INDIANAPOLIS — It’s only Day 2 but drivers and teams were already working on qualifying setups here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It started early in the day too with some drivers taking advantage of a clean track to sneak in some extra data.
But, the days’ quickest laps occurred in or near Happy Hour again with Scott Dixon setting the month’s fastest speed late in the day with a lap of 226.829 mph in his No. 9 Honda. Dixon, was eighth overall on Tuesday and actually notes that his car felt better on Tuesday than it did on his fastest lap of the day turned on Wednesday afternoon.
“Yesterday felt more comfortable than today to be honest,” said the six-time series champion. “I think track conditions were definitely different. Wind direction changes this track, as always.”
Dixon, had some familiar company up front from his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates. All four of them were in the top eight on the speed chart with Marcus Ericsson (226.007 mph) in fourth, Tony Kanaan (225.774 mph) in fifth and Alex Palou (225.302 mph) in eighth.
“I think our cars definitely have good speed, all four in the top 8 there, which is good to see,” Dixon continued.”
Right now, they look like the clear leaders out of the clubhouse from the Honda camp. The Andretti boys are surprisingly struggling with their top driver on Wednesday being Marco Andretti in 10th. Last year, Andretti put five cars in the top 10 of the starting lineup. This year, Andretti notes that they’ll all qualify midpack at this point if they continue down this path.
But, it is still early which is why even with four Ganassi’s and two Ed Carpenter Racing cars in the top eight, they say that the speed chart is really irrelevant right now.
“I mean, the speed charts don’t necessarily mean a ton. Those are more representative of just getting a bunch of cars in front of you with the right gap and putting up a time. The majority of the running we’re doing, working in traffic, they’re 2:17s.
“I mean, it’s nice for the team, depending on the time sheets. But I think more importantly we’re all feeling pretty good and making progress with the cars,” said Ed Carpenter who turned the days’ third quickest lap at 226.103 mph. “Soon we’ll find out what we have for speed, too.”
“It’s just by circumstance sometimes, but it is nice to have speed,” he said. “I’d rather be knocking out a lot of quick times at ease than being down on the bottom and scraping the barrel. I think our cars in the past have had decent speed in race-winning configurations, but as Ed sort of commented on, it doesn’t really do you much good in the race. You need to be able to stay close, be able to move through the pack if you have any upsets or mistakes or if you even start a little further back at the initial start of the race. So yeah, it’s definitely all about making sure you can stay close.”
The two drivers were still somewhat surprised drivers were jumping on qualifying setups so early though.
“I was actually surprised to see so many people doing qual sims today, which was very strange,” Dixon said. “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.
Just past the 4 p.m. ET hour, Carpenter jump to near the top of the board with his lap. His teammate Conor Daly set the quick time with a speed of 226.829 mph in his No. 47 Chevrolet at that moment as well. It was later bested by Dixon, but Daly looks the part of a legitimate contender with him being fifth on the charts on Tuesday.
But, the story of the day comes back to qual sims and why some were doing it. I talked to several drivers about that before practice.
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.
Starting position really matters here again. The last three winners all started on the front row. This year’s race will likely be similar to the ones in recent years where it matters from where you are starting the race from again.
“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.
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.
Rosenqvist also noted that the changes you make to the car are still going to be the same in the heat. Even if the conditions are different now, it’s good to know what works and what doesn’t. If it doesn’t work well now, then you just cross it off the list.
Plus, the Arrow McLaren SP theory is different than the others. They won’t attempt qualifying setups yet. They know that they need to get their race cars dialed in first.
“I have a feeling that our qualifying car is already pretty good,” said 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.”
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.”
The series is back on track on Thursday from 12-6 p.m. ET with this being the final full day of practice before qualifying with them on the usual race boost levels.
RC Enerson passed his rookie orientation on Wednesday but they didn’t turn a single lap after. They look to be in real trouble with only having turned 27 laps on Tuesday and needed an hour to kick off the day to themselves to get through the final phase in-a-half. They then had six hours to turn the car from a ROP setup to a normal practice setup but they didn’t get done in enough time.
While it’s hard to pinpoint on if Andretti and Penske are really just off of if they’re working on a different program, their absence on the top of the speed charts so far has been noticeable.