The influx of rookies in the Verizon IndyCar Series field this year has made it easier to spot the performance difference between newcomers and drivers with years of experience. In qualifying for this year’s edition of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, experience won out.
The new universal aero kit presents the same challenge to all teams. It’s the approach of each team that makes the difference. Whether it’s engineering prowess, chemistry or simply knowing how to deal with a misbehaving race car, the veteran teams and drivers seem to be able to figure things out quicker than the newest members of the paddock.
Four-time champion Scott Dixon is among the most experienced and made it to the Firestone Fast 6 with his No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda — but it wasn’t easy.
“We had quite a few red flags in the first session today so that was tough to get the car consistent and where we needed it,” said Dixon.
“Once we get the PNC Bank car in the right area, we know it’s fast. It’s just about finding that correct balance. We’re still working on the car. We’re trying to get the grip we need.”
Finding balance and knowing what the car needs is one area where experience seems to count for more than youthful exuberance. Changing conditions — particularly wind — wreaked havoc during practice, leading to multiple offs in Turn 5.
Instead of lamenting having to deal with the conditions, former series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay relishes the opportunity.
“It’s really been tough today to stay on top of the track conditions — they’ve been changing a lot,” said Hunter-Reay after qualifying fourth for the race. “It feels more like an oval out there where the wind changes just a little bit and you have to adjust your driving style to it.
“It’s a lot of fun adjusting to that.”
For veteran Marco Andretti, who’s starting a season-best seventh, it’s less about making adjustments and more about having a positive attitude — something he’s cultivated racing in the series for 12 years.
“I think we can win this race from seventh, especially if it’s wet,” said Andretti. “This was the first qualifying session that nothing drastic happened for us; it was the first normal session of the year.
“I think we wouldn’t have qualified out of the top 10 all year, pace-wise, and I think we’ve shown that in the races. We’re a little closer to the front and that’s good. We need to stay here.
“I expect to be here, even if a lot of people don’t (expect it), I do.”
Rookies encountered similar roadblocks but without years of experience to draw on, solutions were out of reach. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King, for instance, had problems getting the car to perform in qualifying like it did in practice.
“I feel like we had the potential to be in the top 10 and challenge to get through to the Firestone Fast 6,” said King. “It’s a bit annoying in that sense, but the circuit changed a lot, so the car was quite a bit different.
“It was difficult to get the lap time out of the car this afternoon, when this morning we seemed to show good promise. I am quite disappointed for obvious reasons, but it’s just one of those things.”
Juncos Racing’s part-time driver Rene Binder had a different challenge, although it was one of his own making.
“We basically had only one lap on the red (Firestone alternate) tires, so that was difficult for me,” Binder said. “I think there was still more in the car — I would say one second more. I took the first lap conservative because yesterday I crashed on the reds.”
AJ Foyt Racing rookie Matheus Leist’s comments following qualify indicated a deficiency in both his car and team communication, especially with Tony Kanaan’s unfortunate crash in Round 1 of qualifying.
“Tough qualifying for the team, for me, for Tony,” said the young Brazilian. “We just didn’t have the speed today — this whole weekend. We’ve got a lot to talk about, debrief and see what we can do to improve the car for the road courses.”
Despite it looking like the “year of the rookie” when the season began in St. Petersburg, it’s the veterans whose experience has proved most valuable in subsequent rounds, including the one currently unfolding around the tricky, rolling hills of Alabama.
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will go green at 2:08 p.m. CDT on Sunday with wet weather expected and four rows of veteran drivers ahead of the six rookies in the field.