INDIANAPOLIS — Basking in barrage of overcast and at times sunshine filled skies, the metal gray colored bleachers lacked natural shade in the form of race fans on Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. See, for the first time in the 104 year history of this event, opening day of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway took place behind closed doors.
It was unusual, sure, but with action on track overshadowing the lack of fans, you don’t really notice anything different until all was said and done.
It felt different,” said James Hinchcliffe. “You kind of nailed it with saying it felt like a test day. I was having that conversation with a couple of the guys. It just kind of felt like a full on, very full on full series test day.
“Knowing that there’s way fewer people than there would normally be at this point in the week, thinking ahead to Fast Friday, qualifying weekend, Carb Day, normally you see a steady escalation of people at the track each day. Just knowing you’re not going to see that, this is the view we’re going to have until the end of the race, it’s a bit weird, a bit surreal. We certainly miss having spectators here in the stands.
“We still get to go put on a good show for them.”
Scott Dixon agreed.
“It was very easy getting into the circuit today,” said the 2008 Indy 500 winner. “It was very easy to go to the restroom. I didn’t need to remember my Sharpie at all. There were definitely a whole lot of differences.
“As Hinch said, it’s very strange, very weird. That’s what makes this place, the fans. We miss them greatly. But I think race day, that’s where the difference is going to be. Typically walking out of Gasoline Alley, that feel that you have coming out and hearing all those conversations, the atmosphere is crazy. We won’t have the buildup throughout the week. Definitely will be a big miss this year as far as not feeling the fans there.”
The day saw three separate sessions with the first two hours comprising of veterans only. In that session, current NTT IndyCar Series points leader Scott Dixon led the way with a top speed of 224.047 mph in his No. 9 Honda. Defending series champion Josef Newgarden (223.188 mph) was second in his No. 2 Chevrolet, while James Hinchcliffe (223.071 mph), Tony Kanaan (222.080 mph) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (221.884 mph) rounded out the top five.
The couple of hours after was used for all five rookies to complete their three phases of Rookie Orientation as well as seven veterans eligible for a refresher course.
For the rookies, they had to do three phases before being Indy 500 eligible. Those consisted of 10 laps between 205-210 mph, 15 laps of 210-215 mph, then 15 more laps with speeds all in excess of 215 mph. The veterans program is the final two phases of the rookies.
32 of the 33 drivers took time today while Ben Hanley was awarded 30 extra minutes to himself after the track closed for the day to get his car up to speed after missing the entire day of practice. Hanley, said this afternoon that his car wasn’t fully ready yet as he just came here to the United States via England on Monday. Some of his crew guys just got here on Tuesday. So, instead of rushing the car together, they took their time as they can’t afford to mess up somewhere on the No. 81 Chevrolet and his car crash. It would end their hopes of racing this year.
Then, the final 2 1/2 hours was an all skate for those 32 drivers which saw the quickest laps of the day turned. James Hinchcliffe led the day with a speed of 224.526 mph in his No. 29 Honda.
“Doesn’t suck,” Hinchcliffe said after being quickest on opening day of practice. “I’ve been closer to the other end of the board a couple times here. This is definitely better.
“Every time you come to the Speedway for that first day of practice, it’s always so nerve-wracking because quite honestly 98% of the speed your car has, raw pace that your car has, is determined before it ever turns a lap. It’s how it’s put together. It’s how the pieces fit, the body fits, gearbox, all the tricks all the teams have to make these things go fast around this place.
“When you roll off the truck and you don’t feel like you have to find an extra miles an hour, mile and a half, it’s a huge thing.
“To be able to build six cars at this level, Andretti Autosport, all the cars were quick today, a huge testament to all the people at Andretti Autosport. It’s nice to have the Genesys buggy up front.
“Just day one, just practice, but it’s definitely a nice way to start the week off.”
Marco Andretti was P2 in his No. 98 Honda with a top lap of 224.345 mph. Dixon’s lap from earlier held up for third while Ryan Hunter-Reay (223.341 mph) gave Andretti Autosport three of the top four speeds on the overall speed chart.
“It was all good,” Andretti said after posting the days second best speed. “Funny enough really, I was more focused on the race car. I was trying to bury myself in traffic on older tires a lot today. We didn’t really focus on fast times. It was kind of nice that materialized, as well.
“Well, second-fastest time. It’s good that the car rolled off with some pace. That’s always kind of like the first hurdle you have to get over. From there, it’s just working on the car balance. That’s what we were able to do. We were one of the better ones in the pack today. It just seems kind of hard to pass where things are at right now. So far so good. It was a good start.”
Dixon, says that while today doesn’t mean a whole lot, it was still a good start to the month.
“We had a decent start in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda,” said the current points leader. “We were trying to get through some items that we have on the list. It’s a pretty extensive list, especially with the condensed schedule. It’s a totally new car for me this year with (engineer) Mike Cannon and with a few offseason projects. I definitely think we’re going in the right direction.
“First practice, it doesn’t mean anything, we’re just trying to get the car comfortable in traffic and so far that seems to be pretty good. The Aeroscreen when we first tested it seemed like it kind of affected the car a little different aerodynamically. I’d say today actually felt more normal. No real difference, and the vision is good.”
Fernando Alonso (223.238 mph) was the quickest Chevrolet of the day and rounded out the top five.
Here are my main takeaways.
Andretti Autosport The Team To Beat Right Now
The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season could haven’t gone much worse for Andretti Autosport. Through six races run, they’ve been shut out of victory lane. In fact, they haven’t even been close.
Heading into Indy, Andretti cars rank 7-10-15-19-21 in the points standings. Throw in Jack Harvey in their alliance car, he’s 16th.
It’s been a dismal season thus far. But, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be a place that turns all of this around. Double points are on the line next Sunday, so are qualifying points for the Fast Nine this Sunday.
As we sit here right now, it appears the pole may go through Andretti Autosport. What’s wild is, they have just one career Indy pole. That came in the Andretti Green Racing days with Tony Kanaan. Since they’ve split to become Andretti Autosport, they’ve yet to win a pole here.
They have won five Indy 500’s with five different drivers though, three of which occurring in the last six years. A win on Aug. 23 would give them four in a seven year span.
I know we’re only one day in, but they have the top speed thus far.
“All in all, it was a promising first day for the DHL Honda team,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2014 Indy 500 champion. “The guys did a very good job preparing the speedway car over the last few months. I’m optimistic going forward when it comes to our pace for qualifying and as a team. We’ll continue to work on running in groups for race-running, balance and pace. It was a pretty promising day for Andretti Autosport as a whole.”
Andretti went 1-2-4 on the overall speed chart but swept the top five of the no tow list. Can they keep the pace on Thursday?
Penske Cars Look Good
Last year, Team Penske went 1-2 on the opening day speed charts including three of the top four speeds overall. They went 1-2 in 2018 too. While they weren’t necessarily at the top on Wednesday’s opening day session, they arguably looked the best.
While that might not make sense to some, from my vantage point, they just appeared that they could glide through traffic with ease while other drivers looked to have their hands full more.
Defending Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud could take his No. 22 Chevrolet anywhere he wanted it. That’s why despite him only being P12 on the speed charts (222.849 mph), I’m not too concerned with him.
After all, this was opening day of race practice. This was the first full day of on track activity as well as the just that, race practice. It’s not about one lap speed, you want to sustain speed throughout a run. Pagenaud and his Penske teammates can do that.
Defending series champion Josef Newgarden turned in the sixth fastest speed of the day while Helio Castroneves (10th) and Will Power (23rd) also looked good. According to the broadcast, Penske went 1-2-3 in the 30 lap averages on the afternoon.
“Obviously, big credit to the team,” said Castroneves. “Everything was exactly as if I had not left. It was absolutely the same, which makes it much better for me to get comfortable right away. Great combination. I can’t thank Pennzoil, Chevy and Roger (Penske) for making this happen. I am excited, really excited, even though we have less days. I wish the race would be tomorrow.”
At this moment, Penske looks primed for their third straight Indy 500 win even though the outright speed didn’t show it.
Speeds Down, But For Good Reason
The fastest speed of the day was 224.526 mph. That’s a little more than five mph slower than last year’s quickest opening day lap set by Will Power of 229.745 mph. Simon Pagenaud was fastest in 2018 at 225.787 mph. So, why the drop?
The Aeroscreen is the biggest reason. The newest safety device weighs almost 50 pounds. That adds more drag to the car which in turn creates a slower lap time.
So, in a nut shell, speeds look to be down, but again, this is race day speeds. Qualifying speeds should actually rise.
On Friday, teams will receive boost levels to counter the loss of speed from the new safety device. Not only will they get to the boost levels that they were at last year, they will receive a bit more boost to add even more horsepower so that the speed can rise.
In turn, expect us to see speeds in excess of 230 mph on Fast Friday as well as qualifying this weekend still.
Welcome Back Alonso
Last year, Fernando Alonso’s name was consistently found at the bottom of the speed charts. He ended up missing the show as a result of a dysfunctional effort from the McLaren outfit. That’s not an insult. That’s their words actually. They were not happy with how everything transpired here in 2019.
This year, they returned with a partnership with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. They did it right this time around. So, that led to a stronger opening day out of the gates for the popular Spaniard, as he wound up being the fastest Chevrolet driver with a top speed of 223.238 mph in his No. 66 Chevrolet. That was good enough for fifth quick.
Alonso, said he’s vastly more comfortable this year and says that despite him having just one year under his belt and his two teammates being rookies, he’s happy with how they’ve looked in 2020 too.
“I was very impressed definitely,” Alonso said of seeing what his two teammates this month have done this season so far. “I think I was watching all the races from TV with attention because I knew that the test day we had in April was canceled. The simulator days that we had programmed were canceled. I knew it was very limited time for me on the car before the 500. I wanted to know how the team was performing every weekend.
“I mean, was very impressive what both did. I remember the Indy GP, Oliver was super fast, on pole. Then Pato with the points he achieved every Sunday. Probably even more that skip away in some unlucky moments. I knew that they are very talented, very brave.
“Is going to be a huge boost for the team to have these two young drivers, talented drivers, bringing fresh ideas, fresh in terms of car performance, and I’m looking forward to work with everybody.”
With that said, he noted on Tuesday that they need to take it step by step in practice this week. If they are going to get better as the time goes on here this month, watch out.
“We know there are a lot of things to do from our side,” continued Alonso. “We will miss some experience. All three drivers, we’re rookies for the 500. We need to rely and we need to work very close to the team and learn every day, make it step by step, concentrate a little bit more on the race this year.
“Qualifying, we are already 33 cars. Maybe that eases the pressure and stress on the first couple of days, and we can concentrate on race day.
“I think it’s going to be things that we need to learn within days, in the practice, into qualifying, and next week.”
Wednesday, showed promise.
With limited practice time available this month, as we’ve taken two full days away and shortened the practice sessions by a half hour each day, on track time will be of a premium this week.
See, we only have two days of race practice this week now instead of three. On Friday, the boost levels get turned up, so no need to work on race trim that day as a result. Then, the boost levels stay through qualifying ends on Sunday.
Yes, there’s a practice session for after qualifying on Sunday to close out the day, but the four hour practice a day later on Monday after is gone. The only on track time left when we leave here on Sunday evening is the two-hour session on Carb Day.
So, we saw 2,444 laps turned in a very busy Wednesday afternoon practice session, one of the busiest on opening day that I think I’ve ever seen. At times, groups were running in the closing hour or so in excess of 15 cars and at times up to 19 cars running in tow.
Expect another day of this on Thursday.
Team Penske went 1-2 on opening day the last two years. In fact, they were 1-3-4 last year. They won the race each year too. On Wednesday, Andretti Autosport went 1-2-4. Is that good karma for next Sunday?
“Just getting used to having telemetry and all the data,” Cole Pearn said after his first engineering day in IndyCar. “It went fine. I mean, car didn’t flip over and catch fire or anything like that, so that’s a good start. But, the speed was okay. I think just a little bit of nuances. We got through some things we wanted to get through and we at least got a direction on what we need to work on. That’s what we’ve been waiting to do for a couple of weeks now. At least to get some data and get some time on the track and now know what we need to work on.”
Wednesday’s Speed Chart
- 29 Hinchcliffe 224.526
- 98 Andretti 224.345
- 9 Dixon 224.047
- 28 Hunter-Reay 223.341
- 66 Alonso 223.238
- 1 Newgarden 223.188
- 60 Harvey 223.178
- 55 Palou R 223.128
- 47 Daly 223.020
- 3 Castroneves 222.929
- 14 Kanaan 222.873
- 22 Pagenaud 222.849
- 30 Sato 222.551
- 10 Rosenqvist 222.541
- 4 Kimball 222.438
- 21 VeeKay R 222.061
- 24 Karam 222.031
- 27 Rossi 221.952
- 18 Ferrucci 221.905
- 20 Carpenter 221.813
- 51 Davison 221.709
- 88 Herta 221.699
- 12 Power 221.634
- 8 Ericsson 221.588
- 15 Rahal 221.498
- 45 Pigot 221.492
- 26 Veach 221.359
- 5 O’Ward R 221.341
- 59 Chilton 221.147
- 41 Kellett R 220.825
- 7 Askew R 220.130
- 67 Hildebrand 219.859
- 41 Kanaan 218.306