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IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix of Alabama

Written by Dan Jones

Credit: Chris Owens

It took some six weeks for IndyCar to race for championship points in Long Beach, but no wait is necessary again, as one week after, the show hits Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, for the first road course event of the year, as drivers look to gain as much momentum as possible before the Month of May's festivities begin, in Round 3 of 17 in the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series.

But before all things Barber, let's look back at the events of Long Beach, where once again, Scott Dixon would pull off a fuel-saving masterclass to move within 10 wins off the top of the all-time list, and move himself top of the standings. It was a result which looked completely improbable, but Dixon pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

It was not an easy victory, the Kiwi being chased by the liked of Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden, with Herta controversially putting Newgarden into anti-stall on the exit of the Hairpin, after the Californian gave a slight nudge to the Team Penske driver. Herta would benefit from the controversy, finishing second, with defending champion, Álex Palou in third, and Newgarden settling for fourth.

Théo Pourchaire also impressed on his debut in Long Beach, finishing a very respectable 11th for McLaren, in a day that otherwise was a nightmare for the papaya outfit, after Pato O'Ward made contact with teammate, Alexander Rossi, with Rossi recovering to 10th, and O'Ward finishing way down in 16th. You can read the full race report here.

Dixon's win, as well as Newgarden's St. Pete disqualification, has propelled him to first in the standings. Credit: Travis Hinkle

However, since the chequered flag in Long Beach, the tide has completely turned in the championship. St. Petersburg winner, Josef Newgarden, and third place finisher, Scott McLaughlin, were both disqualified after violating push-to-pass rules. This saw Pato O'Ward end his winless run, claiming his first victory since Iowa 2022. Will Power's car was also non-compliant, but, the Australian crucially did not deploy push-to-pass on restarts, unlike Newgarden and McLaughlin and only suffered a ten point penalty - which is two in reality after he finished second after the disqualifications of his teammates.

With that said and done, the top ten heading into Barber are as follows:

Dixon - 79

Herta - 77

Palou - 67

O'Ward - 64

Power - 59

Rosenqvist - 55

Rossi - 48

Kirkwood - 47

VeeKay - 40

Ericsson - 37

The show now moves on to Barber Motorsports Park, nicknamed the 'Augusta of Motorsports,' a 2.38 mile (3.83km) road course, just outside the town of Birmingham, which has been hosting IndyCar since 2010, after it's opening in 2003, noted for an extreme physical challenge, with plenty of high-speed corners, and a real drivers challenge.

The track starts by sweeping left downhill, at Turn One, before shooting back uphill, through a never-ending right hander, which continues to rise in elevation. Drivers will then take an uphill right-kink flat out, with the exit completely blind to the elevation, before plunging back downhill for a tricky braking zone at Turn 5, nicknames 'Charlotte's Web,' due to the massive Spider Sculpture overlooking the corner - no I'm not joking.

One of the more bizarre attractions in motorsport. Credit: James Black

Charlotte's Web has seen the race-winning move in the last two seasons, Pato O'Ward overtaking Rinus VeeKay after the final set of stops, before Scott McLaughlin made his move on Romain Grosjean last season, after Grosjean ran wide. It will be the best overtaking spot on the circuit for drivers, but also one that can be perilously easy to make a mistake on.

Drivers will slightly climb uphill on the run down to Turn Seven, a tricky downhill chicane, which goes right, left, right, having to perfect your braking, as the corners get tigher, and the track does downhill. Drivers then swoop up to the high-speed chicane of Turns 8 and 9, before another high-speed left-right and Turns 11 and 12, an exit which is very easy to get wrong, with drivers regularly dipping a wheel into the grass on exit.

The lap ends with a never-ending right-hander and Turns 13 and 14, but has also been seen as an opportunistic overtaking opportunity on the last few seasons, before a high-speed left hander brings drivers back to the main straight.

McLaughlin prevailed here last season. Credit: Chris Owens

Josef Newgarden's start to the season has been significantly de-railed by his St. Petersburg disqualification, but Barber has also been a happy hunting ground for him, having the most wins of any driver at the circuit, including his first win in 2015, before further wins in 2017 and 2018. It's a strong place for Team Penske, Will Power taking two wins in 2011 and 2012, and has taken ten top five's at the circuit, including his last three visits to the track. Scott McLaughlin completes the Team Penske hat-trick, as he won the race last season after a gutsy battle with Romain Grosjean, with both drivers getting their elbows out, in what was Chevrolet's only road/street course victory in 2023.

Outside of Team Penske, it's been a kind track to the 'youth movement.' Álex Palou took his first career victory in Barber, on his way to the title in 2021, the Spaniard never finishing outside the top five in any of his three visits to the circuit. He's started the season strongly too, and Barber could pose a good chance for a first win of the year.

Pato O'Ward is the other driver to win at the venue, with his only road course victory to take, which he took home in 2022. Similarly to Palou, he's been mightily strong here too, all his visits with Arrow McLaren have seen top four finishes for the Mexican, including a pole here in 2021.

But watch out for the likes of Rinus VeeKay, who was gone very well here historically, including a podium and a pole in 2022. Romain Grosjean has also typically been strong here, finishing second last year after taking pole, only finishing inside the top ten at the venue. This remains one of very few venues that Scott Dixon hasn't won at, despite taking a remarkable six runner-up spots, and a further three podiums, what a time it would be for him to win again!

Rosenqvist has been the standout of 'New faces in new places.' Credit: James Black

But who else should you keep your eye on this weekend? Felix Rosenqvist has started the season in fine form, claiming a pole position at Long Beach, as well as a front row start in St. Petersburg and Thermal. It all slightly fell apart for Rosenqvist due to a brake issue in Long Beach, but he's made a mighty start to the season.

Colton Herta was the talk of the town after his clash with Newgarden. Unless he wins in Alabama, it will signify two years winless for the Californian, but it is clear that his start to the season has been a significant upturn in form - he's actually already got the same amount of top five finishes as he had last year, (if you include the non-championship race at the Thermal Club), as well as more podiums. Can he continue his strong form into Alabama?

David Malukas' recovery time after a pre-season mountain bike crash has unfortunately been longer then expected. After his impressive Long Beach outing, Théo Pourchaire will continue in the #6 Arrow McLaren, despite Callum Ilott's availability. Pourchaire's outing at Barber will give more of a representative outing due to the physical challenge, as noted by Álex Palou, as McLaren continue to assess him over something more substansial. Pourchaire could also race at the Indy Road Course, due to Ilott's clash with the 6 Hours of Spa, but if Malukas is not fit, Ilott would presumably race in the car for the Indianapolis 500.

Pourchaire will continue after his standout weekend in Long Beach. Credit: James Black

Jack Harvey made an extra outing in the #18 car at Long Beach, as he extended his schedule to 15 races. Nolan Siegel made his first official outing in the #51 car, in his first points-paying IndyCar race. Siegel will be back racing in Indy NXT this weekend, with Harvey remaining in the #18. This means it is unclear who will be in the sister Dale Coyne Racing car at the time of writing.

There's a lot to look out for and look forward to in Barber. A notorious challenge for the drivers physically, but also a track which some drivers excel at: Look out for Palou, Dixon, Power, Newgarden and O'Ward. Many drivers have started the season in absolutely fine form, and with all drivers looking to boost their confidence heading into May, Barber could be a telling story in the outcome of the season.


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