LEEDS, Ala — Pato O’Ward shattered Sebastien Bourdais’ five year old track record at the Barber Motorsports Park on Saturday. The Arrow McLaren SP driver turned a lap around the 2.3-mile Alabama road course with a time of 1:05.5019-seconds in No. 5 Chevrolet in the second round to place himself in the Fast Six. In that final session, O’Ward bested everyone with a time of 1:05.8479-seconds which was good enough for his second career NTT IndyCar Series pole.
By comparison, Bourdais’ previous best lap was 1:06.6001-seconds set in April 2016.
O’Ward turned his lap in the Firestone Fast Six to earn his first pole since last July in Road America. That’s a race that he finished runner-up in. This time, O’Ward is hoping to turn this pole into his first career Indy Car triumph as he’s looking really good so far this weekend. He was fifth and seventh respectively in the two practice sessions.
Joining O’Ward on the front row is Alexander Rossi. The Andretti Autosport driver circled the track in the Fast Six with a time of 1:05.9177-seconds in his No. 27 Honda. Rossi, has two fifth place finishes in his last three tries at Barber, but a front row starting spot is a good omen for him for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). In five of his seven career series victories, Rossi started on the front row.
That’s fitting in the sense that literally half of the races run in 2020 were won from a front row starter including five of the final six to the year. Furthermore, three of the last four years have seen the pole winner end up in victory lane at Barber as well.
O’Ward said entering 2021 that he wants to be a pain for the usual favorites as he’s expected to turn last year’s strong performance into a championship contending one. Rossi has similar goals. He’s saying this year is a championship season or bust.
They’ll share the front row.
“I want to win races,” said O’Ward. “I want to challenge for the championship the whole year. We want to constantly be at the top. Not just myself, but the whole team. We want to give these vets like Newgarden and Dixon that already have multiple championships under their belt something to think of, a little bit of more stress than what they might have the past few years.
“Yeah, just have fun with it. Enjoy it, that’s the most important thing. Whenever we have to go to work, execute. I have lots of faith in the team. The Chevy power was great today. Got to give thanks to them. We’re just ready. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to battle it out.”
As far as how close he feel like he is to winning, he feels like they’re there.
“Last year, I mean, we were close to winning four races at least,” he said. “We either had the last pit stop gone wrong or we got jumped by one time Dixon, another time Newgarden. Sometimes it was not so much the pit stop but the tire life, just taking care of that.
“I think this year we just have to arrive with a very similar mentality. I’m really happy with what we got to achieve last year. But we just need to take that next step. We need to achieve wins and we need to just score as much points as we can every single weekend.
“At the end of the year, every point is gold. Whenever we can take a second, we take a second. When we can take a fifth, we take a fifth. But when we can win the race and take a pole, then we go for it.
“I feel like going into this year, I don’t feel like such an underdog like last year. I feel like people know that we are true competitors at any type of racecourse that we go to.
“It’s been really nice to feel the respect from Dixon, Newgarden, Rossi, the guys that have been leading the NTT INDYCAR Series for the past few years, guys like Will Power. The list goes on.
“I feel like I have earned my spot in the grid as one of the guys to challenge for podiums and wins. Hopefully we can take that next step tomorrow and get the job done.”
Rossi said that he thinks the tests this off-season went really well.
“We were trying to prove out some there’s in the testing,” he said. “Most of those science experiments, if you will, were more or less correct. I think that was kind of a big confidence boost to the engineering department.
“Yeah, I mean, I think the whole team was working at a really good pace at the end of last year. We all had the kind of confidence that we had found a little bit of our rhythm back at the end of 2020.
“It’s good to start here. Barber hasn’t really been a good track for us before. This was always going to be a little bit of a question mark, like are we still going to be able to be okay here. It’s definitely better, right?
“We’ll have a long think about it overnight and make sure we have a good race car and fight for the win tomorrow.
“I think the team has done a really good job with making sure that we’re prepared to have limited practice, making sure that we have all our ducks in a row coming to the event. I think today was a solid representation of that. It’s day one of a really long year. We just have to keep chipping away at it and keep improving.
“Yeah, ultimately a really great day for all of Andretti Autosport and the 27 NAPA AutoNation car specifically.”
As far as being the only non Penske, Ganassi or Andretti car in the Fast 6, O’Ward notes that this was their ultimate goal for 2021 was to close the gap to them.
“That’s what we’ve been working for all off-season,” he said. “I feel like last year we had a little glimpse of joining the Penskes, Ganassis, Andrettis, really challenging them to win races and challenge them for podiums.
“I think this is a great step into making that a reality and truly show people that we are one of the big four in INDYCAR. I have so much faith in these guys. There’s a lot of, lot of smart people behind the scenes in the UK, in Indianapolis, the engineers, the guys that work on the dampers.
“Everybody says, It’s a spec series. But there’s so much that goes into the cars to make them faster. That’s where the top teams really excel.
“I feel like we’ve just gotten better and better and better. We’ve created a package that has been very solid everywhere we go. I’m very excited for this year, man. I truly feel like we can make the statement this year.”
Since the new car came out in 2018, the “Big 3” have won 40 of the 48 races run (82-percent). Penske has won 22 times with Ganassi (10) and Andretti (8). But, RLL is next best with four victories while no one else has more than three. Throw in RLL and you get 44 of 48 races won by these teams.
If you go back to 2016 though, that number stays the same. The “Big 3” have won 66 of 84 races run in that time frame. Throw in RLL and you get 73 of 84.
Alex Palou qualified third in his No. 10 Honda. He turned in a lap of 1:06.0538-seconds. Palou, was fastest in practice on Saturday morning and fourth this afternoon. This will mark his first career Barber start too.
Will Power (1:06.1186-seconds) qualified fourth in his No. 12 Chevrolet to give us four different teams in the top four starting spots. Defending series champion Scott Dixon (1:06.3976-seconds) rounds out the top five in the starting lineup. His teammate Marcus Ericsson (1:06.4102-seconds) was the final car in the Fast Six as Ganassi had half of the final round lineup but didn’t get a car on the front row despite that.
For these drivers, there’s a great chance the race winner on Sunday comes from this grouping. 8 of the 10 years the series has been coming to this scenic facility, a top five starter had won the race outright. A top 3 starter won 9 of the 14 races last year and 8 of the final 9 overall.
That’s why I feel like between O’Ward, Rossi, Palou, Power and Dixon, the race winner is among this group.
15 of the 24 drivers qualified faster than the previous track record.
2 of the 3 Rookies Advance Past 1st Round
Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson had never qualified an Indy Car before. Scott McLaughlin had done so just once. While all three had tested at Barber before this weekend, Saturday was their first time in official capacities.
With how talented this field is from top to bottom, it would be difficult for either to advance past the opening round of qualifying. After all, other than McLaughlin, neither of them had any experience prior to Saturday on the Firestone alternate tires.
Well, 2 of the 3 ended up getting past the first round with Grosjean stealing the show.
Johnson, was eliminated in the first round and will start 21st in his No. 48 Honda. He qualified with a time of 1:07.7092-seconds.
McLaughlin was P12 when it was all said and done as he had a pace of 1:06.7226-seconds. Grosjean was the best among them as he was only .0690-seconds from making the Fast Six in his No. 51 Honda. The former F1 driver turned in a lap of 1:05.7643-seconds which was quickest among the qualifying times since O’Ward’s lap in Round 2 isn’t his qualifying speed since he made the Fast Six.
Grosjean pulling out this qualifying performance is a great sign of things to come for the rest of the season. With 8 of the top 9 starters being from Penske, Ganassi, Andretti or McLaren SP, for Grosjean to be the outlier among them with Dale Coyne Racing/Rick Ware Racing in his first ever INDYCAR race weekend is nothing short of impressive.
Group 1, Round 1 Was Brutal
With how the way the NTT IndyCar Series determines the starting lineups on road/street courses, it’s broken down into two groups. The fastest on the overall speed chart from practice is in Group 1. The second fastest is in Group 2. Third goes to Group 1, fourth to Group 2 and so on.
With how the overall practice speed chart went with the two sessions on Saturday, it made Group 1 impressively hard.
All four Team Penske cars were in it. So was Jimmie Johnson. So was in total all five current drivers to have ever won at Barber before. Among the 12 drivers, only six could move on and you have 5 past winners, 3 of which hailing from Penske, the other Penske car in Scott McLaughlin, Johnson and the two fast Ganassi’s in Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou were also in that group.
That was no easy group to make it out of.
Inexperience Up Front
Here’s an odd but true stat too, 8 of the top 12 starters on Sunday have 2 or fewer starts at Barber. This will be pole sitter Pato O’Ward’s second start. Third place starter Alex Palou is technically a true rookie here since INDYCAR didn’t come to Barber last year and he having no past Road to Indy starts. Same can be said for seventh place qualifier Romain Grosjean and 12th place starter Scott McLaughlin.
Marcus Ericsson (6th), Colton Herta (9th) and Jack Harvey (11th) have also like O’Ward made just one Barber start. That’s 7 of the top 12 having 1 or fewer appearances. The only one among them with more than one start is Conor Daly (2 starts), Alexander Rossi (4 starts), Josef Newgarden (8 starts), Scott Dixon/Will Power (10 starts).
Cream Rose To The Top
We had some surprises throughout the session, but when it was all said and done, the top teams were the top qualifiers on Saturday. The entire Fast Six belonged to Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and McLaren SP. They took eight of the top nine starting spots overall and with all 10 races having being won from a top nine starting spot at Barber as well as 12 of the 14 last year being won from a top 10 starter, this is the group to watch.
Rosenqvist, Hinchcliffe Find Trouble
The first group of the first round had no trouble in their 10 minute session. The second group had the opposite. Early on in the session, James Hinchcliffe locked up his No. 29 Honda and went off course and into the tire barriers in Turn 5. He’ll start 24th as a result.
To close the session, Felix Rosenqvist was pushing too hard and got off course to bring out a local yellow to bring the group to an end. He was fifth on the leaderboard at the time of the spin, but lost his fastest lap as a result of being penalized for bringing out a local yellow. He went from making the second round to starting 22nd.
5 drivers earned their best career Barber starting spots on Saturday. Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi did so obviously as O’Ward previous best start was 18th and Rossi’s being eighth. Marcus Ericsson, Conor Daly and Jack Harvey joined them as Daly’s previous best was 17th, Ericsson’s being 20th and Harvey’s being 12th.
Chip Ganassi Racing looks like the ones to beat on Sunday. They took half of the Fast Six spots to go along with being 1-4-9-24 in session 1, 2-3-4-24 in session 2 and starting 3-5-6-21.