By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – “It’s tough out there,” Graham Rahal said after making his second-place qualifying run for Sunday’s running of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
Those four words can sum up just how treacherous the challenging 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural terrain road course has been this weekend for almost every driver in the field.
From drivers making off-track excursions into the gravel traps and tire barriers in nearly every practice session to the major teams stumbling in qualifying on Saturday, the course has been a handful to say the least, leading to a lot of uncertainty on what to expect when the green flag flies at 3:15 pm Central on Sunday afternoon.
Some have said the difference in the tire combinations from the NTT IndyCar Series to the other support series running this weekend have thrown everyone off. For others, it’s the aging surface of the track that most drivers and teams are struggling to get a grip on.
“It’s not just me that dropped a second a lap from last year to this year, it’s the whole field,” said fifth-place starter Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. “I’m sure everybody is feeling the same…there’s no real good explanation. The Yokohamas, this and the that, other guys are talking.
“Once everybody put a new set of Firestone tires on the ground, the track has rubbered up. I don’t see it being a factor. I just don’t know if something has happened to the tires. I don’t want to throw Firestone under the bus either.
“It’s not that there’s something wrong, it’s just different, slower. Maybe the track has aged one more year, it’s lost that much grip. It’s definitely different. It makes things very challenging. We’ve seen a lot of unforced errors, a lot of red flags, a lot of people going off.”
Pole sitter Takuma Sato, who pilots the No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, expanded on what Bourdais had to say, noting the challenge that Barber presents to the drivers and teams.
“I think there’s no easy corners, to be honest,” said Sato. “I think it’s connected. Like Sebastien said, just the balance change. Obviously, there is some completely blind going into turn eight, turn 12. Is challenging. If you don’t have the confidence with the car, you can’t bring the speed up on that way. That is a challenge.
“I think also another challenge there is speed difference and degradation, how you going to cope, how you going to put the car good. I think that is a challenge for the drivers and engineers. This is a pretty difficult track to get everything right.”
Even rookie Colton Herta, who has had success at Barber in the past in the lower open-wheel divisions, threw in his two cents on the treacherous nature of the track.
“There’s so much that’s challenging about it,” the driver of the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda said. “The whole thing, it’s a bunch of combination corners, so corners left followed by right, so you can give in the left-handers and get in the right-handers or you can get in the left-handers and give the right-handers. You know, there’s always time to find.
“You can never drive a perfect lap here. It’s so different. You could have a great setup and feel like you did a killer lap time and come in and be a half a second off. It’s just that type of place. It’s probably the toughest track that we go to.”