From the ground: Barber calm for IndyCar, even during the storm

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Late last night, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Jerry Bonkowski linked to a local angle on this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series trip to Barber Motorsports Park. More or less, the point of that piece from the Huntsville (Ala.) Times columnist was that the seemingly preposterous notion of an IndyCar race in Alabama has turned out to be a rousing success after a five-year run.

There aren’t many “firsts” for me anymore in terms of attending a certain event race weekend for the first time, but I’d tend to agree almost entirely with that assessment after my first weekend trip to the facility for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

I’d been to Barber two years ago to cover a Porsche young driver shootout event; the iconic manufacturer has its driving school at the track. But this marked my first IndyCar weekend there, and it pretty much lived up to expectations.

From a competitor or official perspective, working the weekend is made much easier by the proximity of everything in the paddock. The transporters, timing & scoring building, pit lane, victory circle, support paddocks and hospitality venues are all in the same area behind the pits – it’s an excellent model compared to street circuits where things are spread all over the place and you can walk miles over the course of the weekend to get to where you need to go.

From a fan perspective, despite the lack of permanent grandstands there are no shortage of outstanding places to watch. The tree-covered grassy knoll on the outside of the track looking past Turns 10 and 11 probably offered the best view after doing a track walk on Thursday. You can see the front straight and start/finish line, the run into Turn 5 (the best passing opportunity on the circuit) and the snaking of the cars through the back section of the course. Additionally, walking the track, you see how ridiculous the elevation changes are and how skilled these drivers are since most corner apexes are blind.

The fans that stuck it out Sunday through the two-plus hour rain delay deserve some sort of medal – as does the entire NBCSN crew for broadcasting through the delay – and all were treated to a good show once the race eventually did get going. The sheer spectacle of seeing these cars kick up rooster tails the size of, well, giant inflatable roosters you’d see at a local car dealership, is simply sublime to witness in person.

It was a shame there was a caution when there was that brought most of the field in to change off the wets to dries, save for Oriol Servia of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who’d opted to gamble and switch a few laps earlier. That took a decent strategic element out of play that had been shaping up.

Still, the race settled into a flow in the second half, with Ryan Hunter-Reay delivering a masterful response on Sunday after his controversial passing attempt on Josef Newgarden at Long Beach. Even runner-up Marco Andretti was stunned at how far back he was compared to his own Andretti Autosport teammate.

The thing about this weekend that was nice was that it just… happened. What I mean by that is, there’s often some outside element that threatens the flow of the weekend and disrupts the proceedings, but this weekend that really wasn’t the case.

It could be the fact the race is the first or last of the season, and everyone is amped up beyond belief. It could be the fact the race is considered one of the marquee events (Long Beach or Indianapolis), and the extra pressure exists with the magnitude of winning that race. It could be that some controversy – be it frequent contact and cautions, track delays, a bad accident or whatever else – that just mars the weekend. Houston last year for instance had track delays and a bad accident; the Sonoma and Baltimore races last year had contact elements that completely overshadowed the race itself.

This, by contrast, was a mostly calm, stress-free weekend for IndyCar even with the race day storms; probably the series’ first rather run-of-the-mill weekend since Mid-Ohio last year.

And that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes you need a weekend where the race just goes off, the race gets in and gets in the books. After Long Beach, Barber perhaps could be viewed as a bit of a downer – much like China was following Bahrain for Formula One.

But the series is through it and onto the month of May. The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis beckons on May 10, followed immediately by practice and qualifying before the Indianapolis 500 May 25.

The paddock can reset with the first three races in the books and begin the next round of focus from here.

A calm weekend at Barber makes the reset that much easier since the anxiety levels aren’t at a fever pitch.

Plans for Alonso sports car debut in Rolex 24 gathering speed

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Plans for McLaren Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso to appear in next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona are gathering speed as the two-time World Champion angles for a drive at Le Mans in 2018.

Alonso announced on Thursday he had signed a new, multi-year deal to remain with McLaren in F1, but has left the door open to continue his pursuit of the Triple Crown of Motorsport and become just the second driver in history to complete it.

Alonso has won the Monaco Grand Prix twice and made his Indianapolis 500 debut this year, retiring with an engine issue, and has made no secret of his ambition to race at Le Mans one day.

With no date clashes, the possibility exists for Alonso to race at Le Mans in 2018, potentially with Toyota in the LMP1 class following McLaren’s split with Honda.

However, Alonso could make his 24-hour race debut five months earlier, with reports emerging on Thursday that he could be in line to appear in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

First reported by Sportscar365, Alonso could be set to race for McLaren executive director Zak Brown’s team, United Autosports, at Daytona in January, with no clashes existing with his F1 commitments.

Alonso remained coy when asked about the chances of him appearing at Daytona, but admitted additional preparation for a possible Le Mans appearance would be of interest.

“For the Indy 500 it was a nice experience, I felt very competitive but it was a big challenge that I took from zero, from no testing, not any similar race before it,” Alonso said, as quoted by Reuters.

“If I want to prepare Le Mans, maybe there are other possibilities to prepare Le Mans a little bit better than I prepared the Indy 500.”

He added more about his other race program in Thursday’s pre-race Paddock Pass episode, speaking to NBCSN. “To be the best driver in the world you have to win in different series at different times. It’s possible I can compete in different races next year,” he said.

Brown said he would be happy to field Alonso at Daytona, and confirmed their pair had already loosely discussed it.

“If Fernando wants to do Daytona and we have a seat available, we would put his name on it happily,” Brown said.

“We’ve started joking around about it, and we saw where jokes got us last time,” he added, referencing the eventual entry to the Indy 500.

United Autosports will field two JS P217 cars at Daytona in January, and has already confirmed ex-F1 racer Paul di Resta, McLaren junior Lando Norris, American endurance racer Will Owen and Danish youngster Philip Hanson in seats.

McLaren reserve and 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button had been linked with a drive for United Autosports at Daytona, but Brown confirmed to Sportscar365 this was no longer an option.

“Jenson won’t be driving for us. I don’t know what he’s going to be doing,” Brown said.

“I thought he was going to be in the Penske car. Not sure what happened there.”