How do teams/drivers balance their practice workload this past week between qualifying/race trims

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis 500 practice started on Tuesday. There’s been four days of practice available before we set the field for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 this weekend. With that said, the most logical plan would be to dial in your race car on race trim on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday then swap over to qualifying trim on Friday.

That’s because you get the added horsepower boost for Fast Friday which these levels stay around until the end of qualifying on Sunday. In turn, it wouldn’t do you any good to practice qualifying setups prior to Friday.

Plus, with cooler conditions on the first couple of days of practice, why risk getting a false sense of hope?

But, with the data available now and how important qualifying is for this race, teams can start preparing for Indy 500 qualifying earlier than Friday, even with different weather conditions. You can simulate how your car would handle with the added boost and try to find some clean air to go through some simulated runs during the week.

The problem is, the more you focus on qualifying, the less you’re focusing on your “race” car. But, the flip side is that the more that you’re focusing on your “race” car is the less of a shot you’re getting at finding qualifying trim.

How do you balance them?

We know that the race this year if you’re in the top three or four, you can pass. If you’re not, it’s tough. But, if you’re qualifying up front, you’re not guaranteed to stay there either. 

“I have a feeling that our qualifying car is already pretty good,” said Felix Rosenqvist. “I mean you never know. I think the race has become more of a qualifying race but looking on how its been easier to pass this year it might make it mix up a little bit more. You just have to be good in both. There’s no good for qualifying in the back and having a bad race car too.”

“I think we’ll have a good car. Overall it feels like a good starting package.”

His teammate Pato O’Ward agreed.

“We’ve been really working on our race car to be honest,” he told me on Wednesday morning. “I think you’ll see bigger numbers when you see the boost go up. We need to make our race car as good and comfortable as possible and then we can focus on qualifying. If you get to a point where the race car is always solid and strong, it just translates well over to the qualifying car.

“It’s still more important to have a good race car. Last year, I didn’t really qualify up front. I started 15th and we finished sixth because we had a good race car. There’s going to be a point in the race to where you’re going to get behind a 15 car train. Everyone’s car is going to feel like absolute trash but you just need to make your car feel the least trash.”

Helio Castroneves feels the same way. If you can dial in your race car, your qualifying speed usually comes with it. 

The thing is though, the teams that have been able to get a head start on qualifying sims have been the ones qualifying up front for this race too. With the last three winners coming from the front row, qualifying success is just as important here again.

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was a difficult race in terms of passing, hence the changes made between last year and this. 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 the 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.

So, with starting position being such a premium, how do you balance race setup and qualifying setup throughout the week then?

“I was actually surprised to see so many people doing qual sims today, which was very strange,” Dixon said on Wednesday evening. “So I don’t know. Yeah, the no tows, I don’t know, we were just in race runs all day today.”

Carpenter said he was surprised too because they were thinking that there was going to be a group, and everyone started doing Q sims instead. So, he felt like it was best to just wait until later in the afternoon to do their running. 

I mean, I get why some people may wonder why would you use a qualifying sim without the added boost levels yet? Those won’t come until Fast Friday.

With that said, you just can’t afford to leave any stone left unturned and it’s shown lately that if you wait until Fast Friday to test out your car on qualifying setups, then it’s far too late. 

“You know when you have one car it’s not an issue or two cars you can travel and pass, but when you’re behind five, six cars, it’s like, good luck,” Juan Pablo Montoya said.

“I think they improved the car, but if you look at the guys when you run in a pack, the top three guys, they can pass each other and you look really racy. You drop to sixth or seventh and you’re like praying for dear life.”

His former Team Penske teammate of Helio Castroneves said that the new flooring that they have with the bargeboard and strakes has changed a little bit of the feeling with the ride height.

“As we know, if you’re running behind people there’s a lot of turbulence,” said the three-time winner. The Andretti guys said that the changes did affect their speed between last year and this, but they also noted that they were so quick all month last year but it didn’t translate over well to race day success. So for their camp, they’re focusing more on race pace this week. 

“It is on one hand but on the other we still have over 30 hours of more practice here than anywhere else,” said James Hinchcliffe. “It’s all relative. It used to be two full weeks of practice, then eight days then six days, I mean no matter how much time you give engineers, they’ll find a way to fill it. I mean we went back to Texas a couple of years ago and got 10 minutes of warmup before the race and it was fine.”

Will Power agreed with them too but does say that you can still pass a little better though too. 

“Yeah, I think last year was evident if you didn’t start at the front you didn’t have a chance. It might be a little bit better this year.”

Felix Rosenqvist agreed with Power saying that he was pleasantly surprised from what he saw on opening day in the sense that the top two or three could really make moves up front of a pack too. 

Power also said that adding the new downforce is certainly going to help the racing still. The Team Penske driver says that he thinks that you’re going to have one of the old style races where the front three are just swapping positions constantly because you can follow so close now.

“I think they needed that after last year’s race and they added it all to the flow so that makes it much better in traffic,” Power continued.

Part of the reason the cars felt better too is that the weather was cooler the last couple of days. Temperatures this weekend will be in the upper 80s to even near 90. If the race it hot like that, the racing will be even more difficult to pass. 

So, does this give you a false sense of security with cooler conditions now?

“The weather has been so much colder than the race last year so I think that is the thing you need to watch out for when the temperatures start creeping up in the 90s, it’s always going to be different,” Felix Rosenqvist said.

Castroneves said that the data he gets helps in the sense that he’s with a new team. They need this data. They’ve both been here before but never together. 

At least with Penske, he could hop in and have comfort in knowing where everything is. They knew what he liked. MSR and Castroneves don’t have that history together, so even if the cooler conditions don’t help for data, it helps them learn each other. 

O’Ward said the cooler conditions the last two days in practice almost want to make you leave the car under a cover in Gasoline Alley. 

“It kind of makes you want to park the car because we’ve got a solid running car and the temp is what changes everything,” he said. “We saw last year on Carb Day that it was like this and nice but you get to the race and no one is passing because it’s just super greasy and tough. We’ve all created this one car for each driver that’s been worked on all year and the last thing you want to do is put it in risk.”

What about the heat in qualifying anyways? Wouldn’t that make things even more treacherous? O’Ward said it’s actually not. 

“I gotta say it’s actually more terrifying to be in traffic running than by yourself because you’d be surprise on how much downforce we lose when you’re in a 5-6 car train,” he said. “Then when the thing goes loose on you, there is no recovery and that wall approaches really fast. We need to be patient and I think that’s the key here. If you don’t have anything as good to be running as close, just pit. Don’t put yourself in any situation where it will bite you.”

Castroneves is on the same program even though he’s on a different team. A good race car usually translates well over to a good qualifying car. 

“My goal is to be as close to the front as possible,” he said. “The thought is to get a good balance in the car that’s because the foundation it’s going to create is going to be good in qualifying as well.”

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