INDIANAPOLIS — When we think of the Indianapolis 500 and how drivers approach it, the most commonly thought thing is how they visualize the end of the race and what that dream must feel like to become a reality to taste immortality while drinking an iced cold glass of milk in victory lane following 200 Laps of high speed action. But, as the great Rick Mears once said, “to finish first, you first must finish.”
While everyone just assumed the drivers dream of the ending, it’s natural of course, they also constantly have their minds on the start of the race too. I mean, think about it — you qualify your car last Sunday, you know where you’re starting and to whom you’re starting around. You then have a whole week to think about it.
Most qualifying sessions for most races give you a day to go from setting the field to the race itself. Here at Indy, you have one week. Out of those 164 hours between the end of the Fast Nine last Sunday to the drop of the green flag this Sunday, a lot of them are geared towards getting the start right.
“I gotta say it’s quite strange that you do qualifying then you have to wait a full week before the race,” Marcus Ericsson said to me. “It makes it a bit strange. You’re sort of half inbetween thinking and not thinking about it. I watched quite a bit online this past week. You think about the car, how it’s driving, pit stops all those things.”
Helio Castroneves said that he goes as far as trying to practice in the Sunday practice and even on Carb Day with those guys around him at the start to do some impromptu scouting.
“Yes, for you to be in the end you first have to be there in the beginning,” said three-time winner Castroneves to me on Media Day on Thursday. “You just got to take a look, your opponents. I did some practice with them to see where they’re at and go from there. It’s easy to lose a race for one or two positions instead of being patient.
“You start looking at it and see variable situations that could appear to just prepare yourself so you know what to expect in that situation.”
The other guy to start in Row 3 on Sunday, Ryan Hunter-Reay, says that he more of less studies trends even though he knows that it’s hard to compare one year to the next.
“I’ll glance at some for reference, but every starts different,” said the 2014 winner. “You can see trends at different tracks. For Indy every start is different and you just got to go and try and tuck in a good spot in line and set about the rest of the stint. I’ll watch some of those for reference just in case a certain situation pops up that kind of spur of a moment there and this guy did that and successful passed.”
What about the guy one row behind Hunter-Reay? His teammate Alexander Rossi starts to the Inside of Row 4. He too puts a lot of prep in getting the start right, even though it rarely turns out how you envision it.
“I guess you kind of envision your preferred outcome and you look at previous years starts and see what’s working with other guys and what hasn’t worked and everything and try to have that a database to go from when you arrive in Turn 1, but you can simulate the scenarios as many times as you want in your mind but that’s not how it’s going to be,” said the 2016 winner. “If this perfect situation presents itself this is where I want to place my car so you’re ready for that.”
Their other teammate James Hinchcliffe says he goes back a few years to look at where the person was that started in his sport put their car on the opening lap, but he says not only do different circumstances happen, that car is rarely in the same position year over year.
“For sure,” he told me if he preps and visions the start of the race this past week. “You’ll look at the last 4-5 years on the start and you’ll look at where you’re starting on that pack and just watch that car and see what happens there, what happens in front of them, what happens behind them, what happens. It’s sort of helpful but the problem is, there’s just so many variables. You can look at at guy that’s starting 16th the last 4 years and I bet no more than once or twice will that guy be in the same position after Lap 1. It’s just so circumstantial. It’s good to see what happens in the middle there. I’ve been in the middle, I’ve been in the front, at the back, I have enough experience here on where we kind of need to be. It’s a long race, so the important thing at the start is not trying to do anything silly.
“You try to plan out if x happens, I’m going to y. You plan escape routes and that sort of stuff.”
Marco Andretti said it’s all about adapting. You have to be ready for anything. He said that he actually tries to talk to the guys in his row before the start of the race and let them know about the big picture. But, from where he’s starting, it’s also a good time to make up spots too.
Same for Will Power. He’s coming from the Last Row. It’s a risk vs. reward situation for him at the start of Sunday’s race.
“You can’t just hang back and try to let it come to you because there’s just too many positions to make up but at the same time, you can’t just throw it all away by making stupid moves. It’s just got to be really calculated moves,” he said.
See, INDYCAR races have had a trend lately and that’s first lap cautions. We’ve had three of them in five races run this season. That’s due to how hard it is to move your way up through the field anymore and while everyone is bunched up at the start, you have to go.
The thing is, all are shorter races than Indy too. Here, drivers are more patient.
Tony Kanaan says that he’s been doing this too long to study those around him or what he do. He’s seen it all and also knows that no matter how much you prep, something always changes.
“You try not to be silly,” he told me on Thursday. “It’s the first lap of a 500 mile race. If you have an opportunity to pass a car or two at the start, you do it.”
Kanaan, starts fifth. What about those joining him up front? It’s less chaos for them, but just how much do they push the issue though?
Rinus VeeKay starts third and said that he’s going to be conservative on the start. He knows how good of a car that he has and he doesn’t want to risk getting into trouble on the opening lap. His teammate Conor Daly isn’t starting in the top few rows but also mentions that his car is so good on towing up to cars and passing that he said he can afford to be conservative at the start and just pass those cars back again after. Why risk a crash defending when you can just pick them off one by one in the first stint.
Their other teammate Ed Carpenter said that he prepares a lot for the start and that he has a unique situation ahead this Sunday to help him further study.
“I probably watch too much to be honest,” Carpenter said of preparation for Sunday’s start of the race. “It’s one of those things where it never totally works out when you try to plan it in your head because you never know what everyone else is going to do or what curveballs may be out there. For the most part you just have to react to what happens in the moment. I still think it’s helpful to look back to see what different people have done and how people have approached the start but at the same time usually those plans go out the window.
“In my case Rinus started fourth last year so we look on his onboard to see what his start looked like.”
So we got the perspective of almost the entire top 10 and even those coming from mid pack and the end of the pack, but what about the top two?
“Not really,” Dixon said on how much he’s visualizing Sunday’s start of the race this week. “Starting at the front I’m not saying guarantees you a clean start but it gives you less problems. I think starting at the back, it definitely changes your approach. I think you definitely need to be more cautious. I think starting in the first few rows, it strings out pretty good. The downforce is good so there’s not dirty air and you’re less likely people in front of you or around you making mistakes as well. You try to visualize it as a very straight forward start like the past and hope that it stays true.
“I don’t think I’ll be in a fight to lead the first lap lets put it that way. I want to lead the last lap so I don’t want to hurt my chances by making a silly mistake early on.
“I think for Colton and VeeKay for that matter, kind of understand that it’s a long race and you don’t need to go for it early. I think having those two on the front row is great company to share it with.”
Herta, who starts between Dixon and VeeKay, says he’s also going to take the cautious approach.
“I don’t think it really matters when you’re up that far,” Herta told me. “I can still get passed by a few guys and still be in the top five. I’m not too worried. It’s fairly simple when you’re up that far because the aero drag and aero balance is similar to what you’d have in clean air. Obviously if you’re starting 20th you’re having to lift more and do things different because you’re car is reacting a different way that if you were in clean air. It’s sketchier at the start of the race. For me, it’s going to be pretty straightforward.”
I also asked Herta how much he studied last year’s start. Dixon, started second, the same spot as Herta this Sunday, he immediately went low off of Turn 4 on last year’s start to get a tow behind Marco Andretti and used that to pass Andretti for the lead heading into Turn 1. Would Herta return the favor to Dixon?
“I think there’s a good mix of both,” Herta said. “I don’t think I’ve ever led a lap here at Indy for the ‘500. It would be awesome in that sense if I had a chance. If I had the opportunity I’d love to lead a lap. As a whole, this race is a fuel race. You burn a lot more fuel when you’re leading.”
With saying all of this, I predict we won’t see any carnage on the opening lap unless someone’s car breaks loose on its own. The drivers are going to do a lot of give and take and settle in from there.