The rain was the big winner during the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama as reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden notched up his second win of the 2018 season.
Red flagged on Sunday, the race restarted on Monday and despite some inspired wet-weather driving by Sebastien Bourdais in the SealMaster Honda, pole-sitter Newgarden prevailed ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, rookie Robert Wickens and Bourdais.
Here we rate the heroes that enjoyed plain sailing and the zeroes that sunk like the Titanic at a washed-out Barber Motorsports Park.
2018 Honda Grand Prix of Alabama – heroes
Hero – the fans at Barber
Amongst all the discussion of driver safety and welfare, there were only a few mentions of the real heroes of the day: IndyCar’s loyal fans. Braving torrential rain and driving winds, they stood firm as race control took their sweet time making a decision.
The 19 laps bagged on Sunday afternoon were thrilling and showed IndyCar drivers at their bravest, most skilful best. That was scant reward for the sodden fans around Barber Motorsports Park. The option to come back right in the middle of the working day was even less so.
They deserved better and more. A sentiment IndyCar seems to have misunderstood if rumours regarding a double race weekend at Barber in 2019 are to be believed.
Hero – Josef Newgarden
In the wet and dry, Newgarden was completely in control and well and truly hooked up in the Hitachi car. He benefitted from being on pole on Sunday but that is as it should be. Come Monday he disappeared in the dry with an aggressive strategy versus the attempted 1-stop fuel mileage runs of Bourdais and Dixon.
The speed of Newgarden’s reactions and car control on Sunday and in the wet on Monday were freakish. As his Chevrolet twitched and pitched on the main start-finish straight, the defending IndyCar champion went from opposite lock to opposite lock in the blink of an eye.
Fast reactions and rapid laps were not the whole story. As the rain began to fall again with 15 minutes to go, Newgarden was receptive to the advice of crew chief Tim Cindric who urge a more cautious approach. The Tennessean proceeded to drive as slowly as possible to win the race.
If Newgarden circa-2018 is devastatingly quick but also measured and composed, we could be looking at our first back-to-back champion since Dario Franchitti.
Hero – Sebastien Bourdais
Newgarden was mighty all weekend but the miraculous car control of Sebastien Bourdais deserves special mention. Lapping on slicks in when it was time for wets highlighted a God-given feel and car control few can match. Even when the entire field had switched to Firestone wets, Bourdais was still lapping quicker than many of them on slicks.
It was a joy to watch and for neutrals, watching the 4-time ChampCar title winner having to concede defeat and pit for wets stole what could have been a spectacular result.
Post-race Bourdais looked like a man who had just found out his wife was cheating on him. Finishing in the top 5 is no longer good enough for the Frenchman and his Dale Coyne with Vasser Sullivan Racing team.
That is excellent news for fans of IndyCar; a fired up Bourdais in amongst the Penske-Ganassi-Andretti oligopoly is an exciting prospect.
Hero – Zach Veach
Clearly fed up with all the attention being lavished upon fellow rookie Robert Wickens, Zach Veach decided it was time to remind the IndyCar world why Michael Andretti gave him a full-time ride.
The plucky 23-year-old overcame food poisoning to qualify just outside the top 10, running as high as 6th come Monday’s restarted race. When the likes of Will Power and Charlie Kimball were losing it, Veach was holding it together like a seasoned veteran. During Sunday’s torrential rain, Veach kept the likes of Simon Pagenaud – no slouch in the wet – honest.
Veach’s crew stuck rigidly to a one-stop strategy and wrecked his chances of a strong finish after the restart. Eventually, the Honda driver was completely swamped, falling down the order on red Firestone tires well past their prime. Pitting with 35 minutes remaining and the eventual rain dropped him to a 13th place finish that did not reflect his efforts.
Honda Grand Prix of Alabama – zeroes
Zero – Race control
After slipping willingly into the role of villain at Long Beach, race control faced a further storm of criticism at Barber. Sunday offered up nothing but loaded dice for IndyCar but the series gamely kept on rolling.
The series has developed something of a reputation for chickening out of big wet weather decisions. Sadly it felt like this was playing on their minds as race control continually delayed the decision on restarting the race.
The decision did no one any favours, race control in particular. Watching fans around the circuit cling to their ponchos and folding chairs was a sorry sight. An earlier call for rescheduling the race seems – with the full benefit of hindsight – like the call that should have been made.
Monday’s re-start threw up a few head-scratchers from race control too. All teams were given a push to pass reset and allowed to refuel, cancelling any advantaged gained by the likes of Marco Andretti that had opted to go off strategy early on Sunday. The justification being that IndyCar simply couldn’t police teams doing so illegally due to the nature of the Barber track and access to the pits.
Pressing the button on that change was followed by a couple more which included allowing Will Power to restart the race and leaving lapped traffic in play for the race restart.
Inconsistency has been the primary criticism of IndyCar race control in recent years. Some of the decisions at Barber did little to dampen that.
Zero – Will Power
Power has never been slow to sound off about what bothers him. After his moans at St Pete, Phoenix and Long Beach, hearing the Aussie whinge about IndyCar’s dangerous wet restart on lap 17 felt awfully familiar.
Penske’s elder statesman had some grounds to feel aggrieved after crashing out, just a few laps shy of the red flag. Then again, every one of the other 22 cars that took the green flag on Sunday managed to navigate the start-finish straight and turn 1 without stuffing their car into the wall. Including Ryan Hunter-Reay who somehow managed to avoid Power as the 2014 champion speared across the track in front of him.
At Phoenix, Power declared his shunt was Alexander Rossi’s fault. This time it was race control but that one doesn’t hold much water when you consider that every driver was dealing with aqua-planning on Sunday.
Zero – Zach Claman DeMelo
The Canadian was channelling his inner Sato on Monday with some banzai moves of his own.
With just under an hour to run, the field was strung out as the opposing ‘tortoise and hare’ strategies played out.
At this point – with nothing much happening on track – NBC was doing almost as much filling as they had during the extended rain delay on Sunday. DeMelo – 2 laps down – however, was having none of it. Teeth-clenching action ensued as he ran the likes of Marco Andretti wide, and threw his Chevy up the inside with plenty of chrome horn.
One of IndyCar’s many charms is the relaxed attitude to blue flags and cars aggressively unlapping themselves. DeMelo, however, was taking liberties with some of his moves.
Yeah, it was the most entertaining action on track at that time but 2 laps down on a road course is effectively irretrievable. It was not the time or the place to be making those kinds of moves.
Come back and pull some similar overtakes for position and we will all be more impressed Zach.
Race rating: 3 out of 5
Racing in the wet on Sunday was thrilling and the will he/won’t he make it storyline for Bourdais on Monday afternoon was nail-biting. Otherwise, this was a pretty dull affair similar to what Barber produced under the old aero kit regulations.