Into the Crystal Ball… The Gorgeous Facility Edition

crystal ballIndycar returns to the gorgeous facility that is Barber Motorsports Park for round two of the 2013 championship season. A track once hated for its lack of action is now quickly becoming a fan favorite and open wheeled strong hold year in and out. In only its fourth year on the schedule, Barber is still a newish addition to the schedule, but has produced everything from incendiary action to coma inducing follow the leader parades. The DW12 and Barber seem to be a match made in heaven and this year’s edition should be the best example yet. Round two is the first of three natural terrain road courses on the schedule and the lack of these types of track means there isn’t much development time available to teams throughout the season. Well prepared squads should unload quick and stay quick all weekend, whereas teams slightly off the mark may have a really tough weekend ahead.

Five Things to Watch

New Track Record – Spring training at the gorgeous Barber facility produced the quickest lap times ever turned at the track; over three seconds faster than the 2012 pole time. Because the laps were turned independent of race weekend, they are considered unofficial. This weekend should see the record officially broken as the series will be under sanctioned timing and scoring during qualifying and the race. A freshly ground racing surface and spiffy new Firestone tire compounds should prove more than adequate to smash whatever may be left of the record once the 26 drivers hit the track. I will be especially focused on the Firestone Fast Six pole shootout once the remaining drivers strap the grippier red compounds onto their race machines. Although the added speed will not come from chassis or engine technological improvements, breaking track records is something sorely missed in indycar racing.

AJ Allmendinger – The once promising American open wheel star will finally be making his competition return to the machines that lit the fire for his love of racing. Allmendinger was on a meteoric rise to stardom in 2006 when he signed with Forsythe Championship Racing halfway through the season. During his short stint with the Champ Car powerhouse, he racked up five wins and landed himself third in the championship standings before being shown the door on the eve of the season finale due to a new NASCAR contract. The guy knows how to get around the twisties and with Penske engineering prowess powering his return, there is literally nothing he cannot achieve. Allmendinger has been slightly pensive regarding his return, but I think once the competition heats up he will fit right in at the top.

Turn Five – On a track with extremely limited passing opportunities, the run to turn five proved to be a hotbed of action last year. The blind, downhill, off camber corner is one of the trickiest places to get right leading to blown entries, exits, and plenty of passing. I expect this year to be no different once the drivers get a bit hot under the helmet later in the race. Words of the day will include dive bomb, banzai, shoulder check and poke and hope when describing the action seen in the slower, carousel type corner. T1 and T11, the other passing zones on the track, are both a bit too fast to pull off an honest pass on a competitive driver so we may see an entire lap taken to set up an overtake into T5. Hopefully we can make it through the 90 laps without too much smashed carbon fiber.

Setup Unknowns – It was very apparent in St. Pete that most teams had a much better handle on creating quality setups for the new equipment. The main issue was tire longevity once the magic rings got more than a few laps on them. Simona de Silvestro’s lack of grip in the closing laps two weeks ago showed that a slightly off the mark setup would not treat the tires well. This is in direct comparison to the Team Penske drivers who looked to be able to sprint an entire stint without much noticeable loss of traction. The fresh pavement at Barber may be even more abrasive on the rubber, so set ups will need to be extremely close to the mark at the start of the race if teams and drivers are to have any hope in staying within the performance envelope for the entire race.

James Hinchcliffe – After an amazing start to the season with a trip to victory lane, The Mayor has a hard road ahead to prevent the second half slip seen in 2012. James clearly has the skill, and engineering backing to be a serious title contender this year. The only question is if the still young driver has the mental prowess to stay a serious contender through the remaining 18 rounds of the season. The Go Daddy ride should be up front all day again this weekend, but maintaining his momentum should be the main aim this weekend. As he has already proven, wins will come if all the homework is done. It’s just a matter of keeping his head in the game, qualifying near the front and simply clicking off quality laps all year long. The title push starts this weekend, will Hinch be up for the challenge?

Predictions

Pole – Will Power – The Aussie was two tenths faster than the second quickest time turned in testing; a country mile considering most of the field in St. Pete was covered by less than a second. Power was in his own zip code during preseason testing and I don’t think anything will change that position on Saturday.

Winner – Will Power – His mistakes in St. Pete that pushed him back in the pack and allowed Hildebrand to ruin his race should be minimized if he can stay at the front. If testing was any indication, Power will be untouchable this weekend.

Epic Performance – Ed Carpenter – The oval specialist claimed one of his best twistie finishes in St. Pete with a P14. And in the hyper competitive 2013 season, that is a huge accomplishment for him. Consistent top 15 finishes on the twisties will be a huge win for him. His strong start to the season should continue into Indianapolis.

Biggest Loser – Honda – Without a chance to work on the engine components until the first rebuild window, Honda’s only hope at gaining more speed will be in engine management upgrades. And there is simply not enough to be found to compete with Chevy. The next three rounds will be very tough for the Honda contingent.

Even after a six month offseason, two weeks have felt like a long time. Sometimes it takes a few rounds to really get the season swinging, but it’s already April, so we know the long summer haul is right around the corner. I really enjoy the trip to Barber each spring because the facility has the ability to seemingly produce something we have never seen before. What started out as one of the worst races of the year has miraculously transformed into something very special. The show indycar is able to pull off down there is rare in the single-seater world. Round two here we come; the series is a total crapshoot right now, who knows what will happen this weekend. One thing is for sure: the race will be a heck of a good time.

Eric Hall

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