Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ short oval program has typically not been their strong suit. Case and point: James Hinchcliffe’s best finish in two starts at ISM Raceway was 12th last year – he was 18th in 2016.
The team car, driven by Mikhail Aleshin the last two years, hasn’t faired much better, finishing 17th in both races, with Aleshin also spinning in Turn 1, Lap 1 to spark a pileup in last year’s race.
Hinchcliffe and new teammate Robert Wickens also struggled at the ISM Raceway open test in February, turning in the 16th fastest (Wickens) and the 22nd fastest (Hinchcliffe) speeds across the weekend.
Combine that with the knowledge that Wickens is making his Verizon IndyCar Series oval racing debut this weekend, and it would have been understandable to overlook the SPM outfit.
However, both drivers ranked in the top ten in opening practice – Hinchcliffe was sixth while Wickens was tenth – and things only got better in qualifying, with Hinchcliffe taking fifth and Wickens right behind him in sixth.
In all, it was a solid start to the weekend for a team that has notoriously struggled on short ovals.
“A huge credit to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports guys, because we did not have a great test here back in February,” Hinchcliffe explained after qualifying. “Obviously, things have changed a lot conditions-wise, but we went back, had a big think about it, a big look inside ourselves. I just can’t thank those guys and gal (engineer Leena Gade) enough for getting us good cars and getting us both up there – it’s awesome.”
Teammate Wickens even led qualifying briefly after his run, and revealed that he played it safe, meaning there may be more speed in the tank.
“I had my moment of fame there for a couple of moments (sitting in P1), but I’m pretty happy with the job that we did. The Lucas Oil car was good… it was my first oval qualifying. I was a little too safe on the first lap, especially when that kind of sets the mood for the whole run. I feel pretty good (on the oval). To be honest, that qualifying was the best I’ve felt so far, so I just wish I could give it another go,” he revealed.
Both drivers will look to give SPM their best short oval result since Iowa Speedway in 2016, where the aforementioned Mikhail Aleshin finished fifth.
After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.
Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.
A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.
Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…
Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.
The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.
And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.
While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.
“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”
Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.
“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.
Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.
Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun
About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.
Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.
And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.
Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.
Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.
Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.
“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.
Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.
“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”
The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.
Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.
The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.