Although this is the first time the IZOD IndyCar Series will actually compete at Barber Motorsports Park, it won’t be the first time drivers have seen the track. The league has been there several times for testing since their first visit in October of 2007. The drivers and teams have raved about the beauty of the circuit and grounds and facilities, and the drivers are quick to mention how much fun the course is to drive with its high-g corners and elevation changes. With the narrow width of the track, though, it remains to be seen how good the racing will actually turn out to be.
The most recent testing session at Barber was in late February, and it was no surprise that Team Penske monopolized the top three spots on the time sheets with one exception. Justin Wilson during the second session was able to squeeze between Will Power and Helio Castroneves for third fastest. In the other two sessions, it was Will Power (surprise, surprise) that was showing the fast way around the circuit putting up a 1:09.8724. The abnormally cool temperatures this year prevented Power from besting his previous record time of 1:09.4557. Look for that record time to fall quickly as the drivers hit the track beginning at 12:50pm CDT tomorrow! My prediction is for mid 1:08 by the end of the first session and don’t be surprised to see the front runners in the high 1:07’s during qualification on Saturday.
The two drivers to watch this weekend have to be Will Power and Justin Wilson. Power has the track record (unofficially) and has won the first two races of the season in dominating fashion. In Sao Paulo, he overtook Ryan Hunter-Reay for the lead late in the race and showed that Penske made the right decision to bring him on as a full-time driver. To put an exclaimation point on that, Power went on to be the quickest in every on-track session at St. Pete, practice, qualification, and the race. It was a truly spectacular demonstration of pure driving talent. Is there really any doubt that he’ll continue his strong performance at Barber? He may not prove as quick relative to the rest of the field as he was at St. Pete, but you can certainly expect him in the top five for each session, including the race.
It might not be a race that Power wins, though. Justin Wilson has shown to be extremely quick in his new Dreyer & Reinbold Racing machine so far this year, and he was quick at Barber this past February. This type of natural terrain road course fits Justin’s driving style very well, as he showed last year with his win for Dale Coyne Racing at Watkins Glen. Do not be surprised if you see Wilson’s Z-Line Designs car setting some of the fastest laps of the day during practice tomorrow.
Andretti Autosport has struggled a bit this season, especially their senior driver Tony Kanaan. The four drivers for the team, especially Ryan Hunter-Reay, have shown serious speed at various times, but the best result so far has been RHR’s 2nd place finish in Sao Paulo. Kanaan and Marco qualified well at St. Pete, but fell back to the mid-pack by the race’s end. Danica showed the most improvement, starting near the back of the grid to finish in 7th. This circuit should be a good one for Andretti Autosport as it plays to the strength of their drivers, three of their drivers anyway, yet during the test this February they were woefully off the pace.
If you’re looking for a dark horse to root for this weekend, look no farther than EJ Viso of KV Racing Technologies. During the winter test, he was as quick as anyone not in a Penske or Ganassi racer, and his performance at St. Pete was outstanding until a gearbox issue moved him from the race lead to several laps down by the end of the race. There’s no doubt that the KVRT equipment suits EJ quite well, and the team has found enough speed to make them serious threats this weekend.
The Barber Motorsports Park is a course very similar to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car course. It’s a venue that has a nice country club feel, nestled in a beautiful park-like setting with a track that is perfectly suited for motorcycles and sportscars. How well suited is it to major open-wheel racers? Well, we’ll see, but there are some concerns about the lack of passing zones and the narrowness of the track. One thing that everyone agrees on is that this circuit will be very demanding for the drivers. The straights are relatively short, so there’s little time to relax before you’re into another turn, and the turns are quite varied. There’s a good mix of slow speed, highly technical sections, and some high-speed, high-g, sections. Couple that with constant elevation changes, and you have a circuit that will require non-stop focus from the drivers all while the high g-loading works to suck the energy right out of them. More than the geometry of any corner itself, this combination of requiring high levels of concentration with high physical demands will result in plenty of overtaking opportunities. As drivers begin to tire, especially late in the race, mistakes will be made. The drivers who are able to maintain that ultra-high level of focus will be able to take advantage of the drivers with less metal discipline and physical fitness.
There are a couple of good overtaking spots even discounting the physical and metal strains. Turns 5 and 7 offer the best opportunities, and to a lesser degree Turn 11. All of these turns are tight turns at the end of a long straight. Turns 7 and 11, however, are quickly followed a turn to the opposite direction. After the right at Turn 7, Turn 8 is a sharp turn to the left followed immediately by another sharp right for Turn 9. If a driver can establish an inside position in Turn 7 and maintain their position, they can complete the pass in Turn 9. Maintaining the position on the outside line around Turn 8 will be the key. The left hand Turn 11 is followed by a sweeping sequence of right-handers, Turns 12, 13, and 14. Rather than setting up on the inside of Turn 11, you may see many drivers set up on the outside of this turn in order to establish the inside line through the three right-handed sweepers that follow.