INDIANAPOLIS — While last Friday officially kicked off the Month of May action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tuesday was opening day of Indianapolis 500 activity. The days activities began at 10 a.m. ET for a two hour session for all the NTT IndyCar Series regulars as well all the drivers who’ve completed their rookie orientation/veteran refresher programs.
32 of the 35 drivers were eligible for that with only Jack Harvey and Dalton Kellett not making any laps. Harvey, had to change an engine which is the reason as to why he didn’t run.
Graham Rahal was fastest in that session with a speed of 223.449 mph in his No. 15 Honda. Rahal, enters this race fifth in points on the heels of four top 10 finishes in five races this season to go along with a third place run in this race last August.
Last year’s runner-up and current points leader Scott Dixon was P2 with a speed of 223.420 mph in his No. 9 Honda. Rookie Scott McLaughlin (222.836 mph), Juan Pablo Montoya (222.781 mph) and Ed Jones (222.700 mph) rounded out the top five in the abbreviated session that saw three yellows fly for weather conditions, the last coming at 11:45 a.m. ET. That ended that session 15 minutes early.
Jones being quick this session and not in the test was all due to them electing to run the road course car for last month’s open test instead of his superspeedway one.
Weather also delayed the start of the two hour rookie/veteran refresher program after. RC Enerson was the lone rookie while JR Hildebrand and Stefan Wilson had to complete their refreshers. Enerson had to do 10 laps at 205-210 mph for Phase 1, while all three had to do Phases 2 and 3 which were 15 laps at 210-215 mph (Phase 2) then 15 more laps at 215+ mph.
Among that trio, only Enerson hasn’t passed the phases yet. Hildebrand did his rather easily, while Wilson was seven laps shy before the end of the session to finishing his. He was still able to do the final seven laps in the all skate session a few minutes later and became the 34th driver Indy 500 eligible.
Enerson, had an oil leak and had to cut his day short after completing just 27 laps. He was through phases 1 before that happened.
In that final 120 minute session to close out the day, we saw the fastest speeds of the day ran. Will Power turned the fastest speed of the day, the second time in the last three years and third in the last seven that his No. 12 Chevrolet was sitting P1 at the end of the day on opening day of Indy 500 practice. The 2018 Indy 500 champion circled the 2.5-mile track with a speed of 226.470 mph in Happy Hour.
Power, said this is the best he’s felt here in the last few years and feels comfortable right now.
He bested Ryan Hunter-Reay who also set his quick time near the midway point of the final hour of practice. The 2014 Indy 500 champion turned in a speed of 226.371 mph in his No. 28 Honda.
Last years winner, Takuma Sato, was P3 at 226.132 mph in his No. 30 Honda as they were the only three to eclipse the 226 mph barrier on Tuesday.
Sage Karam (225.942 mph) and Conor Daly (225.640 mph) rounded out the top five.
The only issue occurring was Sebastien Bourdais had a fire on the right rear of his No. 14 Chevrolet at 4:45 p.m. ET. Luckily for him, it wasn’t engine related so they should be fine on that front.
While speeds didn’t mean a whole lot on Tuesday, an odd trend is that the guys quick on this day are typically quick when it comes to qualifying for the upcoming weekend. What makes this a little odd is that opening day through Thursday these cars are on race day boost levels. They don’t get the added qualifying boost until Friday. But, the top of the speed charts have been a direct correlation to qualifying still.
The top two qualifiers each of the last two years were second and third respectively on the opening day speed chart. In 2018, they were third and first respectively.
The eventual pole winner was in the top three of the opening day speed chart in six of the last eight years. The guy on the middle of the front row was in the top three in four straight years and five of the last eight too.
That’s great news for Power, Hunter-Reay and Sato.
Tall Task Ahead For Top Gun Racing
Top Gun Racing already had a tall task ahead of them in trying to be among the top 33 fastest cars here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month. They’re a new team in the NTT IndyCar Series. They’ve had no on track time other than a test at World Wide Technology Raceway a week or so ago. They missed the two day open test last month here and with a rookie driver making his first oval appearance in any series in over five years was going to be difficult.
First things first, they needed to pass rookie orientation. While they looked good early, they had their day cut short due to an oil leak while in the middle of the second of three phases. Now, they still need to do the rest of Phase 2 as well as complete 15 laps at 215+ mph before they’re even eligible to qualify for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
To cut the day short on Tuesday puts them another day behind schedule and that’s not good when they already entered behind everyone else.
They’ll get an hour to themselves on Wednesday morning from 11 a.m. until noon to finish their second phase as well as the third. If it rains during that time frame, they’ll get to finish when practice wraps up for the day on Wednesday evening, but if that’s the case, it puts them behind another full day.
Good To See Karam In The Top 5
No disrespect to Sage Karam and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, but I think most people thought that they’d maybe be among the few drivers going for the final couple of spots into the field of 33 this weekend. See, Karam narrowly made it in the field during the final row shootout in 2019. He’d start 31st. Last year, he would qualify only 31st again.
Now, DRR is a single car team. Without a teammate to bounce ideas off of if he needs to gain speed, it all falls on the shoulders of Karam. So, for them to come out on opening day and put his No. 24 Chevrolet in the top five was eye opening.
Cars Can Pass Up Front
Will Power said that the changes the series made to the cars between last year and this will certainly help the show on May 30. Power, says that it’s going to be a thrilling race to where the guys in the top three could pass rather easily.
“I think adding that downforce is certainly going to help the racing,” said the Team Penske driver. “I think 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, yeah, it’s good for the fans.
“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. Yeah, so far it feels really good.”
But, Juan Pablo Montoya and others warned that while it may be easier to pass up front, it still will be difficult to do so from fifth on back.
Takuma Sato agreed. He says that this once again could be a track position race next weekend.
As to the reason why? Montoya put it bluntly, “the aeroscreen.”
The safety device adds extra weight to the top of the car which in turn makes it hard to handle in dirty air. That was the common denominator last year in which the drivers said the Aeroscreen would make it tough to pass on race day. INDYCAR made changes and it seems like it will pay off up front, but it also sounds like qualifying will be very important still this weekend too.
“It looks like the forecast is going to get hotter this week and next week, so that’s going to make it even harder,” said Montoya. “I don’t know, they say that it’s better now with the new improved aero kit and everything to follow people, but I still find it pretty difficult to be honest.
“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.
“I think they improved the car, but if you look at the guys when you run in a pack, the top three guys, as Will said earlier, they can pass each other and you look really racy. You drop to sixth or seventh and you’re like praying for dear life.”
Power chimed in saying, “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.”
Conditions Tuesday May Be Irrelevant Later
Tuesday’s track conditions were ideal. Low wind, cloud cover and low to mid 70s. That’s why most of these cars felt really good on opening day. They had the right amount of downforce levels and the conditions helped to add more grip on top of that.
But, as the forecast heats up as the week goes on, these drivers said on Tuesday that opening day could give you a false sense of hope.
“I think cooler conditions can make everything feel pretty good,” Power said on Tuesday. “I think when the heat comes it’ll certainly change everything and become harder to follow.”
What you learned today is basically all for not unless race day happens to be similar.
“Yeah, I think you have to look at the forecast and kind of keep things in perspective,” Hunter-Reay said. “On a day like this you kind of put that in the notebook as, okay, we can pull this back out if conditions are similar to this two weeks out from now when we go racing, or a week and a half, whatever it is. But it looks very much like this weekend where what we did today is going to have nothing to do with qualifying and the grip that we’re going to lose coming up.
“When the track temp gets up over about 110, 115, things go upside down in a hurry and you’ve got to start looking for grip that you may not find. Yeah, these conditions are pretty fat today.”
Honda vs. Chevy Appears To Be Even Right Now
I know it’s only one day, but after Honda put a drubbing on Chevrolet last year and Chevy doing the same to Honda the two years prior, it appears that right now, the two manufacturers are pretty even. There were 2 Honda’s and 2 Chevy’s in the top four of the speed charts on Tuesday. Go back to the top 10, it was an even 5-5 split. Go back to the top 12, it was 6-6. Does that bode well for the rest of the week?
“Yeah, no, not really,” said Power. “I think they’re pretty even just based on today. If you’re following Honda, they’re a little better if they checked up to get up to speed. But yeah, we won’t know until qualifying. Obviously that’s a different boost level. Then again, Carb Day is a race engine. I think it’s all so close now that it’s almost coming down to how you prepare the car.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay said to Power though, “we had the same opinion about you guys. We thought the Chevys got up a little bit better.”
Parity Up Front
We’ve had five races and five different winners from four different teams so far this season. We’ve also had five different pole sitters too. Last Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix saw five different teams represented in the top five of the finishing order. So, how would opening day go?
We saw Penske-Andretti-Rahal-DRR-ECR in the top five of the overall speed chart. Throw in Pato O’Ward (McLaren/Schmidt) in seventh, Scott Dixon (Ganassi) in eighth and Ed Jones (Coyne) in ninth and you get eight different teams in the top nine on opening day.
Daly Quick On Trap Charts
Conor Daly was fifth on the overall speed chart, but when you look at the trap speeds, the Ed Carpenter Racing driver was near the top in almost every sector. He was third on the no tow list. He was fastest in Turn 1, Turn 2 and at the start/finish line. He was also second in Turn 3 and fifth in Turn 4. With that kind of speed and how good he looked in the open test, watch out for Daly this month.
1st On Track On Opening Day Curse?
Takuma Sato passed Scott Dixon late in last year’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 to win his second ‘500 in four years. Now, if he wants to become the first back-to-back winner since Helio Castroneves nearly two decades ago, he has to hope to buck a trend.
Sato, was scored as the first official car on track on Tuesday. While that’s a nice feat, it’s one that hasn’t been kind to these drivers over the season.
Since 1984, no first driver on track to start the month of oval action has ever won the Indianapolis 500. Can Sato become the first?
The last two years that driver did finish in the top five and going back to 2012, they’ve had seven top seven results in the last nine years. That’s good, but Sato is after a win.
Josef Newgarden was the first on track the last couple of years sand he finished fourth and fifth respectively.
The first on track has won two poles though, one coming in 2010 with Helio Castroneves and the other in 2012 with Ryan Briscoe.
1st on Track Trends:
2021 – Takuma Sato ??
2020 – Josef Newgarden: started 13th, finished 5th
2019 – Josef Newgarden: started 8th, finished 4th
2018 – Jack Harvey: started 31st, finished 16th
2017 – JR Hildebrand: started 6th, finished 16th
2016 – Ed Carpenter: started 20th, finished 31st
2015 – Helio Castroneves: started 5th, finished 7th
2014 – Helio Castroneves: started 4th, finished 2nd
2013 – Helio Castroneves: started 8th, finished 6th
2012 – Ryan Briscoe: started 1st, finished 5th
2011 – Helio Castroneves: started 16th, finished 17th
2010 – Helio Castroneves: started 1st, finished 9th
2009 – Robert Doonbos: started 23rd, finished 28th
2008 – Will Power: started 23rd, finished 13th
2007 – Jacques Lazier: started 28th, finished 27th
2006 – Marco Andretti: started 9th, finished 2nd
2005 – Danica Patrick: started 4th, finished 4th
2004 – Sarah Fisher: started 19th, finished 24th
2003 – Felipe Giaffone: started 16th, finished 33rd
2002 – Billy Boat: started 23rd, finished 18th
2001 – Stephan Gregoire – started 29th, finished 28th
2000 – Stephan Gregoire – started 20th, finished 7th
1999 – Stephan Gregoire: – DNQ
1998 – Mike Groff: started 32nd, finished 15th
1997 – Jack Miller: started 17th, finished 20th
1996 – Michele Alboreto: started 12th, finished 30th
1995 – Eliseo Salazar: started 24th, finished 4th
1994 – Raul Boesel: started 2nd, finished 21st
1993 – Jimmy Vasser: started 19th, finished 13th
1992 – Scott Brayton: started 7th, finished 22nd
1991 – Scott Brayton: started 19th, finished 17th
1990 – Tero Palmroth: started 16th, finished 12th
1989 – Arie Luyendyk: started 15th, finished 21st
1988 – Raul Boesel: started 7th, finished 20th
1987 – Ludwig Heimrath Jr.: started 10th, finished 30th
1986 – Chip Ganassi: started 26th, finished 25th
1985 – Dick Simon: started 26th, finished 25th
1984 – Dick Simon: started 26th, finished 14th