No rest for the weary, right? The NTT IndyCar Series drivers/teams move from a hot/physical race weekend on the streets of St. Pete to the always steamy Texas Motor Speedway for not just one race this weekend, but for two races in consecutive days. That’s difficult enough in itself, but factor in a two-day test at Indy a few weeks ago, followed by the season opener at Barber a week later then a week after that going to the streets of St. Pete, then six days after there to Texas for a doubleheader and you get some tired folks in the paddock arriving this weekend.
Plus, Barber and St. Pete are two of the more physically demanding tracks on the schedule. Now, you get what will likely be a tough weekend mentally and physically at Texas.
“I think physically it’s going to be very tough because it’s two races, one Saturday, one Sunday,” Pietro Fittipaldi said via a media zoom call on Wednesday afternoon. “I think the first race is 212 laps, the race on Sunday is 248. They’re very long and it’s very physical.
“I think people sometimes don’t understand how physical it is on an oval because you just turn left. Scott (McLauhglin) can say it, too, but it’s extremely physical. After like a stint, you’re destroyed. I’m sure that after a whole race, you need to recover Saturday night to be ready again for Sunday because that’s an even longer race and it’s more in the day so it’s going to be even harder in the car.”
Tony Kanaan said that he expects due to the physical nature of this schedule and having raced 318 miles on Saturday to turn around and go even longer in the heat of the day on Sunday will cause some drivers to make mistakes.
With that said, how much can you learn from one and take to the other? Saturday’s race start time is at 7:45 p.m. ET — but it’s technically 6:45 p.m. locally too. That means that the race isn’t likely to end under the lights but it will still be under the shadows of the grandstands which cools the track.
Sunday’s race starts at 5:15 p.m ET but 4:15 p.m. locally. It will be ending around the time Saturday’s race started meaning most of the race will be in the heat of the day with the sun baking the track. How much does that alter setups?
Also, the races are different lengths too. Saturday’s race is 212 laps. Sunday’s race is 248. You’re already going to be worn out from racing a physical race a day before, but now you have to strap in and do it again in hotter conditions less than 24 hours later and run a race 54 more miles in length.
How much can you take over from the two? Kanaan said that he expects the guys going for the championship to take it a little more easy on Saturday.
“I mean, it’s tough, right,” Kanaan said. “Race one is going to dictate a lot of your weekend as far as that. But you can only worry about things you can control. Obviously we’re there to race.
“I think you will see some guys maybe taking it a little easier in the first race to be able to just gather some points. The way the championship is right now, I mean, look at — there is 40 points separating P1 to P18. I think you’ll probably see a lot less crashes this year, though, as you’re throwing your championship chances away.
“It will be no different than what we did on those two double-headers we did last year. You’re going to have to be prepared. I think the teams are more prepared if something like that happens if going to have an advantage, and the teams that are not they’re going to have to tell their drivers to take it easy probably in race one.”
Then you add to the fact that how will both races look? It all depends on the PJ1 factor to be honest. INDYCAR and Firestone have made changes. The cars will have more downforce. The tires will be softer.
Will it work?
“I think INDYCAR did a lot of effort,” Kanaan said. “They made a lot of effort to increase a little bit of the downforce. Firestone was coming with a softer tire, and Texas Motor Speedway has been doing a lot of work to be able to work it out that lane and a half.
“There are a lot of things in our favor. It’s going to be cooler than it was last year. We have more downforce from INDYCAR, Firestone is bringing a softer tire, and Texas has done a lot of work to try to clean that whatever they put down for the NASCAR boys a couple years ago.”
“I think we need that. I think we’re going to make it work. I hope so because Texas — without going side-by-side in Texas, it would be a boring race.”
When NASCAR and Texas officials started adding the traction compound to the race track, it has in turn greatly affected the INDYCAR stop to the Lonestar State. The track applied this prior to the NASCAR race on it in November 2019. While they tried to get it off, it created a mess of things.
The compound was put in the middle to high lanes in the corners for more grip on the 1.5 mile race track in order to create more lanes of racing for the much heavier stock cars. For the INDYCARs, the compound is like driving on ice. They weigh far less than a NASCAR and are much lighter on downforce. When getting into it, your car just wants to break loose.
The drivers said from the test last month that they felt like the second lane with PJ1 on it still had significantly less grip than the lower lane.
Last year it was a single file parade because you couldn’t risk getting your tires in the stain from the traction compound. The ones that did, well they crashed.
Last year was boring, they need to ensure that this year isn’t, especially with two races being held.
In turn, if the PJ1 is still wrecking havoc this weekend, it makes qualifying very interesting. How much do you push it just in case you get a tire on it?
From 2003 though Race 1 of 2011, there were 11 straight races to where the race winner came from the top five of the starting lineup. It’s only happened three times in the last 10 and one of those was last year.
You need a good starting spot and flawless pit stops throughout the race to hold onto the track position. If you can manage to do so, you will have a good night on both days.
The other factor in all of this is how will the tires play out? Last year, Firestone limited the amount of laps per stint to 35. By comparison, the stints were around 65 laps in 2019. How will this weekend look? Can your tires last a full 65 lap stint under green flag conditions or is the fall off so great that you need to break the stint in half? They’re softer we know that. Does that mean more fall off?
See, Texas has a known history to produce some of the most thrilling side-by-side moments to a complete snoozefest. It’s a track that’s often been hard to figure out. The tires have played a big role in this because if you have minimal fall off over the course of a run, the cars can’t separate from one another and danger ensues. If you degrade too much, it creates single file racing without a lot of action. Throw in the Texas heat factor, the stained track from PJ1 and you never really know what you’re going to get. So, with minimal practice time and two races in one weekend, it’s anyone’s guess to how these two races are going to look.
So, while the tires are softer, the tire and pit strategy are going to be key. I mean, teams only get 13 sets for the entire weekend. That includes practice.
So, if you count backwards on Saturday, the final pit window would take place from Lap 147 on for Saturday and Lap 183 on for Sunday. If that final stint stays green, the guys that pit early will have a quicker burst of speed, but fall off as the run goes on. The guys that pit later will lose time to the guys with newer tires, but gain time when it counts in the end. Pit too soon, you’re a sitting duck. Pit too late, you don’t have enough time to catch up. There’s a happy medium.
But, you have to manage your tires too. You have to lay a set at the end in case for a late race caution which changes everything.
Then, the second to last stint would be Lap 82 on for Saturday and Lap 118 on Sunday. That doesn’t count any other yellow flags though, where it would be wise to pit under caution then having to come down on green flag sequences. You can’t afford to not pit under caution because not doing so and having to pit under green while most others don’t, well you’ll surely lose at least a lap in the process.
Both races are 3 stop strategy events, but it’s all about timing the stints right.
That’s why with practice, you’re going to want to run a couple of sets at least to see how much fall off they have and adjust setups accordingly, but you’re also going to want to have at the very least 4-5 sets of fresh Firestone tires in your pit box for each race during race time as well.
While some don’t envy the rookies, I don’t envy the strategists either.
With track position being key, you have to be flawless in pit lane but with longer green flag runs possible, you have to figure out the best time to pit and not lose ground on either side during your stint.
Speaking of those rookies, they’re being thrown to the wolves. Scott McLaughlin has never raced an oval before. Fittipaldi has raced on a short oval in Phoenix, but not on a superspeedway.
Both drivers have some greats in their corners though. McLaughlin has Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud as teammates.
“Invaluable (smiling). It’s the thing that I take very seriously, listen to a lot of their advice,” McLaughlin said of his vastly experienced teammates. “I definitely ask for a lot. I’m in their ear all the time, watching all their footage, looking at all their data, just little things.
“But they could easily be hiding away a lot of the stuff, not try and show me too much. But they’ve been fantastic in all facets. There’s stuff they’re probably hiding from me, but at the same time that’s what racing is all about with teammates. Everyone hides that last little 10th. That’s about me trying to find that myself. That’s what motorsport is all about.”
Fittipaldi has Emerson Fittipaldi, Christian Fittipaldi and uncle Max Papis at his disposal too.
“Yeah, I mean, I spoke to Christian recently. It’s taking it step by step on the ovals,” Fittipaldi said. “Max, who is my uncle as well, is the INDYCAR race steward. He was there at Texas because Cody Ware, our teammate, was there, too. We were doing a rookie orientation day. Max was there evaluating us. He’s my uncle, married to my mom’s sister.
“He’s been kind of taking me through the ropes a lot, too, teaching me everything I have to know when I was there at Texas and Indianapolis. I was in a car with him and Arie Luyendyk, in a pace car, doing laps at Indianapolis. Max was like, Arie, you have to teach him the tricks on how to do a pole lap. Arie has, like, the quickest pole lap.
“I was there with them, they were telling me all the tricks and stuff of Indianapolis. It’s awesome, great to have that support.”
As to the best advice given to them, Fittipaldi said that you have to be patient. There’s a lot to learn for both coming into the weekend, especially with him being out of the series for the last couple of years. You just have to be patient and let the car and race come to you.
But, with just one practice to be able to do so, it’s difficult.
“I’d say it’s being patient on the ovals, running in dirty air,” said Fittipaldi. I think it’s going to be difficult at Texas to follow cars and overtake. If you have the right setup, especially for dirty air, it’s going to make a big difference.
“We will work on that in practice, it’s a short practice, then you go straight into qualifying, so there’s not so much you can do. If you can unload, get the car out of the truck and it’s already in a good place, that’s going to be very important.
“I mean, there’s still a lot to learn for me as well. To race single-seaters on an oval, it’s very different, especially now with the aeroscreen. The car has a bit of a different balance than what I was used to from before. Following cars is always very difficult to get used to as well, gaining that experience not only in Texas but as well for Indianapolis.
“You can run laps on your own good, run fast laps, you could be quick in qualifying, but you go out in the race, it’s going to be hard to get that experience of following in traffic, trying to time passes and stuff. That’s going to be the main thing, trying to gain as much experience with that in Texas, then execute everything that’s in my control and get the best result possible.
“I think it’s going to be interesting with this new aero package, get a feel for what it’s like in traffic, how close we can follow and make moves as well. A lot to unravel here.”
So, how are the nerves then coming into the weekend? This is something very different for them.
“For me it’s the excitement of having never done it before, experiencing what it’s like,” said McLaughlin. “That’s something that is going to be so cool, so refreshing for me. First career start on an oval. Why not do it in the fastest race car of all? It’s a cool thing.”
“Yeah, I mean, the cars are a little bit different from when I raced in 2018, Phoenix, Gateway and Pocono. I mean, I’m just extremely excited,” he said.
“The ovals are very intimidating, especially when you have 20 other cars running around you and stuff. Just got to keep your cool and take it step by step. But it’s definitely very intimidating. The adrenaline is super high, more than any other thing that I’ve driven, and I’ve driven a lot of different race cars.
“Yeah, I’m very excited.”