may be too early to draw any definitive conclusions just yet on how the rest of the weekend will shake out here.
I spent the entire session wandering the west end of the track grounds between Turns 13 and 17. The viewing mound outside Turn 15 provides a spectacular view of the cars as they gingerly move through Turns 14, 15, and 16. Drivers will take a wide variety of racing lines through this section of the course, and the difference between well and poorly behaving cars will be evident as drivers fight to get back on throttle as quickly as possible.
The short run between Turns 16 and 17 is more downhill than it appears on TV, and getting through the section as quickly as possible is key to setting up a pass down the frontstraight and into Turn 1.
As far as the west end of the track goes, I think my favorite viewing spot was at Turn 13, where you can see cars coming down the hill toward Turn 5, exiting Turns 6/7, coming at you from Turn 11, making the quick zig zag of Turns 12 and 13, and heading back down the hill to Turn 14. If I was paying to watch the race from a General Admission standpoint, I would probably watch from this view. The only negative is that no PA speakers exist in that area, so you’ll definitely need a radio/scanner to follow the IMS Radio Network broadcast or have a way to stream the NBC Sports Gold telecast.
As of 2:20 PM, the clouds have started to break more and more and sun is shining in patches around the racetrack. Watching the Porsche GT3 practice on the monitors, I’d estimate the sun is shining on about half of the track. There are still some dark clouds in the area, but the thick overcast of this morning is no more. The radar is currently clear over the entire state with the exception of the very southern tip around Mobile. In other words, rain will be no issue for the remainder of today!
I am going to explore the east end of the facility in Practice session 2. That area encompasses Turns 1-4 and Turns 8-9. From the small glimpses I saw when entering the facility, there should be many more great areas from which to view.
Back with more after Practice session 2!
9:55 AM – Good morning, race fans, and welcome to Day 1 of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama from Barber Motorsports Park just outside of Birmingham, AL!
George and Susan Phillips (of Oilpressure.com) and I arrived on site this morning around 8:30 after spending the night in Cullman, roughly an hour north of Birmingham. The drive from Champaign down to Nashville yesterday was about five and a half hours, followed by a two-and-a-half hour drive from Nashville to Cullman last night. We had originally planned to leave from Nashville this morning, but a mandatory 8:30 media meeting this morning altered those plans.
We’ve been watching the weather forecast all week, and depending on the website we choose to believe, we’ve seen everything from “should be ok” to “probably going to rain a lot” for the weekend. Right now, the rain has ceased, but it has rained most of the evening and through parts of the morning. Temperatures are currently in the low 60s with thick cloud cover and annoyingly high humidity. (Weather Underground says Leeds currently has 97% relative humidity, and I think that might be a point or two low.) As I’ve begun typing this, a light mist has begun to fall again. Thankfully the radar shows only very small, scattered light rain pockets in the area with nothing that appears terribly threatening. It’s gross, but it’s manageable.
We just finished up a press conference honoring INDYCAR’s 10th anniversary at the track, celebrating the formers winners here (minus the winner of the first race, Helio Castroneves), and bestowing accolades upon the Grand Marshall for this weekend’s race, Mario Andretti. Each of the former winners – Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud – were given a plaque with a small piece of the track mounted as a memento of their victories here. Mario was gifted a very neat painting of himself with his Lotus 78 along with grandson Marco in his #98 US Concrete-sponsored Dallara DW-12.
We’ve got over an hour still before the first of two 45-minute IndyCar practice sessions today, so I’ll be taking some time to wander the course and get some first impressions. Upon my first views, I’m a bit surprised how close together the straightaway are – those being the start/finish straight, the straights leading to and from Turns 5/6/7, and the straight leading away from the museum. That said, it seems a long, long way from the east end of the track (Turn 9) to the west (Turn 14). As expected, the elevation differences are much greater than they appear on television. I’ll be back with more impressions later.