IndyCar: Five talking points from Alabama
After a controversial first win of the season last time out in Long Beach, Simon Pagenaud had a point to prove around the Barber Motorsports Park.
The Frenchman dominated the majority of the race to secure his second consecutive victory of the season, despite a late duel with Graham Rahal which ended in minor contact.
Whilst Pagenaud extended his lead at the top of the IndyCar championship, reigning champion Scott Dixon endured a race to forget after a first lap collision with Sebastien Bourdais.
With lots to discuss after thrilling 90-lap race, Grand Prix Times’ Andy Young looks at five talking points from the Grand Prix of Alabama.
1. Pagenaud takes dominant victory
Ahead of the weekend’s race at Barber Motorsports Park, you could have brushed off Pagenaud’s lead in the drivers’ standings as a case of early season luck.
At the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Pagenaud inherited pole position after fastest man Will Power was forced to sit out the race due to illness.
Although Pagenaud failed to translate his starting position into victory, he still managed to finish a competitive second behind Penske team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya.
Next time out in Phoenix, Pagenaud was dealt further good fortune, when team-mates Montoya and Helio Castroneves both suffered tyre failures, dropping out of contention.
Once again, Pagenaud was second, this time behind reigning champion Dixon, putting him top of the drivers’ standings after two rounds.
At Long Beach, Pagenaud finally found his way to victory lane, however his first win for Penske was overshadowed by his pit exit infraction after his final stop.
The Frenchman clearly crossed the blend line whilst exiting the pit-lane, but was only issued with a warning and was fortunately able to maintain his lead and secure an important victory.
But at Alabama, Pagenaud performed like a champion, leading the majority of the race from pole and ultimately taking the win after seeing off Rahal in a late race duel.
Now Pagenaud sits a whopping 48 points ahead of Dixon in the drivers’ championship, unmistakably in control and looking like a serious championship contender.
2. Rahal could have won, if for some patience
Rahal was a strong second in last year’s Grand Prix of Alabama, chasing eventual winner Josef Newgarden to the flag.
Fast forward 12 months and once again Rahal was a force around the Barber Motorsports Park, mixing it up with the Chevrolet-powered cars such as Pagenaud, Power and Newgarden.
During the latter stages of the race Rahal caught and overtook Pagenaud for the lead, albeit after a minor collision which damaged his front-wing and forced the Frenchman to take to the grass.
Rahal had to concede the lead to Pagenaud just a handful of laps later, after shattering his front-wing whilst trying to lap Jack Hawksworth.
With the power of hindsight, Rahal could well have been better off waiting until the end of the lap to pounce upon Pagenaud, instead of lunging up the inside of Turn 7 and making contact.
Earlier in the race, Newgarden had muscled his way around Power for second position at Turn 14, a location which could’ve been ideal for Rahal.
Or the he could’ve waited until Turn 5 on the next lap to make the move, utilising his many push-to-pass applications available to him at the time.
Had he cleanly overtaken Pagenaud then victory could have been his for the taking, one which would’ve been very important for Rahal and for engine supplier Honda.
3. Power’s championship hopes fade
I mentioned after Long Beach that Power desperately needed a win to kickstart his season.
He started brightly, topping final practice, before qualifying second for the race.
However, in the race Power’s pace faded just like his championship hopes, when he found himself stuck behind Rahal after the final round of pit-stops.
Power’s race failed to improve as the laps ticked away, eventually losing third to Newgarden on the final lap to finish a frustrating fourth after starting from the front row of the grid.
With Power now a distant seventh in the drivers’ championship, behind the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves, there’s no denying his hopes of a second IndyCar title are already fading.
There’s absolutely no denying the fact that Power must win either the Grand Prix of Indianapolis or the Indianapolis 500 to have even a remote chance of now chasing down early leaders Pagenaud and Dixon.
4. Montoya makes passing look easy
Ahead of the race, the talk of the paddock was how difficult it would be to overtake around the Barber Motorsports Park, putting an enormous emphasis on qualifying.
After all, the furthest back a driver had come to secure victory was ninth in 2012, when Power led home Dixon and Castroneves.
So when Montoya was left a woeful 21st on the grid after setup issues, the Columbian’s chances of a decent result looked highly unlikely.
The former CART champion showed the field how you overtake at Barber, scything through the field with zest.
After just five laps Montoya had worked his way up to 11th position, making the most of the contact between Carlos Munoz, Mikhail Aleshin and Hawksworth at the start and Bourdais and Dixon’s altercation at Turn 5.
Montoya made up more ground in the pits, and ultimately came home a quite stunning fifth.
5. Overzealous Bourdais shoots himself in the foot
Bourdais was the surprise pace setter at the sharp end of the order early in the weekend, displaying a form of pace reminiscent of his Champ Car days.
The Frenchman took fifth in qualifying, but blew a potential podium finish on the opening lap, braking way too late at Turn 5, creaming into Dixon and spinning the champion out.
Bourdais certainly had pace in his KVSH Racing car, and with Pagenaud and Rahal’s duel late in the race, he could well have found himself involved in the battle for the lead, or at least a podium.
Given that, the four-time Champ Car champion was apologetic post-race.
"I feel really sorry for Scott [Dixon],” he said after limping home in 16th.
“He was collateral damage in something that was not in any way his fault.
“It is my fault, so I have to apologise for that.
“It is a shame because the car had pace.
“I definitely had the car to contend at the front. I just couldn't show it. I am very disappointed. This was a wasted opportunity.”