For the third consecutive year, IZOD IndyCar Series teams and fans will make the trek to Barber Motorsports Park, nestled just outside Birmingham, Alabama. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama offers some of the most beautiful scenery schedule and a trying road course. This year, it will also offer another chance to see how the fortunes of the new DW12 and turbo engines are progressing.
Will Power dominated this event last year, leading every single lap en route to a commanding victory. With that said, teammate Helio Castroneves won this event in 2010, and is coming off a revitalizing win in the St. Petersburg opener. Few would be surprised to see the Penske drivers up front in contention this week.
For Marco Andretti, Barber has been a race of both potential and heartbreak. He's led 58 laps here, and was a poor fuel strategy call away from winning in 2010. After dropping back late in the race with handling issues, he'll look to continue his great run at this facility. The good news for Marco and his crew is that Andretti Autosport has looked sharp early, and they should be right in the thick of it after the green flag drops.
While the Chevys of teams such as Penske and Andretti had a fine weekend overall, Honda's result were somewhat more of a mixed bag. Scott Dixon finished 2nd for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but was the only Honda driver in the Top 5. They'll try to even the score at Barber, though right now it seems that Chevy has a slight advantage in terms of available power. Meanwhile, Lotus continues to try to catch up on their own development, hoping that mid-race run of Sèbastien Bourdais can be seen through to a great finish this week.
The gremlins of Week 1 in the IICS were startlingly few for a brand-new car and engine package, but they did exist. Bourdais ran well in his Lotus, but had to drop out with mechanical issues. Likewise, Honda drivers Mike Conway and Takuma Sato ran into problems that sidelined promising efforts, and St. Pete ace Tony Kanaan retired early when his Chevy's battery failed. Barber will be yet another proving ground in the early-season development for all the engines and teams alike.
Another key aspect to the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will be watching the fuel strategy play out. There seemed to be some considerable discrepancies in how long cars stayed out last weekend, and the sense of just where the maximum fuel range on this car remains elusive.
In terms of passing, Turn 5 is likely the best option for drivers to try, and braking will play heavily into that. Passing is tricky on this course, so when you see it, you'll know a driver earned it. This probably won't be a completely carnage-free race, and it's very possible we'll see some spirited restarts into the blind corners and varying elevations than help make Barber so striking.
Although with only two prior races as a reference, there are still a few drivers aside from Andretti, Power, and Castroneves that should be happy to return to Barber. Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti both have podiums here, and Oriol Servia waxed enthusiastically about this track last year before finishing P5. Don't forget Simon Pagenaud made his IICS IndyCar debut here in a relief outing for Ana Beatriz, finishing a sterling P8 after gaining 15 positions on the day. After a P7 at St. Pete, Barber could be just the thing Pags needs to improve his results even further.
One of the best aspects of the season so far is that nothing is defined, and nothing feels inevitable—especially not when you’re talking about teams and drivers still learning just how far their new equipment can be pushed. The storylines are there, from Chevy’s battery woes, to the stunning rise of Josef Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, to a solid slate of Mazda Road to Indy events.
However it plays out, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama should offer another weekend of strategy, surprises, and discovery for fans, teams, and drivers alike.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.