Santoroski: Five takeaways from the Honda Indy GP of Alabama

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

Round four for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now in the books, with Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud taking his second consecutive win on the season. Allow me to share some of my observations from the weekend.

1 ) Frenchy Can Drive

Yes, I know that some racing purists hate this movie, but Talladega Nights  ranks as one of my guilty pleasures, and I have probably watched this film a dozen times. Comparisons between Simon Pagenaud and the Jean Girard character have been abundant since Pagenaud himself took to You Tube a few years ago to show off his impression.

With Pagenaud on a tear this season, all I can think of is the scene where Rick Bobby leaves the hospital, and sees fans wearing Perrier shirts, jackets and gear. Cal Naughton Jr. looks at Ricky and says, “Frenchy can drive…”

While this is all good fun, the fact of the matter is that one year ago, I felt like Simon would become nearly unstoppable in a Penske car. His first season was rather uneventful, which surprised me. Now, a full year in, and comfortable with the team, he is beginning to fulfill the potential that Roger Penske saw when he signed the driver.

Of course, this is not to say that the entire field will roll over and hand him the title. The competition will be tougher as the season progresses, as displayed by Graham Rahal who staunchly refuses to say, “I love crepes.”

2 ) Debris Caution? What’s that…

Other than the waved-off start, the Grand Prix of Alabama ran caution-free. This comes just a week after the Grand Prix of Long Beach did the same. The full-race green flag run caused a few in the field to find their strategy thrown out the window, as we also saw a week ago.

Now I’m not advocating a manufactured caution for the sake of the race, because the race was plenty exciting as it was. However, it should be noted that, when Graham Rahal snapped his front wing off attempting to lap Jack Hawksworth, that those wing parts stayed on the race course.

We saw a similar incident in Phoenix when Ryan Hunter-Reay lost a rear winglet, and it stayed on the track.

We know that, in NASCAR, it is not uncommon to see a debris caution for a hot dog wrapper, but these carbon fiber wing pieces can easily cut a tire ruining a drivers day, or worse yet, cause an accident.

At the 2015 season opener in St. Pete, we saw a number of cautions to collect up broken aerodynamic bits and pieces, but now it’s suddenly OK to leave them on the track?

At the very least, a local yellow might have been utilized to clear the debris. Just my two cents.

3 ) Racers Love to Race

When a driver takes a dominating win, leaving his competition in the dust, and finishes with a wide margin of victory, it can be quite satisfying. However when a driver is embroiled in a hard fought battle, drawing on all of their skills and abilities, and comes out on top, the feeling is amazing.

Such was the case at Barber where there were a number of tooth-and-nail fights throughout the field that left drivers feeling quite energized.

“Yeah I got him a couple times,” said Josef Newgarden after fending off Will Power for a spot on the podium. “I think I have his card right now and it’s going to be fun racing him all year. I can’t believe he let me do that twice to him. I got him in the beginning and then I thought he would learn and then I got him again. It got a little tighter on the second one, but I got him again. So it was fun at least getting some racing in today.”

While the turbulent air from the aero-kits made it difficult to pass, that very situation set up battles through the running orders as the leaders tried to make it through lapped traffic.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who started dead last, was another driver who was able to draw on his abilities and move forward. “We knew we had a fast car. It was fun and we made some good moves today,” said Montoya. “At the start of the race, if you would have told me I would have finished fifth, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Race winner Simon Pagenaud was equally stoked after fighting with Graham Rahal. “In the end, Graham really caught up and he gave me a good piece of driving that was amazing from him,” Pagenaud said. “I put my hat off to him for that. He got me really excited.”

4 ) Honda’s hopes are on Rahal again

Despite the fact that the Honda teams of Schmidt-Peterson and A.J. Foyt showed considerable speed in practice, Graham Rahal was the only Honda car to make it into the fast six in qualifying. On race day, he was the only Honda car with a shot at the win.

While Honda’s big guns at Andretti Autosport continue to struggle, Rahal nearly stole the show, as he did last year at Fontana and Mid-Ohio.

Perhaps the difference is simply attitude. This little team refuses to fade into the background, and rarely blames their results on their engine supplier or aerokit.

“We should have won today,” said Rahal. “There is no doubt that we were better than Pagenaud. Honda has done a heck of a job putting us in this position. We can race with these guys. We are getting close. We are going to keep working to make them proud. We aren’t giving up anytime soon, I can tell you that.”

5 ) Rookies have yet to make an impact

With the first natural terrain road course on the schedule, one might have thought that the three rookie drivers, all of who have considerable road racing experience in Europe, might have had a chance to shine. In the race, that saw all 21 cars running at the finish, Alexander Rossi came home 15th while Conor Daly and Max Chilton finished at the bottom of the order in 20th and 21st.

The season standings have Chilton in 16th, Rossi 18th and Daly 19th.

This leads me to believe that IndyCar, in the age of the aerokits, represents a steeper learning curve that it did in the past. Look back to 2014, the last season before the kits, and note that three rookie drivers (Munoz, Hawksworth and Aleshin) all took podiums and Carlos Huertas took a win, albeit on a fuel mileage gamble.

This is not to say that one, or all three, of these highly talented drivers will break through on any given race weekend. We are, after all, only four races into the season. Perhaps the expectations on the highly-touted rookie class have been a bit high.

“It was a difficult race. It’s just a shame.” said a frustrated Daly. “Plus, it’s almost impossible to pass out there. We made a few passes work but it doesn’t matter when you’re that far back.”

“It was already going to be difficult starting from 20th.” added Rossi. “Our pace on the alternate tire was not good, but I think the primary tire was decent – we need to understand why we lost out on that.”

The positive note is that these drivers are gaining experience, and learning more and more during every practice session, every qualifying session, and every race.

 

Image: Matthew Bishop/ Tribute Racing

 

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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