BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – The wacky ways of Barber Motorsports Park continued in the third practice of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst weekend, but a familiar name landed atop the timesheet once more.
James Hinchcliffe, who recorded the fastest lap on Friday at the 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course, upped his game in the final moments of Saturday’s 45-minute session – the last before NTT P1 Award qualifying later in the afternoon.
HONDA INDY GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA: Practice 3 results I Combined practice results I Round 1 qualifying groups
Hinchcliffe logged a lap of 1 minute, 8.7351 seconds (120.462 mph) in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and remains the only NTT IndyCar Series among the 24 entered to navigate the technical and treacherous circuit in less than 1:09. Meanwhile, no fewer than seven drivers went off course during the Saturday practice as most everyone continued a frantic search for grip and proper car balance on an unforgiving, high-speed road course.
Three drivers – Zach Veach, Marcus Ericsson and Graham Rahal – caused red-flag stoppages of the session for their incidents. Veach and Rahal slid into the gravel trap in Turn 5, while Ericsson went into a tire barrier in Turn 1. No one was injured but Ericsson’s No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda sustained damage that his crew will need to repair quickly in time for qualifying.
Sebastien Bourdais trailed Hinchcliffe on the Saturday practice time sheet. The Frenchman put in a lap of 1:09.0351 (119.939 mph) in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda.
“We know we have a good baseline (setup) here, it’s just always, super, super tight,” Bourdais said. “We’ve just got to get every little bit out of it.”
While many drivers were surprised they were unable to turn faster laps Friday on the softer Firestone alternate tires than the harder primary compound, Bourdais said the true culprit may be the track surface itself.
“We’ve lost a lot of (track) grip from last year to this year; it’s a second a lap slower just about,” he said. “It makes things a lot trickier. And the wind’s changed from yesterday; you’ve got a head wind into (Turn) 5. A lot of moving factors and when the car is low on grip, any little condition change makes a big difference. It’s a bit on eggs and very easy to overdo it.”
Scott Dixon was third in Saturday’s practice at 1:09.2334 (119.595 mph) in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, but the reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion wasn’t overjoyed with his lap.
“It was very messy,” Dixon admitted. “I was surprised we were even third; it felt like maybe a 15th-place lap. Hopefully that plays true (in qualifying).”
While Simon Pagenaud raised to seventh in practice in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, his teammates’ struggles continued. Josef Newgarden, the two-time defending race winner, was 17th in the No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevy, while Will Power, who won the Barber race in 2011 and ’12, was 15th in the Verizon Team Penske Chevy. Power’s session included a pair of off-track excursions.
“I was really surprised how the front brakes locked massively and I flat-spotted that set (of tires),” Power said of his first venture into the grass. “Then I had another off because of that. Very tough to get the car in the window. Definitely making some big changes. I’ve never had a lock-up like that. … But we actually found a reasonable (car) balance at the end (of practice). It’s definitely closer. We’ll see.
“It’s definitely a different car setup-wise to last year and we’re still not there.”
NTT P1 Award qualifying airs live at 4 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.
Sunday’s race will be the 10th annual NTT IndyCar Series event at Barber. Coverage of the 90-lapper begins at 4 p.m. on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app, as well as the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. The INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA provides select in-car cameras and all team radio communications during the race.