Round 3 of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship gets under way on Friday with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Here are a few points of interest ahead of the event:
IS THIS REAL LIFE?
Is Colton Herta and the Harding Steinbrenner Racing team a genuine force to be reckoned with? The Barber weekend should give us a proper answer.
Second in the Drivers’ standings, Herta opened his season by qualifying 11th on the streets of St. Petersburg – inside the Firestone Fast 12 – and finishing eighth. At Circuit of The America’s swirling natural-terrain road course, he went from fourth to first, which came after leading most of the pre-season Spring Training event at COTA. Owing to the similarities found with the layouts at COTA and Barber, we’ll soon know whether HSR and Herta are capable of transporting the pace from Texas to Alabama.
Far from a secret, the union between HSR and Andretti Technologies has made all the difference with the team’s impressive form. Forgetting the chassis for a moment, we’re also talking about a driver with three total IndyCar races to draw from, which is the primary wildcard at hand.
If we think of Herta’s car as an extension of Andretti Autosport – a fifth entry – in light of the performance parts and staff embedded within HSR, what we’ve seen through two races is a rookie who’s operating somewhere between second and third on the depth chart with Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Said differently, of the four Andretti cars and the fifth via HSR, at least two or three Andretti drivers are getting less out of themselves, and their cars, than this 18-year-old newbie.
Barber will offer great insights on whether Herta and Company are due for a wakeup call and a return to reality for most rookies, or if the opening rounds have been windows into an almighty arrival of a front-running program. Long Beach, where the team will have an opportunity to improve its street course form, will provide another data point of grand interest as this early season trend is developed.
Ovals are an entirely different phase of the season, so we’ll reserve judgement until after the Indianapolis 500 and the Texas Motor Speedway on that front. But if we take Andretti Autosport’s oval form into consideration, and the vast experience of Herta’s race engineer Nathan O’Rourke, it wouldn’t be silly to suggest the No. 88 Honda is poised to be the single-car spoiler among the multi-car programs leading into summer.
WAITING TO START
Sebastien Bourdais sits in unfamiliar territory. Holding 15th in the Drivers’ standings, the Dale Coyne Racing leader comes into Barber on the heels of finishing last at St. Pete when his Honda engine expired, and an extremely fortunate fifth at COTA when the late caution spared his No. 18 Honda from a mid-field result.
Lacking mojo and momentum, Bourdais and DCR have Barber targeted for a return to expected form. Starting third, his 2018 race was a vision of competitiveness as he ran up front, led some laps, and appeared to have a podium on the way during the two-day, two-part race. Bourdais was disappointed to finish fifth at the time. Getting back to being in the mix with the top teams and securing fifth on raw pace come Sunday would probably lead to smiles this time around.
Ed Carpenter Racing has gotten off to a quiet start with Ed Jones joining Spencer Pigot on the road and street courses. A pair of 11ths for Pigot stand as a noteworthy improvement; his first five finishes for ECR in 2018 were P15-14-15-15-15, and yet, the Chevy-powered team, like its rivals, isn’t geared to celebrate 11ths.
Jones, dealing with a fractured finger after hammering the wall early in the St. Pete race, was 14th at COTA. Unlike Herta and HSR, where there’s a strong sense of how the program is beginning to fit in the running order, ECR has the look of a team that’s continuing to search for its place in the 2019 championship.
On a similar front, however, Barber could answer whether Chevy’s No. 2 team has made a decent year-to year leap to bolster Team Penske’s efforts in support of the brand, or if the gains are more modest – somewhere just outside the top 10 at the finish line.
There’s talent aplenty within ECR. Pigot and Jones have shown they can find the podium. A louder weekend for the young duo would add a welcome storyline to the championship.
THE GOOD KIND OF BUMP
Two races into the 2019 season, and the anticipated ratings bump for IndyCar on NBCSN has been elusive. The meager 0.23 rating (341,000 households) from the last race at Circuit of The Americas on NBCSN can be explained away, in part, by the nation’s attention being turned to March Madness. The 0.32 (495,000 households) from St. Petersburg wasn’t bad, by comparison, considering the broadcast moved from airing on ABC in 2018 to cable with NBCSN last month.
Where the concern starts to rise is found with news delivered by ESPN following last weekend’s Formula 1 race in Bahrain. Shown live on ESPN2 Sunday morning at 11 a.m. in the U.S., the international open-wheel series delivered 711,000 households. Combined, the first two IndyCar races, in the same domestic market, has assembled 836,000 homes to watch its product on NBCSN. There’s a difference of 125,000 households to acknowledge, but it’s also hard to ignore how close F1 just came to matching St. Pete and COTA with a single race shown on cable. As Bahrain’s number illustrates, there’s a vibrant audience in America that enjoys open-wheel racing. Unlocking the code necessary to pull that group over to IndyCar is a clear priority.
It leads to this weekend’s 90-lap contest at Barber Motorsports Park and hopes for a ratings reprieve. Final Four action will dominate Saturday evening, and the men’s national championship game will follow Monday night. In theory, the lane is clear for IndyCar to generate a solid number on Sunday.
In less than two weeks’ time, we’ll be done with the first 25 percent of the season. As teams and drivers continue to hunt for sponsors to round out their budgets for the Indy 500, and possibly the remainder of the season, a healthy ratings bump from Barber and Long Beach would be a timely gift.
Let’s close with James Hinchcliffe, where the topic of bladder control has been one of the strangest Barber-specific items for the Canadian. It began in 2013 as part of the Andretti Autosport team where early contact from behind flattened his left-rear tire.
Towed and deposited behind a barrier on the back stretch in an effort to get the race back to green, Hinchcliffe was told he’d be towed the rest of the way at the next caution period. After sitting in his car for 67 laps, the opportunity never arose, and with plenty of time to drink and empty his drink bottle while strapped into the stationary car, he sprang forth, stretched, and ran to use a nearby port-a-potty.
The sense of relief was a main talking point for Hinchcliffe after the race, and if we look back to last year’s rain-delayed event, Hinch’s relief was the most hilarious event during the red flag. Sitting stationary once more, The Mayor admitted to letting nature run its course in the cockpit of his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry.
Where he completed three laps in 2013 and sat for 67 before being freed to handle his business in an orderly manner, Hinchcliffe’s resolve wasn’t as strong in 2018. So, why the odd diversion down the path of Hinch’s questionable bladder control?
Rain is expected to play a role this weekend in Barber, and while the current forecast isn’t predicting the same kind of red flag-inducing downpour, it might change by the time Sunday arrives. Of all the angles to follow, intrepid fans will need to watch and see if bad weather hastens a return of James “Puddles” Hinchcliffe.