The NTT IndyCar Series’ annual trip to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, has become a benchmark for the series in the Deep South.
From promotion to fan engagement to natural beauty, Barber sets the standard for how the series can succeed in what’s been traditionally considered NASCAR country.
The on-track product at Barber hasn’t always lived up to the event itself. However, as with the rest of the 2023 season, Round 4 of the 2023 championship provided an engaging experience not only from a passing perspective with a Passing Index of 3.20, but also from a strategic split that pitted two-stop fuel savers against three-stop hard chargers.
Two drivers rose to the top from each side: race winner Scott McLaughlin and runner-up Romain Grosjean, who executed their respective strategies to perfection, with one simply outpacing the other.
As with any race, it’s easy to look at the box score for the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix, consider several high-level statistics, and attempt to paint a picture:
- Among the top 10 finishers of the 90-lap race, four drivers employed a three-stop strategy — including the race winner — while six went with the two-stop approach.
- A single short three-lap caution on Lap 39 bunched up the field.
- Just four of the 27 drivers led laps, with Grosjean leading the most at 57 and McLaughlin out front over the final 19 laps.
- Only three drivers were truly in contention at the end of the race. McLaughlin, Grosjean, and Will Power crossed the finish line within 3.3 seconds of each other. Pato O’Ward, who pitted twice like Grosjean and placed fourth, was 20.6 seconds behind the winner and 18.8 seconds in arrears of Grosjean.
These four observations point to the evenness of the two strategies — with proper execution, it’s likely that either plan of attack could have ended up being the winning approach. Yet, it’s clear that three out of the 27 drivers — McLaughlin, Grosjean, and Power — performed at a higher level than the rest simply due to their time advantage in the final results.
As complete as the four points above may seem, why McLaughlin’s three-stop strategy prevailed over Grosjean’s two-stopper requires a deeper dive into the stats. After each race, INDYCAR makes available documents that aid analysis, all viewable from the Post-Race section of each Race Report on The Apex.
In this case, the section results provide the most significant insight. Section results provide lap times and speeds for each driver for every lap, including sections of each lap, such as from pit out back to the start-finish line. To examine McLaughlin versus Grosjean, overall lap and pit stop times will suffice, but an even deeper look into specific parts of the track is possible and often highly instructive.
It’s fair to say that a two-stop strategy — two pit stops throughout the 90-lap race leading to three equal stints of approximately 30 laps each — requires closer attention to fuel consumption than a three-stopper, which breaks the race into four stints of lesser duration. The shorter time between pit stops allows for harder running with less attention paid to making a fuel number. With everything else being equal, this approach should equate to faster laps despite needing to make one extra pit stop, and this is precisely what happened with McLaughlin and Grosjean.
The graph above plots the drivers’ lap times, with McLaughlin in blue and Grosjean in green. Grosjean’s two defined lap-time spikes indicate his two pit stops on Laps 30 and 60. Visible spikes represent McLaughlin’s first and third stops at Laps 15 and 63. The third stop for the Team Penske driver is hidden just before the Lap 39 caution when McLaughlin was able to jump onto pit road on Lap 38 just before the pits closed.
Beyond the spikes, it’s clear that McLaughlin was faster for most of the race’s 90 laps. Excluding laps impacted by pit stops, average per-stint and overall lap times also showcase the Penske driver’s speed.
With the ability to run harder and with no fear of using extra fuel when pressing the push-to-pass button for extra boost, McLaughlin had no problem making up for the 85.8 seconds he spent on pit lane completing his three stops versus Grosjean’s total pit time of 61.2 seconds. Across the average of all non-pit stop laps, the differential over 90 laps works out to almost 40 seconds — vastly more than the 24.6 seconds McLaughlin lost to Grosjean while taking service.
Including pit stops, the numbers tell a similar story, with McLaughlin averaging 71.9848 seconds per lap to Grosjean’s 72.0081 seconds per lap. The difference may seem tiny, but over 90 laps, it easily accounts for McLaughlin’s 1.7854-second margin of victory.
Lap times provide a more nuanced story than the box score alone, and considering that the top three finishers were clear of the rest of the field by at least 17.3 seconds, it speaks to the level of skill displayed by McLaughlin, Grosjean, and Power.
Further, it places a unique spotlight on Grosjean, who, despite finishing second, mastered the two-stop approach to a degree not matched by any other competitor considering the fuel-saving required.
“Out of 90 laps, I think I did three laps where I was flat out, that’s it,” said Grosjean during the post-race press conference. “The rest I had to lift and coast and save fuel.
“It’s a strategy we decided as a team before the race. We thought we could win with it, but obviously, no.”
While the win was just out of reach for Grosjean, who partially attributed his inability to gain as much speed as necessary to strong headwinds heading into Turns 5 and 12, a fellow podium finisher acknowledged Grosjean’s efforts.
“I have to say what [Grosjean] did is extremely difficult and technical,” said Power. “To finish 20 seconds ahead of the next guy is pretty impressive.”
This season’s four races have provided four different winners at markedly different tracks. With the GMR Grand Prix and 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 the next two challenges to test the 27 full-time drivers, more surprises and intense on-track battles are expected, if not guaranteed.
One thing is certain: the 2023 season has already seen incredible competition compared to last year, from on-track passes that excite to the intrigue of different strategies playing out under the sunny skies of Alabama.
The Month of May has a lot to live up to if it is to continue the trajectory established by St. Petersburg, Texas, Long Beach, and Barber. Thankfully, Indianapolis rarely disappoints.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began providing media coverage from IndyCar events in 2015. If IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-posting and updating The Apex's Race Reports from his iPad Pro.