Friday’s IndyCar Practice Report From Barber Motorsports Park

LEEDS, Ala – It started off as a rainy start to the day for the first of two NTT IndyCar Series practice sessions at the Barber Motorsports Park. That caused the opening session to see plenty of on track incidents.

James Hinchcliffe spun on pit road. Matheus Leist spun in Turn 5 and clipped the tire barrier in his No. 4 Chevrolet bringing out the first red flag. His teammate Tony Kanaan then brought out the next stoppage when his No. 14 Chevrolet spun when he was exiting Turn 16. Then, Spencer Pigot brought out the third and final red flag in the 45 minute session when his No. 21 Chevrolet got off course and into the sand traps in Turn 17.

Scott Dixon practices his No. 9 Honda on Friday at the Barber Motorsports Park – INDYCAR Media Site


At the end of the session, Felix Rosenqvist topped the speed charts in his No. 10 Honda. The Swedish rookie circled the 2.38-mile road course with a time of 1:09.2296-seconds. His teammate Scott Dixon was P4 in his No. 9 Honda as the defending series champion turned in a time of 1:09.4373-seconds.

Dixon, has never won on the Alabama road course before but does have five runner-up finishes.

Sebastien Bourdais was second quickest in his No. 18 Honda with a time of 1:09.2750-seconds. Bourdais, is coming off of a fifth place finish two weeks ago in COTA as well as a fifth place run in this very race last year. Furthermore, Bourdais has scored three top eight finishes in his last four Barber starts.

Hinchcliffe, was third overall in his No. 5 Honda with a lap of 1:09.3276-seconds while Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five. Hunter-Reay (1:09.4452-seconds) finished second in last year’s rain delayed event to go along with having four top five finishes, two of which race wins, in his last five Barber starts.

Colton Herta was P6 in his No. 88 Honda. The two-time defending race winner and winner of the season opener in St. Pete in Josef Newgarden was P14.

How much can you take away from this session compared to a drier one later on in the day remains to be seen. There’s a chance of rain each of the final two days of the weekend, but if the weather doesn’t it during qualifying on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. ET/NBCSN) or the race on Sunday (4 p.m. ET/NBCSN/IndyCar Radio Network) then this season is a moot point. If it does rain or the track is wet, then we can bank a lot on this session.

Session 2

James Hinchcliffe sped to the top of the leaderboard late in the final session of the day as he paced the afternoon practice session. The Canadian driver circled the 2.38-mile road course with a lap of 1:08.994-seconds in his No. 5 Honda being the only driver to go below a 1:09-second lap.

He did so in the Firestone alternates in the end.

Rookie Colton Herta was P2 with a time of 1:09.0084-seconds in his No. 88 Honda. Herta, was fastest for a majority of the practice on his Firestone primaries.

The two Dale Coyne Racing entries were third and fourth overall with another rookie in Santino Ferrucci (1:09.0461-seconds) being third and Sebastien Bourdais (1:09.0068-seconds) fourth respectively.

Alexander Rossi (1:09.1140-seconds) rounded out the top five.

Takeaways

Honda’s Are Strong

It should come to no surprise that the top powerplant so far this weekend is Honda. They’ve been quick in all three stops this season. Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, Harding Steinbrenner Racing as well as Dale Coyne Racing were all strong. James Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry was fast as well.

In the first session, Honda had the top six speeds and eight of the top nine. In the second session, they had the top six speeds again and eight of the top 10 overall. Out of the top 17 speeds in the final session, only four of them belonged to the bowties.

The race for the pole on Saturday and the win on Sunday goes through Honda right now.

Pato O’Ward circling the Barber Motorsports Park facility on Friday – IndyCar Media Site


Pato O’Ward Best Chevy Driver So Far This Weekend

This also shouldn’t be a shock, but rookie driver Pato O’Ward was fast once again. The Mexican driver has won four times at Barber before, all four coming in either Indy Pro 2000 or Indy Lights competition.

In the last race at COTA, O’Ward qualified his No. 31 Chevrolet eighth. He’d finish in the top 10 as well.

On Friday, he was tops among all Chevy drivers in the first session coming in P7. The eight other cars around him were all Honda drivers.

In the second session, he was P8.

“It’s really exciting to be back at Barber Motorsports Park – it’s been a good track for me,” said the rookie.”Our day has been interesting. Our first session was pretty scrappy, but we were right on pace. For the second session, everyone got to put on red (Firestone alternate) tires, but for some reason, it really altered the balance and made a huge difference between the blacks (Firestone primary tires) and the reds. We’ll need to definitely work on that for tomorrow and see exactly what the No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet needs for those Firestone reds for qualifying. We weren’t the only ones struggling – I feel like a lot of cars did as well. Regardless, we’ll get it worked out tonight and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

It appears that his third career Indy Car start is going to look a lot like his previous two. That’s a very good thing for this series.

James Hinchcliffe practicing at Barber Motorsports Park on Friday – INDYCAR Media Site


James Hinchcliffe’s Strong Day Makes Him Not Just A Sleeper, But A Favorite

Vegas may have James Hinchcliffe as a +2500 bet, but I think after Friday, he should be a favorite. See, Hinchcliffe enters this weekend with a ton of speed in his No.5 Honda already. He finished sixth in the season opener at St. Pete and if not for a late race incident two weeks ago in COTA, he would have gained nearly 10 positions to another top 10.

Now, he was third and first respectively in practice on Friday at Barber, making him a legitimate threat to win Sunday’s race.

Plus, Hinchcliffe finished third in last year’s race to go along with five consecutive top seven finishes at Barber overall.

“Everything on the No. 5 Arrow car has been working well so far,” said the days fastest driver. “It’s crazy – we’ve seen it all year, the amount of red flags we’re having in sessions; I think it’s just a function of everyone trying to push for those last few hundredths and thousandths (of a second) because it’s so competitive right now. Honda did a great job – I think they locked out the top six there, which is great. For us, it’s always interesting in Practice 2 with the reds (Firestone alternate tires). I don’t think a lot of people got out of the reds what they were expecting, ourselves included. I don’t think we’ve ever been P1 in a session and been so happy with the balance if I’m totally honest.”

Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power practicing at Barber Motorsports Park on Friday – INDYCAR Media Site


Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing Top Sleepers

I said that Hinchcliffe should be moved to the favorite category, well Dale Coyne Racing should be in the sleepers one. Sebastien Bourdais is +1200 and while he’s never on at Barber before, he does have three top eight finishes in his last four tries including a fifth place finish a year ago. On top of that, Bourdais brings with him a fifth place result in the last race at COTA and warned ahead of this weekend that he should have a solid No. 18 Honda off the truck.

Well, he was right.

The Frenchman was second and fourth respectively in the two sessions on Friday.

“It was a good day for the No. 18 SealMaster Honda team,” said Bourdais. “I am pretty happy with the car on blacks (Firestone primary tires). I didn’t get my fast lap during the first run on blacks, then went faster on the second run. So, we have left some on the table, which is why I am fairly confident and happy with the way things went. We got a weird read, but weren’t the only ones, with the Firestone reds (alternate tires). As soon as the sun came out, the track got about a full second slower on the alternates. That’s never been seen before. We tried a couple of things, but I can’t say we did a whole lot. The baseline setup was strong, so hopefully, we can make some little tweaks to it and make it better for tomorrow. Overall, a satisfying day.”

His DCR rookie teammate of Santino Ferrucci was quick too. While he was only 21st fastest in the first session, he was third overall on the day in his No. 19 Honda. Ferrucci, enters this weekend as a +12,500 bet.

“It was a good first day here at Barber Motorsports Park,” said the rookie driver. “In Practice 1 this morning, we didn’t run too much because of the conditions. In Practice 2, we went out on the primary Firestone tire and we were instantly competitive. The David Yurman car felt really good and I was pretty confident. But then we put the red (Firestone alternate) tires on, and we still have a lot to learn. So, there’s still a little bit of work to do before going into qualifying tomorrow, but I have confidence in the team. It’s nice to end the day near the top of the time sheets, even if it’s just the first day of practice.”

Rookie Colton Herta and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay practicing at Barber Motorsports Park on Friday – INDYCAR Media Site


Andretti Autosport Top Overall Team

Yes, Hinchcliffe was the top driver on Friday and a legitimate threat to win on Sunday. Yes, Dale Coyne Racing had both cars in the top four, but if you go in strength by numbers, the Andretti Autosport group was the best.

All four of their team cars were found in the top 12. In fact, three of them were in the top nine in the final session.

Alexander Rossi was ninth and fifth respectively in his No. 27 Honda. The American has finished in the top 10 just once in three tries at Barber, but that once was a fifth place run in 2017.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was strong again in practice with taking his No. 28 Honda to fifth and sixth respectively on the speed charts. He finished runner-up in 2018 and has four top five finishes in his last five Barber starts.

Marco Andretti was 11th and ninth respectively in his No. 98 Honda while Zach Veach was 22nd and 12th himself.

Andretti’s goal is to leave Barber in the top five of the points standings on Sunday, but he says if he wants to accomplish that feat, then he has to have luck in qualifying. The speed is showing to be there.

Veach, couldn’t turn a hot lap in the first session, hence his lap time. He was either caught in traffic or caught out by a red flag.

The fifth car, an alliance car with Harding in Colton Herta was sixth and second respectively.

Josef Newgarden practicing at Barber Motorsports Park on Friday – INDYCAR Media Site


Team Penske Struggled

For a team that has dominated at Barber, they struggled in practice on Friday. Josef Newgarden has won the last two races on the Alabama road course for Penske and three of the last four overall, was only 14th and 18th respectively in practice.

“Not a great day, to be honest,” said Newgarden. “We seem to be missing something at the moment. It seems like all of us are searching for something. That means we really need to put our heads together tonight and really look at things closely as a team and come up with some good solutions for tomorrow. I feel confident we’ll figure something out for the No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Chevy. We’re just off today and we weren’t very quick. I’m always confident with this group and I think we’ll find something. We just need to work really hard tonight.”

Will Power agreed with Newgarden, saying they have some stuff to work out overnight.

“We definitely have some work to do to make the car better for tomorrow,” Power said. “We have a really strong team and we’re going to go over the data tonight to see what we can come up with. I think we found some good stuff in that session that we will implement for tomorrow for the No. 12 Verizon Chevy and see if we can improve the time sheets.”

Simon Pagenaud won this race in 2016 but was only 10th and 15th himself. The Frenchman though has more optimism than his teammates, saying that they may have more speed than they showed.

“We were trying a few different things on the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet today,” said Pagenaud. “We understand what we need to get ready for qualifying tomorrow and that’s why these practices are so important. I think we do have some good pace in the car. We didn’t show everything we have today, so tomorrow will be very interesting. I think it’s going to be very tight in qualifying, but hopefully that bright Menards Chevy will be at the front of the grid for Sunday’s race here at Barber.”

Penske, has won six of the nine stops at Barber, but they look to be about the fifth best organization to start this weekend. Between them and Andretti Autosport, they’ve won all but one of the races at Barber.

The drivers spoke on how much energy they spent this offseason trying to make gains in the street course program. It paid off with a win in the season opener in St. Pete. They were fearful though that with all the attention they spent to improve in one area, they may lose in another.

Maybe natural road courses was it.

We will see what they do on Saturday.

Firestone Primaries Slower For Some Reason

A majority of the drivers are puzzled as we head to the end of opening day of practice. See, in the second session, the drivers were all allowed to put on the Firestone Reds. These tires have more grip levels which in turn produces quicker speeds. The only problem with the alternate tire is that they don’t last as long as the primaries. Hence the strategy.

But, in this particular session, most of the drivers really struggled to go faster on the alternate tire. Most, actually went slower than their laps on Firestone Blacks.

That was puzzling.

“The reds (Firestone alternate tires) seemed like blacks (Firestone primary tires) and the blacks seemed like reds, so I’m in a mentality of being prepared to qualify on the blacks,” said Marco Andretti. 

Last race winner Colton Herta who was sixth and second quickest today was equally as puzzled.

“I think we’re all a little puzzled with how the reds (Firestone alternate tires) reacted because almost everyone went slower on the reds, so we’re not sure what happened there,” said the new 19 year old.

Alexander Rossi echoed their statements on his day too.

“The big mystery to take away from today is the Firestone reds (alternate tires) were a lot worse for me and it’s unusual for the reds to be slower. We’ll have to understand why that is and work through it, but it was the same for the whole field. With that being said, we’re a tenth out of being P1, so we’ll keep chipping away at it to hopefully get to our third Firestone Fast Six tomorrow.”

It wasn’t just the Andretti team, Graham Rahal said everyone minus one driver struggled on them on Friday.

“No one went quicker on the red (Firestone alternate) tires other than maybe Hinch (James Hinchcliffe), which was unusual. They are going to be a major challenge; the balance shift is massive.

It seems like all the drivers said that the alternate tire created some understeering which in turn hurt their pace. The engineers are all very smart though as I’d expect them to figure it out before Sunday and ensure the tires get quicker.

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