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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 Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.