Barber Test - October 12, 5:15 PM

Story posted - Oct 12 2007 6:54 PM

The AGR drivers are going to be sorry they left early. Two of them, anyway... Although Tony Kanaan retained the top spot on the Barber speed charts, his teammates Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick slid to the last two positions as Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon, and Vitor Meira made the most out of happy hour. Within the last hour, Wheldon improved his best time by nearly two seconds; Dixon came within 3/100 of Castroneves, and Meira made an impressive improvement of nearly a second. The final charts:

1:09.7430 Tony Kanaan
1:10.2065 Helio Castroneves
1:10.2387 Scott Dixon
1:10.3256 Dan Wheldon
1:10.4116 Vitor Meira
1:10.6797 Marco Andretti
1:10.8889 Danica Patrick

In the final twenty minutes, Castroneves made a valiant effort to best Kanaan's time, but loss of grip kept foiling his plans. On one occasion, he narrowly avoided a big off at the apex of turn 5. The car understeered, and Helio just missed clipping the cones that separate the outside edge of the turn from the (blocked-off) cutoff lane. Another time, he got the back end out exiting turn 15 and nearly spun on the main straight.

All seven drivers broke the track record by at least 9 seconds. Kanaan's margin over the previous track record, set by Max Papis in a Grand Am car, was just under 11 seconds. Concerning this, every driver and team person TSO spoke to stated that the track was faster than they expected. Danica said earlier that they were a whole gear too low -- she was going to sixth in parts of the track where she planned to be in fifth, and so on.

After the session, TSO spoke to Scott Dixon about the paddle shifter. He said it needs some more work, but he thinks it's the way the series needs to go. He said that the engine software is not yet optimized for it, and that it was resulting in rough shifts. He also said that the gearing they had in the car was not ideal, and that was causing some other problems. It appears that the system doesn't yet do the shifts much faster than the driver can using the manual lever -- Dixon's car did not sound noticably different from Wheldon's in the parts of the track where they went through several gears. It definitely did not sound like the near-instantaneous shifting that we hear in Formula 1 cars. TSO also asked Dixon what he thought about an Indycar race at Barber. He was for the idea; he likes the track, although he said there aren't enough passing opportunities in the current configuration. In Dixon's words, the track is "flowy".

TSO also spoke to Helio Castroneves about his teammate situation. Helio said that he would certainly welcome having Sam Hornish back next year if that is what Sam decides to do. When asked if he would prefer an experienced driver or an up-and-coming driver as a teammate if Sam does not return, Helio thought for a moment, and then decided that he really didn't want to adddress that question. "It's not my decision." These may have been just about the only questions Helio got about actual racing -- everyone else was asking him dancing questions. Being that this correspondent is also a ballroom dancer, we had to get in one for ourselves -- when is Roger going to come see you dance? "October 22", Helio said. Ah well, it figures that the Penske organization would already have that planned. (And no, Julianne Hough was not at the track today.)

During the afternoon, TSO went out into the spectator area behind turns 2/3 and talked to some people at random. Everyone we spoke to said that: (1) they didn't know that much about Indycars, but (2) they were very much enjoying it; (3) they are going to watch some Indycar races next year, and (4) they want a race at Barber. Mind you, this was an unscientific survey with a sample size of about 20. However, the attendance figures might back this up. A Barber spokesperson confirmed to TSO that today's paid attendance was 1900, which was probably about 1850 more than they expected. Really, for a test on a weekday, in an area not exactly known as a hotbed of Indycar racing (Talledega is about 40 miles away), this was remarkable. There is already an expansion in work on a spectator area that is on the opposite side of the track from the paddock and media center (about half of the track perimeter was closed today due to the construction). Birmingham is a two-hour drive from Atlanta, a market that the IRL would still like to find a way to serve.

That's all from Birmingham. The sun is setting over the very scenic Barber Motorsports Park. Rose in the media center, who has been a great help today, is waiting very patiently for your intrepid TSO reporter to finish this up. Photos later tonight, once I get back to Huntsville and find some fresh batteries for the camera. I'm off to the museum now. My thanks to the TSO folks for giving me the opportunity to do this.

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