NASHVILLE, Tenn — One practice session is in the books for the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network). While it’s hard to base much off of one session, the drivers once their teeth stopped chattering, say that Sunday’s race will be as physical as they come.
Friday’s 75 minute session proved that this weekend’s race is going to come down to the driver inside of the race car. These cars have all been around for a while and everyone has squeezed almost every last drop of speed in these cars that they can. With this weekend being the first time that the NTT IndyCar Series has visited the streets of Nashville, plus with how conditions are going to be both on the track and in the air, whomever can brave the 2.17-mile course the best will have the most success.
“Man, it’s violent,” said Pato O’Ward, after finding the wall early on in the session. “Going into Turn 4, the bumps are very violent. I mean, you’re going through there and the wheel is like getting knocked out of your hands. It’s very unique. It’s unlike any other place we go to, for sure.”
See, this track is bumpy. Street courses naturally are. But, this one is extreme. It’s as bad as they come and it’s causing teams to adjust how to setup these cars.
“I thought the bridge was going to be bumpy, but I didn’t expect coming off the bridge to be quite that bumpy,” Colton Herta said. “It could make it a little tricky if you’re braking for nine. Especially four it makes it tricky. I didn’t expect it to be quite like that.
“I’d say it’s even bumpier than Detroit, which we always say is the most difficult street course that we go to.”
Will Power agreed with him.
“Yeah, I think transition off the bridge is the toughest part,” said the Team Penske driver. “Going into four is really hard because it’s actually more of a curve in the track than it is going into nine.
“But, yeah, I think if they had a grinder on hand they could fix it pretty easy. Like I don’t even think it’s the seam, it’s before the seam. Don’t you reckon? It feels like it’s before that, some really bad one before it, then the transition isn’t that bad.
“Yeah, couple of big bumps. Worst one is probably going into turn four. If they could grind that down a little bit, it would be really nice. The track is cool, man. I really enjoyed it. Really typical street course, bumps and cambers of the road you got to deal with.”
In saying that, both drivers also say that it’s not necessarily a bad thing though. Having a rough track adds character too. It opens up passing opportunities in fact.
“It’s actually pretty interesting to follow people through there and see if people are staying out wide or cutting in, trying to avoid the bumps, just finding different lines,” Herta continued.
Power said that you can also use the bumps as passing zones too but you’ve got to be careful in doing so.
“Like you’ll kind of lift over that bump. Yeah, it does upset the car,” he continued. “I almost lost it there following someone. But we came in, we raised the ride height, it got better for us.
“It’s a fast corner. You actually flow a lot of speed through that corner. Like you don’t brake as long and as hard as you would like if you wanted to pass someone. Yeah, I think it will be a passing zone, but it’s faster than typical street course corner.
“They could almost add a curve further out if they wanted to create a bit of a passing zone. Yeah, a fun corner right now.
“Yeah, it’s the biggest bump on the track. Everywhere else pretty good, pretty good. Everywhere else is fine.”
Herta agreed. He said that Turns 4 and 9 are really the only two spots to pass on at the moment.
“The passing for this race could be interesting,” he said. “Obviously turn nine and four are going to be the spots that you see passing. Pretty much it.
“Yeah, you could sneak up the inside of this track. Obviously guys are going to be braking to the right and unloaded. If you can brake straight and get to the inside, you can get a good pass down there.”
Another factor in this that we’ve not really discussed yet is that it’s going to be really hot on Sunday. Temps are going to be pushing the mid 90s with high humidity. It’s already a sauna inside of these cars, but factor in a street course without much room for airflow or shade, it’s going to add to the physicality in the nature of the beast.
“Yeah, it’s definitely going to make a difference in and out of the cockpit,” Herta said of the heat on Sunday. “Obviously we know how hot it gets now with the aeroscreen. So it will be physical.”
Both Herta and Alex Palou say that due to the hotter temps, it could actually make the race better in the sense you’re going to not only get a lot of tire falloff, but you’re creating multiple pit strategies in the process too.
“But as far as what it does for the race, I’m really not too sure yet. Honestly, I didn’t even get a good feel of what tire deg is going to be like because of how good the track evolution was. I took my tires out a stint and they were hanging in there. But heat will kind of amplify all those problems we have with tire temp,” Herta continued.
“That will probably be the biggest thing if we do struggle for tire deg, holding onto tires. That’s going to be one thing that the heat is not going to help.”
“I think inside the car, yeah, it’s going to be warmer, more tough,” he said. “But as we’ve been having this season, I don’t think is been super, super bad. It’s been challenging, but I think it’s a good challenge.
“Yeah, about tire deg, we don’t know. I think we kept all the same time even with really bad tires because the track was getting better and we got more confidence. Yeah, we’ll see how the tire deg is.
“I think we’re going to have a good race. I think the tire deg is going to be good enough so we have different strategies going on.”
The main takeaway from Friday though was that this weekend is going to be one of attrition. The faster cars were the ones who looked the most out of control. That’s likely due to the ride heights. The quick cars were low to the ground which caused them to bounce around the track a lot more than others.
The ones that seemed more stable were found slower on the speed charts which isn’t a coincidence either. The thing is, the track is so narrow, track position is going to be key because there’s not much room to pass here.
“It’s tough here because you have to apex all the walls,” said Power of the narrowness to the track. “I touched my floor a couple times on apex in the tight sections, damaged it. Every time I went to the apex, Can’t get too greedy. You can get caught out.
“I actually like the corner. It’s a nice corner. You have to be careful because it’s not a curb you’re hitting, it’s an inside wall. As soon as you do that, it just throws you straight through.”
So, do you risk hitting a bump wrong and crashing but also having good track position or go more conservative knowing that if people take themselves out, you’re going to be there in the end?
“I feel like when you go to these street circuits that are bumpy and technical like this one is, it’s about having the least worst car,” Herta said. “It’s never going to handle nice, so you just kind of try to get it into an operating window where it’s better than everybody else’s.”