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.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.