Gateway raced like a road course this weekend, why drivers say passing was difficult this past weekend

INDIANAPOLIS — I’ve seen the comments. I’m sure both track (World Wide Technology Raceway) as well as series (NTT IndyCar Series) officials have too. There wasn’t a lot of happy campers following an uneventful weekend in Gateway. It wasn’t due to the effort put forth both all parties. To be able to host not one, but two races in as many days during a pandemic, is nothing short of amazing. To do so in front of fans, well it takes a ton of effort right now to pull that off.

Gateway and INDYCAR did great in that.

Unfortunately, the lack of action for both Bommarito Automotive Group 500’s was a cause for concern. Last Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 didn’t have a ton of passing and neither did each race around the 1.25-mile St. Louis area race track either.

Really, Gateway raced like a road course instead of a short oval. While I get watching a high speed processional for 90+ minutes was frustrating, what made each race fun for me was the strategy calls.

On track passing was tough. It’s supposed to be. Passing shouldn’t be easy. It needs to take skill.

Still, some guys could do it in Gateway though. Takuma Sato made a ballsy move to the outside of Pato O’Ward for second in Race 1 on Saturday. Rinus VeeKay did the same move on the opposite side of the track (Turn 3) on Sunday. VeeKay, drew criticism while Sato was applauded.

VeeKay and Ferrucci had no problems passing this weekend at Gateway, so why did everyone else?

That to me is due to how the drivers that got passed by them handled it. O’Ward handled it with class in saying he was okay with Sato’s move. Herta wasn’t so happy and went to confront the 19 year old rookie afterwards to discuss the incident between the two.

VeeKay, passed 29 cars over the course of both days. Santino Ferrucci passed 17 alone on Sunday. So, passing was there, it just took some guts to make it happen.

“We really had a top-five car,” Ferrucci said. “I just got caught up in lapped traffic at the end, so we ended up sitting where we were. Overall, really proud of the engineering team getting the car sorted.”

INDYCAR drivers are full of respect for one another. They know how tight the points get, so the veterans of the sport in the thick of a championship aren’t going to make many risky moves. The younger ones with nothing to lose do and it pays off. The veterans don’t want to risk bad blood while the younger more brash drivers are still trying to find their footing and go full send.

But, on the flipside, with these drivers and cars being so good at what they do and this being the most competitive series in the world, passing is already going to be tough anyways. When the leaders catch lapped traffic, it stalls them out — hence Ferrucci’s comments. That’s why pit strategy was so big.

If you couldn’t pass, you need to find out ways to get in and off pit lane without traffic and have a flawless day in the pits. That describes a road course race.

If you get stalled out on track during this, it can make or break you. That’s why you saw some tempers flare up over the course of the weekend. Drivers with faster and better cars couldn’t pass slower cars in front due to being in dirty air.

 “We got into a little bit of traffic in those sequences, and Zach Veach totally screwed us,” current points leader Scott Dixon said on Sunday. “He was laps down and was totally slowing everyone down. I’m not sure if he was trying to help his teammate (Colton) Herta, but he screwed my race and (Takuma) Sato’s race. I’m not sure how that happens when you are fellow Honda teams. I would have expected something else, especially with the other manufacturer running P1-4. It was a decent points’ day, and we just made the most of what we had.”

His teammate Felix Rosenqvist encountered a similar problem in Sunday’s race too.

“I just couldn’t really take advantage of many moments today because it was a pretty static race,” the second year driver said. “We were a bit unlucky when we caught Ed Carpenter going really slow. He let Conor Daly by because I think they’re friends, and then he kind of blocked me, and we lost a lot of time.”

The pit strategy worked for Sato on Saturday as he had clean air, no lapped traffic in his way and the lead heading to his final pit stop. That is why he leap frogged nearly everyone and came out of no where to almost win Saturday’s race. On Sunday, he tried it again. He went longer on his first stint than almost everyone else. But, he caught lapped traffic towards the end and it hurt him. He went from first to eighth after the first sequence and did nothing differently.

“We led the race and saved a bunch of fuel, but we caught the tail end of the pack,” Sato said. “Today there was a lot of dust offline, and it was very difficult to overtake. The team made the decision to stay out, but it seems that everybody undercut us on the first stint, and that was it. After that, we tried to stretch the fuel and then go off sequence but caught traffic every time. Some of the cars were four laps down, and the team said they heard they were told, ‘Keep the 30 car behind,’ which is not racing. It’s not sportsmanlike, and I’m not very happy with that. But there is nothing we can do about it.”

The Andretti cars didn’t have good qualifying pace which is why they had another struggling weekend. The speed was there, the passing opportunities weren’t.

“Overall, it was kind of an uneventful day for the 28 team,” Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “We would have liked a little more passing. It was really a track position day, and we just weren’t in a position to gain. We’re looking forward to the next race.”

Alexander Rossi agreed.

“It’s a track position race after that; you can’t pass,” Rossi said. “It’s just pretty processional. We tried to mix up the strategy, but ultimately since it’s Race 2 here, everyone kind of knows what they’re looking for, and it’s pretty hard gaining.”

Indy 500 pole sitter Marco Andretti said his No. 98 Honda was good, he just never got to show it off due to being caught in that dreaded “traffic” word.

“The race car was good; we shuffled through the top here and there with strategy,” said the third generation driver. “But we just got caught in traffic when we needed to be flying, and it just wasn’t our day in the pits.”

This wasn’t it. Almost every else spoke to this being “tough to pass” a “track position race” and “pit strategy.”

“That was an uneventful race,” said rookie Alex Palou. “It was super difficult to pass. I think the only passing that happened was at the start and with the pit strategy, where we gained four or five positions. It was easy to follow other cars but just very hard to get a run on them, and that was the same for everyone on track. It ended up being about strategy and trying to make that work in our favor. It’s a shame because we had a really fast car. We had the fastest race lap, and that shows how good our No. 55 Guaranteed Rate car is. I felt really comfortable with the car. It’s too bad we couldn’t finish any higher.”

The AJ Foyt Racing duo agreed and maybe were a little more blunt with it.

“Track position was everything,” said Tony Kanaan who was making what could be his final IndyCar start. “We had a pretty decent start, moved up a little bit but honestly, I think it was pretty boring race — but it was a boring race for everyone. Mixed feelings on my last one.”

Charlie Kimball echoed that.

“Well, kind of a tough day for the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet car,” Kimball said. “We started 21st, kind of ran around there, made a couple of passes at the start and then settled into our pace. I think everyone was really struggling with passing. There wasn’t a whole lot of overtaking, but I know my guys in pit lane got me at least two spots that I know of, so big ups to them, as normal. They did a great job in pit lane, and we’ll learn from this and move forward.”

There was close racing, just passing was difficult too as seen in this photo – INDYCAR Media Site

That in turn makes qualifying ever so important. 24 of the last 26 races have seen the winner come from the top 4 Rows. So, even if you get your car dialed in overnight between races, it’s going to be a struggle to move up with a bad starting spot.

“Race 2 was disappointing for the United Rentals team just because of where we started,” said Graham Rahal. “Today is a lesson in how important qualifying is. It was hard to pass on track. The tire is very, very hard here, and it makes it difficult for the drivers, but I’ve got to say it was massively better today. If you look at our fastest lap time, it was as quick as (Pato) O’Ward, who finished second. It’s just a shame we started at the back. We never were able to make our way forward.”

Pato O’Ward had an intense battle in the pits both days. He leap frogged the Penske’s on the first sequence both days. He lost the race both days on the final stop too in an intense battle out of the pits each day as well.

Yeah, it’s so important, in and out laps,” O’Ward said of the strategy. “As you saw Josef barely got me. If I could have picked up maybe one second, I would have been in front. That’s things I will continue learning. I truly think that I’ve pushed to my maximum in and out laps. I continue to learn.

“It’s important not to make mistakes and to work up to it, starting in practice sessions, always really challenging to try to be the best you can in the race.

“He was just a little better than us there. Yeah, those type of things are so important in these NTT INDYCAR Series races because everything is so competitive, so tight. Any half a second or any time you can make up, it means you can overcut or undercut three or four cars.”

Will Power lost Sunday’s race because of this undercut. He lost the lead on Saturday to O’Ward because of that and lost the lead on the final stop on Sunday because he went longer than Newgarden and O’Ward before his final stop and they beat him out for a 1-2 and Power finishing third.

“Yeah, it certainly was tough at the end,” Power said. “Everybody kind of stuck in traffic. I wish we had pulled off with Pato and Josef. It’s a tough call. Very strong day for us. I feel like we had the best car. Obviously it didn’t really matter how good your car was, no one was going to pass anyone.”

That has to be frustrating for the drivers. Even O’Ward who had the best car all weekend said he couldn’t track down Newgarden and pass him once he left pit road behind.

“We saw it all race, when the leaders would get to the back of the pack, no one could pass,” O’Ward said. “You can get sort of a distance, then that’s it. You can’t really strike unless you have way newer tires or the other one makes a big mistake.

“I could probably get within like a car length or two. But more than that it was really tough to follow because the train of cars in front of Josef was massive. If maybe there were no more cars in front, maybe it would have been a bit easier to close up on him and try to get a run. It would have been extremely difficult. My only chance was on the pit exit. I had so much understeer.”

So why was it so hard to pass? Gateway normally is, but why was this year so much worse?

“I think today’s race was a bit tougher than yesterday,” O’Ward continued. “The track temperature was quite a bit higher, so that makes it quite a bit more difficult when running in traffic, especially when the trains get so long.

“For me it was the heat. The track was quite a bit hotter than yesterday. I feel like that made it harder. Kind of like yesterday being Carb Day at Indy, then the race being today, where it’s just hotter, just tougher to follow.

Power agreed saying that the Aeroscreen could be partly to blame.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s simply the weight of the car now,” Power said. “It’s obviously a much heavier car. You lose a lot more grip, mainly the front, when you try to get close to someone. You basically need two lanes. That would make the racing really good.”

Newgarden though, didn’t necessarily think it was the Aeroscreen as to why.

“No, I wouldn’t say so,” said Sunday’s race winner. “I think it’s always historically been tough here at this track. Some years have been a little better just depending on that package, how much downforce you have versus power. Some years have been a little simpler.

“I don’t think the Aeroscreen has added a negative effect because of that.”

The defending series champion says part of the problem for Gateway was just a “perfect storm” going against them.

“The amount of downforce for the tire deg and horsepower was not the right package for being able to pass,” Newgarden continued. “It was kind of easy to run a lap over and over and repeat it. You couldn’t really make a difference to everybody even as the tires started to drop off.

“I would say the ratio here was not ideal. It’s just hard sometimes to get that perfect. Yeah, you need something here. You need more tire degradation, more dropoff, a lot more power.”

Newgarden, said that he was actually surprised that the tire didn’t produce more fall off. It’s almost like they were too good. If you increase the tire deg, you create fall off. If you in turn add more horsepower which should be coming in 2022, you really separate the men from the boys.

That will allow for more passing. But, where we sit today, you have cars going similar speeds without much room for passing in the corners. They’re still going too fast to make maneuvers for a second lane. Plus, these drivers are honestly too good to make mistakes. Having more horsepower and tire deg could lead to more mistakes which leads to more passing.

“In truth a lot more power is coming,” said Newgarden. “That’s on the plan, is to introduce quite a bit more power to the cars. I think if we had that with similar aero, it would have made a difference, or more tire dropoff.

“I’m quite surprised we didn’t have more tire dropoff. I think Firestone did too good of a job. I was expecting a lot more with heavier cars. I expected the cars to be more difficult over a run, but they weren’t. The tires were really good. You almost could get faster through the runs sometimes.

“Yeah, not the right ratio. We just have to tune on it. It’s an experiment every time.”

So, how do you fix the aero package? The race was run like a road course but road courses have passing zones. Gateway is an oval and doesn’t. Some how, you need to get the dirty air in wake eliminated so you can actually not only draft up behind someone, your car doesn’t get loose or in some areas, tight, so you can close up and make the pass.

When the slower cars can give the cars behind dirty air and slow them down, everyone is going the same speed. That’s why you get drivers searching for clean air to run a couple of hot laps before you pit and get then hope for a lucky break to get clean air coming out of pit lane. If you can do that and have a flawless stop, you can certainly jump up in the running order without making any on track passes.

That’s the name of the game and a fun strategy to watch play out. If you’re at the race though and in the stands, it’s hard to follow which leads to frustration.

Saturday’s ending was nice but something needs to be done to fix this and I’m not smart enough to know how other than to take advice from the drivers and teams.

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