INDIANAPOLIS — Friday’s racing world started off bizarre. It ended almost the same. Toronto was canceled from the INDYCAR schedule. Turkey followed suit in F1. Max Chilton had travel issues getting to the United States so Carlin has elected to skip out on Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix (2 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) as a result. Justin Haley has to sit out Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series as well as Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series’ races this weekend at Dover due to COVID protocols.
That all happened before most people finished their first cups of coffee.
The day ended with Romain Grosjean earning the pole for Saturday’s NTT IndyCar Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, you get six of the top nine qualifiers for this weekend’s 85 Lap race having not yet ever visited victory lane in an INDYCAR race before. Talk about a wild day.
So, are we going to see a wild race on Saturday? What can we expect to see?
Well, six of the nine races on the 2.439-mile IMS road course have seen a first lap crash. Last year was the only time we didn’t see a first lap crash and coincidentally enough, all three occurred outside of May. We’re back in May again on the road course and 31% of the series races since 2019 has had an opening lap crash including half of them in 2021.
Safe bet that we see carnage on Lap 1. Plus, just look at how the cars will like up on Saturday. As mentioned above, six of the top nine starters have never won an INDYCAR race before. One of the other three has just one victory.
You get three time GMR Grand Prix winner coming home 10th. Four-time winner Will Power starts 12th. The top two drivers in the standings in Scott Dixon and Pato O’Ward roll off 16th and 18th respectively. Graham Rahal is fifth in points and was runner-up in this race last July, will start 11th. That doesn’t even mention the fact that the Andretti guys need a season reset and they’ll start 8th (Colton Herta), 14th (Alexander Rossi), 19th (Ryan Hunter-Reay) and 22nd (James Hinchcliffe). What about four time series champ Sebastien Bourdais? He starts 20th. Jimmie Johnson starts 23rd and Juan Pablo Montoya in last (25th).
Inexperience up front and the cream of the crop coming from behind. Remember that stat about first lap crashes again?
While you’d think these drivers need to be conservative at the start, well they can’t afford to.
78% of the last 32 races run on natural road courses have been won from a driver coming from the Fast Six. 31 of the same 32 were won from a driver in the top 10. 36 of the last 37 races in general have been won from a driver coming from a top 10 starting spot. That dates back to the 2018 season finale.
All nine winners of racing on the IMS road course have started in the top 4 Rows including seven of the nine from the top 2 Rows. 12 of the last 13 races overall have been won from a driver from the top 2 Rows including all four this season.
See why these guys need to pounce and have to do so quickly?
The other factor is that this race is 85 laps. That makes it a solid three stopper. I don’t think you can make it to the end in two stops unless we see some yellows. See, we had 75 laps run in the second race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend and everyone made it on two stops. It was a fuel save race. The 85 lap Race 1 of the same weekend was done on three stops which was an all out battle from the green flag to the checkered.
So, you have the fuel factor to watch if we don’t get at least 10 caution laps. Then you get the tire strategy. The Firestone alternates are usually the best ones here. The track typically has a lot of grip, which means the fall off from the red tires is less than normal.
Well, they only have four set of alternate tires for the entire weekend. Who managed them the best? We know a set was used by almost all of the teams in the second practice on Friday afternoon. Then, another set used in qualifying with for some, two sets.
Some drivers have two sets of fresh alternate tires right now, some have only one.
You also have six sets of primary tires for the weekend. Half were likely used in practice. So, how do you balance this strategy in the race?
You have to use one of each, so if this truly is a three stop race, do you start on Reds or Blacks? Then, do you want Reds or Blacks in the end? That obviously depends on how long you want to run your final stint.
If the Reds are the best tire, then you probably start on the Reds if you are starting up front and then go with the Blacks on the second stint. If you have good balance as well as a good job of managing the fall off on reds, then you end on them. If you don’t, maybe you start the first couple of stints on reds and pit early in the final pit window and swap to blacks for the end and hope to go the duration without a final caution.
Making it all 13 turns on the first lap and managing tire strategy is the key thing to watch on Saturday.