For the second year in a row, the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama contested at Barber Motorsports was a clinic in road racing; after the early yellow flag shemozzle of course. Once the racing resumed on lap six, we were treated to runaway stints by both Will Power and eventual race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, multiple on-track passes for the lead, record breaking speeds and a dash of innocent contact. Scott Dixon crossed the line in P2 for the fourth year in a row, Charlie Kimball finally has a strong weekend from start to finish, St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe drops out early due to a missing tire, the return of AJ Allmendinger and to top it off, Helio Castroneves now leads the championship after two rounds. For a nearly full green flag race, the action was nonstop from front to back.
4Gs – For the first time in many, many years, indycar looked nearly as fast as Formula One on a road course. The new tire compounds from Firestone and the offseason surface grinding transformed the DW12 and indycar into something of a spectacle on a tight motorcycle track. The drivers were fighting up to four Gs in the corners, not something uncommon on ovals, but an extreme rarity on road courses. More often than not, indycars look heavy and cumbersome on the twisties, not the light and nimble formula cars seen in Europe. One of the perceived problems with indycar is the inability to be taken seriously as top level open wheel racing by road racing and formula fans. If Firestone could build something with this extreme grip to unlock more cornering speed at the notoriously slippery street courses, I think indycar could break some prejudices’ against it. Regardless, that was an amazingly quick racing, and it transferred very well to the home viewers.
Ryan Hunter-Reay – The reigning champion and winner at Barber put in a dominant performance starting from the moment they unloaded. RHR never ran lower than P3 in the race after stealing pole position from Will Power on Saturday qualifying. Even given his champion status, I have always quietly doubted Hunter-Reay’s pure skill behind the wheel. This was the first weekend that he, backed by Andretti Autosport, unloaded the car and absolutely claimed the weekend as his own. The story of RHR’s career has been one of overcoming adversity. Even throughout his championship run in 2012, it seemed every race was marred with some kind of high pressure situation that never allowed him to relax and just drive. This last weekend, that is precisely what he did by unloading quick, grabbing pole, running at the sharp end all day and gaining a ten plus second lead on a street circuit after the early yellow flag.
The Big Two – I have always been focused on the drama of the Big Three/ Big Two; particularly Andretti Autosport’s annual unknown of whether they will be a powerhouse or just a thorn in Ganassi and Penske’s side. With a recent championship, and nine wins in the last three seasons, they just may be in the position to unseat Ganassi from the Big Two. Unseat?! Ganassi has really struggled with the new equipment. We know Scott Dixon can drive through nearly any kind of handling issue, but Dario has fizzled and Kimball has shown moments of insane ability, but I am not yet convened the P2/P4 finish seen from Dixon and Kimball at Barber is the norm instead of a fluke. Right now is the time for Charlie Kimball to set himself up for a future target ride and he did a great job proving himself on Sunday. The real question is if the team will, or can, support him in a breakout season.
Two Stopper – Will Power and Team Penske attempted a two stop strategy on Sunday and came up just a bit short. Power was beat by pure speed. The other drivers were able to cruise right around the slower driver as he fought to save fuel from the drop of the green. I don’t appreciate Power and Penske’s attempt to win a mileage race, and I feel almost vindicated that they failed to even make the podium. It almost serves them right as the series has made very serious attempts to prevent that exact scenario. Obviously you can never know when the yellows will fall, but this is racing; it needs to be done full tilt from green to checkers without even a pause in the speed. Kudos to the team for rolling the dice after the lengthy early yellow, however their attempt at an underhanded win was rewarded the way it should have been: not good enough.
Helio Castroneves – Spiderman sits P1 in points after just two rounds, the same position he was in last year before succumbing to the heated battle between Power and Hunter-Reay as the championship wore on. It is well known that the only thing missing From Helios resume is clinching the series champion trophy. Of course he has three 500 wins, but that does not make a well-rounded driver. If he were to retire tomorrow, he would be remembered as one of the greats, but with a huge asterisk beside his name. There aren’t many competitive, full season years left under the Brazilians belt, and as the field gets deeper and deeper each year it will become increasingly more difficult to finish this task. 2012 was a momentum year for Castroneves and he is in prime position to make an honest run this year. I hope to see him successfully check this final box in an amazing career.
It’s almost ironic that the once bemoaned tight and too tough to pass motorcycle track has become the gold standard of natural terrain road course racing and possibly the best twisties on the schedule. Barber delivered again and it was accomplished through nearly a full race distance of green flag running. When the drivers finally emerged from their cars after 85 green flag laps, they all looked fresh faced and ready to race again. I think the whole grid has been prepping for the double header weekends, and that only adds to the competitiveness of the field. After a couple years of phenomenal racing, the growing on-site crowd and the meticulously manicured gorgeous facility, the Grand Prix of Alabama is quickly becoming the road course crown jewel and an overall blue chip event.