April 26, 2014, Birmingham, Alabama
— by Raymond Wintonyk
The story in IndyCar qualifying today at Birmingham isn’t really who’s at the top of the order, but who’ll be starting from the back. Tony Kanaan, who’s been having no luck getting good performance from his car all weekend, will have the entire field in front of him tomorrow. But he’s a survivor, and he’s faced this type of thing before. It should be interesting to see how he deals with it. In front of him, will be rookie Jack Hawksworth, who was looking racy in Long Beach, but couldn’t put a time together today. And the race winner at Long Beach, Mike Conway, is another who’s just been unable to get his car hooked up properly this weekend. He’ll start third from the last, with Ryan Briscoe ahead of him. — Four cars at the back that you wouldn’t generally expect to be there.
No real surprises up front, though: Will Power took the pole, with the Mayor of Hinchtown as runner up. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s in third spot, followed by Newgarden, Dixon, and Castroneves. Josef Newgarden is off to a great start this year, despite having his day ended in Long Beach when he encountered Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Turn 4 Used Car Emporium.
It was hot and sunny at Barber Motorsports Park, and the race fans were taking advantage of the shade in the trees that line the hills. But there wasn’t much shade in the pits as the track temperature soared well above the 100 degree mark.
The first qualifying session began with Montoya hot, and Conway getting nowhere. There was very little movement until the closing minutes of the session, but with just 3 minutes remaining, Carlos Huertas jumped to the top of the order, to be replaced a few seconds later by Sebastian Saavedra. At the 2 minute mark, Castroneves managed to top the order, pushing Bourdais back to sixth, but Sébastien answered with a lap that put him in P2. Will Power came to the top shortly thereafter, and finally, with 1:30 remaining, Pagenaud put in a 1:09.2 lap that put him at the head of the field.
Final top six: Pagenaud, Power, Montoya, Castroneves, with Bourdais just squeaking through. Mike Conway came in at the bottom of the list, with Servia, Kimball, Huertas and Saavedra in front of him. And fourth place finisher in Long Beach, Juan Pablo Montoya, certainly looks to be getting back into racing trim. His was a driving style, when he was with Champ Car, that closely resembled that of Alex Zanardi. He sort of “bounces” around the track; touching the ground only when absolutely necessary.
When the green flag dropped on the second round, Ryan Hunter-Reay was first out. His is the first pit stop in the line, and it’s got to be an advantage in qualifying to be able to shoot onto a clear track. Everyone started on blacks except rookie Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin, and not surprisingly, he came out on top with a 1:09.14 after the first hot lap. James Hinchcliffe stayed out an extra lap on his blacks and put in a 1:09.29 on them for second spot. Everyone pits to switch to reds and by the time that’s all done, there’s just 3:30 left in the session.
Ryan Hunter-Reay jumps to third spot, then Newgarden posts a 1:08.7 to take the lead with just over two minutes left. A minute and a half remaining: Hinchcliffe manages first with a 1:08.5, then Dixon scrambles into fourth, Aleshin pops into second, and Marco Andretti finally takes over the fourth spot.
Top six: Hinchcliffe, Aleshin, Newgarden, Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Scott Dixon. Ryan Briscoe, Jack Hawksworth and Tony Kanaan are in the basement, with Sato, Wilson and Rahal not breaking the 1:09 barrier, and not making the cut. Who’s the most impressive? It’s got to be Mr. Aleshin in the #7 SMP car. He’s a rookie, but he’s running at the top.
Third round: Aleshin and Montoya both come straight out of the pits on reds. And, again, they’re the top two on the first lap. Everyone pits to switch to reds. And it’s a waiting game. Four minutes left: Newgarden heads out; then Castroneves, and Bourdais. With just two minutes to go, most of the cars are back on the track to put in perhaps just a single hot lap.
Newgarden jumps to the top, Castroneves P2, Bourdais to fourth; then Muñoz to second. Hot laps sort of “scramble” the scoreboard, Power puts in a 1:08.36 for P1, and the checkered flag flys.
Top six: Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Hélio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay. Muñoz just barely missed the cut, coming four one-thousandths of a second behind Hunter-Reay, with Juan Pablo just one one-hundredth of a second behind him. This is close stuff, folks.
Sébastien Bourdais, who’d just been barely fast enough to get this far, didn’t do all that well in this round, and his luck was about to get worse. On the final lap, in front of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car, race officials found that he had “impeded” the 28 DHL car. Mr. Bourdais loses his two best lap times, and will end up starting in the 12th grid position.
Final Six: It’s a chess game, now. The green flag drops, but it’d seem that Start should wave it harder. Only Will Power sees the darned thing. He’s out on the track by himself for a lap and a half. It’s no surprise that he posts fastest lap with 1:08.31. RHR ventures out, and puts in a 1:08.42 for P2. With 5:45 left in the session Hinchcliffe does his hot lap. Pippa Mann in “commentary” says he looks like he’s got a lot of understeer going through the 7/8 complex, and just stays out of the gravel trap. But he posts a 1:08.34, (good for second) and pits. He later says he was “fine”, but just knew he’d done his best lap.
Newgarden runs the course for two laps, and comes up fourth, Dixon manages fifth. Hélio has an off & on on his first lap, and puts up a 1:08.62 on his second lap, but it’s only good enough for the back of the six.
The final qualifying order: Barber quals (right-click to download)
The big surprise? Simon Pagenaud. In the first qualifying round, Mr. Pagenaud posted a 1:08.29, which was the fastest lap of the day. In his next session, he could only manage a 1:08.87. At the end of the day, he was more just puzzled than anything else. He couldn’t really figure out why his car was slower. It felt fine. But it’s that close. One half second between the fastest lap of the day, and the 10th qualifying spot — which is where The 77 car will start tomorrow.
For a comprehensive look at the qualifying results, go to the IndyCar STATS site.
It’ll be warm and sunny again tomorrow at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. The racing might prove to be hot.