By: Tanner Watkins
April 7, 2019 | 6:00 PM
After leading approximately three-quarters of today’s 90-lap race at Barber Motorsports Park, Takuma Sato can definitively say that his first victory of the 2019 season was a beatdown. The Japanese driver won this afternoon’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama from the pole, his second victory in the last five NTT IndyCar Series races dating back to a win at Portland in 2018.
“This is because of the team… really they made a fantastic effort,” said Sato after the race. The 42-year-old stated he had to think back to Formula 3 or similar racing series in his junior formula career to remember as strong of a run as he had today. Sato led a total of 74 laps – the next closest lap leader was Sebastien Bourdais, with 8 laps led.
Though incredibly hectic, the race started relatively clean under partly cloudy skies in central Alabama. With Mario Andretti giving the command to start engines, the field shot down into Turn 1 on Lap 1 just minutes later with drivers going three- and four-wide into the first few corners.
We did say relatively clean though, as the race start was somewhat delayed by the leaders slowly moving to full speed up front. That presented an accordion effect that caught Ed Jones out when the Dubai native jumped the start and earned a pass-through penalty early on. Will Power, the highest-qualifying Team Penske driver, also had a rough first lap when he dropped from 7th on the grid to 10th in the first stages.
Aside from Jones’ mistake and Power’s drop, the race settled in quickly with little change at the front of the running order. Pit strategy came into play early and often on this Sunday at Barber, with Marcus Ericsson hitting pit road for fresh tires as early as Lap 6. It opened the window for three-stop strategies while some drivers began to test the waters of a two-stop day.
One driver that didn’t have to worry about strategy was Colton Herta. The most recent IndyCar race winner reported an engine misfire early on – a condition first experienced in qualifying – and would have to sit out the middle portion of the race while his No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner racing team tried to diagnose the issue.
After winning at Circuit of the Americas two weeks ago – and exiting round two second in the points – Herta finished 24th today, 39 laps down.
Up front, Sato had very little pressure as he stretched the lead to over two seconds ahead of teammate Graham Rahal. Rahal would not be without his own issues, though, as a stuck throttle condition began to develop as early as Lap 2. Rahal nursed the ailing No. 15 Honda all the way to Lap 18, but had to endure a 27-second pit stop to try and re-calibrate the throttle on the pit lane.
In the end it would be all for naught as the Ohio native would see his race end on Lap 55. Following a valiant effort to fight back towards the top ten, Rahal’s Honda stopped dead on the Barber backstretch, helping to bring out the race’s first yellow flag. We say assisting because at the exact same time that Rahal stalled on track, Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan jostled for space on the entry to pit road.
The result of that tussle was Chilton ending up nose-first into the tire barrier near Turn 16 and Kanaan continuing down the pit lane.
The yellow allowed the leaders to all pit one last time on Lap 58, placing the race’s conclusion on equal footing. Chilton and Rahal’s caution eliminated the possibility of any daring pit strategies – like the two-stop run Bourdais had committed to up to that point – and put Sato, Dixon and Bourdais as close to each other as they had been all day for a late restart.
With Sato looking to win his first race of 2019, Dixon aiming to break through at Barber after five runner-up finishes, and Bourdais trying to make amends on a hard-luck finish at Barber last year, the storylines were abundant for one last dash to the finish.
Unfortunately, the playing field wasn’t completely level for the leaders. On the Lap 65 restart, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist was sandwiched between the race leader in Sato and second place’s Dixon. The Brazilian sophomore fought and held Dixon at bay for the first couple laps of the restart before finally conceding the position.
That was just enough for Sato to open up a 2-plus second gap on the rest of the lead lap cars, a margin that he would maintain up until the race’s dying moments.
With five laps to go, Sato ran wide into the tight, winding downhill complex at Barber Motorsports Park and actually ripped off a portion of his rear diffuser. The off-track excursion cost Sato about a full second of the lead he had previously built up, and Dixon was now just 1.4 seconds away from his first Barber victory.
Like an experienced veteran, though, Sato refocused and re-applied the pressure to Dixon, eventually pulling away for a 2.3 second victory over the New Zealand native. At the same time, Dixon had his own hands full with Bourdais as the four-time Champ Car champion was using up all of the push-to-pass he had stored from earlier in the race.
Dixon would hold off Bourdais by a slim four tenths of a second while the Frenchman settled for his first podium finish of 2019. In a race sponsored by Honda, the Japanese motor company swept the first three finishing positions despite troubles for representatives Herta and Rahal.
The first Chevrolet to be found in the finishing order was Josef Newgaren, rallying from 16th on the starting grid to finish an impressive fourth while maintaining the NTT IndyCar Series points lead.
Newgarden’s teammate Simon Pagenaud (P9) was the only other Chevrolet driver to place inside the top ten on a tough day for Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing, A.J. Foyt Racing and the rest of the Team Chevy camp.
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports capped their consistently strong weekend with a pair of consistent finishes: James Hinchcliffe was 6th while rookie Marcus Ericsson recorded his best finish in the NTT IndyCar Series by placing 7th. The SPM boys were sandwiched by a pair of Andretti Autosport drivers as Alexander Rossi picked up a top-five while Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 8th after starting the day 11th.
Another rookie, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, rounded out the top ten on an exciting weekend in central Alabama.
As mentioned above, Newgarden will carry the IndyCar Series points lead into next weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, sitting 27 points ahead of Scott Dixon in the top spot. With the victory, Sato moves up to 3rd in the championship (34 points behind Newgarden) while Rossi (41 points back) and Herta (44 points from Newgarden) round out the top five in points.
Stay glued to Open-Wheels.com throughout the week as we wrap up the weekend well spent at Barber and get you set for the fourth and final race before the month of May, the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.