IndyCar: Will high grip and high tempers equal high drama at Barber?


Barber Motorsports Park for Round 3 of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, could be a humdinger based on the two past years’ races at the circuit or the two opening races to this season.

What had been something of a processional race the first two times has suddenly blossomed into one that’s featured some sensational and frequent passing. In part, that’s been due to the high grip nature of the track surface and what’s been a big difference between the primary black and alternate red compounds of Firestone tires during the race.

Last year alone, there were two very memorable passes. Ryan Hunter-Reay made the move on Helio Castroneves for the lead – ultimately the win – into the best passing corner on the circuit, the Turn 5 hairpin. Meanwhile Charlie Kimball snookered Will Power with a move to the outside, then inside, on the left-right switchback Turns 11 and 12for fourth place.

This year, the hot tempers from Long Beach plus the high grip level of the track and likely high temperatures could all boil to the surface in the 90-lap race.

Hunter-Reay, the defending race winner, has extra motivation to bounce back after an ambitious maneuver at Turn 4 last race at Long Beach took he and Josef Newgarden out as the pair were battling for the lead. Five other cars were caught up in the contretemps.

Castroneves enters the weekend needing to be on his best behavior after a tweet – allegedly sent out by his sister Kati from Helio’s account – earned him probation from INDYCAR for violation of the sanctioning body’s social media policy. He’s also keen to regain the upper hand within Team Penske after finishing a frustrated third at St. Petersburg, and pitting late and falling to 12th in Long Beach.

Power, the series points leader, a two-time Barber winner (2011-’12) and fastest driver in preseason testing at Barber, also has drama following him heading into the weekend when he nudged Simon Pagenaud at Turn 6 and took the Frenchman out of contention. With first and second thus far this year, Power enters the weekend with a 27-point lead on Long Beach winner Mike Conway and 33 on Pagenaud.

Kimball, the fourth member of that above-mentioned quartet, could well be a top sleeper and could also use a drama-free weekend. Mechanical gremlins have struck his No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet each of the first two races, and the likeable Californian is stone last in points.

But there’s plenty of upside for Kimball entering the weekend. He’s a traditionally strong permanent road course qualifier, the Mid-Ohio race winner a year ago and has the potential to match former teammate Dario Franchitti in terms of turning his season around starting at the third race. Franchitti was 26th and last after two races last year, but cracked off four poles, four podiums and 11 top-10 finishes in the next 13 races. It began with a fourth place finish in Race 3.

Heck, Pagenaud could be the biggest threat to the establishment after three excellent weekends at Barber the last three years. The Schmidt Peterson driver finished eighth in a fill-in role for Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold in 2011 – his first open-wheel start in 3.5 years. The last two years he’s ended fifth and sixth. If all goes to plan, it would not surprise to see him on the podium for the first time in 2014.

Then there is Scott Dixon. The defending series champion has the best total record in the four past starts, yet he’d probably call it awful.

He’s finished runner-up in all four races.

Dixon, who’s not been spell-bindingly quick the first two races of the year, should be back to pole and win contention this weekend. Given his run of seconds, nothing short of a win will do for the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

The drama storyline doesn’t end with Dixon, though. It extends to the guy he hit in Long Beach – Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing – who may well have won two weeks ago had there not been the contact at Turn 8. This is a track where Wilson hasn’t had the best of results thus far, but you could see him punching through.

What of Juan Pablo Montoya? He’s gotten a bunch of testing in at this track, both in private and the official preseason test. This could be the place where JPM makes the Firestone Fast Six for the first time, as the Team Penske driver now has two weekends under his belt with the reds. He was fourth more on tenacity and grit than outright pace in Long Beach; this could be the weekend where pace gets him the result instead.

We’ve barely even mentioned Conway to this point – and he’s a former Firestone Fast Six participant here, having done the business for A.J. Foyt’s team in 2012. A second straight podium for the quiet, stealthy Englishman wouldn’t surprise either.

Foyt’s current driver, Takuma Sato, was of course the St. Petersburg polesitter and won Round 3 last year (albeit at Long Beach instead of Barber). Could he pull another one off?

But this is the beauty of this year’s IndyCar field. That’s 11 possible winners right there.

That’s without even mentioning half of CGR (Ryan Briscoe, Tony Kanaan), Andretti Autosport’s other veterans besides RHR (Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, the former of whom has always done well at Barber), the KV (Sebastians Bourdais and Saavedra) and RLL (Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia) pairs and the quick quartet of rookies (Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Munoz/Huertas).

Makes picking a winner a challenge. But I’m expecting some three-driver combination out of Dixon, Pagenaud, Power, Hunter-Reay and Wilson on the podium, with Montoya, Kimball and Sato to surprise in qualifying.

At least until first practice, and it goes off script. You can see all of it Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

When the Haas F1 Team discovered NASCAR evolution (VIDEO)

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Kyle Petty is on site at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the Haas F1 Team to walk the museum and learn about at the evolution of NASCAR.

You can check out more from the NASCAR on NBC podcast, as Nate Ryan checks in with Haas’ pair of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.

Here’s the full times and downloads for this weekend’s coverage of the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas.

United States GP Paddock Notebook – Thursday

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The weather looks good, the words have been flying from the drivers’ mouths, and the anticipation is building for track action to commence at Circuit of The Americas for this weekend’s United States Grand Prix starting on Friday (FP1 is at 11 a.m. ET, FP2 is at 3 p.m. ET, both on NBCSN).

With the FIA Press Conference today for drivers, most of the focus centered on how Lewis Hamilton would react in his first meeting with the media since a trying weekend in Japan.

But with Nico Hulkenberg having confirmed his departure from Sahara Force India for Renault in 2017, the emerging driver silly season that occurs as a result was also something discussed in the paddock.

Here’s a roundup of news, features and other items from the paddock at COTA today (and some from Wednesday rolled into this post):




Welcome to the Lewis Conference

Thursday marked the FIA Lewis Conference in Austin – I mean Press Conference – because it was a decidedly one-man show among the six drivers selected to participate in the often relatively mundane, run-of-mill event.

Of the 22 questions asked from the floor, no less than 12 were addressed to Lewis Hamilton – many addressing his questioning of the press conference format itself, his social media presence, why certain users are blocked and rather little related to this race and this season itself.

I found it interesting that the most lucid answers came from Hamilton to three F1 part-timers – myself included – who asked questions outside the norm.

Hamilton, who works with UNICEF, addressed a question about Haiti by saying it’s devastating what’s happened there as a result of Hurricane Matthew. “I don’t know what I could do (to help), apart from taking a picture for social media, which is not really that helpful,” he said.

He also answered my own question asking him to take us inside the Mercedes factories in Brixworth and Brackley with a spirited answer of how it felt. “Honestly, it’s kind of daunting when you go back to the two factories, because there’s so many people,” he admitted. “I remember joining this team and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the majority of people that were in here, said that it wasn’t the right decision. I had the belief that this team would really go somewhere and I’ve been a part of that journey and very proud of it.”

Then he addressed what’s been another persistent issue this year – his starts. “I was at the factory last week and we were working very hard to cover up all areas so we hope that we have a slightly better formula this weekend.”

It appeared likely that the Mercedes brass had told Hamilton to respectfully engage and seem happy to be there, which he did well. That it made it a bit boring for the other five in the room was perhaps inevitable after Suzuka a fortnight ago.

A question posed by NBCSN’s Will Buxton about the format did elicit a bit of laughter though, Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean noting he’d taken a pic earlier in the conference illegally as a Microsoft ambassador, but holding another brand of phone. None of the others offered much in the way of suggestions as to how to improve the format, and the lack of ideas said as much as the words themselves.

Laser focus for Rosberg

Nico Rosberg is all-game face, all the time. Despite persistent efforts from the full-time F1 press corps, Rosberg would not budge in his media availability on Thursday about whether he’s allowing himself to think about a potential first World Championship.

Maybe this will serve him well if he achieves it, and his performances on track of late – particularly since the summer break as he’s won four of five Grands Prix – would back up that win-only focus.

Silly season starting to percolate

With this the first Grand Prix since Nico Hulkenberg’s confirmation at Renault, as my colleague Luke Smith noted in the U.S. Grand Prix preview this morning, we now have a silly season upon us in F1 after all.

Spots at Renault, Force India and even Haas are the biggest talking points. This is before we get to the lesser-rated drives at the moment with Sauber and Manor. And this doesn’t even get into the likelihood that Daniil Kvyat’s time with Toro Rosso seems near an end, especially with Pierre Gasly here and present this weekend not long after his run with Red Bull on Pirelli’s new 2017 tires at a warm Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi over the weekend (more on that below).

Sebastian Vettel didn’t seem interested in discussing his future with Ferrari during the press conference, but rest assured when 2017 rolls around his 2018 contract will be an early-season talking point.

Looking at the young guns waiting to get in the F1 door

Jordan King will make his F1 race weekend debut on Friday, taking over Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis for Manor in free practice one. The Englishman has had what he termed a “solid” season in GP2, although he regretted leaving some points on the table. Still fifth in points, King could move up with a solid weekend at Abu Dhabi, and may well enter the Manor race seat frame in 2017 if Pascal Wehrlein and/or Esteban Ocon moves on.

Pierre Gasly is another who could well be in an F1 race seat sooner rather than later. The Frenchman completed an important run of three days testing Pirelli’s 2017 wider tires at Abu Dhabi over the weekend for Red Bull, running nearly 300 laps in the process. While the GP2 runner-up at the moment will look to win that title first, he said as soon as he knows his 2017 plans, he’ll be keen to announce them. It would be a surprise to few if a shot to race with Toro Rosso arrives next season.

Haas test driver Santino Ferrucci isn’t immediately on F1’s race seat doorstep, but the talented teen is another of those on site this weekend for Haas’ home race. Ferrucci has become the first American to test for Haas in the team’s maiden Grand Prix season, earlier this year in Silverstone.

The man with the “Shoey” has some kick-ass shoes

The best way to end today’s Paddock Notebook is with the latest in “Shoey’s Shoes.”

Here’s the latest from Daniel Ricciardo as he has arrived in Austin, one of his favorite cities, with some kick-ass shoes that scream, ‘Merica.

See a post here from Red Bull Racing on Twitter:

NBCSN’s new show, Motorclub, premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET

Photo: Chris Tedesco/Red Bull Content Pool
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A new five-episode series chronicling major athletes in rising extreme and motorsport competitions, called Motorclub, premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The first episode looks at Red Bull Global Rallycross’ season finale in Los Angeles, as Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates Scott Speed and Tanner Foust battled for the title.

Foust, who’s been part of TV productions before as a host for Top Gear America (ran from 2010 until early this year), will serve as an executive producer of this show.

Other drivers/athletes expected to feature in the show include Travis Pastrana, Bucky Lasek, Brian Deegan and Ken Gushi, perhaps among others.

A trailer from the show is below, and a link to the show’s Facebook page with more information is linked here:

Rosberg maintains singular race-win only focus into COTA

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 08:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP sits in his car in the garage  during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 8, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Nico Rosberg refuses to discuss the C-word – championship – and is maintaining his traditional, steadfast “I’m going for the race win” mentality heading into this weekend’s United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas.

The German holds a 33-point lead over his teammate at Mercedes AMG Petronas, Lewis Hamilton, and could win his maiden World Championship in Formula 1 even if he finishes second to Hamilton in each of the final four races.

This would make him the second son of a World Champion (father Keke) to win a title if he does so. Both Graham and Damon Hill have won titles, and that’s the only father-son pairing.

But in Rosberg’s media availability today in Austin, he was more channeling his inner Marshawn Lynch, and “Beast Mode’s” famous/infamous “I’m here so I won’t get fined” Super Bowl availability – than allowing himself to think about the title.

“It’s not something I’ve been thinking about,” Rosberg said of the title.” I’m not sure how much pressure Lewis has put on himself. For me it’s business as usual. I’m just trying to win the race this weekend, like I have the last three years.”

Rosberg continued with the stoic focus for further questions.

“I definitely don’t put any thought into that at all,” he said about second places. “I’m going for the win this weekend and that’s it. I’m not going for second places or anything as such.”

He also refused to acknowledge his past record, noting he’s already carrying a nine-six win edge over Hamilton heading into the weekend and has proven he can win at tracks where he hasn’t in the past. In Austin, he’s come second to Hamilton each of the last two years after starting on pole.

“It’s something I don’t think about,” he said. “As we’ve seen so often this year it has no importance. I can win on any track against Lewis. This weekend for me we’re starting from scratch. It’ll be difficult against him always. He’ll be motivated. He’ll be at his best. We’ll see.”

This morning, Hamilton said if he didn’t win the World Championship, he’d “take it like a man.”

Rosberg wouldn’t answer how he’d feel if he didn’t win it, because, as he noted, he’s not thinking about it.

“I haven’t thought of that because I’m planning to go for more race wins at the moment, and that’s it,” he said. “If I can repeat what I’ve been saying. Negative thoughts, I’ll fully avoid. That won’t make me faster. How would I feel if I lose? That won’t work.”

But Rosberg did say why he was a happy camper for this session.

“All I’m thinking about is Austin GP weekend,” he said. “I just called my wife before speaking to you guys. That’s why I’m in a good mood.”