My 5 Things to watch this weekend at Mid-Ohio

The NTT IndyCar Series returns to action this weekend for a doubleheader on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It’s the first time the series has been on track since Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden split wins in another twinbill at the end of August on the World Wide Technology Raceway oval near St. Louis.

Here are some main topics for this weekend’s Honda Indy 200.

Back To Road Courses

Normally, the Indy Car schedule is typically filled with road/street courses. A typical season is normally 16-18 races in length with only five of them being contested on ovals. This year, well it’s different. There’s a pandemic around, so nothing is the same now as it was before. We’ve had to bob and weave ourselves through the summer months which is why Mid-Ohio is being run a month later.

Graham Rahal in his No. 15 Honda at Road America

But, due to the nature of the situation we’ve had, the series has raced on nothing but ovals lately. In fact, the last five races have been on ovals starting near mid July with two races at Iowa and ending in late August with two more races in Gateway. In the middle was the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23. Other than Texas (June 6) that’s the extent of the ovals for 2020. We’re done.

“Yeah, very much looking forward to it,” said rookie driver Oliver Askew. “It’s kind of weird to think that the season is heading into the final quarter and we’ve only done two road course events this year. Yeah, more time for me to get used to running on ovals and to get better on ovals, as well.

“Yeah, Mid-Ohio is a special track for me. I’ve always loved going there. We’ve had a lot of success there in the Road to Indy and Indy Lights last year, as well. It’s a very technical track, and I think it suits me and I think it suits the team Arrow McLaren SP and Chevrolet, as well.”

For the first time since July 12, we’re turning left and right this weekend and will do so for the rest of the year.

5 of the final 7 race weekends are doubleheaders

Another Doubleheader

This has been a common theme this year – doubleheaders. It’s the nature of the business to fit a good schedule in. This weekend is going to be tough on drivers. Mid-Ohio is already one of the more physical tracks on the circuit with the layout not having very long straightaways to rest. Normally, the drivers are drained after a 90 lap Mid-Ohio race. This year, the distance is shortened a little bit to 75 laps, but they will still feel it and have to do 75 more laps just about 18 hours later.

“I think it’s going to be really tough, although for me last year in Indy Lights, I felt pretty good,” said Oliver Askew. “Both Rinus (VeeKay) and I are kind of used to doing double-headers coming from the Road to Indy and Indy Lights, but the races aren’t nearly as long. They’re about maybe half as long or a quarter as long. So it’s going to be a big challenge. I’m sure Rinus has been training very hard and just trying to get — we don’t really have any rest days. We’re just trying to get the most out of our bodies and to prepare on the nutrition side, as well.

“It’s going to be a hot one. I think every race this year, that’s just how it’s been with the aeroscreen, it’s going to be very hot, and just with the double-headers, it’s important to recover as quick as possible Saturday night to feel as fresh as possible Sunday morning heading into qualifying, too.

“It’ll definitely be a big challenge for all of us and maybe especially for the rookies.”

Graham Rahal agrees.

“Well, this weekend is going to be a killer,” said the Ohio native. “It’s not that hot. Hovers right around 80, I think. It doesn’t really matter any more. The cars are toasty inside. I would anticipate at Road America in the first day, I think I lost four and a half, five pounds. That’s not a physical track. I would say looking at Mid O this weekend, if it’s relatively warm and can be humid like we’re accustomed to, I think you’re going to be looking for a 12-pound loss weekend.

“You got to do what you can to stay hydrated. For me the thing I found recently, another Columbus, Ohio connection, truthfully Pedialyte works well for me. I’ve gone through this and that, different sports tabs, all this stuff. Nothing has worked for me. Pedialyte seems to be the best thing to kind of keep me fresh and feel reenergized the next day.

“There’s no doubt, like dad actually mentioned it, there’s no doubt that these doubleheader weekends are tremendously grueling. Sunday at St. Louis with no yellow flags, it was the hardest cardio workout I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s not that physical of a track.

“Be interested to see how these play out. Mid-Ohio is the most physical track we go to. To have a doubleheader there of all places is going to be one heck of a workout. Don’t know what else to say. I’ll weigh myself before and after and we’ll see.”

Team owner Bobby Rahal says though that he’s no fan of these new formats for 2020, but it is what it is right now.

“You do what you have to do, right?” Rahal said. “I don’t like these double race weekends. I don’t like these compressed schedules. As a team if you have a little hiccup, you’re kind of screwed. I mean, you look at the other weekends one practice session, you go into qualifying, then you can’t touch the car before the race. If your car isn’t handling right, you don’t have any opportunity to try to make it better, you’re stuck with it.

“I don’t like that whatsoever. I’m not a fan of the double race weekends, period. From what I understand, I don’t think anybody thinks this is a long-term plan because you have Portland, Laguna Seca, St. Pete, Austin. You got all these tracks, Barber had to give up their event, so I don’t see double race weekends happening.

“I would just tell you it’s grueling on everybody, the driver, the team, the mechanics, everybody. As I say, one little blip and you’re really hurt by it. I’ll be glad when they’re over.”

Young Drivers Could Shine

We saw a year ago that Felix Rosenqvist nearly won the Indy Car race at Mid-Ohio. He finished second to teammate Scott Dixon in a photo finish. I think we could see more rookie or second year drivers shine in both races this weekend too.

In the last natural road course race in Road America, Rosenqvist, a second year driver, beat another second year driver in Pato O’Ward. Rookie Alex Palou was on the podium a day prior on the same race track. Second year drivers Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci placed fifth and sixth respectively on both days themselves. Another second year driver in Marcus Ericsson was 10th and fourth respectively giving second year drivers 1-2-4-5-6 finishes in the Sunday race there.

5 of the top 6 finishers in Road America 2 were second year drivers

With this being the first road course race back since then, I expect these younger drivers to shine again. In fact, they could get at least another win, or maybe even two.

Mid-Ohio has always proved to be a track that suits younger drivers. See, it’s one of the few on the schedule that all three ladders of the Road to Indy program race on. So, these youngsters if they came up through those ranks, have plenty of experience on this race track already. Then, even for those that don’t, Mid-Ohio is a proving grounds track that sees teams use it a lot for testing.

Alex Palou is extra confident heading into this weekend because this was the only track he’s seen before and had on track activity at before 2020.

“It’s awesome,” Palou said of this being a track he has comfort in now. “That’s what I like. It’s going to be the first track that I know from last year. It’s going to be a huge advantage. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to go there and be like, Oh, yeah, look at this guy, now it’s quick. It’s not going to be like that. At least I’m not going to lose 15, 20 minutes trying to learn a new track.

“Mid-Ohio is a track I love, it’s a road course. It’s the same road courses as we have in Europe, in Japan, the things I know. So I expect that it’s going to be a good weekend for us.”

But, don’t sleep on the other rookies in Rinus VeeKay, Oliver Askew and Dalton Kellett either. VeeKay and Askew have raced six times in the Road to Indy program at Mid-Ohio. Askew, swept the USF2000 races in 2017. VeeKay was second and third respectively in them. For Indy Pro 2000, it was VeeKay’s turn to sweep the weekend. Askew, was sixth and third respectively. Then in Indy Lights action a year ago, Askew swept the weekend again while VeeKay was third and second again himself.

“Yeah I feel very confident,” VeeKay said of Mid-Ohio this weekend. “I know the team has had a great car at Mid-Ohio in the last years. I think Mid-Ohio is going to be one of their strongest road courses and I know everyone works extremely hard and is very motivated. I had the test there last October and the car felt really amazing. I’m not worried at all, I’m just very excited.

“Of course it’s a track where I’ve never finished off the podium in my whole Road to Indy. It’s quite a track. I love it there.”

As to why this track suits these drivers, Askew said because of the experience factor.

“I think it’s just a common racetrack, common racetrack to test at,” Askew said. “We have quite a bit of time on that circuit.”

Palou is confident and has one podium and two top 10’s on the season. Both came on a natural road course. This is a track he’s seen before now.

VeeKay is riding a wave of momentum into his best track. He made the Fast Nine at Indy and was sixth and fourth respectively the last time out at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Askew has won four of his six Mid-Ohio starts in Road to Indy.

Rosenqvist almost won last year and won on another natural road course in July.

O’Ward should have won at Road America in July but does have five top six finishes in his last six starts on the season including two straight podiums.

Herta was eighth last year, has two career wins in the series with both being on natural road courses and a top eight finish in all but two races this year (both at Iowa).

Ferrucci has five top 10 finishes in his last eight starts in 2020 and should have six if not for a bad final pit stop in Race 1 at Gateway.

Ericsson has six top 10 finishes in his last eight tries in 2020 and is driving for the same Ganassi team that went 1-2 last year at Mid-Ohio.

The first and second year grouping should contend for podiums and wins in both races this weekend.

Championship Push

Josef Newgarden cut 29 points off Scott Dixon’s lead following his win in the last race out at World Wide Technology Raceway. He still trails Dixon though by 96 points. That’s the largest margin between first and second with five races remaining in the season since 2008. It’s also the third time in the last four seasons that Dixon has led the standings at this point and that the driver to be in the lead with five races to go has won the last two championships and three of the last four overall.

The defending series champion still doesn’t think that this title race isn’t over just yet though. Newgarden says that if luck was on his side, he could very well have more wins than Dixon right now.

“In all honesty, I think we could have had four of five wins by this point,” Newgarden said.

He’s not wrong. A bad caution in the middle of a pit sequence at Indy cost him a win or at the very least a podium. Same thing in Iowa 1 and Gateway 1. A mechanical malfunction in Road America 1 hurt him too.

Dixon holds a 96 point lead, can anyone catch him?

Dixon was a benefactor in all. He won Road America, Indy and Gateway. He was second in Iowa 1 too.

“If those things stop happening, I think we can fight with him,” Newgarden noted.

But, he also said that it’s going to be tough. It’s possible, but tough. You have to be damn near perfect.

Dixon, won at Mid-Ohio last year. He has a record six wins there. With two races on tap this weekend, who’s to say Dixon doesn’t win at least one of them? Then, it’s to Indy again for two more races on the 2.439-mile road course. Dixon won there on July 4 and had three straight runner-up finishes prior. Then St. Pete wraps up the season to where Dixon finished second to Newgarden a year ago.

Dixon, also has four wins and two runner-ups in nine starts this season. He’s finished outside the top five just once. 14 of his last 17 races in general have seen him finish in the top five with 10 of those being a top two.

“It’s getting hard now,” Newgarden said if he can make up 96 points in five races. We can’t have situations where the yellow bites us. We can’t afford that. We cannot afford that with the amount of points we are down. If that type of situation keeps happening to us, then unfortunately you’re never going to claw back to where we’re at right now. It’s just not going to happen.”

Newgarden and Dixon have won two of the last three races at Mid-Ohio.

The rest of the drivers may be too far out to climb back. That’s why Graham Rahal said that it’s time to take more risks to get wins.

“For me at this stage in the season, too, I’m willing to take a little bit more risk to get a win,” Rahal said as he sits seventh in the standings now. “It’s been a few years, since 2017 for me. I feel like we’ve been extremely consistent and strong as far as our performance the last couple years in the 15 car. Bounces haven’t quite gone our way. Willing to take a little risk to try and make that happen.”

If the risk happen, does this favor the point above about rookies and second year drivers who may elect to be more conservative.

Pit Strategy Key Still

As Newgarden noted, an ill advised caution during a pit window could flip the field. So, how aggressive do you go? Do you pit early to avoid that but risk not having the tires last for a full stint as someone who pit later and will be quicker on fresher tires? Do you slow down over a stint to make it longer and hope for a yellow but give up time on track over the final laps of your run?

4 of the last 8 years this race has gone caution free

We know cautions are few and far between at Mid-Ohio. The last two years went caution free. In 2017 we had just one yellow. In 2016, we only had two. Eight of the last nine years have seen two or fewer cautions in this race including four of those being caution free.

Dixon was on the exact opposite pit strategy as Rosenqvist last year but it was the winning one. They still finish 1-2.

Which strategy wins out on Saturday and Sunday?

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