BIRMINGHAM — Race day started out stormy at Barber Motorsports Park but by the time the green flag waved for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the sun was shining and rain was no longer a concern for the 26 NTT INDYCAR Series drivers competing Sunday afternoon.
With Kyle Kirkwood starting 21st, Dalton Kellett starting 23rd and Tatiana Calderón starting 25th, they knew there would be challenges on a track where passing is difficult at best.
Switching from a planned two-stop fuel strategy to a three-stopper early on, Kirkwood pitted the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet on lap 12. Unfortunately, an equipment failure resulted in an extra-long stop causing Kirkwood to go a lap down on the 2.3-mile circuit. However, he was able to get the lap back, but a slightly risky strategy call later in the race did not pay off and he finished 22nd, a lap down. On the positive side, Kirkwood posted the 10th quickest lap of the race, so the team did find the pace they had lost in the qualifying session.
“Not the best of days here at Barber Motorsports Park,” Kirkwood said afterwards. “Unfortunately, we had a little hiccup on our first stop which set us back, a lap down, and we were having to play catch up to get our lap back, which we did. This place is just so hard to pass so that was a hard thing, I think, for everyone out there. We were stuck in 21st so we took a big gamble and ended up going a lap down due to that gamble because we didn’t get the caution that we needed [to make it work]. But all is good, we know we had some pace there and we could have finished towards the front, probably in the top-10 if we played the strategy right.”
Kirkwood, whose 2021 Indy Lights championship run began at Barber, compared the two types of cars saying, “Lights to Indy car, I’d have to say the Indy car is actually easier to drive around here. It tells you what the car is going to do a lot better than a Lights car. The Lights car likes to move around a lot so the elevation changes and the curb usage doesn’t help that whatsoever, and the Indy car with its damper programs and whatnot, it’s really nice over all those crests and bumps and high-speed sections as well.”
Kellett’s K-Line Insulators team had also planned on a two-stop race which meant saving fuel from lap 1 on. However, as he explains below, they were not getting the fuel mileage they needed in the race to make that strategy work. He pitted on lap 18 about 12 laps earlier than planned. Mid-race he ran as high as 14th but dropped in the order once the fuel strategies played out. He placed 23rd.
A three-lap caution period starting on lap 32 after Callum Ilott’s spin while battling in the top-10 negated any advantage of the three-stop strategy as the two-stoppers no longer had to worry about gambling on fuel.
“Overall, not too happy I guess,” the cool Canadian said. “Given where we started, we definitely had our work cut out for us. We were looking to move up in the race but we couldn’t quite make the mileage for the two-stop strategy so we bailed early and switched strategy to a three-stop. That kind of ties your hands a little bit as far as track position and time in the pits when others are on the two-stop.”
Engineer Mike Pawlowski debriefs with Kellett after the race.
“Hindsight’s 20-20 on that but the bigger issue is trying to figure getting the mileage out of the car during the run, so we’ll have a look at the data and see what I can do better there,” he offered. “The car felt pretty good on reds and we just needed to get the blacks to optimum temp and activated quicker. We don’t really seem to have the out-lap and initial five-lap pace on the blacks across the three cars and that’s something as a team we have to figure out, but we know it’s an issue, so we know what we have to focus on for our next road course event.”
Tatiana Calderón escaped injury after an off-track excursion early in final practice yesterday which resulted in damage to the left side of her No. 11 Chevy. With her ROKiT Chevrolet fully repaired, she ran competitive lap times at certain points during the grueling race which was slowed for only one brief caution period. Although she finished 26th, the race marked significant improvement from her NTT INDYCAR Series debut in St. Petersburg.
“First of all, I want to thank the whole No. 11 ROKiT Chevrolet crew because they repaired the car and everything was ready for the race after my ‘little’ crash yesterday so thanks to the team for that,” said Calderón. “Obviously, it hurt us not to do the warmup in terms of getting a feel for the car in high fuel on both compounds, so we decided to go on the blacks to do a longer stint. Even though it was really hot out there, I just struggled a little bit to get the tires into temperature and to be able to push. When we went to the reds, the car felt really, really good so I was really happy with the red stints. We did two stints on the reds and then, back on the blacks I just couldn’t find the grip.”
“I’m happy to finish,” she added. “I think my fitness is getting better because this place is really tough but I managed to finish and I’m feeling better and stronger every time out on track, so I think the training has been good. Ultimately, I think the more you drive the car, the fitter you get so hopefully now that we have a lot of races in a row, it will just get better.”
The Foyt team did not test at Barber and that may have had an impact as Firestone brought a different tire from last year. With such limited test time available to the teams (as a means to control costs), the teams focus on those tracks where they expect to learn the most. With Sebastien Bourdais’s fifth place finish last year, the team felt confident about their initial setups carrying over to this year.
“Both tire compounds were quite a bit different from what we were expecting,” said Kirkwood. “It took a while for us to turn on the primary tires and the alternate tires, we felt really good on, we were able to turn those on and go forever on them. We probably could have used those to our advantage a little bit better in the race, but we ended up running two sets of blacks there at the end due to our four-stop strategy from the hiccup on the pit stop. It’s quite a bit different from what I was expecting from the street courses, but Firestone makes an awesome tire. They lasted the entire race, we didn’t have any issues with degradation, really just not exactly what I was expecting.”
Kellett concurred saying, “The blacks and the reds were quite a bit harder. The red this year was probably closer to last year’s black to be honest and the black was still a lot harder compound. Overall, it was just a stiffer, harder tire which took longer to come in. It made the blacks versus reds, in terms of outright pace, a little closer than last year and neither tire had that much degradation. It’s a tossup between whether you want a consistent average lap time out of a tire or if you want a high degradation, sort of more fall-off. I think the higher fall-off makes it a bit more interesting from a racing standpoint because you have to manage that towards the end of a stint, but it’s always a work in progress trying to figure out what the ideal compound is for each track.”
Team President Larry Foyt who served as the race strategist for Calderón at this race summed up the weekend, saying, “It was just a tough weekend here at Barber overall. We thought that last year we had a pretty good combination here and we were excited to come back but with the new tire, we just never really figured out for the pace on the weekend. It’s just a tough place to pass once you’re starting in the back here.”
Engineer Daniele Cucchiaroni talks with Foyt and Calderón after the race.
“It’s tough, you need a lot of luck,” he continued. “We had a piece of pit equipment fail on the 14 car’s first stop so that kind of sealed their day. Dalton drove a good race, it was just hard to move up from where we were starting. Tatiana, the same thing. And this is one of the toughest places [physically] and she did a really good job to finish the race. We’ll move on and make some changes to make sure we don’t have that issue again and be better next time.”
Youth outdistanced experience in the 90-lap race. Pato O’Ward (22), won while defending NTT INDYCAR Series champion Alex Palou (25) finished second. Pole winner Rinus Veekay (21) finished third ahead of Will Power (41) and Scott Dixon (41).
INDYCAR team members get to celebrate Mother’s Day with their mothers next weekend as the next event is the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course on May 14. It will be broadcast on NBC starting at 3 p.m. ET.