Barber weekend, Friday notes

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Ordinarily I’m on site but the quirk of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule having its two West Coast races at Long Beach and Phoenix book-ending this month, and with a good amount of family in Phoenix, it made the decision to not be at Barber Motorsports Park seem smart when I decided to not bypass it.

Then the Fernando Alonso news happened along with his decision to attend, and Zach Veach would also wind up making his debut in an injury fill-in role for JR Hildebrand, and I just had to laugh at myself that I’m not there, the first road or street race I’m missing since Toronto 2015 (was at 24 Hours of Le Mans). So voluntarily, that means this is the first one I just decided to skip since the Houston doubleheader in the sweltering heat and humidity of June, 2014.

Alas, there’s still a few things to note after the Friday sessions are in the books:

Friday practice 1, results
Friday practice 2, results

BAGS PACKED, WORDS UTTERED ABOUT A SPANIARD

His test date of May 3 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway confirmed, now the countdown begins until Fernando Alonso arrives in Birmingham, Ala. for this weekend’s dry run and initiation with the team. Alonso posted a photo that he was on his way:

And naturally, the Alonso topic came up in a pair of media availabilities in-between the two practice sessions.

Graham Rahal minced no words in saying how much he thinks Alonso will like Indianapolis.

“For Alonso, I think he’s going to have a ball,” said Barber’s two-time defending runner-up. “He’s going to come over here. He’s going to be in a damned good car. You guys know that, and he’s going to have fun.

“He’s going to get passed and pass more cars in one month than he will in his entire Formula 1 career combined, but he’s going to have a complete blast, and I think it’s great for our sport that he has the interest that he has in it, and I hope that other guys want to come do it, too.”

The Team Penske trio of Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Will Power also weighed in.

Said Newgarden, “That’s what the race is all about, having the best in the world run it and compete in it, so just adding a guy like Alonso is a great addition for IndyCar, and I think it’s going to be a great race for him, so we’re all excited to get to May and see how he does.”

Power added, “That’s going to be attract a lot of European media and just media around the world, so definitely helps put us on the map a little more. Not that the Indy 500 needs much more putting on the map, but it all helps.”

Pagenaud could add a bit more to the discussion because he’s raced at the grandest sports car race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and knows how much that race means in the grand scheme of things.

But he noted that since he’s the only one of the three who grew up in Europe, the pulse is palpable to when Nigel Mansell did the series in 1993 after winning the 1992 World Championship.

“Last time that really happened was Mansell. I was a kid and I remember when he made the jump to IndyCar. It really was a very — it was very loud, I would say, as a move,” Pagenaud said.

“I think Alonso, two-time world champion in Formula 1 coming here for something he’s not used to, I think it’s very courageous. It’s going to be exciting, I think, even for us just to see how he does, and he’s going to bring an incredible following from Europe, from Spain, and Spaniard people are very excited about racing in general, so I think it’s fantastic for IndyCar. It’s a new era, I think. It really is going to help us grow even more. We’re obviously growing very well right now, but this is going to be a big boost.”

It seems the buzz in the paddock is high about Alonso – it remains arguably as big if not bigger a talking point than the rest of this weekend – and the fever will only intensify once he and McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown actually arrive.

MIGHT PIGOT BE IN IT, AS WELL? 

After a respectable start to 2017, Spencer Pigot has been caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of his month of May. He’ll drive the INDYCAR Grand Prix in his usual No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on May 13 but for the rest of the month, he doesn’t yet have an Indianapolis 500 seat as team owner Ed Carpenter is set to only run two cars, Carpenter taking over the No. 20 for the ovals starting next week in Phoenix.

Pigot might still be in with a shout for the Indianapolis 500 though, as Rising Star Racing principal Art Wilmes told IndyCar Radio reporter Ryan Myrehn during an Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires practice session.

“I’ve smiled a lot with him the last couple years. We’re hoping this is the last year he’s a part-time driver,” Wilmes said. “We’re still looking for the ‘500… we’re getting close.”

At least one proverbial remaining open seat would be an expected Chevrolet seat at Juncos Racing, the team not having made any announcements since confirming it would enter the ‘500.

Pigot won back-to-back championships with Juncos in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights so already knows Ricardo Juncos’ team well. If the option is no ride or making a return to a team where he’s had success for its Indianapolis 500 debut, it could be a good story to see the latter materialize.

VEACH’S FIRST DAY AT THE INDYCAR OFFICE

Steady progression is always the goal when you make your debut and for Zach Veach, that seemed to be the end game in today’s session as he fills in for JR Hildebrand.

The 22-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio took the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to a best time of 1:10.6346, 2.542 seconds off the overall leader and 1.6254 seconds behind Pigot in the first session to a 1:09.8659 best lap, 2.1525 seconds off the lead and 1.1 seconds behind Pigot in the second.

Yes, that’s still a significant gap by modern day IndyCar standards – especially when in second practice 1.0995 separated spots 1-20 combined – but it was a sign of development from Veach in his first day in an IndyCar on a road course since September.

A day like that though makes the last in-season debutante’s, RC Enerson at Mid-Ohio last July for Dale Coyne Racing, all the more impressive with what he was able to do as he finished seventh overall in second practice there. Enerson was on site Friday at Barber looking on as an interested spectator as one of the talents on the sidelines who we hope to see back in a car sooner rather than later, an opinion his 2016 teammate at Dale Coyne Racing Conor Daly expressed late Friday.

WHEN THE TRACK OWNER COMES INTO A PRESS CONFERENCE

“Georgina,” a statue that hangs below a bridge near Barber’s incredible motorcycle museum, got mentioned during the Team Penske media availability as track owner and maintainer of the incredible Barber facility, George Barber, got a question in during the press conference. Here’s the transcript:

Q. (From track owner George Barber) Would one of you slow down enough for Georgina to drop into your cockpit for a couple of hot laps?

WILL POWER: Yeah, sure.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: We could put another seat on the side.

Q. I assume you all have seen Georgina?

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: I haven’t seen her yet – (told it’s the sculpture of the woman hanging from a bridge) oh, that’s her name is Georgina? Yeah, we saw her at the test.

SIMON PAGENAUD: Is she still here or not because I didn’t see her today. But she disturbed me the whole test. I couldn’t make that corner anymore.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: Is she still out there? Is she out there hanging around?

SIMON PAGENAUD: Yeah, what’s happening?

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: Someone is following. No, yeah, it was pretty funny, yeah. It’s funny how you get used to those things, though, because at the test you noticed it the entire day, you come back and you don’t notice it anymore because you’ve seen it.

SIMON PAGENAUD: Somebody may have taken her on a date or something. I didn’t see her today. I don’t think she’s here.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: She’s got amazing stamina. Her stamina is better than anyone.

IN OTHER NOTES

We didn’t have an NBCSN practice show today, which allowed for some of the folks you’ll be seeing later this weekend on air and online to peruse the grounds at Barber:

James Hinchcliffe finished second on Dancing with the Stars last fall. And so to learn further, he witnessed some moves today from ASIMO – Honda’s impressive humanoid robot that will serve as the Grand Marshal at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First – in advance of the rest of the weekend.

Next week, per the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indiana Pacers legend Larry Bird is set to drive a retrofitted IndyCar in an attempt to deliver Indianapolis the 2021 NBA All-Star Game. Here’s hoping those efforts go better than the Pacers did in Game 3 last night, after blowing a 20-plus point lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then forcing Daly to apologize for saying the Pacers were doing well…

This likely merits a greater piece separate beyond a notebook, but it’s worth noting that the brake issue that permeated the St. Petersburg weekend was not at all a story in Long Beach and likely won’t be a story this weekend in Birmingham. Barber isn’t a big brake track as it’s very much a rhythmic occasion. It speaks to the work the teams have done in concert with PFC Brakes, the new supplier this year, that this story has quieted to a whisper.

My MotorSportsTalk colleague Kyle Lavigne will have more in a notebook later today, but Oliver Askew again excelled in the first Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda race of the weekend en route to his second straight victory. Askew controlled the pace from the lead and defended well in his No. 3 Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-17 Mazda from 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, the No. 81 Team Pelfrey driver who scored his first USF2000 podium finish.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires ran one practice session today with varying tire strategies shaking up the order there as Shelby Blackstock topped the timesheets there in his No. 51 Belardi Auto Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda. Meanwhile teammate Santiago Urrutia debuted the new gold and black, Arrow Electronics-backed livery on his No. 5 Belardi with SPM car.

Track activity was delayed one hour today by a crash in the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires session, as an ARMCO Barrier needed replacing. Nathanial Sparks grabbed pole for that series’ first race later in the afternoon. In other sports car series, Kenton Koch has returned to action in a P1 Motorsports Ligier JS P3 and had the pole for Friday’s late afternoon race of the IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series. The IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama session practiced but has qualifying and its first race both on Saturday.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.

Mercedes F1 engine chief warns against underestimating Honda

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Mercedes Formula 1 engine chief Andy Cowell has warned against underestimating the threat of Honda despite its ongoing power unit struggles, tipping the Japanese manufacturer to bounce back in the near future.

Honda returned to F1 as a manufacturer in 2015, supplying V6 turbo power units to the McLaren team, but has struggled for either performance or reliability through that period.

The struggles have led McLaren – currently sat bottom of the constructors’ championship – to consider cutting ties for 2018 given how far adrift compared to the other three engine suppliers Honda has been.

Mercedes has been the benchmark for engine performance since the change in regulation for 2014, but Cowell feels that Honda could make up ground quickly, with the removal of the token system for 2017 helping performance to converge through the field.

“I think collectively we’ve helped with convergence in Formula 1 in the opening season, performance development through the year,” Cowell said.

“But then the opportunity to do a big change with Honda coming in, we all agreed that Honda could have that same opportunity to change everything in the first year and then the request came from manufacturers in addition to Honda saying ‘please can we take this crazy token table away because it’s bad for the sport?’

“It’s bad if somebody can’t train to get better and so we agreed, yeah, take the table away because it’s better for the sport because it means that you can innovate, you can introduce whatever you like.

“I think none of us should underestimate the technical prowess of Honda and of McLaren and I think my money is on that combination coming good and coming good pretty quickly. No pressure…”

Williams happy to ‘hold off’ on 2018 F1 driver decision

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Williams is happy to “hold off” on making a decision on its Formula 1 driver line-up for 2018 as it focuses on improving its on-track displays after a tough start to the season.

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, a mix of experience and youth, but has failed to keep up with midfield front-runner Force India through the first half of the year.

Force India sits fourth in the constructors’ championship with more than double the points of Williams, who leads a tight-knit group down to Renault in eighth place, 15 points adrift.

While Stroll looks set to continue with Williams and Massa has hinted he may look to continue through to 2018 despite initially planning to retire at the end of last season, deputy team boss Claire Williams has confirmed that no decision about next year’s line-up will come any time soon.

“There’s a lot of talk already isn’t there, about drivers across the paddock. For us, we’ve decided we’re going to hold off a bit on our driver decision,” Williams said.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands on the race track at the moment and to be distracted by those kinds of conversations isn’t something that we want to be happening at the moment.

“[Force India’s] got a nice points haul on us at the moment we need to focus on, rather than anything else.”

Nico Rosberg visits Stanford University, considering study options

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2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University after visiting the college earlier this week as part of his tour around California.

Rosberg sensationally announced his retirement from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title last November, wanting to spend more time with his young family.

The German has been enjoying his retirement, recently embarking on a tour of Silicon Valley and California that saw him hold meetings with electric car giant Tesla, among other companies.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Sunday, Rosberg spoke warmly about a visit to Stanford, revealing that he is considering some study options in the near future at the historic institution.

Rosberg was previously offered a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College London when he was younger, only to turn it down in order to embark on a racing career. He also reportedly holds the highest ever score on Williams’ engineering aptitude test.

Should Nico sign up to a course at Stanford, we imagine he’d take things one class at a time…