IRL: Round 3 – Alabama, Barber Motorsports Park – April 11

IndyCar made its inaugural appearance in Alabama this week, which introduced us to Barber Motorsports Park – which was, frankly, gorgeous. Where’s this venue been all our lives? It should have been put into service long before this! Although nominally a road course, it couldn’t be more different from the likes of St Petersburg last time out, with it’s fiddly and mean concrete canyons. instead, Barber presented the drivers with a wide track, speeding turns and green runoffs that made it look more like a classy European or F1 circuit than anything normally seen on the US itinerary – if anything, it brought Brands Hatch to mind, and that’s quite a compliment.

Perhaps some of the European drivers benefited from the different spirit, with Mike Conway qualifying in second behind Will Power and proving competitive throughout. But it was Power who led the opening laps, with Scott Dixon briefly boosting himself up to third before being told to relinquish two spots for a jump start.

Otherwise the big development in those opening laps was the arrival of a small group of cars in the pit lane as soon as possible: Alex Tagliani was first in, and Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan were in on successive laps to try and play the pit stop strategy game, put themselves off-sequence and hope for an opportune yellow.

And a yellow duly came out on lap 12 when Takuma Sato’s car suddenly lost power with a throttle problem and drifted to a halt out on track. The track went full caution while his Lotus was recovered, presenting the drivers with a dilemma: come in now under yellow, or hold their nerve and stick to the two-stop plan that required them to run till lap 30 of the 90 lap race distance?

It was a split decision, with Power and Conway both opting to pit, but Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti remaining out. Of course, that early group that had pitted were rewarded with a nice boost up the running order as well.

At the restart, Andretti tried a lunge down the inside helped by a dab of driver assist and took the lead, Helio opting not to fight back but instead allowed Marco to stretch out a decent lead while the Brazilian opted to hold position and watch his fuel consumption. Sure enough, he made it to the target distance and even an extra lap beyond, while Marco had to pit four laps earlier and well shy of the 30 lap target despite the yellow flag period they’d had while Sato’s car was recovered.

It was not looking good for Andretti, and it was confirmed when this group made their second stops around lap 60: Marco was now even further off the target distance, while Helio once again effortlessly smashed through it. Dixon and Franchitti were having a quiet race tucked in behind Castroneves, just about on target but still a little too tight for comfort. The oddball pack of Kanaan and Power were in shortly afterwards, wary about being caught out with a full course yellow while needing a final pit stop that could cause them real pain, and now the die was cast as far as fuel strategies went.

The only thing that could save Marco now was a lengthy caution period in the closing laps of the race. But despite plenty of racing and overtaking (Mike Conway and Justin Wilson both showing off some great moves during the afternoon), there was no yellow to behold: Milka Duno ran off track at one point, and EJ Viso spun, and Danica Patrick clashed with Alex Lloyd spinning his car around. But in each case, all the cars quickly got underway again and the yellows were only local and brief at that.

Finally with nine laps to go Marco had to concede defeat, ducking into the pits for a fuel-only splash and dash. It meant he relinquished the lead and dropped to fifth, but it could have been worse: a few moments later rookie Simona de Silvestro spun and this time stalled without being able to recover, forcing that elusive second full course caution. It wasn’t nearly long enough to have given Marco the extra fuel economy he had needed to reach the end of the race, but if Marco hadn’t already pitted and needed to come in while the safety car was out, it would have sent him plummeting to the back of the lead lap and out of the top ten entirely.

The few laps under yellow did mean that Dixon and Franchitti were no longer marginal, but Castroneves had control of the race and easily enough left in reserve to fend off any challenges for the remaining two laps of racing. Overjoyed with the race win, Helio was soon back to his trademark stunt of scaling the wire fence to celebrate with the Alabama crowd.

Will Power was deprived of a third consecutive race win in 2010 but still finished a strong fourth place, which means that he maintains the championship lead ahead of his team mate.

Race result

Pos  Driver               Team                         Time/Gap
 1.  Helio Castroneves    Penske                  1h56m41.3928s
 2.  Scott Dixon          Ganassi                     + 0.5703s
 3.  Dario Franchitti     Ganassi                     + 8.1590s
 4.  Will Power           Penske                      + 8.6639s
 5.  Marco Andretti       Andretti                    + 9.7410s
 6.  Ryan Briscoe         Penske                     + 10.9611s
 7.  Justin Wilson        Dreyer & Reinbold          + 11.5478s
 8.  Tony Kanaan          Andretti                   + 12.8533s
 9.  Mike Conway          Dreyer & Reinbold          + 13.3162s
10.  Alex Tagliani        Fazzt                      + 14.8450s
11.  Dan Wheldon          Panther                    + 15.2007s
12.  Ryan Hunter-Reay     Andretti                   + 15.6727s
13.  Mario Moraes         KV                         + 16.7242s
14.  Raphael Matos        Luczo Dragon de Ferran        + 1 lap
15.  Hideki Mutoh         Newman/Haas/Lanigan           + 1 lap
16.  EJ Viso              KV                            + 1 lap
17.  Graham Rahal         Sarah Fisher                  + 1 lap
18.  Vitor Meira          Foyt                          + 1 lap
19.  Danica Patrick       Andretti                      + 1 lap
20.  Bertrand Baguette    Conquest                      + 1 lap
21.  Simona de Silvestro  HVM                           + 1 lap
22.  Mario Romancini      Conquest                      + 1 lap
23.  Alex Lloyd           Dale Coyne                    + 1 lap
24.  Milka Duno           Dale Coyne                   + 4 laps
25.  Takuma Sato          KV                          + 22 laps

Championship standings after round 3

Pos Driver               Points
1   Will Power           136
2   Helio Castroneves    104
3   Dario Franchitti     94
4   Justin Wilson        85
5   Scott Dixon          80
6   Ryan Briscoe         79
7   Ryan Hunter-Reay     77
8   Raphael Matos        72
9   Tony Kanaan          64
10  Vitor Meira          62
11  Marco Andretti       62
12  Dan Wheldon          61
13  Alex Tagliani        60
14  Mike Conway          58
15  Danica Patrick       53
16  Ernesto Viso         45
17  Hideki Mutoh         43
18  Mario Romancini      42
19  Mario Moraes         41
20  Simona de Silvestro  40
21  Alex Lloyd           36
22  Takuma Sato          36
22  Milka Duno           36
24  Graham Rahal         35
25  Ana Beatriz          17
26  Bertrand Baguette    12
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