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Winners and Losers: IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama

Written by Dan Jones and Archie O’Reilly


The NTT IndyCar Series season is starting to pick up a head of speed heading into the Month of May. The series’ visit to Barber Motorsports Park last weekend marked successive weeks of racing action following Scott Dixon’s win in the Grand Prix of Long Beach. And it was Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin who came out on top for back-to-back Barber wins.


Who is entering May with momentum and who will be looking for more as the series heads to Indianapolis? Here are DIVEBOMB’s winners and losers from the first championship road course race of the season…


Winner: Team Penske’s one-two


Winner Scott McLaughlin was closely followed by his Team Penske teammate Will Power from the moment the pair locked out the front row on Saturday. Power had led the Fast Six segment of qualifying until McLaughlin put in a lap 0.0970 seconds quicker to oust his teammate at the death.


For Power, it was a second consecutive second-place start with a margin of less than one-tenth of a second to pole. For McLaughlin, it was a return to the form that saw him finish inside the top two in seven of his last eight qualifying runs of the 2023 season after failing to progress further than the Fast 12 in the opening two points-paying races of 2024.


It was a necessary bounce back for Penske amid a week embroiled in controversy after it came to light they had violated push-to-pass rules in the season-opening race in St. Petersburg. 


Power was only docked 10 points as he did not gain an advantage from its illegal availability on starts and restarts. But third-place finisher McLaughlin was disqualified for using push-to-pass on a restart and fell to the very rear of the championship standings after only picking up five points due to a mechanical retirement in Long Beach.


The climb has become an uphill one for McLaughlin - one of the championship favourites. But any frustration was translated into field-topping performance at Barber and the No.3 Penske Chevrolet, followed by Power’s No.12 entry, was the class of the field.


There was jeopardy in the mid-part of the race as the three-stopping pair were dropped back into the field due to a caution. But a later yellow period saw the race come back to McLaughlin and Power, who were able to cycle to the front for a dominant one-two finish.


McLaughlin’s defence of his 2023 win at Barber - with “execution” the watchword he brought up post-race - has seen him jump 20 places in the standings from 29th to ninth. Power is only one point behind leader Colton Herta after promotion from fourth to second in St. Pete meant his 10-point penalty was ultimately only a two-point loss.


Archie 


Winner: The on-track product


In a week dominated by controversy off-track, which brought unwanted eyes looking at the series, IndyCar reminded people what it does best, in creating a racing product that cannot be matched by many other series in the world.


Barber Motorsports Park is a notoriously difficult track to overtake, with one clear-cut opportunity into Charlotte’s Web at Turn 5. Sunday’s Grand Prix saw 289 on-track passes, 281 of which were for position - comfortably over 100 more than what this event saw last year.


The racing was aggressive, there were several elbows being flexed, whether that was by Santino Ferrucci, Josef Newgarden or Romain Grosjean, but it was racing that was often on the limit, but not over the limit. The Dallara DW12 may be criticised for the fact it hasn’t been replaced, but there’s absolutely no denying as a chassis, its robustness suits exactly that of IndyCar’s racing style.


Romain Grosjean and Kyle Kirkwood stand out to me. Grosjean forced Kirkwood wide exiting Turn 5, and Kirkwood would end up doing the same to Grosjean in a small act of revenge. It’s that hard, on-the-limit racing which is IndyCar’s main attraction.


After two fuel-saves at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, and after the week it’s had, IndyCar needed to remind itself and its audience what this series does best, and Barber Motorsports Park provided racing of the highest calibre.


Dan


Winner: Santino Ferrucci


Road and Street course racing seemed to be Santino Ferrucci and A.J. Foyt Racing’s achilles heel in 2023, a sole finish inside the top 15 at Long Beach, where the American would come home 11th at the flag.


Fast forward 12 months, Ferrucci already has two top 10 finishes in 2024, after being promoted to ninth after Newgarden and McLaughlin’s disqualification from St. Petersburg, and coming home seventh at Barber Motorsports Park.


But that wasn’t arguably wasn’t the most impressive element of Ferrucci’s day, the 25-year-old leading 14 laps on the way, the first time he’s led laps on a road or street course since 2020. Ferrucci would also lead the field to green (admittedly on the second attempt, after Ferrucci stated ‘he didn’t know what he was doing’ on restarts) after his teammate, Sting Ray Robb, crashed at Turn 1.


A lot of credit has to be given to the No.14 stand. After the majority of the field opted for a difficult fuel save with 33 laps to go, Ferrucci’s team believed that this was the wrong call, and when he pitted on Lap 66, the extra fuel and tyres in his Chevrolet helped him cycle up to 7th - his best finish on a road course since Road America in 2020. Ferrucci would later describe the strategy as ‘phenomenal.’


It’s been a difficult few years for Foyt, but 2024 has seen an upturn in form. Whether the Penske alliance correlates to Foyt’s performance does remain to be seen, but Ferrucci was driving at a level we haven’t seen outside of the Indianapolis 500. Whether Ferrucci can keep this form up will be an intriguing story to follow throughout the rest of the season, but he can only leave Alabama with his head held up high.


Yes, Ferrucci isn’t the most popular figure, but if he continues the way that he’s performed at the initial stages of 2024 for Foyt, who’s to say bigger teams won’t be looking at him?


Dan


Winner: Linus Lundqvist


Linus Lundqvist’s standout performances for Meyer Shank Racing in 2023 earned him the call-up to Chip Ganassi Racing, but life hadn’t been the easiest, as stated by Lundqvist himself: ‘I kind of got a little bit of, honestly, a reality check at St. Pete realizing, wow, the level is even higher than I thought it would be.’


Fast forward just two races later and Lundqvist finds himself standing on the IndyCar podium - on a track he’s never not finished on the podium in his entire career. An improbable outcome after a disappointing 19th in qualifying - the Swede being crowned as the ‘Biggest Mover’ in Sunday’s Grand Prix.


And Lundqvist will be the first to admit that strategy was influential in that outcome: “Big thing was strategy, honestly. I was a fairly small part in this I felt like. I just basically listened to the team. It was after that second to last restart, we were able to push hard, stretch the field a little bit. When we came out, we were in a very good position. That kind of made our race.”


Lundqvist notes that he’s got the greats of Scott Dixon and Álex Palou in the same line-up as him, the very best at executing unorthodox strategies, and he will take huge confidence in his performance compared to the two champions in Alabama. Highly rated teammate, Marcus Armstrong, is still yet to find a top five finish in the series, let alone a podium, will Lundqvist quietly be pleased with that outcome behind closed doors?


It hasn’t been an easy start to the year for Lundqvist - being hit by Grosjean in St. Petersburg and struggling to 13th in Long Beach. But a podium so early on in his Ganassi career proves exactly why he was chosen by the best in the business. If anyone had the belief he was called up too soon, those beliefs can be quashed. Lundqvist will come out of Alabama with the hardware to show for it, and a huge amount of personal confidence when assessing his own performance.


Dan


Winner: Colton Herta


Colton Herta had a quiet weekend at Barber. At times, both Herta and his Andretti Global team looked some way off the pace. At no point did he really look like a contender for the win, so why is he a winner from the weekend?


For the first time in his career - this his sixth full-time season in IndyCar - Herta is leading the championship. And that is a result of his maximisation of the Barber weekend when the peak performance of his No.26 Andretti Honda was not necessarily at the level of his competitors.


All in all, it has been a fruitful start to the season for Herta. The disqualification of the winner and third-place finisher saw the 24-year-old promoted from fifth to third in St. Pete. And with a further second-place finish in Long Beach, Herta has already eclipsed his tally of only a single podium in 2023 as he failed to notch a win for the first time in his full-time career.


The seven-time race winner managed a best finish of third in Toronto amid what he has described as the worst season of his IndyCar career to date. But he has come out of the blocks this year with the “tempo” that he spoke about being essential to begin the season with as he spoke pre-season.


Herta himself has admitted that he has sometimes struggled for consistency, hence back-to-back 10th-place championship finishes for a driver with a best season result of third in the championship in 2020. But managing eighth-place after a ‘bad’ weekend is very encouraging; champion Alex Palou finished a worst of eighth in any single race in 2023. 


It marked progress from a 15th-place start and represented both a measured, error-free drive and strong strategy - a combination that has not always come together in recent years.


Archie


Loser: Arrow McLaren


Arrow McLaren have been in the spotlight since the Barber weekend for releasing David Malukas, who signed with the team ahead of 2024, before the young American had even completed a race. He had been sidelined since sustaining a dislocated wrist in a mountain biking accident in February. 


But their weekend itself was a bit of a disaster.


The papaya-clad team’s best finisher was reigning Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire in only his second race in IndyCar. And he finished 22nd - ironically coming only a week after suggestions from CEO Zak Brown that IndyCar may benefit from condensing their grid to nearer Formula 1 size due to less relevant battles at the back of the field.


The embodiment of the team’s wretched weekend was the display from Pato O’Ward, who desperately needed a response to a 16th-place finish in Long Beach. That race saw him given an early drive-through penalty for running into the back of teammate Alexander Rossi at the fountain.


A fourth-place qualifying finish at Barber was an improvement on 14th in Long Beach for O’Ward. But this was undone by an early misjudgement in Turn 5, causing him to spin in avoidance of Christian Lundgaard. As the Mexican driver desperately tried to cut back through the field, he then clumsily spun Pietro Fittipaldi into a tyre barrier only six laps in.


This earned O’Ward another early drive-through penalty, as in Long Beach. He failed to make much progress back through the field and ended his day with more teammate contact by running into and spinning Pourchaire in the closing laps. This resulted in another penalty, seeing him dropped behind Pourchaire to finish 23rd.


All the while, Rossi’s machine was left stricken on Lap 44 after a pit stop error saw his left-rear wheel come loose and roll off the car. Rossi kept his No.7 Chevrolet out of any wall but a messy weekend of a few too many off-track excursions across practice also ended off-track and caused the race’s second caution.


Finishes of 22nd, 23rd and 25th is not anything near what a team with championship aspirations should be achieving.


Archie


Loser: The early championship contenders


As highlighted by Archie, Colton Herta now leads the standings with 101 points leaving Barber. A result which doesn’t feel unjust, but slightly bizarre, considering Herta has been particularly quiet in the opening rounds of the season - bar his collision with Josef Newgarden in Long Beach.


Consistency is the watchword in IndyCar, and no-one has really been able to string three strong race results together, and Barber saw a significant dent to those looking to solidify early championship advantages at this stage in the season.


Scott Dixon led the standings heading into one of his favourite venues - a track he had previously never finished outside the top ten on - until this weekend. An unfortunate spin whilst trying to overtake Graham Rahal saw the Kiwi cycled down the order and out of contention. 


Dixon is a veteran, he’s not going to be mentally hampered by this weekend, but you can’t afford many bad days over the course of the championship - Palou having no bad days won him the championship last year.


Pato O’Ward’s weekend was calamitous as highlighted above, and after a frustrating Long Beach, a championship contender cannot afford to drop this many points early on. What is bizarre that despite two pretty disastrous races, O’Ward still lies sixth in the standings - 30 points off Herta.


But maybe Josef Newgarden needed the biggest weekend of anyone after the events of the week, but after topping first practice, Newgarden was anonymous for the rest of the weekend. Whether the effects of the disqualification were still playing on Newgarden’s mind remains to be seen, but this is a track he’s been strong at historically - it only raises further questions after the performances of his teammates.


Yes it’s early on, but Newgarden already has to play catch-up if he wants to end his frustrating drought for a third championship. Last season’s Indianapolis 500 lies 15th in the standings, some 53 of the lead of the standings. Ironically, if not for his disqualification, Newgarden would still be leading the championship - oh how things can change in a week.


Dan


Loser: Ed Carpenter Racing


After a rough 2023 season, which saw the team go to the lengths of switching from Conor Daly to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No.20 Chevrolet after seven races, Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) have enjoyed an improved start to 2024. An eighth-place finish out of the blocks for Rinus VeeKay in St. Pete was bettered only by sixth in Portland last year.


After a first season without a podium in his four-year spell in IndyCar in 2023, Barber looked like a possible opportunity for VeeKay to return to the rostrum. It was the location of his most recent podium as he finished third after taking pole position in 2022.


VeeKay headed into qualifying on Saturday having topped second practice - the first time he had led a session since Toronto in 2022. His rookie teammate Christian Rasmussen had also shown speed, finishing 13th in Friday’s practice - one place higher than VeeKay in the order and a continuation of progress early in his IndyCar career.


But ECR’s weekend started to tumble downhill as VeeKay suffered a loss of power early in the opening segment of qualifying. This brought an early end to the Dutch driver’s session and saw him start at the rear of the field despite having the car to go deep.


The pace shown by Rasmussen, who missed out on transferring to his maiden Fast Six by 0.0284s after being “greedy” on his last lap, was proof of performance ECR have found.


Unfortunately, their weekend of promise ended with little to show for it. VeeKay recovered well - with some flashy racecraft - to 17th after instigating contact that saw Jack Harvey and Sting Ray Robb go spinning at the opening turn of the first lap, earning him a drive-through penalty. He ended up being ECR’s best finisher - a disappointing return given their promise.


Rasmussen finished 24th after a number of incidents, including being tagged by Agustin Canapino and later spinning on his own to bring out a late caution.


Archie


Loser: Georgina


Oh, Georgina. If you didn’t know about Barber Motorsports Park’s affinity with bizarre sculptures and features, you certainly do now.


Georgina had been living a merry life attached to the bridge on the run down to the Turn 7 and 8 chicane, but on Lap 52, she would leave home, falling from the bridge in a gymnastic-style landing on the entry to the downhill complex.


If Luca Ghiotto only ever does two IndyCar races, he will still live long in IndyCar folklore after being the guilty individual in colliding with the mannequin - spreading Georgina’s hand across the race track.


The bizarre nature of the incident has caught global attention, and has brought eyes on the series - albeit, in a slightly unconventional way.


Georgina will live in IndyCar folklore for years to come - Will Power has even called for the circuit to ‘mummify it,’ before going onto state: ‘That would have been funny if it came in someone's cockpit. There's a lady attacking me.’


It would be a fitting send-off for Georgina, the AMR team having the slightly unusual task of collecting the mannequin of the side of the circuit during a yellow (a yellow that many drivers thought was caused by Georgina, rather than Sting Ray Robb’s accident). Georgina would then be transported to the press conference to pose with Scott McLaughlin and journalists in an IndyCar moment that will be remembered forever. 


Maybe it would have been more fitting for Georgina to go to the medical centre instead on this occasion. But her dramatic fall followed by Ghiotto’s drive-by will likely see the end of Georgina hanging under the bridge, or any other of Barber Motorsports Park unique attractions to be hanging above a live circuit…..


Dan

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