Checking the formbook for this weekend's second round of the IZOD IndyCar Series at Barber Motorsports Park.
PENSKE'S PERFECT RECORD
Only one IndyCar team has won a race at Barber Motorsports Park, only one team has taken a pole there, either. OK, we're only talking a three-year history of the IZOD IndyCar Series at the 16-turn 2.38-mile facility, but make no mistake, Team Penske has got this place figured out. Will Power could have had all three poles but last year, circumstance – an untimely yellow flag during Q2 – prevented his fastest run being counted. But there was teammate Helio Castroneves to pick up the baton and snag pole, just as he had done when a strategic error relegated Power in the inaugural race there two years earlier.
Last year, Tim Cindric's strategy for the No. 12 Verizon car worked to perfection and Power's speed and tire management made it work as he climbed from ninth to Victory Lane. And if this year's final preseason test was anything to go by, it's hard to see past another Penske victory at Barber in 2013 if the race is decided on sheer pace.
Given its high grip surface, this is a track that demands bravery and confidence, and these are some of the highest cards in Power's hand. Castroneves, too, continues to belie his age and experience, and has as much commitment as he did when piloting 900hp “Renskes” (Penske-modified Reynards) over a decade ago. Mighty impressive.
As Power noted in his recent RACER.com column, their temporary teammate AJ Allmendinger will find rewards in lap speed with every incremental increase in confidence. The Californian is being directly compared to two of the best drivers in the series, and he has high standards and high demands of himself, so he's unlikely to end qualifying in contented mood. What the team will be happy with, though, is seeing Allmendinger start in the top 12, and then race his way into the top six. It will be tough – this is a close series – and he will probably have to pull off some brave maneuvers. But Allmendinger has always been a tough s.o.b. and the old line of “I just want to keep my nose clean and stay out of trouble” is not what he's about, nor what Penske hired him for.
HINCH ON A HIGH
Of the drivers who can bite the Penske ankles, Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe is one of the most likely to succeed in making a thorough nuisance of himself. Following St. Petersburg, the Canadian now has the confidence of knowing – not just believing – he's a winner, and that makes a difference to every driver, whether he or she admits it or not.
But, aside from that, “Hinch” also shines on this track. Remember, it was at Barber where he made his IndyCar debut in 2011 (having missed St. Pete through sponsorship issues) and he qualified eighth, barely 0.1sec behind his Newman/Haas Racing teammate Oriol Servia. Then, last year, he was in contention for a place on the front row even before Power's mishap, and qualified just a tick behind eventual pole-sitter Castroneves. In preseason testing, too, he and AA teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay were closer than anyone to beating Penske. Yep, James should be a major contender this weekend.
Defending IndyCar champion Hunter-Reay will be eager to put on a strong showing after his somewhat quiet start in Florida two weeks ago, and he has the aggression to make great progress on race day wherever he qualifies…providing his car allows him to do so. Marco Andretti's performance at St. Petersburg suggests he may be the most improved driver of the series in 2013, but obviously he has to keep up this momentum. Barber has been one of his strong tracks in years past, and if he really is mastering the art of looking after his tires, he has the other necessary skills in his armory to take full advantage.
The fourth Andretti car, that of EJ Viso, should also not be discounted. If he brings his A game, there's no reason why he can't be a top-five finisher.
Anyone who seeks to blame Honda for Target Chip Ganassi Racing's issues at St. Petersburg is clearly delusional. Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon were not bitching about the engine but about their cars' handling. Dixon made good progress on raceday, climbing from 20th on the grid to finish fifth, while Franchitti's weekend went from mediocre (qualified 10th) to barely adequate even before he ended the race hard against the wall. It was sad to see the Scot, even while on grippy red tires, being passed by cars running on the harder compound.
And it's hard to picture his fortunes picking up in Barber which has been one of Franchitti's few weak tracks. Just getting solid points on the board will be a relief. Dixon, by contrast, has finished runner-up here for all three previous IndyCar races but to do so again would go against the form we saw in testing and in the season opener, especially given the increasing volume of opposition from such as KV Racing and the Schmidt cars.
MESSER SCHMIDT AND KILLER KV
Schmidt Hamilton Racing / Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have the potential to be the upsetters, much as they were last year. Simon Pagenaud is an IndyCar champion-in-waiting, so top quality drives from the No. 77 SHR car should be expected. But SPM pilot Tristan Vautier has proven that graduation from Indy Lights holds no fear for him and he should have finished in the top five in St. Pete. I see an intra-team rivalry brewing here – although if Sam Schmidt and general manager Rob Edwards are able to prevent it becoming an all-out war, there's no reason why it can't be productive.
KV Racing's Simona De Silvestro and Tony Kanaan grabbed a healthy bunch of points at Round 1, and there's no reason to suppose they won't do so again, but KV's history has shown that it doesn't always work that way, the team's pace often as inexplicably erratic as their drivers' composure in previous seasons. But if the team is firing on all cylinders, Kanaan and De Silvestro can shine.
Sebastien Bourdais was one of many drivers who spent the Barber race last year proving that the sinewy and narrow course did allow overtaking; the fact that Seb achieved this despite the Lotus engine was a triumph of determination over science. However, if Dragon Racing return with the setup that perplexed Bourdais in preseason testing, then he and teammate Sebastian Saavedra will struggle. If the car's good, by contrast, expect fireworks.
Takuma Sato is King of the Unexpected, as he proved again with his front-row qualifying performance at St. Petersburg, and AJ Foyt Racing's Barber setup last year proved effective in Mike Conway's hands. The Dale Coyne Racing team has to make a huge leap in performance here since last year, as Justin Wilson spent the 2012 edition of the race holding onto a car that handled like a three-legged mule.
There's no reason why this track shouldn't play to JWil's strengths, however, and the same goes for Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and Alex Tagliani (Bryan Herta Autosport).
However, expect everyone to be chasing Penske. My prediction – Power, Hinchcliffe and Castroneves as your top three starters, with the three of them being joined by Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Pagenaud come race day.