Preview: Rain, parity may reign during IndyCar’s inaugural weekend at NOLA

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AVONDALE, La. – Two variables are in play with the potential to jumble the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN): a new circuit, and the impending threat of rain.

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to NOLA Motorsports Park outside New Orleans this weekend, for Round 2 of the season and the first permanent road course race of the year.

It’s also the first new road course circuit the series has visited since its Southeastern cousin, Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., in 2010.

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More than beignets, baguettes and other French Quarter references, the word that comes up most when referencing NOLA as a facility is a city pretty far removed from anything Parisian – Cleveland (which isn’t Detroit).

Multiple drivers have mentioned Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport circuit, a staple of the North American landscape from 1982 until 2007, as a comparable circuit in terms of the viewing opportunities.

Nearly all of NOLA’s 2.74-mile circuit can be viewed from the single grandstand atop the final corner complex.

KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Mistic Chevrolet, ticks off both pre-NOLA targets then in describing the track; he’s French, and he is a past Cleveland race winner.

“It’s a very smooth version of Cleveland,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk heading into the weekend. “It’s very flat, and very fan friendly because you get the view for everyone. Everyone can see the track from any one point. But as a new event, it’s always very difficult. It’s tough to know exactly how it will go.”

Bourdais cautioned against comparing NOLA’s track surface directly to Cleveland’s though, even if the sight lines might be similar.

“I’m more comparing the setting to the track itself,” he said. “Cleveland was a very rough concrete, specific track on its own. I wouldn’t venture comparing NOLA to that. But we have a pretty good idea where we need to be here, setup-wise.”

Indeed Bourdais was Chevrolet’s thorn in Team Penske’s side at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two weeks ago. Penske’s quartet of Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finished first, second, fourth and fifth after sweeping the top four spots in qualifying, albeit not in that order.

While the Penske contingent will no doubt look to continue their dominance this weekend, Bourdais for KVSH Racing and Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams will be among those looking to interrupt the Penske group.

Dixon, along with teammates Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam, actually christened NOLA for IndyCar with a January test. The three-time series champion described the improvements from that first test, pre-aero kits, to then their second test on March 14 with the aero kits.

“Obviously the speeds were up, and by a big amount,” Dixon told MotorSportsTalk. “It was at least a second for everyone. For us, we were almost two seconds a lap quicker from when we were there with the old kit.”

Dixon, who will be in a blue Brita-backed No. 9 Chevrolet for CGR in what is unofficially the first non-Target race since 1989, expects Turns 1 and 10 to be the two primary passing opportunities at the new circuit.

“It’s going to be hard to tell until the tire degradation to the end of stints,” Dixon explained. “Turn 1 they’ll need to turn it down. It’s sneaky into 3 and maybe 4 as well? Then if someone makes a mistake in 5, it’s possible to get one into 6. But the big ones should be after the straights 1 and 10.”

Tire degradation, at least of Firestone’s primary and alternate dry-weather tires, may not be a factor. Heavy rain is in the forecast for each of the three days this weekend and that presents another threat: puddles if the track’s drainage system fails to drain properly.

“There’s at least an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms… if that’s the case, it would be a challenge,” Bourdais said. “They did a nice job on the track, but drainage wise it would be a problem. We could have a weather issue.”

IndyCar was affected by rain at three events last year: Barber, Houston race one, and Toronto.

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the time-shortened Barber race; Carlos Huertas scored a shock win at Houston and Bourdais and Mike Conway split the shortened, single-day doubleheader in Toronto after rain washed the first of two races out and postponed it.

St. Petersburg winner Montoya was a star in the rain in his first CART stint – he won his most recent IndyCar street race prior to St. Pete in the wet conditions at Vancouver in 1999.

Other podium finishers in the rain last year included Marco Andretti and Dixon at Barber, Montoya and Carlos Munoz in Houston, and Castroneves, Power and Tony Kanaan in Toronto. Takuma Sato was also a joy to watch in the Houston rain before an accident with Mikhail Aleshin took them both out.

Judging by Huertas’ win though in Houston, and the fact most IndyCar races are wide open to begin with, it’s difficult picking any winner for the inaugural race at NOLA.

Dixon is as good a bet as any though. He has won revived or new races at the Motegi road course (2011), Detroit street course (2012), Pocono (2013) and Houston race one (2013) in the last four years.

Pagenaud will look for back-to-back inaugural race wins, having conquered the Grand Prix of Indianapolis last year.

In terms of a surprise pick? Andretti, Kimball and Graham Rahal are sneaky good in the wet, and Kimball traditionally runs well at faster road courses. Keep an eye out for these three.

But until the Penske quartet is knocked off their perch, in any weather, it’s still tough to bet against any of Montoya, Power, Pagenaud or Castroneves.