When an ill-timed red flag in qualifying on Saturday robbed Will Power of a record lap time around the 2.38-mile, 17-turn Barber Motorsports Park road course and dumped him into ninth place on the starting grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, it looked like the Australian was going to be missing out on any chance of a win and would have to settle for damage control instead.
After all: no one can really pass at Barber. Especially not without the old push to pass power boost systems (and as for those new-fangled KERS and DRS toys the F1 drivers have - forget it.) Add to that a field still tip-toeing around their new hardware and scared about breaking anything, and there was no realistic prospect of seeing any real action around here.
Well, it turns out that someone forgot to send out the memo to that effect.
From the moment that Will Power and Simon Pagenaud went either side of a slow EJ Viso down into turn 5 on the first lap, the action didn't stop. Everywhere you looked there were fierce battles going on all over the place, up and down the running order - the battle for the top spot was no more or less fierce than the scramble that was going on over 20th. This was racing of a sheer level of sparkling entertainment and unpredictability that the IZOD IndyCar Series hasn't seen since ... You fill in the blank. If you say "since ever", we're not going to disagree with you.
In the process we found out that the new 2012 IndyCar Safety cell chassis - the DW12 - is a robust little bruiser. Who knew? That aero bodywork that everyone expected to shatter at the first glancing blow proved well up to anything that the drivers threw at it on Sunday, and in the case of Marco Andretti that was quite a bit. He spent the first two thirds of the race seemingly looking for a fight at every corner, and pulling off some excellent tough-minded passes right up to the moment that his rear tyres fell off a cliff and he turned from being the hunter to the hunted for the final stint, rapidly succumbing to the overtaking moves of many of those he'd bested earlier in the race.
Power was another driver seizing his overtaking chances where they presented themselves, but he was rather more cautious and careful than Marco. "We were quick when we needed to be, put ourselves in a position to win - which I did not think was possible this morning," he said.
He was also rather more strategy-minded, starting on the harder-compound tyres to get them out of the way in a short first stint that then allowed him to run on the softer tyres for the rest of the day and make up spots while others cycled through on the harder rubber.
"It was an absolute team effort," said Power. "We went in thinking that we have to kind of be a little off-strategy to the other guys to be able to pass around here. So we started on black tyres, everyone else started on reds. We went to reds when everyone was on blacks. That got us a couple of spots.
"Then just with good stops and good strategy calls put me out in clean air so we could use our speed" he continued. "We slowly passed one by one. It was a very good team effort, absolute team effort. The strategy was perfect. The stops were perfect."
Power was up to sixth place after the first pit stop sequence was completed, which - thanks to a small hold-up for the Penske and Andretti teams - saw Scott Dixon emerge in front on lap 27 having leapfrogged early leaders Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe. Power found himself behind Tony Kanaan, but a fine late-braking move by Power into turn 5 on lap 30 saw the Australian move past and up into fifth place, which would have to do until the next round of pit stops. Power came in on lap 41 while Dixon had a half dozen laps in hand and didn't have to come in until lap 47.
Dixon's stop was slow - like many teams found on Sunday, there were some issues with affixing the new tyres - and he emerged back on track only just ahead of Power. For the next few minutes it looked as though Power would take the lead there and then, but Power's tyres were already worn compared with the leader and he slowly fell off the back of the Ganassi and had to concentrate on maintaining his position ahead of the cars of Castroneves and Hinchcliffe that he had just jumped over with his pit stop.
By two-thirds race distance Dixon had a 3s lead over Power and looked to have the better of his fellow Antipodean. Power rallied and closed up the gap towards the end of the stint, but the final round of pit stops remained Power's only realistic chance of striking for the lead and he came in first of the two on lap 65. A lap later and Dixon responded, coming onto a suddenly crowded pit road: a problem with the rear right wheel nut falling out of the wheel gun caused a critical delay, and Dixon found himself having to wait a split second before pulling out of his pit box because of Viso coming past. Combined with being held up by HVM's Simona de Silvestro on pit entrance, Dixon lost the vital margin and when he emerged from his stop it was to see the #12 Penske car flash past just ahead of him.
"The last stop we had a bit of a fumble on one of the tyres where there was a wheel nut or something," said Dixon later. "On the out-lap I would say Will gained two or three seconds just because he wasn't in traffic. Then I think they were maybe a little bit quicker on their stop as well. Between that and trying to get out of the pits behind Viso, I'd say we lost three or four seconds in that, which gave Will the advantage."
Out on the track while all this was going on, Katherine Legge had spun off at turn 9 and her Lotus Dragon beached itself in the gravel trap. A full course caution was absolutely inevitable, but new race director Beaux Barfield knew better than to call it right in the middle of a round of pit stops and instead delayed it until the moment that Helio Castroneves - the last of the cars still in contention for the race win - came onto pit lane.
That set up a double-file restart on lap 76, however, with Power and Dixon starting alongside each other at the green flag. Dixon initially appeared to have the jump, but Power had the better line and was able to sweep the Kiwi just far enough out to skim the dirt verge and force him to ease off. Power had the position - and the victory, as he didn't put a wheel wrong for the remaining 14 laps of the race.
"The restart, got a good jump on them," said Dixon. "But obviously being on the inside, all [Power] had to do was drive in deeper. I had been really the first one to lift or he could have kept going and I would have run wide. Tried for a few laps there, burned the rear tyres off with about five or ten to go. That was all said and done."
The biggest loser in that final restart turned out to be James Hinchcliffe, who lost positions to Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud and fell from fourth place, to end his otherwise strong day in a rather frustrating sixth.
"If we would have beat Helio out of the pits on that final stop then I just would have had to keep him behind me, which on this track isn't impossible," Hinchcliffe noted. "But that yellow came out and because of the way the timing line works coming out of the pits they gave him the spot and again I got stuck on the outside for the restart. Graham got around me and that gave Pagenaud the run and we lost two spots that we shouldn't have. It's pretty disappointing given where we started."
Castroneves felt a sense of responsibility for Hinchcliffe's poor restart and offered an apology to the Canadian. "My car was already bad with those reds and as soon as we restarted the race it pushed so bad that we kind of squeezed him and I felt terrible," he said.
Graham Rahal was happy to finish in fourth place, having led for a period during the pit stop cycles and not having made an error all afternoon - just ultimately not quite having the pace of the leaders: "The Service Central Chip Ganassi Team did a fantastic job," he said. "We made no mistakes and that's what it's all about and at the end of the day we had a really solid finish. We move on from here on to Long Beach with a lot of confidence. We know we can run with these guys and we're going to try to do it again."
And Simon Pagenaud, finishing in fifth place, was one of the stars of the day, putting in some terrific overtaking moves during the afternoon. "I tell you today this car was probably the fastest one out there today," he said, calling fifth a really good result for Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports. "They say you can't pass around here, but I have a few tricks I'm not going to tell anyone. It was a fun, physical race."
Another driver for a small single-car team, Mike Conway in the #14 AJ Foyt Racing car, also had an impressive day at Barber. He was rarely out of the top ten and proved to be one of the few who was able to repel more overtaking moves than he yielded to. "Happy we finished in top 10 which is what we needed - still struggling with certain level of grip out there," he said.
Conway's only bad moment happened right at the very beginning of the race. "I was on the outside of Scott and he clipped Rahal and went wide. I was on the outside and had to drift out on grass. As I pulled back in I got so much stuff on my tyres, I couldn't get through turn 2. So much understeer, would've run into people. I lost a bunch of positions but got a couple back. We just had to hang in there all day. Tough day."
Rubens Barrichello was another to have a long, tough day of things and at one point seemed stuck well down the running order. But the veteran F1 driver dug deep and kept working at it, and by the closing laps he had popped up into the top ten in a strong eighth spot.
"Starting so far back and at some points in the race even further back, I think it was a positive that I was able to work my way back through the field," he said after completing only his second IZOD IndyCar Series race. "By the end of the race, I had one of the fastest running cars, so I think it was enjoyable to watch and for me to race."
Even so, Barrichello made it clear that he had been hoping and wanting for more from Barber, one of the few tracks that he'll race on this year that he won't arrive at completely unfamiliar with. "It's hard to be happy with [just] a top ten," he said. "People race hard over here, but they were fair. I had many knocks and bumps, but the cars are so robust in this series that we can luckily get away with it."
Barrichello had a particularly hard-fought battle over the closing laps with a familiar face from the F1 world - Sebastien Bourdais, who put a Lotus-powered car into the top ten by the chequered flag through a brilliant piece of driving against the odds.
"It was a really good race," said the former Toro Rosso F1 driver and four-time Champ Car champion. "I honestly didn't believe we were going to hold off Justin [Wilson], [James] Jakes and [Dario] Franchitti and all these guys and race them this close because we know we're at a big power disadvantage.
"Every time we get in traffic, we get swallowed up like we don't exist, so I was a little down before the race. Expectations were not super high," he admitted. "I was very happy with my car ... When the other cars lost their tyres, it really helped me put the moves of them. Our car held its tyres very well and that put us in that position. We passed a lot of people and it was a pretty exciting day."
It proved that while Lotus are definitely the engine minnows at this early stage of the season, there are signs of plenty of promise in the hands of the right driver. Oriol Servia also did commendably well, putting the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Lotus-powered car into 13th place, while Simona de Silvestro finished in 20th for HVM. Katherine Legge's spin off left her five laps off the lead by the end and down in 23rd place, while the fifth member of the Lotus contingent was Alex Tagliani who didn't complete a single lap before an electronics problem with the gearbox linkage caused the engine to die on him - similar to the problem that had hit Bourdais in the morning warm-up which had briefly left the Frenchman fearing an engine change might be required.
Taglinai was one of only three retirements during the race - a significant improvement on the reliability-challenged season opener last weekend at St Petersburg. Charlie Kimball had an mechanical issue shortly after running off-track through a chicane and had to park up at the midway point of the race, while Takuma Sato's Rahal Letterman Lanigan car died coming out of turn 6 after the Japanese driver had been challenging for position with Servia.
“It just stopped running - no drive to the rear wheels,” said team co-owner Bobby Rahal.
"We were on the way to recovering positions but then all of a sudden I lost power," added Sato himself. "It is disappointing to have mechanical failures in two consecutive races but there are some positives from the weekend. I hope in Long Beach we are able to be competitive again and have a strong finish."
Tony Kanaan went multiple laps down after a shock absorber went bad on him, and Justin Wilson lost time and positions with a spin in turn 2 on lap 61, but fortunately he kept the engine running and was able to get underway again. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's rookie driver Josef Newgarden lost part of his front wing while trying to overtake Ed Carpenter but the debris was swept up under the Legge caution and Newgarden was able to continue to the finish on the lead lap in 17th place.
Penske's Ryan Briscoe had a tough day well off the pace of his podium-bound team mates with his tyres falling off shockingly in the middle section of the race, forcing him to compromise his race strategy by coming in for a new set which left him down in 14th place.
And then there was the curious case of Dario Franchitti: with his team mate up ahead challenging Castroneves and Power for the lead, Franchitti seemed mired in the teen positions for far too much of the race. Starting from 18th position on the grid he made some forward progress but would then plateau, and even fall back during the pit stops; nothing he did seemed to be working.
"It was a busy day and I passed a lot of cars, he said. "We lost some spaces on the first start and the last restart we pushed on the grass. No one was doing it intentionally, it's just people are trying to get out of each other's way and make some moves ... That last yellow we didn't need," he added.
But after the restart he kept at it and made some more late passes that saw him finish just in the top ten - which all things considered was a success, and Franchitti was visibly relieved with it.
"I have never been so happy for a 10th place finish," he admitted. "I think that is the best my car has felt through all of the practices and races and qualifying that we have had this year, so I will take that as a positive and that will give us some kind of direction going into Long Beach.
"There was some good racing though," he added. "There were some really good races out there today ... Hopefully it was a good day for the fans. There was a massive crowd and a lot of enthusiasm so it's cool."
It had indeed been a massive crowd at Barber Motorsports Park - close on being the biggest-ever attendance at the venue for any event. And the fans had been treated to a genuine racing entertainment spectacle, one of the best that the series has put on in a long while.
Part of that was the mixed-up grid after some topsy-turvy practice and qualifying sessions that left drivers out of position and determined to do something about it. Some more of the credit can go down to some of the most intelligent race control officiating seen in recent times in this or many other motorsports series. Then there's the reliability of the cars and the engines, and a growing parity between the teams and manufacturers that makes for some great racing action - notably the top eight was a perfectly balanced four-all score draw between Honda and Chevrolet this week.
All in all, the DW12 is shaping up to be an excellent addition to the series: tough and highly capable, fast and agile, not afraid of a scrap and determined to give fans a great afternoon's entertainment. In other words, very much like the driver for whom it is named in honour, who helped test and develop the car in 2011 and who has clearly left the series with a very promising legacy to move forward with.Full race results