5 things to watch for this week’s INDYCAR open test at IMS

INDIANAPOLIS — 32 NTT IndyCar Series drivers will take to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on Thursday and again on Friday to test for next month’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). With that said, here are the top 5 things to watch this week.

How To Watch: NBC Peacock. Sign up here

Entry List: All 32 cars here

Schedule: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (ET) Thursday and 10-4 p.m. Friday

Rookie Orientation/Veteran Refresher Program

Normally, rookie orientation is saved for the Month of May, but as customary the last couple of years, INDYCAR is allowing the rookie drivers to complete the three phases ahead of time. That way, when practice officially opens next month, they can just hit the ground running.

This year, Cody Ware and Pietro Fittipaldi are the only two drivers that have to do the orientation as Scott McLaughlin already completed his last October.

What they have to complete is three phases which consists of:  Phase 1 requires a driver to complete 10 laps at speeds between 205-210 mph. Phase 2 requires a driver to complete 15 more laps at speeds between 210-215 mph. The final stage, Phase 3, requires a driver to complete 15 laps at speeds over 215 mph.

You also have the veteran refresher course which will have these drivers complete the final two phases. Those drivers completing this are Sebastien Bourdais, Dalton Kellett, James Hinchcliffe, Juan Pablo Montoya, Max Chilton, Ed Jones, Sage Karam, Helio Castroneves and Simona de Silvestro.

Aero Changes Between Last Year And This

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was a difficult race in terms of passing. So, INDYCAR held a test at the end of October at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year to help with the superspeedway racing package. The race last August featured a lot of single file racing with on track passing being really hard to do.

See, from 2012 through 2017, the racing at Indy looked like something you’d see NASCAR have at Daytona or Talladega. No, it wasn’t a “pack race” but rather a sling shot race to where you don’t want to be leading. The tow as well as the drag was so big in those cars, that it made passing easy.

The 2012 race had 34 lead changes. The 2013 race had a race record 68 of them. 34 more followed in 2014 with 37, 54 and 35 more between 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively.

INDYCAR wanted to reel that in a bit. Unfortunately, they went too far in the other direction. Since this new car came out in 2018, passing has been great on road/street courses as well as short ovals. Indy, well it’s been really difficult. We had 30 lead changes in 2018, 29 in 2019 and just 21 last year.

That’s why changes have been made again.

The series knows though that they can’t go too far the other way because it could create artificial racing. Passing isn’t supposed to be easy. The faster cars are supposed to be up front. They’re just searching for a happy medium, hence the potential of push to pass for 2023.

But, for the immediate future, the test in October was to help for the 105th Running this May. Well, by the sounds of things, it seems like the test went so well that setups from that test were used as a baseline for the last session a few weeks ago.

“Everything that we’ve found in the November test from that aero dynamic side was already on the cars today,” said Alexander Rossi at the test a few weeks ago. “So that package that we kind of adjusted for 2021 already exists. It’s what we had here is what we will race in May. The push to pass was just with a view to the future and once the hybrid systems become a reality and we can use that to change the way the race goes.”

Jay Frye said that he thinks the aero changes they’ve made to the car for this year’s Indy 500 will be “really good.”

That’s a far cry from what drivers were saying last August.

Pato O’Ward told me during that test last October, that everything felt great.

“It was good,” O’Ward said on how the car felt in October compared to just a couple of months ago. “Honestly the baseline car from the race earlier felt the same. Which was good to then get the changes to the new stuff, the new addons.”

Each car in October had three setup options to go off of. You had the baseline from this past year’s race, a first small change, a second smaller change and a third change with everything put together.

It was the final change that had the drivers liking what they felt.

“The little addons didn’t do much but the full package did a significant amount of positive to the car,” said O’Ward. “I was able to run behind traffic a lot better, passing was a lot easier. It’s not just as horrendous anymore. During the race, it was so aggressive when the car takes off and the window of opportunity trying to save it was very small. I am all in favor of these changes.”

O’Ward noted that the first step wasn’t any different what the car had for August. The second step was an improvement, but after 16-17 laps in a run, it went back to where the car initially was in step 1. The third step, well it was eye opening.

So, what was it about the third setup on Friday that O’Ward liked?

“You’re able to follow the car in front of you, even if there’s 2 or 3 in front of him, a lot closer,” he said. “That then allows you to try to pass. Usually it’s a pretty late move because of the draft that he has, but we need this to improve the racing.

“It stuck the car more to the ground when you were right behind someone. The understeer was a bit more predictable so you go with it and it was very manageable. Before, it was kind of just take off and you’re going straight towards the wall.”

O’Ward says that if they can run a race similar to how they tested, then it’s a win-win for all parties involved.

“I think it’s just going to make the racing all around for the fans a lot better,” said the future star of the series. “A lot better for us too. I mean it really does get kind of annoying whenever you’re not even close to the guy in front of you and you’re holding onto your life like not knowing what the car is going to do. Man it was tough during the race. I’m all for these changes.”

Penske Eyeing Indy 500 Improvement

An Indy 500 win and a championship. That’s the top two goals for any NTT IndyCar Series race team. But for Team Penske, those aren’t lofty goals. Those are realistic. When they don’t win either, as was the case for 2020, it means they take it personally.

So, how do you balance those goals? Putting too many eggs in the Indy basket can compromise success elsewhere and vice versa. How do you go all in at trying to make the gains to win at Indy, but not lose ground elsewhere a vie for a championship?

That’s the challenging part of INDYCAR racing. There’s superspeedway’s. There’s short ovals. There’s also road and street courses too. Everyone is trying to improve on areas to where they’re bad at, so even if you’re good in one area, you can’t rest on your laurels. For an organization like Team Penske, you can’t go all in and try to win the Indy 500 but risk a decline in stats for other tracks either.

“It’s a balancing act, for sure. That’s a good point,” Josef Newgarden told me during INDYCAR media days last month. “You have to try and understand, when you push resources one way, how does that affect everything else. I think for us, we’re pretty good at balancing that formula.

“Indy is a really tough track, not only because it’s the most important race but I think because it’s all about very small details, and those little details take a tremendous amount of time and effort to move the needle. It’s all these little things that add up at the end of the day when you show up in the month of May. It takes a tremendous amount of time to make large progress at Indianapolis, whereas at another track you may find a small difference or small change with something that you found that didn’t take nearly as much energy or money or resources.

“I think you can have these bigger magnitudes of shift at a place like a street course or a road course compared to Indianapolis. Indianapolis really takes a ton of time, ton of resources to make those little incremental improvements forward. That’s why we emphasize trying to get that right. For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks. There’s no doubt. We didn’t perform like we wanted to at the 500 from a qualifying standpoint and race standpoint. I think that’s why we’ve heavily leaned to get that right in the off-season.

“We haven’t left anything else behind. We’re still pushing forward on all the other fronts because we need to be strong across the season.”

Newgarden has won two NTT IndyCar Series championships to his credit. He nearly won a third last year. But, the one thing that’s nagging in the back of his head still is the lack of an Indy 500 win. Newgarden, is 0-for-8. He does have four top 10’s in his last five starts there, but that lack of taste of the milk in victory lane isn’t quenching his thirst.

“We want to win an Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “For me specifically, that’s a big goal. I’ve not won that race. Obviously as a team, we’ve had a lot of success there. They’d like to add to that. For me, I’d like to get my first.”

See, Penske is synonymous with Indy success. Heading into 2020, Roger Penske had just purchased the place. He figuratively and now literally owned victory lane. But, Penske’s cars struggled on track in August. They finished P4-11-14-22. They were rarely found up front on any speed chart all month.

That’s not good enough for Penske. It was honestly rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2021.

“Last year our qualifying form was not strong,” Newgarden continued. “We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.

“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.

“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”

Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.

“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”

Stacked Field

Every Indy 500 winner since 2013 is here again. There’s 13 Indy 500 wins already on the entry list.

The entire top 14 of last years finishing order is back. Plus, you add a two-time Indy 500 champion back to the fold that wasn’t here a year ago too.

That could make this one of the toughest fields to get into this year in the 105 year history of this event. I know the glory years saw more cars go home than starting spots, but their depth from top to the bottom wasn’t like this. The speeds weren’t as close to each other then either. The disparity from first to last over four laps now can be separated by a slight bobble on one of your laps.

Throw in high class drivers in every ride and you get what should be a memorable Month of May this year with the best field to ever grace us at the Brickyard.

Right now, we have 32 cars on the entry list with RLL’s announcement. 25 of them are full time and the other 7 part time rides.

AJ Foyt Racing announced that they will be joining the one off list with Charlie Kimball as the driver. Rick Ware Racing will have an additional car with DCR again. Pietro Fittipaldi will drive one of them. ECR has a third for Daly. AA has a fifth for Marco Andretti. Arrow McLaren SP has hired Juan Pablo Montoya in a third ride. Paretta Autosport brings Simona de Silvestro.

That’s 31 drivers for 32 cars. The only car without a driver right now is the No. 52 RWR/DCR entry which by all accounts looks like it will go to Cody Ware. He had by all accounts a great test at Texas last week and with James Davison driving Ware’s No. 51 seat in NASCAR for the Coca-Cola 600, Ware is open to run the Indy 500 now.

We then know DRR will likely show up with at least one car again which will push this list to 33. Do they run a second? That’s 34 if so.

Andretti is said to have an additional car to push this to 34 or 35 depending on DRR. Carlin looks to be staying put at one but a second car isn’t out of the realm either.

Top Gun Racing says all the right things but they’ve yet to formally announce.

That’s why this thing can go as small as 34 or as high as 38.

Honda vs. Chevy

Chevrolet had the preferred power in this race in 2018 and again in 2019. They’ve swept the front row both years. In 2018, they led nearly 150 of the 200 laps run. 2019, they combined to lead 155 of the 200 laps. Last year, it was all Honda.

This time Honda swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. They’d lead 179 of the 200 laps and sweep the top four finishing spots and take 8 of the top 10 finishers overall.

How much can Chevy close the gap and how much can Honda gain or even lose? It’s hard top those numbers from last year.

Key Indy 500 Numbers

We’ve had a new, first time winner for the Indy 500 in six of the last seven years. Also, since 2011, we’ve had a different winner each year with the exception of Takuma Sato (2017, 2020) here too. Going back to 2003, only Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Takuma Sato have won this race multiple times in that time frame.

Will Starting Position Matter?

In the aero kit era, starting position didn’t matter at Indy. But, with this universal car that debuted in 2018, it now does. Simon Pagenaud became the first pole winner to win the ‘500 since 2009. Will Power won from third in 2018. Takuma Sato started fourth in his 2017 win and third in last year’s victory.

Watch Out For The “Big 3”

Penske, Andretti and Ganassi are the top three organizations in Indy Car. While we’ve seen parity in terms of the driver front lately, we haven’t seen the same for the teams. Combined, Penske and Andretti have won six of the last seven Indy 500’s. Throw Ganassi in there, and these three organizations have won 13 of the last 16 ‘500’s overall and 17 of the last 21 (since 2000).

RLL is the outlier who took two of the top three spots a year ago and have won 2 of the 4 that the “Big 3” didn’t since 2000.

Plus, the last non Penske Chevrolet driver to win at Indy was Al Unser Jr. with Galles in 1992.

Other Notable Storylines

Chip Ganassi Racing Eyeing 1st Indy 500 Triumph In Last 9 Years

Chip Ganassi Racing is arguably one of the best Indy Car teams in the series today. They hold 113 wins, 12 series titles and four Indianapolis 500 victories. While the team has enjoyed much success, they would really enjoy another Indy 500 win, as their last one was back in 2012.

This year, Chip Ganassi Racing will have four drivers vying for the top spot in victory lane. The first is veteran Scott Dixon, who has had 11 top 10 finishes over the past 15 years, one of which being his 2008 victory. Dixon, led a race-high 111 laps a year ago but came up short in finishing runner-up. It was his second top three result in the last three years.

Dixon’s teammates this May will be Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson and a return to the team from Tony Kanaan.

It will be interesting to see if either of these Chip Ganassi Racing drivers can bring home the Borg Warner Trophy for their beloved team.

Helio Castroneves’ Drive For 4 With A Different Team Now

Nothing against Michael Schumacher (Formula One) or Jeff Gordon (NASCAR), but their five wins each at IMS will never even compare to AJ Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr’s four Indy 500 wins. While five wins anywhere is impressive, four Indy 500 wins is legendary!

Only three drivers in history have won the famed race four times, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, but for the past nine years, three-time winner Helio Castroneves has been knocking on the door.

Over the past 11 years now, Castroneves has had six top 10 finishes, two of which were second place finishes. He almost joined the four-time club in both 2014 and 2017, just missing the mark by 0.060 seconds and 0.2011 seconds, respectively. Ouch.

Castroneves will return this year in hopes of winning a fourth Borg Warner Trophy. This time though, he’ll do so without being with Team Penske. His previous 20 Indy 500 starts were all with Penske, but this year will come with Meyer Shank Racing in the No. 06 Honda. MSR has an alliance with Andretti Autosport, so this could be Castroneves’ year.

One Off List A Strong One

It’s been 10 years since we last saw a part time driver win the Indianapolis 500. Dan Wheldon did so in thrilling fashion that day. That came 10 years after the last in which Helio Castroneves did it in 2001. Now, can one of the talented drivers on this list do so this year?

The numbers are on their side. 2001, 2011…2021?

Right now, we have Marco Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton, Santino Ferrucci, Cody Ware, Pietro Fittipaldi, Sage Karam and Simona de Silvestro on this list. Can any of these drivers sip the milk on May 30?

Stats are on their side, but trends are.

Difficulty Winning This Race Makes That Trip To Victory Lane All That Much More Special

We’ve seen over the years the emotion that comes out of an Indianapolis 500 champion. I mean, it’s the only race on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule that labels the race winner as a “champion.”

It’s not just the win that’s special. Don’t get me wrong, crossing the yard of bricks is enough to make a grown man weep of happy tears of joy. But, it’s also everything after it too. You’re forever lauded in racing lore when you get to cross the famed yard of bricks first. But, it’s also to what happens during the course of 500 miles to what makes winning here so damn special too.

In order to win Indy, you have to be perfect. Literally. There’s no margin for error here. From on track, to pit road, to everything in between, you can’t slip up or a win will become out of reach in an instant.

Especially now. The field is just so deep, so talented. To beat drivers like this, you have to be perfect.

“It’s a package” said defending Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud. “Obviously, it’s not just the race car. You have to have luck that day. The stars have to align for you. You need to bring your A game. The entire crew, the strategist, everyone has to make the perfect execution.

“At the end of the day, you also have to have the right package that year on your car. Setup, engine, everything. It’s obviously to me, with the 24 Hours of LeMans, the toughest race of the year to win. There’s so many factors to get right, especially the outside factors beyond your control and you do need the outside factors need to go your way.”

It’s eerie that the guy that he beat in 2019 in Alexander Rossi, echoed the same thing as Pagenaud about an hour earlier in the day.

“Yeah everything has to go right,” said last year’s runner-up but also the 2016 champion in Rossi. “Who would have thought that the strategy that we defaulted to after pit stop problems in ’16 would have been the one to have won the race. There’s no predicting it.

“There’s 33 cars that have a full and equal part to win this thing on Sunday. Pit stops are going to be, I mean each year there’s a little bit more of a track position race over years past because the competition gets better and it gets hotter, that sort of thing.”

500 miles. Four turns per lap. 800 turns all day. The amount of precision, perfection and concentration is what makes that cold drink of milk after 3+ hours of a mentally taxing race so damn worth it.

But, once you win it, it’s something that you don’t ever want to give back either.

“I don’t want anyone to take it from me,” Pagenaud said.

Rossi feels the same. He knows that people questioned his love for the race following his 2016 win. It wasn’t that he didn’t love to win, he just didn’t know what to expect. That’s why he says you see even more emotion pouring out of series veterans that have never experienced a win here despite several tries. But, that emotion a second time, it would come out for Rossi.

“Everyone talks about like when Tony (Kanaan) won and Will (Power) won, they’ve been trying so long and that type of emotion came out and that is obviously a real thing,” Rossi said. “But, for the guys that have won and gotten a taste of it, you don’t know what you don’t know. Until you’ve won, you don’t realize how amazing it is. How special an event that this is to win. Every time that a year goes by and you know someone else will get to go do all that stuff that you get to go do, you just think ‘oh this sucks.’ So for sure it adds fuel to the fire every year that goes by.

When told about Rick Mears getting more and more emotional after each one of his win, Rossi said “oh for sure because you realize every year you come here, you realize how challenging it is to get it done. How all the pieces of the puzzle have to fall in place. Some are in your control and some aren’t. It’s a pretty magical part when it all happens.”

A prime example is finishing second to Pagenaud last year. Rossi notes that he thinks about that race more right now than his win in ’16 because of how close he was and how you can’t squander a race winning car here due to all the circumstances around it.

“To this day I still haven’t watched and Indy 500 from start to finish that I’ve competed in,” continued Rossi. “I mean, I still think about the 2019 finish more of the 2016 win because it’s more recent or maybe it’s because it sucks to finish second. It’s a horrible feeling especially when it’s a second place for when you know you got up there trying to do something wild.

“Like in 2016, if we finished second, that’s a total different emotion. To have a car to potentially win and you come up short is tough because it’s so hard around here that puts you in that position. It takes so many factors and elements that puts you up there to win the Indianapolis 500. You never know if you’re going to have it again. When you see that opportunity and it gets away from you, it’s hard to swallow.”

On May 30, another driver will go down in Indy lore. Only Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato have won this thing more than once, but even if either of them, the emotion will be just as joyful as the others.

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