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.

Formula E: Team Aguri confirms da Costa for second season

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Antonio Felix da Costa has been confirmed for a second season with Team Aguri for the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship, which begins later this month in Beijing.

He won once this past year at Buenos Aires and finished eighth in the points despite missing both the season opener and season finale due to clashes with his DTM schedule.

Said the 24-year-old Portuguese driver, “I am really happy to continue with Team Aguri and Formula E for season two. This championship is earning its respect in the world of motorsport and I am honoured to be involved. Regarding the season, I am really looking forward to getting started.”

Team Aguri team principal Mark Preston added, “It is a great pleasure to have Antonio continuing with the team for season two of Formula E. Antonio brought us our maiden win in Buenos Aires and helped to develop the team from scratch, he will continue to build on that success for season two and beyond.”

The team that bares the name of ex-Formula 1 driver and team owner Aguri Suzuki has not yet confirmed its second driver, which is the last outstanding seat to be filled on the Formula E grid.

Amlin, which had partnered with Aguri last year, is now present with the Andretti Formula E team and its drivers, Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro.

Hulkenberg leads shorter than normal FP1 in Russia

Nico Hulkenberg
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Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg posted a 1:44.355 lap of the of the Sochi Autodrom to lead a fairly abnormal, and shorter than usual, first free practice for the Russian Grand Prix.

Hulkenberg posted the time to conclude the usual 90-minute session, to pip Nico Rosberg at 1:44.407 on his final lap. The usual 90-minute session was shortened due to a track delay for cleanup of diesel fuel on course.

Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo completed the top five.

While the clock started on time for the full 90-minute session, track activity was halted for the opening 30 minutes to clean up diesel spillage on the track at Turn 8.

It left teams and drivers with just a 60-minute first free practice to tackle the Sochi Autodrom, but did not push the session later or affect the timetable for the rest of the day. However, with a damp if not entirely wet track, it made things difficult in FP1.

The delay also meant that teams weren’t able to use an extra set of Pirellis handed out at the start of FP1. Supersofts can be used for the first time in FP2.

During the delay, it did offer a chance for sarcasm, and Manor seized the opportunity following a comment from McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso noting that even with Mercedes engines next year, Manor wouldn’t move ahead of them.

NBC’s Will Buxton explained the track surface dilemma drivers would face in this session.

With just under one hour to go in the session, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was the first to head out on course, leading several others. Ericsson made the first laps of the weekend at the track where he made his final start for Caterham a year ago.

Both Williams drivers went on course on Pirelli’s wet weather tires for their installation laps. Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg tried the intermediates, and Alonso was first on course in slicks.

No official times were registered until there were less than 40 minutes remaining in the session, with Alonso registering a 2:00.736 time, while putting down a bevy of sparks. He quickly lowered the mark to 1:56.327, and 1:53.854 after that. Ericsson was next in at a 1:58.926, although dropped into the 1:54 range not long after.

Alonso’s teammate Jenson Button clocked in at 1:50.920 with just under 20 minutes remaining and for the first time this year, we could say we had a McLaren Honda 1-2 on track, albeit under abnormal circumstances.

The trsck got busy in the final 15 minutes, with Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen posting a 1:50.870 to lead before Alonso clocked in a 1:49.240.

A 1:47.959 from Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, then a 1:45.987 from Hulkenberg followed in the final 10 minutes as times firmly began to drop. Vettel got down to a 1:45.491 shortly thereafter, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton came up two tenths shy of the mark at a 1:45.691.

Ericsson reported a power cut near the end of the session down at Sauber but otherwise there were no issues through the field, other than a handful of spins, including one from Hamilton on his final flier at the second-to-last corner.

FP2 begins from 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.