The first two races of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series were a welcome sight for fans that fretted over the lack of solid racing that marred parts of 2009.
The street fights at Sao Paulo, Brazil and last week in St. Petersburg, Fla. both produced compelling action from start to finish. While Will Power won them both, a nice list of drivers outside the Ganassi/Penske block made their presence felt as well.
Whether one of those dark horses can actually take down Power this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is not certain. While Power was very convincing in leading the Open Test session at the Alabama road course in February, the testing was conducted in chilly conditions. With the forecast calling for sunny skies at temps in the low 70s, a much different track could await him and the other drivers and teams this Sunday.
That also could push the odds for an upset even higher, which suits folks such as Dreyer and Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay just fine.
Wilson, a native of Sheffield, England, is coming off a runner-up performance in St. Pete and his one win last season came on a natural terrain road course like Barber. He now sits in a three-way tie for second place in the championship with Hunter-Reay and Dario Franchitti, proving just how much of a boost he has been to Dreyer and Reinbold Racing – a team that has not won in the IRL since its debut race in 2000 at the old Walt Disney World Speedway.
What's more, the Brit managed to put up solid numbers at the Open Test, placing the fifth-fastest time overall. Another strong outing can definitely help his title hopes.
Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay, a native of Boca Raton, Florida, is hoping to shake off a problematic outing last week (11th place) and gather back some of the momentum he had after finishing second at Brazil.
Hunter-Reay didn't have a particular strong test in February at Barber, admitting beforehand that he had to talk with his new Andretti Autosport teammates, watch videos of past events there, and do iRacing simulation laps in order to get a feel for the facility. He was the 14th-fastest driver at the test, but sometimes not being quick can be a blessing in disguise.
"We learned a lot of what we don't want for the IZOD car and that is just as valuable as learning what you do want," he said at the time. "It was a good test for getting through some things."
He'll have plenty more to get through on Sunday. Known as a home for motorcycle and sports car racing, the Barber layout features plenty of elevation changes, some relatively short straights and even a few blind corners. The fast turns seem to outnumber the slow ones, which should keep drivers on their toes all race long as they navigate a track that's been tagged as hard to pass on for IndyCars.
When the IndyCars tested at Barber in March 2009, Hunter-Reay's teammate Marco Andretti told the media that while a race at the facility would likely be a hit attendance-wise, more passing zones had to be developed.
"As far as driving, I enjoy the place," Andretti said at the time. "We might have to sit down and try and develop some passing zones, maybe Turn 5. It would definitely be a tough place to pass."
With that in mind, getting out first on pit road may prove to be a critical factor, as well as being able to overtake in the aforementioned Turn 5-6 complex -- a left-hand hairpin that comes following a short sprint down from the blind righty at Turn 4.
But Wilson and Hunter-Reay look like two drivers as good as any to cut through these obstacles and lead the way toward handing Will Power his first loss of 2010.
Graham Rahal will continue on with Sarah Fisher Racing for at least one more event.
The American star originally signed a two-race pact with Fisher's operation for St. Petersburg and this weekend's race at Barber, but that deal has been extended to the Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18 in Southern California.
"I'm extremely excited to be joining SFR yet again for Long Beach," said Rahal in a press release. "It is certainly one of the greatest sporting events, and I am just proud to say that I will be returning again. I am very thankful for what Sarah, [sponsor] Direct Supply, and the Dollar General folks have done to extend their program with SFR, and we will be working extremely hard to make them proud."
Rahal grabbed SFR's first top-ten finish at St. Petersburg with a scrappy ninth-place finish after dealing with difficulties with the No. 67 Dollar General-backed machine for much of the weekend.
Barber Motorsports Park is expected to also see the IZOD IndyCar Series debut of Belgian pilot Bertrand Baguette. Yes. That's his real last name.
But while his name may be funny, he appears to be one serious racer.
Baguette, who's slated to drive a second Conquest Racing machine alongside fellow rookie Mario Romancini of Brazil, comes to America after taking last year's World Series by Renault championship in Europe. That title run earned the 24-year-old a few Formula One tests with Renault and BMW Sauber early this year, and now, he's looking to chase down glory Stateside.
"American open-wheel [racing] has a rich heritage in competitive races and legendary drivers, and I couldn't be happier about following in their footsteps," he said. "Racing in the US is a fantastic opportunity for me, and I am excited about entering into this next step of my career."
Baguette will be a full-time competitor for the rest of the year starting at Barber Motorsports Park, and his car will feature the colors of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium's National Team. With his background in road racing, one may wonder how he'll adapt to the speedways.
But Conquest team owner Eric Bachelart is not worried.
"Because of his ability to adapt well to new formula, I am confident that he will also learn the art of oval track racing relatively quickly," he said.