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.

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.

F1: Azerbaijan Grand Prix race videos on NBCSN (VIDEO)

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Videos from today’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the Baku City Circuit from NBCSN are linked below.

Daniel Ricciardo won a chaotic, crazy, bizarre race for his first victory of the season.

With a mix of post-race interviews and in-race highlights, there was a lot to digest. The post-race edition of Paddock Pass will also attempt to recap it all.

POST-RACE INTERVIEWS/FEATURES

Lewis Hamilton

Sebastian Vettel

Sergio Perez

Lance Stroll’s podium “shoey” with Daniel Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo’s “shoey” tradition

IN-RACE HIGHLIGHTS

Bottas, Raikkonen tag each other at start of race

Verstappen tries to force Perez into errors at Azerbaijan GP

Verstappen forced to retire in Azerbaijan GP

Fernando Alonso calls for a red flag due to debris

Vettel hits Hamilton in crazy restart

Repercussions possible for Vettel and Hamilton after contact

Ricciardo slings his way to third

Sebastian Vettel relinquishes lead due to penalty

Ricciardo drives to victory, Bottas steals second at the flag