Takuma Sato dominates Barber Motorsports Park on way to IndyCar win

4 Comments

Takuma Sato won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama for his fourth career series victory after leading the field to green from the pole and dominating the race.

Even with a comfortable lead, he was giving it his all during the final laps. With less than five laps remaining, Sato ran off course and knocked a diffuser from the bottom of his Honda, but if anything, it made him a little faster. He had an off course excursion in that same turn complex (Turn 8/9) during Friday’s practice.

Over the course of those last five laps, Sato extended his lead from a little under two seconds to a 2.3874-second advantage over Scott Dixon, who was under heavy pressure from Sebastien Bourdais.

“This is because of the team,” Sato said at the conclusion of the race on NBCSN. “They made a fantastic effort. That car was superb – red tire, black tire, I didn’t have to worry about it.”

Sato credited his teammate for helping him find the setup that allowed him to dominate.

“This morning warmup helped a lot. Thank you very much to Graham Rahal, my teammate. We (found) a problem and he found a very good setup and I installed it.”

Sato’s dominant weekend vaulted him 10 position to third in the standings from 13th entering the race.

For Dixon – who remains winless at Barber – it was his sixth second-place finish at the track.

Dixon finished second to Josef Newgarden in 2017, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013, Will Power in 2011 and 2012, and Helio Castroneves in 2010.

“It was really tough,” Dixon said. “We had a lot of [tire degradation]. We started off and we could push really hard and be really quick and close the gap – even on some of those crossovers in the pits, we were able to hone in on Graham and Sato early on in the race.

“But the last 10 laps were really miserable. On that last run, I tried to hold a steady gap to Taku.”

Dixon admitted to being a little annoyed with all of his second-place finishes before the race, but given how this protected his position in the standings, he was anything but annoyed this week. Dixon leap frogged Colton Herta to land second in the points.

“Catching (Dixon) was no problem,” Bourdais said. “It was the push to pass in a lap and I was in his rear wing. The problem was both times I did, as soon as I got behind him, it started to slip and slide. The tires are not that fresh anymore at that point.”

Coming off back-to-back wins and three victories in the last four Barber races, Josef Newgarden finished fourth. Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five.

The only caution of the day didn’t wave until Lap 58, but to make up for lost time, it was for multiple issues. Max Chilton crashed at pit entry when he ran up on a slowing Tony Kanaan – who made a late entry to pit lane because Rahal stalled on track in Turn 8.

Losing power on track put a period to a long and frustrating day for the outside pole sitter.

Rahal had a throttle issue on Lap 19 before losing power for good on Lap 58.

“About Lap 3, the throttle began to stick,” Rahal said on NBCSN. “I tried to make it hang on; we did maybe 15 laps that way. Finally, it was going to put me in a gravel trap or something. It was hanging on way to much. And then the car died. Completely shut off. We had this in qualifying, luckily it was on my cool down lap from the lap I went P2. These two have to be interconnected.”

Colton Herta retained the lead in the Rookie of the Year standings despite a disappointing day.

He went from first in the most recent race to last (24th) at Barber with a fuel pickup problem on Lap 33 after experiencing an engine issue early in the race.

Click here for complete results

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Marcus Ericsson was the highest finishing rookie of the race in seventh. … Felix Rosenqvist finished 10th to score his second top-10 of the season. … James Hinchcliffe rebounded from a 16th-place finish at Circuit of the Americas to finish sixth.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ed Jones got off to a strong start – too strong as it turned out. When the green flag waved over a slow start, he jumped the field advancing from 21st to fourth before Turn 1 Jones was penalized with a drive through penalty and never recovered. He finished 19th. … Max Chilton ran out of room on the pit road entry and nosed into the Turn 16 wall. He lost two laps while they pulled him back on track to finish 22nd.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Oh my gosh, what a delightful day. What a delightful day yesterday. I’m sorry about Graham. Something went to sleep on him, but Takuma Sato – fantastic afternoon.” – David Letterman, team owner of Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan Racing.

WHAT’S NEXT: IndyCar heads to Long Beach, Calif. for next Sunday’s Grand Prix of Long Beach on NBCSN (coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET).

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

IndyCar has big plans on, off track for first test at Thermal Club: ‘It’s an amazing facility’

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
0 Comments

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Quantity isn’t a problem for NTT IndyCar Series drivers seeking source material for their first test on track at The Thermal Club. There’s plentiful video of the drivers making laps on the private track that bills itself as a world-class facility.

It’s quality that’s an issue with trying to do homework for their first (and possibly last) test on the 17-turn, 2.9-mile road course.

Thermal is billed as a motorsports country club of sorts, giving the rich and famous an opportunity to drive and store vintage cars at racing playground that has more than 200 members and $5 million, 30,000-square-foot homes sprouting constantly.

IndyCar’s arrival Thursday and Friday for its first full-field open test in the preseason since 2020 will mark a new era of professional racing at Thermal, which primarily has catered to amateurs (often in a fantasy camp-type setting).

Colton Herta tried doing some YouTube research on Thermal recently but gave up after watching the third lap of “some dude in a Ferrari” navigating the course that is nestled in the Coachella Valley just south of Joshua Tree National Park and north of the Salton Sea.

“It’s difficult to watch some of the onboards because it’s not really professional drivers, and they have like the cones set out on the track, where to turn in and where to get on the brakes, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Herta said. “Yeah, I watched a little bit before I got too bored and turned away. But the track walk will be important. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

The track walk happened Wednesday afternoon after two days of wall-to-wall media obligations at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Conor Daly and Scott McLaughlin were among many drivers who were antsy to head southeast to the ritzy track (where many drivers have been staying in high-end casitas on the 470-acre property this week). Herta said his main concern was having enough runoff area as drivers knock off the offseason rust because “you do tend to drop a wheel here and there, have a spin if you’re getting back in the car for the first time in a few months.”

“I sort of don’t really know where the track goes,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like I’m going to get lost out there.”

With IndyCar increasingly limiting test time, Daly said sessions such as Thermal “are really, really important. We can train all we want, but there’s nothing like getting in these cars to drive to really prepare yourself for the first race. It’s going to be important to try to do as many laps as possible.”

Of course, what makes Thermal even more rare is that it’s not on the IndyCar schedule nor has it been a testing venue in the past. Sebring International Raceway also doesn’t play host to a race, but it’s become a tried and true place for teams seeking to hone their setups.

An IndyCar Series hauler is unloaded Monday at The Thermal Club track ahead of preseason testing Thursday and Friday (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

Thermal will be the first time IndyCar is learning an entirely new track since the streets of Nashville nearly two years ago, but in this case, it’s unknown how applicable it’ll be in the future. Some drivers speculated that it could translate to Portland with its length (lap times are projected at more than a minute and 40 seconds), but it’s an unknown how slippery the surface will be for tire wear (probably 20-lap stints, which are relatively short).

“It’s hard when it comes to just two full days of testing because obviously some people will adapt to it quicker than others,” Daly said. “You might feel like a hero, then the next day you might feel like a zero because some people have caught up.

“But these days are important because hopefully it is an indication for us on all the permanent road circuits that we go: Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Indy GP. Hopefully it’s helpful for us in all those scenarios. We’ll see what happens, I guess. It doesn’t matter to us how fast we go, as long as we get something out of it, right? How do we judge some changes? If that’s great for a certain section of the track, right, that could represent a section of another road track we go to. There’s a lot that we can learn, for sure. Realistically we kind of have to keep ourselves  in check with our expectations.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said drivers “probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance. We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.

“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”

Said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal: “I’m not sure how much (the Thermal track) relates. We’re running a Barber tire, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the desert here. If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re varying shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.

“We’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change. We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”

IndyCar also will be measuring the results of the test beyond timing and scoring.

The Indianapolis Star reported there have been informal talks about having a pro-am event in the future. With the test closed to the general public but open to its high-dollar clientele, there could be potentially millions of liquid capital at stake for future team investment if the Thermal Club’s members take a shine to IndyCar.

Thermal was throwing a posh welcoming event Wednesday night that was expected to have drivers, series executives and residents mingling with dancing and drinks.

Simon Pagenaud, who has explored the concept of starting a motorsports country club in his native France, is intrigued by the long-term marriage of IndyCar and Thermal.

“This kind of racetrack — what they do with their members, the passion of cars —  is really something,” Pagenaud said.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson likes the appeal of testing in Southern California instead of Central Florida.

“This time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” Ericsson said. “I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring.

“For me, this is a lot better to come here. I like the idea a lot of having the preseason testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together.”

Said Alexander Rossi, who will be making his debut in an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet this week: “It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that has the appropriate climate. Not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing IndyCar to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of IndyCar. They may have known of IndyCar but never seen it in person.

“We’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”

McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist already has been staying at the villas inside the track all week.

“It’s an amazing facility,” he said. “I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.

“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be.”