Marco Andretti

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.

Massa fades to P10 late on in Belgium, but ends points drought

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Felipe Massa saw his run of four Formula 1 races without a point come to an end in Belgium on Sunday as he crossed the line in 10th place for Williams.

Massa’s last top-10 finish came at the European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, enduring a run of form that had seen him score as many points as Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein in the five races prior to the Belgian Grand Prix.

Massa capitalized on the dramatic start at Spa to rise into the top 10, and was running sixth after making his final pit stop.

However, the Brazilian struggled to manage his tires in the closing stages, causing him to fade to 10th place at the checkered flag.

“It was a very difficult race. Trying to look after the tires until the end and checking the tire pressures while we were racing was tough,” Massa said.

“It was difficult to stay out long enough on track. When the tires were there we were fighting for a great position.

“But when the tures went off we just couldn’t fight anymore.”

Massa’s teammate Valtteri Bottas only fared marginally better, crossing the line eighth for four points as Williams dropped to fifth place in the constructors’ championship.

“It was a disappointing day and a shame that we wasted the opportunity that we had at the beginning of the race,” Bottas said.

“We were in a great position after the start and when the safety car came in we should have pitted immediately. We then lost many positions.

“We tried to get the most out the race that we could after that, and I’m happy that we could at least get some points in the end, but overall it was disappointing.

“Looking ahead, we’ve got another race next week and obviously we need to learn from today. Hopefully we’ll be better in Monza.”

Alonso: Spa result ‘unthinkable’ a few months ago

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP)  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso believes that a seventh-place finish at a track such as the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps would have been “unthinkable” for McLaren a few months ago.

Alonso was resigned to the back of the grid at Spa after a 60-place grid penalty following power unit changes and an issue in qualifying that prevented him from posting a time.

However, the decision to start on the medium tire, combined with a number of clashes for cars ahead at the start and a red flag period lifted Alonso to as high as fourth within the first 10 laps.

Although the Spaniard was powerless to stop Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel fighting past during the race, he was still delighted with P7, believing it to act as evidence of McLaren-Honda’s progress.

“It was an exciting race to drive and I had a good feeling throughout,” Alonso said.

“We had good pace this weekend. We did better than expected on this track. We were in the top 10 with Jenson yesterday in qualifying, and we’ve scored points today.

“Believe me: a few months ago that would have been unthinkable on a circuit like this. That’s progress – real progress.

“And, after all the bad luck we’ve had so far this weekend, we finally got some good luck today. We started last, but we managed to keep away from all the incidents, gain some positions thanks to the safety car and then a couple more because of the red flag.

“It’s great news that we overtook Toro Rosso in the constructors’ world championship – I think we can be regularly in the points from now on.

“This weekend we saw evidence of very good progress from the team; we’re moving in the right direction, that’s for sure.”

Teammate Jenson Button started the race from inside the top 10, but had any hope of points ended early on after a clash with Pascal Wehrlein at Les Combes.

“I had a really good start. I got ahead of a Williams, pulled in front of a Red Bull and drew alongside a Force India,” Button explained.

“But then I lost a lot of places at La Source and ran wide. I rejoined the track, but Pascal made contact with me at Turn 5, damaging the rear of my car.

“There was a lot of damage and we were unable to complete the race. After such a short race, there’s not much more to say!”

Force India leapfrogs Williams in constructors’ after strong Spa showing

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo battles for position with Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India starred in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix to leapfrog Williams in the Formula 1 constructors’ standings as Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez finished fourth and fifth respectively.

Force India arrived at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps hopeful of cutting the gap to Williams in the race for fourth place, having made significant inroads over the races before the summer break.

Hulkenberg and Perez both qualified inside the top 10 at Spa before a clash at the start between Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel lifted them further up the order.

Hulkenberg ran second briefly before slipping behind Daniel Ricciardo into P3, where he remained before making his first pit stop shortly before a red flag period.

Hulkenberg kept up a good pace throughout the race, rising back up to third when Lewis Hamilton made his final pit stop on lap 32.

However, with Hamilton running on fresh tires, Hulkenberg was powerless to stop the Briton taking the final podium position, leaving him to settle for fourth place at the checkered flag.

“Good day in the office, pretty happy. Overall a good race,” Hulkenberg told NBCSN after the race.

“Massive team result, fourth and fifth, to beat the Ferraris and a Red Bull in the circumstances was pretty good. You have to get the points.

“Bit unfortunate and disappointed on my side with the red flag. It was going really well in second and I was gapping the field. But it neutralized the whole race when I was in second. Made it a bit harder. Still happy otherwise.

“We’re ahead of Williams now which is good news, but still eight races to go. Keep our heads down and keep going.”

Teammate Perez started sixth and remained in the mid-points positions before a late charge took him past Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso to finish fifth.

“It’s been a great day for the team and I am very pleased to finish fifth, but it was quite a tough race from the start,” Perez said.

“I chose a wide line going into turn one, but had to go far on the outside to avoid the first corner accident and that cost me a few positions. I dropped down to ninth and that compromised my race.

“I managed to make some good progress early on, but every time I switched to new tires I found myself having to put a lot of stress on them as I needed to attack Felipe then Fernando. I still managed to make my way through and bring home a good result for the team.

“Moving to fourth in the constructors’ championship is a fantastic achievement for us, but we can’t get carried away because there’s still a very long way to go in the season.

“Hopefully we can keep our momentum going and keep scoring strongly.”

Team owner Vijay Mallya expressed his pride over the result on Twitter after the race, with Force India moving two points clear of Williams in the constructors’ championship.

The result also saw Force India continue its love affair with the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The track was the site of its only F1 pole to date and first podium in 2009 courtesy of Giancarlo Fisichella, as well as another fourth-place finish for Hulkenberg in 2012.

Sam Posey’s “Echoes of the Ardennes” honors Spa’s history (VIDEO)

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The buildup to the Belgian Grand Prix always manages to combine history, excitement and nerves of what’s next.

Sam Posey, who could best be described as the poet laureate of motorsports broadcasting, pens his latest essay on the challenge of Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in “Echoes of the Ardennes,” linked above.

The track’s only 4.3 miles – down from more than 8 in the past – but it remains the longest test of circuit on F1’s calendar and a classic circuit in every sense of the word.