“It's going to be impossible to pass there. It's made for bikes.”
“There's one heavy braking zone, so in theory you could overtake there – but it will be so easy to block the inside line without it looking like a block…”
“Qualifying is going to decide the race because the pit lane is so narrow, you won't be able to jump anyone if we all pit together under yellow and make similar length pit stops.”
All of the comments above have been made by IZOD IndyCar Series drivers about Barber Motorsports Park since the open test there in February. All wished to remain anonymous, but all are aces who you'd expect to see pulling off passes – on any other track.
It's a pity, because the first test there back in October 2007 attracted a strong spectator attendance (unheard of at IndyCar tests) and that definitely galvanized the series and the track owners into getting their acts together to create a race weekend. However, some of us recall that there was going to be a reconfiguration of the track in time for the first IndyCar race, so that there would be at least one genuine passing zone. Was that over-optimism from the series or an idea that got canned by those in charge of the venue? Did the Indy Racing League not get heavy enough with them to enforce an agreement? Or did such a major investment get shuffled to the bottom of priorities due to the economic crisis? These questions – and a resolution – will assume new importance if the third race of the IZOD IndyCar Series season is as drab as the first two were exciting…
Ah, well, the track isn't going to be altered before Sunday, so it is what it is – which is an intriguing driver challenge. As is so often the case on tracks where it's hard to pass, its narrowness actually makes it quite a tough course to master. At the open test, Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti stuffed his car seriously, and both Mike Conway and Justin Wilson contributed to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's repair bills. If you haven't done so already – or haven't watched the Grand-Am races there – do a search on YouTube, and you'll see from the onboard camera footage that it will be easy to make an error at Barber – and difficult to make that error have small consequences. Barber also has a satisfying amount of elevation changes, too, so it will be a picturesque event, if not a dynamic race. And, judging by the latest weather forecasts, there's no chance of rain to spice up the action.
Still, there are going to be many points of interest. For instance, given the bitingly cold conditions at the test, no one quite knows how the Firestone tires are going to bear up in the forecast 75-degree heat of Sunday. While that's a perfectly comfortable ambient temperature, cars with poor balance are going to cook their front tires on the proliferation of decreasing-radius turns at Barber, especially when running the softer option red tires. Saving reds for the race won't necessarily be an enticing prospect, so there may be quite a few teams who decide to run red-red-used reds in the three stages of qualifying given the increased emphasis on grid position. And, come the race, there are going to be some drivers grateful that it's so hard to pass there. They'll be the ones circling the 17-turn, 2.38-mile course at the head of a crocodile of cars…
It doesn't take an aspiring Einstein to predict that the Team Penske trio will figure strongly, especially given that they dominated Barber's open test. Will Power is obviously approaching the top of his game and he's admitted it bugs him that he hasn't yet won an Indy car race on what he considers a true road course. (He classifies Edmonton as an airport course.) But he is also aware that Ryan Briscoe, buoyed by his comeback from 19th on the grid to finish third in St. Petersburg, is an excellent road course driver whose pole position laps at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio last year were from the very top drawer.
Yup, Briscoe in full flow is a formidable driver, given his immense bravery, so expect him to push to the nth degree all weekend. As for Helio Castroneves, he hasn't taken a pole or victory on a non-oval since Infineon in August 2008, but he's no pushover, either, and he's well aware that he needs to be more than just consistently racking up points if he's going to contend for the IndyCar Series title that has eluded him through his decade at Penske.
But there are too many brains at Ganassi for the team to allow defeat at the opening two rounds of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season to have cowed them into submission. Expect a comeback. When you have Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon as your drivers, you'd have to be doing something very wrong not to be contenders at every track on the calendar. And remember, Dixon ended the Barber open test less than 0.2sec off Power's time. We truly haven't seen how Penske and Ganassi compare on road courses this year, so that will be one of the major points of interest this weekend.
Although Franchitti redeemed his awful practice/qualifying days at St. Pete with a clinically excellent drive to fifth in the race, while Dixon made his two mistakes on race day, don't be surprised to see the Kiwi emerge as TCGR's star this weekend. The 2003 and '08 champ had a small but decisive edge over the eventual champion on all road courses except Sonoma last season (it's a prime tire compound thing) and Dixon, who currently languishes in 11th in the point standings, is desperate to make amends for his St. Pete mistakes. Nonetheless, we're talking very small margins when it comes to who has pre-eminence at any given time at Ganassi. Only someone with no knowledge of Indy car racing in the last 15 years would be surprised to see Franchitti on the front row at any track!
Wilson is one of the drivers you can expect to see reaching the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday and none of the Penske/Ganassi quintet would ever be dumb enough to count out the No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold driver on a course that involved right as well as left turns. Perhaps, ominously for them, Wilson was immediately comfortable with D&R's road course package from the moment he tried it, making only minor tweaks during his first test. He was a little more questioning of the team's street course setup…and yet on the back of two street races, he has two second-row starts to his name and he lies joint second in the championship (despite every misfortune being hurled his way in Sao Paulo). His opposition needs no more warning.
Aside from Franchitti, Wilson is sharing that second place in the points table with Ryan Hunter-Reay – who still hasn't been confirmed as an Andretti Autosport driver for the whole season. It seems unthinkable that he wouldn't get the full-time ride, but far stranger things have happened in Indy car racing. Hunter-Reay's powerful performance in Brazil caught many by surprise, for he had been rated more highly as a road course driver than a street specialist. At the first road course of the season, no one would be surprised to see the No. 37 IZOD-backed machine leading the AA charge. However, Marco Andretti appears to have found a new lease on life with engineer Tino Belli and the team's back-to-basics approach to the 2010 season, and Tony Kanaan is simply a top-quality driver who can never be ruled out.
Following his excellent first test with KV Racing Technologies at Barber, don't be surprised to see Takuma Sato shining on the sort of track he's more used to from his decade of racing in European-based championships. Teammate EJ Viso – who deserved to score his first IndyCar podium finish in St. Pete – will, at the very least, run Sato close.
It would be a surprise to see any other drivers fighting for podium places, but series sophomores Mike Conway (D&R) and Raphael Matos (Luczo Dragon Racing de Ferran Motorsports) certainly have the talent – and, often, the cars – to rise to prominence. HVM Racing's rookie Simona de Silvestro is also due some luck to match her talent, but Alex Tagliani and the FAZZT Race Team may struggle, having missed the Barber test. Having said that, who expected the Canadian to stick the No. 77 car on the front row in Brazil, despite his acknowledged street course prowess?
As any follower of the IZOD IndyCar Series will tell you, full-course cautions in either qualifying or the race can change the entire complexion of the weekend and that's when it becomes a real team sport. On a circuit that's as difficult to pass on as Barber Motorsports Park, a strategist who thinks swiftly, correctly and fortunately could put the eighth- or ninth-fastest driver/car combination into the lead. So enjoy what you watch on Versus at 3 p.m. Eastern on Sunday…but for the sake of both excitement and preparation for the race, log onto live video streaming and timing on Indycar.com for the practice sessions at 12:50 and 4pm on Friday and qualifying at 9:20am Saturday. Or, if you can wait for your info, Versus will replay qualifying at 6pm on Saturday.