INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix (12 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Will Road America Be A Precursor Of What’s Left Ahead?

Natural road courses have become a big part of the NTT IndyCar Series schedule. They’re the portion that makes up the most races. We have one short oval, two superspeedway’s (3 races with Texas doubleheader), three street courses (5 races with Belle Isle doubleheader) and six natural road courses (Barber, IMS twice, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca that span seven races. With that said, we’re already eight races into the season but have only had two of them on these types of tracks.

That means five of the final eight races to the finish are all on them starting with this weekend’s REV Group Grand Prix at Road America. Furthermore, three of the next four races in general are on them with Road America, Mid-Ohio and the IMS road course back in August. How you fare on them will make or break your championship hopes moving forward.

But, with a week between Road America and Mid-Ohio, over a month from Mid-Ohio to Indy for a second road course race and another month until Portland, development on these circuits are key. Does that make them even tougher to win on?

“For me I think, and for our team, you’re always learning,” Scott Dixon told me. “So, yeah, absolutely. You’re applying no matter what. I think there’s a testing window that opens up during that period. A lot of team should say have at least one test in that off time.

“It’s a bit of a bummer we have so many weeks off obviously with the loss of Toronto and the natural break for the Olympics and NBC. So, yeah, we’ll be missing racing for that period of time.

“But, yeah, whatever you learn each weekend, what we learned from Detroit last weekend, some things will apply to this weekend at Elkhart even though it’s a different style of track and a lot of things are different.

“Yeah, always trying to evolve.”

Simon Pagenaud agrees.

“Yeah, we’ve made massive improvement since 2020 with the same car really,” he said. “Now we’re just honing what we really like with this car. Every weekend, since we don’t have much testing, we’re applying evolution toward the next weekend. So I feel we feel stronger and stronger every weekend. I felt really strong in race two in Detroit, better than Detroit one. I think that’s going to help us certainly even for Road America, certainly going into Mid-Ohio. Definitely going to help us for Nashville, as well.

“You’re always looking forward, always looking at tracks that may be similar. But even if they’re not, there’s always something you can take out of it, for sure.”

Is Landing Setup Off The Truck Key?

One thing that COVID has exposed in the racing world is just how important it is to show up to a race weekend nowadays and have your car already dialed in. See, we have fewer and shorter practice sessions are our disposal anymore. Take this weekend for instance. There’s three 45 minute practice sessions, then qualifying on Saturday. On Sunday, we race.

That’s not much time to chase a bad handling race car. In fact, if you show up without a good car, you’re pretty much stopped instantly in terms of wanting a race win.

45 minutes isn’t a lot of time to dial your car in anyways. Then, to only have a short period of length to make changes after, what happens if you still don’t have it right? I mean, you’re guessing at that point heading into qualifying and as the stat above shows, you have to land it right in qualifying now too.

So, how crucial is showing up prepared and having a race winning car off the truck?

“I think we’re seeing where you need everything to go your way on a day to make it possible, then a close miss you’re back a lot further than what you would have been in the past,” Dixon said.

“I don’t know. I feel like the teams are very tight right now. Some have the upper hand in different situations, so it makes the whole weekend very difficult. There was always an emphasis on qualifying, but then you would typically be able to rebound in the race just because maybe you knew how to handle thing strategy-wise where that’s much more even across the board now.

“Yeah, gone are the days of small teams. There’s no small teams. All big well-funded teams. I think we’ve seen that come to the forefront. The manufacturers, the engine formula right now is very mature and very close. Both of them do things differently and do them well.

“Yeah, I think a lot of it’s just the parity. To try to get everything right on one day is difficult, as Simon alluded to.

“There’s an influx of drivers coming in that are on their second, third or fourth years. Sometimes it takes that time to get right.”

Pagenaud echoed what Dixon said.

“I would totally mirror what Scott said. Also I would add that the simulator work helps young drivers these day,” said the Penske driver. “I know when I came into INDYCAR, there weren’t eight simulator that I could be ready for practice one on any tracks. Now it’s totally different.

“You take a guy like VeeKay, showed up at Detroit, was on simulator the day before. He had never been there. He was right on pace.

“You have to think about that new technology that’s really helping young drivers get ready at a younger age. I tell you what, I wish I had the chance to work like that. Even my simulator at home helps me today. It would have helped me a lot 20 years ago, but it didn’t exist. It’s just a generation thing. If I was 20 today, I would be a different driver, that’s for sure.

“I think that made every driver a lot closer to each other. The cars are very close to each other because the teams have had a lot of time to work on that package. We all know the tracks very well. It’s just super, super tight.

“Yeah, at the end of the day it depends how the whole weekend aligned for you.”

How much work goes into preparation leading into a race to ensure that car is already a race winning contender?

“Yeah, that definitely helps if you can rollout and be in the top three in the first practice, it definitely makes your weekend a lot easier than, say, you’re having an issue your missing part of the practice,” Dixon told me.

“It will be interesting to see how that evolves going into next year, too, whether we get back to more of a normal three-day event weekend. I think some of the ovals, it’s kind of pretty easy to do the one-day or a two-day situation. Some of the road courses, it’s tough. You go to some of these events now, you’re only doing Saturday, Sunday, even though cars are on track Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

“It is what it is. I think it’s slightly changed the formula a little bit. Yeah, you definitely have to make sure that the sim days go well. You research and make sure that you’re definitely set once you get to track. You just hope you don’t have some of these small errors that can take you out of a practice time because track time is definitely very important.”

Pagenaud agreed again.

“That’s a great point because with less practice, especially Detroit for example, you can’t make big changes because the driver and the machine is everything for lap time,” he told me. “Even though you need a car that handles well, the driver, for him to squeeze some time out of it, the less changes the better. That’s my opinion.

“We’re finding that we make small changes, changes that you know exactly what they’re going to do so you can be competitive in the next session and not have to relearn the behavior of the car. That’s really what I find is happening with these shorter weekends.

“So, yeah, you need to unload well. Sometimes I tell you you have to agree with the fact that it’s not perfect, just squeeze the best out of it. That’s probably why a top five is so important right now. If the car is not perfect, you have to be satisfied with it no matter what.”

Will The Race Be Won On Saturday?

Qualifying in an NTT IndyCar Series race has been a great precursor for who wins the actual races a day later.

The top four starters won 9 of the 14 races run last year including 8 of the final 9. They’re 4-for-8 already this season too. Furthermore, 12 of the 14 races last year saw the winner come from a top 10 starting position including 6 of the 8 this season. That comes after all 17 races in 2019 having a top 10 starter win as well as the 2018 season finale.

38 of the last 41 races saw the eventual race winner come from a top 10 starting spot. Simon Pagenaud (23rd) last July in Iowa and both races last week in Belle Isle are the only exceptions since the 2018 season finale.

See how qualifying makes or breaks race winning chances. I mean, if you don’t make it out of the first round, you basically have no shot at victory. Then, on natural road courses, you really need to make it to the Fast Six.

Starting positions for natural road courses lately (since 2016) 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 7th, 1st, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 20th, 1st, 4th, 1st, 8th, 2nd, 8th, 2nd, 1st, 7th, 9th, 7th, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 1st and 7th. That’s 31 of the last 33 coming from the top 10 including 18 from the pole and 25 of 32 (75%) from the Fast 6.

That further proves that you have to get into the Fast Six to give yourself any shot on Sunday. I mean at Road America, all six races were won from a top 10 starter including four of which from the top five. In fact, three of those four top five starters came from the front row at that.

Mix all of this together and you can see why it’s imperative to qualify up front this weekend.

Who Wins 1st Between Newgarden, Rossi, Rahal or Hunter-Reay? Has Andretti Lost A Step Contributing To This?

It’s hard to believe but we’re eight races into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season and we’ve had seven different winners. What makes this even harder to believe is that at this point, none of those seven are named Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal or Ryan Hunter-Reay. Among the four, which of those talented Americans wins first?

On the surface you may say Newgarden. The other three are riding long winless droughts and Newgarden has been close with three runner-ups alone this season. But, the next few tracks are really good ones for Rossi, Rahal and Hunter-Reay.

Newgarden, is a past winner at both tracks coming up and we head to his home race in Nashville after for an inaugural street course event. Then, it’s back to Indy on the road course again to where he won at last year followed by World Wide Technology Raceway to where he won there a year ago too. He’s won eight times since the other three last did.

The easy answer is Newgarden. But, the others are due and look at what they’ve done at these upcoming tracks too.

Rahal is riding a 65 race winless streak coming into this weekend. He’s not won since sweeping both races at Belle Isle in 2017. Hunter-Reay is riding a 39 race winless streak that spans to the start of the 2019 season. He’s won just once since his win at Belle Isle in 2018. Alexander Rossi is riding a 29 race winless drought. His last win came on this very track in 2019.

For Rahal, he should have scored a top seven finish in every race run this season. In Road America he has a top eight in his last five starts. Then, it’s to Mid-Ohio, his home race, to where he’s had eight straight top 10 finishes including six of which in the top five. If he’s going to win, this is going to be the stretch.

In Hunter-Reay’s case, he has three top four finishes in his last five tries at Road America followed by three straight top fives at Mid-Ohio including five straight top eight’s and eight top 10’s in his last nine tries.

Finally for Rossi, he has two podiums in his last three Road America starts including a win in 2019. In Mid-Ohio he has five straight top six results including three podiums in his last four tries. The thing with these four are, can luck change for them.

Rahal and Rossi had a run-in while battling for a top five spot in St. Pete. Rahal’s left rear tire literally came off following a Lap 118 pit stop in the Indy 500 while running well inside of the top five.

Rossi, was also collected in an opening lap crash in Texas 2, was caught out by a wrong pit strategy in Barber, was hurt by the Lap 25 caution while leading his group on his strategy in race 1 last Saturday in Belle Isle only to get front wing damage while running in the top five last Sunday in the second race at Belle Isle.

Newgarden, was affected by pit strategy in last Sunday’s race at Belle Isle too.

For Hunter-Reay, he was collected in an opening lap crash at Barber with Newgarden. He had a brake problem heading to pit road while running in the top five for the final stop in the Indy 500. He got into the wall early on in Saturday’s race in Belle Isle and then had to conserve fuel for the Sunday race.

See how any one of those factors for just this season could go differently for them and maybe they’ve be in victory lane instead? That’s why when some say Andretti has lost a step, I caution if they really did or is it just circumstances and timing? The only Andretti wins since the start of last season have come by Colton Herta.  While none of us are inside of those walls on the west side of Indianapolis, Hunter-Reay points to what Herta is doing for the team shows that maybe it’s not.

“I don’t think so,” Hunter-Reay said last week on if Andretti is struggling right now. “I mean, Colton just won at St. Pete, right, but yeah, last year was not a good year for us as a whole, and for the whole team points-wise, and then you look at this year again, we’re struggling to keep cars in the top 10 at the moment,” he said on that.”

He’s excited for the second half of the season now and what they can do from here on.

“Yeah, it’s not coming easy, but the second half of the schedule I think suits Andretti’s strong suits. Hopefully that will go that way. It was unfortunate to see Toronto drop off the schedule, but then again, maybe a double at Mid-Ohio will be a better compromise for us.

“We’re looking forward to the second half of it.”

“Yeah, I think the second half of the season the races that are coming up are usually our stronger races,” he told me.

In terms of where he sits in the points, is the rest of the year more about finding momentum or is it swinging for the fences in going for wins? The first two goals of every season is an Indy 500 win and a season championship. He obviously didn’t win the ‘500 and a championship seems far out of reach. So, what are the goals moving forward? Do they get adjusted?

“Now that the 500 is gone, it’s just all about posting results,” he continued to me. “We want to get back into the winner’s circle. We want to post some wins, obviously. Our last win was 2018 Sonoma, so with the abbreviated season last year and no street course racing, we’re really looking forward to this opportunity.  Like I said, it’s an opportunity awaiting us.”

Is Arrow McLaren Having An Advantage On Restarts?

The drivers are noticing a trend, the Arrow McLaren SP cars just shoot out of a rocket on restarts. Pato O’Ward went from sixth to fifth on the restart with 12 laps remaining in last Sunday’s race. Then, a caution came out. On the next restart, O’Ward looked like he had a rocket strapped to the back of his No. 5 Chevrolet as he did the same move on Graham Rahal entering Turn 1 as he did the restart prior to Scott Dixon. Then, two corners later, he passed Alex Palou for third.

The race was his. But, it also is allowing for the other bigger teams to take notice and make adjustments themselves.

“I think it’s basically what we’ve been seeing all year, that they were able to switch the tires on in one lap, and that’s why they get so many poles — well, he got two, and he’s always up there on qualifying,” said third place finisher Alex Palou on O’Ward. “But that’s also why he had to do an extra stop in Indy road course, in St. Pete. There’s a compromise, right? It worked really good this weekend, and we need to find that compromise, but we think we know what it is now. Not before but now. So we’re going to try, and if we can get that right, it’s going to be really fun.”

O’Ward just calls it fast hands on the restart and the need to be aggressive at that point.

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