IndyCar is heading to Barber Motorsports Park this weekend for the third race of the season. This event was red-flagged twice last year, but the year before it ran relatively clean, making it a good candidate to assess what it takes to win down there (or at least to go fast and put yourself in a position to win). Barber is 2.3 miles long and has 17 turns, so not quite as long or as many turns as the last race at COTA, but it is another road course.
Of course what helped drivers go fast there in 2017 might not be exactly what makes them go fast there this year, but it’s likely some of the trends we’ve seen in the past will crop up again this weekend.
Newgarden won at Barber in 2017 with Dixon and Pagenaud securing places on the podium as well. Power also ran well before a puncture dropped him back and Andretti had mechanical problems, but both of these guys had good racecars and speed despite getting poor results overall.
Here is the sector heatmap and a trackmap for the race at Barber in 2017:
Right off the bat it looks like there wasn’t one driver who was able to be quick around the whole track. Power, Andretti, and Dixon had the top three lap times during the race, and as I mentioned before, the first two would have performed much better had they not run into car troubles. They knew what it took to be fast at Barber but just didn’t have luck on their side.
Looking at the top performers of the race, sectors 2/3 and 7/8 seemed to be their best sectors in terms of time compared to the average driver through there. All of these sectors have a medium to high speed turn as their distinguishing characteristic, and it allowed drivers to make up the most time on their competitors out of any point on the track.
Here is an onboard with Hunter-Reay through sectors two and three:
The fast turn that makes up sector two is a medium speed sweeping turn that forces the car to have good grip over a long turn. This turn leads onto a short straightaway so getting a good exit out of there is important, which is probably why we see such big differences in driver performances through these sectors. The driver needs to keep on the gas as much as possible without washing out onto the edge of the track too much, and this is a delicate balance to find between the car grip and driver. If a car has good grip through this medium speed sweeper, the driver can really distance himself from those around him.
Dixon had the quickest time through sector two in the race and was 1.77% faster than the average car through there. Power edged out Dixon in the third sector and was 1.50% faster than average.
And here is Hunter-Reay going through sectors seven and eight:
As you can see, these sectors are similar to sector two but their long turns are taken even faster than the one that starts the lap, with the car never dipping below 100 mph through sectors 7/8. It once again depends on the car being comfortable and quick through high speed turns. There is time to be made up here on your competitors, just take a look at how poor Sato and Jones were through these sectors for instance. They were well off of the leader’s pace and couldn’t find a way to make those sectors work for them despite a weekend’s worth of practice under their belts.
Sectors seven and eight are more important than two and three, so keep an eye on who is performing best there when practice starts on Friday. Power was able to go 2.44% faster than the average car through sector seven and Newgarden went 4.34% faster than average. 4.34%! Newgarden won the race despite heavy pressure from Dixon in the final laps and his blazing times through the high speed penultimate sector were partly the reason for it. If you can consistently get sector eight right, you are setting yourself up for a good race; get it wrong, and Sunday is going to be a struggle.
Although not as long and less of a sweeping turn than what we have at Barber, Sector 16 at COTA was a relatively high speed turn that can be compared to the ones we’ll see this weekend. The top drivers through there during the race were Bourdais, Ericsson, Pigot, Pagenuad, and Herta. It’ll be interesting to see if their results at COTA translate into quick times through these sectors at Barber.
Barber doesn’t have any really long straights so top speed isn’t going to be as important as grip through these high speed turns and acceleration will be. At COTA last week cars were pushing 187 mph through the back straight speed trap, but at Barber drivers were just getting over 160 mph down the front straight when they came through the speed trap. The top performers at the GP of Alabama weren’t particularly quick through the speed trap anyway with Newgarden, Dixon, Pagenaud, and Castroneves having just the 14th, 4th, 19th, and 12th fastest speeds through there on race day. This reaffirms the idea that car setups were tailored to the fast turns over straight line speed.
The GP of Alabama has been a three or four stop race in the past depending on how cautions fall, but in the last four years the race has had at most two cautions. As such, green flag pitstops are going to be likely and that means differing strategies and deciding when to pit will probably play a big role in the race. Ericsson’s team at Schmidt Peterson with strategist Billy Vincent and Pagenaud’s strategist Kyle Moyer have been the best through the first two races on green flag stops. Those strategists have netted their drivers four and three positions per green flag stop in the first two races, respectively. It’s still early on, but I’ll be watching those two guys in particular if it comes time for green flag stops to be made.
The first practice session kicks off 12:15 p.m. Friday!
Header Photo: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar