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PREVIEW: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Heading into the third round of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2017 season at Barber Motorsports Park, we totally expected to come to the first Honda-sponsored race of the season with Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing) and James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) having won the first two races of the year for Honda and Bourdais and Coyne leading the standings by 19 points.

Just like we expected the Chicago Cubs to win last year’s World Series, Donald Trump to become the 45th U.S. President and Fernando Alonso to willingly choose to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 over the Monaco Grand Prix.

Riiiiight.

So since the form book has been thrown out, writing these previews is a proper crapshoot because the unexpected is the normal, and the past offers no indication of the present. But we try anyway.

With that as a lead-in, here’s some talking points for the “Alabama roller coaster” this weekend (TV times):

2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama – Talking Points

Honda’s quest for the road and street three-peat

It seems longer than the last stretch of 2015 that Honda won three races in a row. But it did when Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal pulled this off at Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Pocono in 2015. However Honda hasn’t pulled this off on three straight road and street circuits since 2013, when Scott Dixon swept the Toronto races and Charlie Kimball won his first and thus far only victory at Mid-Ohio. That seems a lifetime ago!

Quite how well Honda’s power delivery improvements have been on the permanent road courses will determine whether a three-peat happens on this occasion. Some good tests have occurred at Sonoma and Barber previously, and Max Chilton was about to lead the Barber open test last month before Will Power pipped him on the last lap.

Again by strength in numbers, the odds say Honda should be able to get at least half its 13 cars through to Q2 in qualifying and another three or four into the Firestone Fast Six. From there, another win would be possible.

Penske’s Power outage… 

A mechanical issue at St. Petersburg from another pole and contact with Kimball at Long Beach leaves Will Power languishing in a three-way tie for 17th in points with Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton. At only six points back of 10th-placed Marco Andretti though, a win would go a long way towards moving him up the food chain much sooner than he did last year, when he hit his midseason stride.

Power just needs a drama-free weekend, something that has escaped him since his win at Pocono last August. He struggled to eighth at Texas in the resumption, had contact with Kimball at Watkins Glen, had mechanicals at Sonoma to end 2016 and St. Petersburg to start 2017, and then the Long Beach incident last weekend.

Andretti’s Southern redemption?

At a track Andretti Autosport has won at before, when Ryan Hunter-Reay went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, the team is desperate to bounce back from its nightmare end to Long Beach as all four cars suffered either mechanical or electrical woes.

Hunter-Reay is due a win – he hasn’t won since Pocono 2015 which meant he hasn’t properly been able to celebrate one since his win prior to that in Iowa earlier that year – while Marco Andretti has run well at Barber in the past. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi should fare well here too; Rossi has the race-winning engineer in his camp that propelled Newgarden to victory here two years ago in Jeremy Milless.

Lingering questions

  • What does Scott Dixon have to do to translate his pace, and his Barber podium success, into a win?
  • Can Simon Pagenaud continue his quiet, stealthy title defense?
  • Can Graham Rahal go one step higher after tough runner-up finishes here the last two years?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing be able to lead the points for a third straight race?
  • Can Charlie Kimball, who’s done well at Barber before, break his unfortunate recent string of contact?
  • Do one of the “big three” teams finally get on the board or do the other five teams continue their roll?
  • Will it rain? How will the temperature swings of 90-plus ambient on Friday compare to the mid-60s expected on Sunday?

The Barber of Oviedo, España

That’s a clever subhead for saying that Oviedo, Spain’s Fernando Alonso’s first appearance in an IndyCar paddock will be at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. You couldn’t ask for two worlds further apart.

Will Alonso dominate all the headlines this weekend as he makes his first guest appearance with the Andretti Autosport team? Will Barber give him a proper taste of the IndyCar world? Will he make his maiden voyage to Rusty’s BBQ?

These, and other questions, will be answered from the time “Places Alonso Would Rather Be” actually moves to an IndyCar race, away from an F1 Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, about the other three rookies in this year’s Indy 500…

Seems hard to imagine the words Alonso and rookie in the same sentence but they’re real. Lest he be the only rookie in the field though it’s worth noting all of his compatriots will be on hand this weekend.

Zach Veach makes a surprise debut in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing as injury fill-in for JR Hildebrand. Ed Jones, the lone full-season rookie, goes for his third straight top-10 out of the gate in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. And Jack Harvey, Andretti’s other rookie, will be present coaching Neil Alberico in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with Carlin.

An idea? Have the three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates make T-shirts that say “also a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500,” and debut them this weekend.

Rubber variation de jour

This will be an interesting weekend from a tire standpoint. A lot of times IndyCar shares weekends with a sports car series, it’s the Pirelli World Challenge. But Pirelli World Challenge has opted out of a return to Barber this year, instead focusing its efforts on its own headliner next weekend at Virginia International Raceway.

In its place, two sports car championships from IMSA come to the track in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda and Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA Presented by Yokohama, as does the Andersen Promotions-operated Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

So what this means is besides Firestone for IndyCar, there’s also Cooper (Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires), Continental (Prototype Challenge), Yokohama (Porsche) and BFGoodrich (MX-5) rubber being laid down this weekend on a high-grip track. And if it rains, then all the rubber gets washed away and we start from scratch.

The final word

From Sebastien Bourdais, the Frenchman who’s the points leader on this occasion: “Barber is a very demanding track both technically and physically. There are very long corners that are physically demanding. It might not be the most difficult circuit technically, but what makes it difficult is trying to find the right setup on the car. That’s the true test of Barber Motorsports Park. The corners are so long it kind of resembles an oval, where the quality of the car is what makes the difference on the timing sheet. To be able to put in a good time at Barber, your car needs to do what you ask it to.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local/CT):

Friday, April 21
10:45-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
2:25-3:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 22
11-11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (telecast starts at 3:30 p.m.)

Sunday, April 23
9:45-10:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
2 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2 p.m. – NBCSN on air
2:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command
2:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Graham Rahal
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Will Power
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. James Hinchcliffe
7. Helio Castroneves
8. Tony Kanaan
9. Charlie Kimball
10. Scott Dixon

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Scott Dixon
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Graham Rahal

IMSA: Heavy news week leading into Thanksgiving holiday

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After the weekend and before the Thanksgiving holiday this week, IMSA has rolled out a number of announcements itself, while IMSA could be set for further announcements in the weeks to come starting next week.

Here’s a roundup:

QUALIFYING AT ROAR SET FOR PIT POSITIONS, GARAGES AT ROLEX 24

Here are key notes from IMSA’s Monday release about how Sunday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 will take on a greater significance:

  • The pit boxes and garages each team will use during the Rolex 24 will now be allocated based on fastest qualifying times set during Sunday’s third and final day of the Roar. Each of the three WeatherTech Championship classes – Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) – will have a 15-minute qualifying session on Sunday, Jan. 7.
  • The fastest-qualifying Prototype will receive the first pit box on pit lane starting at pit-in and also will be assigned to the first garage in the Prototype section of the WeatherTech Championship garage. The fastest GTD car will receive the second pit box on pit lane and the first garage in the GTD section, with the fastest GTLM car receiving the third pit box and the first garage in the GTLM section.
  • New for 2018 – P and GTLM will pit together under a full course yellow. Therefore, to give class separation in the pits, P and GTLM teams are assigned pit boxes to ensure they are separated by a GTD Team.

This, coupled with the addition of the first IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda one-hour, 45-minute race with two drivers, will make this a more shaken up Roar.

REGS, REGS, GET YOUR REGS

IMSA has released the Sporting and Technical Regulations for 2018 this week. The aforementioned note about P and GTLM teams pitting together is a change from P and Prototype Challenge (PC) class cars pitting together, with GTLM and GTD together as it was this year.

Restart procedures changed will see P cars moved to the lead ahead of GT cars; this created confusion at times throughout 2017 as sometimes another class leader in PC, GTLM or GTD had been the first car behind a pace car.

Each team will be limited to one car change in-season only, subject to “force majeure.”

On the off chance a driver is racing in two cars, his or her maximum drive time will be counted cumulatively between the two cars.

There are other tweaks, of course, but most are largely procedural or within the fine print.

RATINGS REVEALED

The good news with IMSA going down from four classes to three for 2018 is that only one designated pro-am class remains in the form of GT Daytona, which requires at least one Silver (or Bronze) full-season driver alongside the designated pro. Those sneaky “Super Silvers” remain an invaluable asset for using his or her results to their benefit.

The FIA released the initial driver ratings for 2018 this week with a few changes, some young pros going up from Silver to Gold and others getting their request to get downgraded from Gold to Silver approved. Drivers have a couple weeks to appeal if they so desire.

Here’s your friendly reminder of what drivers can be in what GTD cars for the first two races at Daytona and Sebring:

  • Daytona (5 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) or five (5) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.
  • Sebring (4 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.

MAZDA KEEPS ON TESTING, CLOSES ON ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Los Angeles Auto Show, held after Thanksgiving, is a likely landing spot for Mazda Team Joest to reveal, officially, its revised “Evo” version of the Mazda RT24-P and its driver lineup for the 2018 season. While most of the Prototype class lineups (DPi and LMP2-spec cars) have been revealed, Mazda’s has been an exception. In the interim, not long after its Daytona test late last month, they’ve also been testing at Sebring.

FROM SPACE CENTER TO DOWN UNDER

Jordan Taylor undertook testing of a different kind not long ago at, of all places, the Kennedy Space Center. One of this year’s Prototype class champions was undertaking a straight line test in his No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Taylor being Taylor, the moment couldn’t pass without him winning at social media (see third tweet).

Taylor goes from down a long runway to down under, visiting his first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this weekend at its season finale in Newcastle.

‘MAKING OF A CHAMPION’ PIECES ROLL OUT

The fourth installment of IMSA’s “making of a champion” series highlights Jordan Taylor, who co-drove with brother Ricky to the Prototype class championship this year. These two are part of four done by IMSA so far, along with Pato O’Ward (PC) and Christina Nielsen (GTD). More should follow in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF CHAMPS, HINDMAN, AGOSTINI, PRESTIGE WIN LAMBORGHINI WORLD FINAL

The Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final was held last weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy and the American Prestige Performance team won the World Final overall, with co-drivers Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini.

The World Final brings together teams from North America, Europe and Asia that campaign the spec Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in Super Trofeo regional competition. Hindman and Agostini got the weekend off on the right foot by winning the North American championship first, then followed it up at the World Final itself to topple all other domestic and international entries.

You might remember we profiled Hindman last month, as the 22-year-old’s star in the sports car world is clearly on the rise.

Somehow, someway, at the end of the day today we received the title 2017 Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Champions. Race 2 was not perfect and much more nerve racking than we would have hoped but fortunately in the end the job was done. I am honored to be sharing this with @rickyagostini as well as the entire @prestigeperfctr @waynetaylorracing team and I thank them for their incredible effort all year. With this result, we are the first ever American team to win the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Championship overall. 3/4 overall wins along with the Super Trofeo North America and World titles marks the end of a successful 2017 campaign. Back to reality tomorrow. Thank you all for following us along on this incredible journey.

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