STORY BY BRUCE MARTIN
LEEDS, Alabama – Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed the Verizon P1 Award thanks to a “Red Storm” and two incidents of blocking on the race track left several drivers “Seeing Red” Saturday morning at Barber Motorsports Park.
Hunter-Reay won the IZOD IndyCar Series Pole in Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama when he put on the Firestone “Reds” for the first time late in the session. The “Reds” are a softer compound tire that is built for speed and by saving a set for the end of qualifications the Andretti Autosport driver was able to knock Team Penske’s Will Power off the pole with just nine seconds left in the session.
Hunter-Reay’s lap of 1:07.0871 (123.422 miles per hour around the 17-turn, 2.38-mile natural terrain road course broke Power’s track record of 1:09.8529 (118.535 mph) set last year.
By saving the Reds until the very end Hunter-Reay’s Red Storm blew away the field.
“It was great,” Hunter-Reay said afterwards. “As a racing driver, you love two things — grip and horsepower. We had both of those two things, combined with a track that’s been newly resurfaced or grinded or whatever you want to call it. It certainly helped. It’s great to break records.
“It was fun putting those Reds on, those Firestone Reds that first time, feeling how much overall grip there was. There was so much in the car. It’s tough sometimes for you to even keep up with it because you’re used to the grip from the standard Blacks. Once you get into the Reds, you have to push yourself further into corners and ask more from the car which you have the entire weekend, which is tricky.”
While Hunter-Reay’s “Red Storm” was fierce so were several incidents of blocking. James Hinchcliffe, who won the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, claims that Power held him up twice in the first qualifying session when he was on target for his fast lap. Hinchcliffe claims that Power intentional got off the accelerator twice even though the Team Penske driver had a clear track in front of him.
“On my second flyer I caught some guy (Power) that had already backed off; got on the gas and backed off again,” Hinchcliffe said. “That caught me out and killed my second lap. That would have easily got us into Q2. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get to show our hand today. It seems like that guy was playing games. Now, we’re going to have to be aggressive. Having an extra set of Reds in the race will help but it will be a matter of making smart decisions.
“I guess he did it because we are the points leader and we were quicker in the test. I’ll talk to him about it later today. It seems like foolish games to play and stuff like that will come back to you.”
Power went on to qualify second at 1:07.3304 (122.976 mph) and claims he was no intentionally trying to hold up Hinchcliffe.
“I don’t think I blocked him actually,” Power said. “E.J. Viso checked me up. Those guys checked up in front of me. Yeah, don’t know what he’s talking about. Blocking? I have to take a look at the video.
“It’s just whining because he didn’t get through, I think.”
INDYCAR Race Director Beaux Barfield did not see any fault with Power’s move. The same could not be said for an incident involving Takuma Sato and Justin Wilson.
Sato was disqualified from the “Fast Six” when Barfield ruled that he had blocked Wilson in the third qualification session. Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing team partner Larry Foyt were irate with the call which allowed rookie Tristan Vautier to take Sato’s place in the decisive Fast Six session.
Vautier made the most of his second opportunity by qualifying third at 1:07.3616 (122.919 mph) while Sato got kicked all the way back to 12th starting position.
“It’s disappointing for us not to be able to show our performance in the Fast Six,” Sato said. “We had a difficult practice session this morning but we worked on our setup and in the first two segments the car was much more connected and I was able to commit and we advanced to the Fast Six. However in the second segment I had to back off because there was a slower car in front of me at the exit of turn five. So I abandoned my qualifying lap and I tried to stretch the space. I checked my mirror on the back straight and there was no one there and then going through turns 7 and 8 which is where the elevation changes which is probably the worst place for Justin Wilson to catch me because I couldn’t see anything behind me.
“When I was able to see that he was coming on I tried to keep my line tight and let him have the racing line. Obviously it was close but I was disappointed to be penalized.”
Wilson starts eighth but believes he was easily a “Fast Six” qualifying if not for the Sato incident.
“I’m really upset by what happened,” Wilson said. “We definitely had a top three car today, possible even a pole winning one. My Red tires were just coming in and I was working on a very quick lap when Sato slowed down in front of me and didn’t get out of the way. That caused me to slow down and have to go around him. Once I came in into the pits I ran right to the INDYCAR trailer to see if they saw the incident. They took Sato’s two fastest laps away, which was some sort of justice. I just feel bad for the crew because they have given me a pole winning car this weekend.”
Scott Dixon of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing has finished second in each of the three previous IndyCar contests at Barber Motorsports Park. He qualified fourth at 1:07.3642 (122.914 mph). Charlie Kimball was the third of the three Hondas that took positions 3-5 with a lap time of 1:07.4987 in another Ganassi entry.
Helio Castroneves of Team Penske rounded out the Fast Six at 1:07.5106 (122.647 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet.
A third Penske entry driven by former Champ Car Series driver and part-time NASCAR Sprint Cup participant A.J. Allmendinger qualified 10th at 1:07.6962 (122.311 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet.
“I wasn’t as strong in the second run as I was in the first,” Allmendinger said. “I just didn’t feel as good on the second set of tires. We made our first goal of getting out of the first round of qualifying. Making it into the top six was a pretty lofty goal, especially with it being my first time (in this format) and first time on the red (tires). It’s still good to be inside the top 12. I know the IZOD Team Penske car will be good in the race, it’s just a matter of me going with the flow and how I react to everything.”
Although Saturday’s conditions at Barber Motorsports Park were sunny skies with beautiful blue skies, red was the color of the day – not only for Hunter-Reay’s decisive set of tires but also for the red tempers displayed for blocking.
Now that Hunter-Reay scored the third pole of his IndyCar career and his first since Edmonton last July he hopes to formulate a winning strategy for the race.
“It’s funny how much everything changes,” Hunter-Reay said. “You focus on qualifying all the way up till now because it’s such a premium here. Then tonight everything is undone, it’s a yard sale under the tents because everybody is trying to protect those rear tires and protect that grip that you’re going to need through the entire race.”