The NTT IndyCar Series returns to the streets of Belle Isle this weekend for the first time since 2019. With that said, it’s going to be a very busy weekend in Detroit with not only INDYCAR taking to the 2.35-mile course, but also Indy Lights and IMSA as well. With a condensed weekend and a doubleheader still on tap, that doesn’t give the drivers and teams a lot of track time. It’s already a crowded paddock, let alone a very tight schedule.
So, these drivers have just one practice session on Friday to get up to speed. One short session at that. On Saturday, they’ll qualify at 11 a.m. ET, then race at 2 p.m. ET. They’ll qualify and race again on Sunday too.
So, for that one session, you don’t have much time to get everything right. You have to figure out your cars’ balance on not only the Firestone primaries, but the alternates too. Then, you have to decipher through qualifying and race setups as well and do so all in one session.
“I think there will be some elements that might be surprising,” Conor Daly said on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve only got one practice. Everyone’s going to be thrashing, absolutely thrashing in that first practice because you got to run the primaries, you got to run the red tires. We’re going to be all over the map on trying to get setup information for not only qualifying but our race setup as well. It’s going to be very, very hectic.”
Daly for one, said that he’s trying to get used to his car at ECR. They’ve made vast improvements between 2020 and 2021, but one thing that he says that they’re struggling with is getting his car dialed in on full fuel load runs. That’s hard to get right when you only get one practice session this weekend. You can’t do too long of a run because you’re neglecting qualifying setups. You’re also neglecting the other option of tires and neglecting the sense that if you need to make changes, the longer you’re on the track, the shorter the time to make changes and to get back out and see if they worked.
“Yeah, for me, it has been the difference in the balance between the car on the primary tire to the red tire. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to narrow that gap between how the car feels when we change tires and race pace,” Daly said on some of the challenges he’s facing with the car.
“I think race pace-wise our car on heavy fuel has been a challenge for me. I think we’ve been narrowing that gap. I think we’ve been getting better in race pace conditions.
“But, yeah, the car does a lot of things. Instead of just one problem, there’s three problems handling-wise. As a driver, it becomes difficult. There’s a lot of information coming in when you go through the entry phase of the corner, the center of the corner, the exit of the corner. Instead of having one problem, we have apex understeer, you could be loose in, apex understeer, loose off. You’re like, Well, all right, we got a lot of things to fix.
“It’s a matter of just narrowing things down and finding a better window of operation. The car has a very narrow window right now. I think we see that a lot. The entire field is within 8/10ths of a second. That narrow window it’s like 2/10ths or 3/10ths of a second. If you’re on the right side of those two 10ths, that’s the goal.
“Yeah, it’s just been tough for us to kind of narrow that window down but I think we’re definitely getting there.”
That’s the challenging part. How do you get there without any testing and just very minimal practice sessions?
The other wrinkle to this is the last time we were in Belle Isle, we didn’t have an Aeroscreen. Now we do. We’ve seen how much the safety device has changed setups due to the added weight to the front of the car. So, that makes practice even more important because a lot of your old notes and setups may not translate well over to this weekend and you need to fill a new notebook up.
“Yeah, it’s a street circuit so it’s ever evolving for the weekend, and how much rubber is down, how much INDYCAR Firestone rubber is down, but 2018 we finished second and first respectively in the two races, and we though we had Detroit figured out. We came back the next year, and Firestone made a little bit of a tire compound change, a little bit of a construction change, and all of a sudden we were on the outside looking in, trying to figure out how to get back in the top three,” Ryan Hunter-Reay told me.
“So it’s always a moving target. With as competitive as the series is, you miss just a little bit of mechanical grip here and there and you’re struggling to put it in the top 10. Yeah, it’s going to be crucial, like I said before. Every lap is pretty valuable, and as you’re going, it’s going to be constantly gaining grip and changing.
“It’ll be a tough weekend, no doubt, in that regard.”
Alex Palou, a driver who’s never been to Belle Isle before agrees, especially in the sense that he’s facing a grid penalty too.
“Well, if I would have three free practices like they used to have before, I would be happier, I guess, learning a new track on a street course and still trying to get myself to the limit and then get the car to the limit,” he told me on Wednesday morning. “But it is what it is. It’s going to be all right. I think it’s going to be tough the first qualifying because, as Ryan said, it’s so competitive, it’s so close that when you are not at 100 percent and you are not 100 percent confident with the car, you lose one or two tenths and that can give you a P5 or a P15.
“We also have a grid penalty, I think, for the first race, so that’s going to make our stuff really hard, but yeah, we’ll try and have some clean and good strategies, and we’ll be up there by the end of the race.”
I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot more questions than answers heading into both races this weekend by virtue of all of this.