NASHVILLE, Tenn — Colton Herta topped the speed charts in Friday afternoon’s NTT IndyCar Series practice opening practice session on the streets of Nashville. The Andretti Autosport driver circled the 2.17-mile circuit with a time of 1:16.5875-seconds in his No. 26 Honda. The lap time didn’t come easy though. Herta, bounced his Dallara around the track as this weekend is shaping up to be one of the more physical ones of the year.
Herta, said that the track is as bumpy if not more than Belle Isle which is saying something. Belle Isle is considered one of the bumpiest race tracks in the world and if this one if already this way, it’s going to make Sunday’s race miserable for these teams and drivers.
“I thought the bridge was going to be bumpy, but I didn’t expect coming off the bridge to be quite that bumpy,” 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.
“But it’s not a negative thing. I think it adds character to the track. 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.”
Will Power agreed. He even lobbied to maybe grind some parts of the track down too.
“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.
“Yeah, it was fun. Fun, apart from the coming off the bridge heading into the city. That’s a bit sketchy with the bumps. That one big bump, that’s it, the rest are pretty good.”
Power said that you can also use the bumps as passing zones too but you’ve got to be careful in doing so. Turns 4 and 9 is the best place to do so at if you dare try.
“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.”
“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.”
Herta, has qualified second in each of the last three races including four of the last five in general. He’s had a front row starting spot in exactly half of the races run this season too. By being this quick this early, he could have a say in things on Saturday as he won the pole as well as dominated the race on another street course at St. Pete this past April.
“Obviously you can look into it somewhat,” Herta said on what he can take away from his practice time. “Like we have an idea of what — I think everybody has an idea of what adding to the rubber track down is going to do to the balance at this point with these cars. I don’t think this track’s going to be any different. So we kind of know the direction that we need to go. You can take a lot away from it.
“Obviously driving-wise you can take away what lines and where you’re braking, traction, which I was struggling a lot with. So, yeah, there’s quite a few things that you can kind of take away, but also a few things that will tell you what you want to do for the next session and what you can expect the track to do, as well.
“It’s still changing. What we rolled off the truck with was pretty good.
“I feel confident. I think we could have won Detroit, and we started second there. I think most of the times we qualify on pole because we have the best car. If you’ve got the best car, you should win. That makes sense why we win from pole.
“If we qualify from fifth back, obviously we’re struggling a little bit more with the car. It makes it a little bit more difficult. We need a little bit more help.
“So, yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the race cars or qualifying cars. I just think some places we struggle. It’s the same with every team. We need to get better at those places.”
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.”
See, the other factor 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.
“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.”
Scott Dixon (1:16.9653-seconds) was P2 in his No. 9 Honda while rookie Romain Grosjean (1:17.1305-seconds) was third.
Dixon, has a good opportunity ahead of him in the sense that the top two drivers in the points standings had things not go their ways on Friday. Points leader Alex Palou was sixth quick, but Dixon’s teammate also found out that he will have to serve a six spot grid penalty after qualifying on Saturday due to an engine change. As an example, if he qualifies sixth on Saturday, he’ll have to start 12th.
“Yeah, I don’t like penalties,” said the Spaniard. “We knew we had this penalty already since the season even started. We got it on my first test, second test with Chip Ganassi Racing. That was way before the first race of the season. They told me, You’re going to have a penalty.
“I was like, What? We didn’t even started the season.
“One of those rules that I think they will adopt and change in the future, I hope at least, because I don’t think it makes a lot of sense that you blow up an engine on winter testing and suddenly you are with a penalty in the season. It is what it is. Nothing we can do now. Nothing the team could have done before.
“It is what it is. We just have to recover those six places that we’re going to have. I think maybe this being a street course, street racing, it’s always a bit more crazy with the strategies, tire deg and overtakes.
“Being the first time here in Nashville, we don’t know how the reds or the blacks are going to play out. I think it’s a good place to take a penalty. But, yeah, nothing we can do, so…”
Then, second in points, Pato O’Ward, crashed his No. 5 Chevrolet very early in Friday’s session as he hit the inside of the wall in Turn 3 which then shot his car back to the outside concrete barrier. He only turned seven laps on the day as a result of that and goes into Saturday’s 45 minute practice session way behind the others.
Dixon, enters third in points (-56) but if Palou and O’Ward struggle to finish inside the top five, the chance is there for the taking. Dixon, has two Fast Six appearance in his last three starts on the season including six top six starting spots overall in 10 races this season.
Plus, fourth in points, Josef Newgarden, was only 12th fastest on his hometrack.
Newgarden, has led 84% of the laps over the last three races including winning all three poles, had a good car in terms of stability but by doing so, he lost some speed.
For Grosjean, he qualified third and fifth respectively in Belle Isle and now looks to be a Fast Six contender this weekend. He’s had a top seven qualifying spot in five of the seven chances he’s had this season.
Alexander Rossi (1:17.1742-seconds) was fourth in his No. 27 Honda while Marcus Ericsson (1:17.2168-seconds) rounded out the top five.
For Rossi, he’s had a top 10 starting spot in each of the last five races, but he’s made the Fast Six just three times all year. One was at Belle Isle though when he qualified second. He was seventh in Race 2.
Ericsson only has two top six qualifying appearance this season with three of his last four starts being 15th or worse. Remarkably, all four races have seen him finish in the top 10 though including one of which being a win in Belle Isle and another a runner-up in Mid-Ohio. Still, he’s failed to make it past the first round of qualifying in five of the seven races.
Honda’s took the top six spots on the speed charts while Chip Ganassi Racing took half of the six in being 2-5-6.
Will Power suggests that’s due to the slower sections of corners between Turns 4-8 but that the Chevy cars have the advantage over the long bridge.
“I reckon like the Honda is going to be very good in that really tight section,” he said. “Yeah, a lot of first gear pulls. Obviously where Honda has been strong. Chevy is good on the top-endy stuff. It appears that way, yeah.”
Herta said that he didn’t really run around many people on Friday to be able to compare the two manufacturers, but said that nothing really changes year to year now and that Power’s assessment should prove to be right.
“It seems to be the same trend every year, lower end that Honda is good, road course trim at least, lower end Honda is better, the higher end the Chevy has a little bit more speed.”
Conor Daly got into the tire barriers in Turn 9 to bring an somewhat early end to the session. He hit at 4:26 p.m. locally which was four minutes prior to the scheduled checkered flag. Both drivers were treated and released from the care center and cleared to drive on Saturday.
Will Power broke his wrist in a crash at Mid-Ohio and his doctor told him to expect six weeks for a full recovery. He says that his right wrist is pretty much healed now and not giving him many problems since this is week 5.