INDIANAPOLIS — Romain Grosjean is five miles away from not being in orientation anymore. Jimmie Johnson is 10 laps away from that himself. But, in saying that, both are still technically eligible to compete in next May’s practice for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
How you may wonder?
See, three phases are needed to be complete to shed the distinction of being in Rookie Orientation. You need 10 laps between the range of 205-210 mph. Once you do that, the next step is 15 laps between 210-215 mph. Once you’ve graduated from each of those, all you need are 15 laps at 215 mph+ and you’re done.
Grosjean, was two laps shy and crossing the yard of bricks to be one lap away when rain started falling on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday afternoon. Johnson, was behind him a ways and had to crawl around the track before pulling into his pit.
“Well, it went pretty well. I mean, it was a very smooth day. Apart from the weather that was playing with us,” Grosjean said. “I got some good explanation, some good tip from the guys, from the engineers also, James Hinchcliffe came in the morning, which I appreciated a lot. Michael was there, as well. When you’ve got those guys, they know what they’re talking about, so that was great to be with them and to know what to do.
“Then just going out there. I think really the most stressful part was to know what my first lap speed was going to be. You grow up or move from there. I had no idea what to expect to get to 205. Then it went pretty smoothly, enjoyed it. When you have to go above 215, that’s where the fun starts.
“Obviously today was more alike Gateway than anything else, so it was good I already had an experience on oval just to understand what you want, what you don’t want, what is the level of oversteer you can accept and so on. That was very positive.
“The car setup today was very, very good. It was kind of easy to go through the phases, which is great. Yes, I think I still need to learn a lot on ovals.”
This was Grosjean’s first test as a member of Andretti Autosport. He noticed some subtle changes between here and Coyne in fact.
“Well, the steering wheel is different because every team can put the buttons where they want,” he said. “Some of the buttons are different. Need to get used to them. I pressed a few times the overtake button for the pits limiter, a few things like that. The screen, the dash, was a bit different as well. I was getting used to it.
“The cockpit feels pretty much the same, especially that we could carry over my seat from Dale Coyne to Andretti. All my seating position has been the same. Only thing is I was using a Ryan Hunter-Reay grip today on the steering wheel, whilst we are going to do mine now. That was a bit different from what I’d ideally like.
“Apart from that, it was good. It was just going and racing. Yes, the systems are different behind them, the way they operate is a little bit different. Olivier was not talking to me directly on the radio. It was Josh. Few things are a little bit different. Actually it went very well.”
He said he had some good advice coming in at his disposal too.
“Yeah, I guess look at the windsock, that was a good one. You don’t think about it if you don’t know about it. Don’t go too low down the line, hit the inside curves. Pump your brake before you get to the pit stop. A few things that are a little bit different from normal because obviously in Gateway we were using the brakes. When you were coming to the box, they were hot-ish, not super hot, but there was heat in them. Whilst here you can do 20 laps, 30 laps, you don’t touch the brake. When you come in, they are cold, it’s not that friendly.”
In saying that, now what? There’s a test here on Friday with Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, can they join that?
It doesn’t sound like it’s in the cards. See, there’s a full field open test here next April. The 20th and 21st to be exact. Johnson and Grosjean can finish their runs then.
The first two phases are really the toughest to complete. The reason they’re able to join the field in April is because everyone is going to be traveling at speeds in excess of 215 mph. It’s not like Johnson and Grosjean are going to be moving chicanes.
So, they’ll have to wait before being officially initiated into the Indy 500 field, but it’s now more of a formality. It’s going to happen. The thing is, we know Grosjean will be here, but will Johnson?
He’s not made a full decision on that yet. He knows he’s doing all road and street courses again. In order for him to be in the Indy 500, he needed to take these steps first. If the comfort is there and he feels like he can compete, then a discussion will be had.
First was a test at Texas on Aug. 30. Next was Wednesday’s test. The next step after that…
The Indy 500.
“Yeah being here today is definitely a step closer in doing that,” Johnson told me. “First step was Texas. Then this step here today. I wish I could have run more laps and got into the faster phase of things and put the car on the edge. I’m still trying to find what it’s like living on the edge in one of these things. That’s what this journey has been.
“I’m absolutely closer. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to running the Indy 500. I still have a lot to work through. Family, sponsors, team. But it’s definitely a step closer.”
His family is way more open to him running. They all share the same views now on oval racing in the NTT IndyCar Series. The key to opening that door and Johnson running through these gates next May is comfort.
“You know, it’s — I hate that I’ve joked about it over the years that it’s my family, and they certainly do have a very big voice in all this, but my family is looking directly at me and my comfort,” said Johnson to me after his Texas test on if discussions with his family were the next step. “The INDYCAR that we have today versus where it was five years ago is just totally different from the aeroscreen and all the safety it brings in so many different ways, to the fact that we don’t have pack racing any longer.
“My journey and my comfort in this is really what my family is looking at, and I’m trying to be systematic and work through.
“But yes, there will be conversations, and I guess ultimately I’m trying not to say that it’s on my family and the pressure that comes with that. But it’s my journey and my wife and kids support me in whatever I want to do. Certainly they have their concerns, and their concerns are mine.
“I share the same concerns. I try to be very systematic and methodical and make sure that I’m in a standard — in a traditional box of risk in getting into a race car.
“We were all very comfortable with the risks associated to NASCAR, and through my experience this year in the INDYCAR Series, and certainly being in the car (at Texas), I feel that the INDYCAR is now back in that same box. There are inherent risks when you’re driving a race car, and I’m good with that, and I’m on this journey right now to prove to myself that the INDYCAR is back in that inherent box of danger of driving a race car.”
After talking with him on Wednesday, he gave me no inclinations that he won’t be here next April for the open test to finish this final phase off.
Grosjean though, well he was close. He looked comfortable from the get-go and if not for all the rain today, he would more than likely have easily skated his way through.
Still, he was in a similar spot as Johnson in having ovals off limits. Initially, they were on the docket. Then came his frightening crash last November. That changed things.
“I was talking to Dale Coyne last year before my crash,” he admitted. “I was going to do a full season, then the crash happened. My first reaction is I’m not doing INDYCAR at all. A few days later I was like, Oh, well, I want to do INDYCAR, but I don’t want to do ovals. Then we went through the season.”
That all changed this summer. He felt comfort and knew he wanted to try more. Why not ovals? So, off he went to World Wide Technology Raceway for a test. That led to the race in August, his first ever on an oval.
“I really felt happy and in a good place in INDYCAR. I say, I’d like to do Gateway just to see how it is. Then I did Gateway,” he continued. “Also my wife came and she could tell how great for me that experience was, how much enjoyment I was having out of it. We knew the next step was to do everything because you can’t go in the top 10 if you’re not doing all races.
“They do want to be fighting for championships, be at the front. It was something that I feel comfortable with my decision. I think you need to respect ovals a lot. Today, as I say, it doesn’t feel fast when everything goes well, but if you start losing the rear-end in turn one, two, three or four, you know the wall is there. You’re still doing 200 something miles an hour. The cars are getting safer and safer. You try to respect the wall, stay well from that zone.
“I feel like my level of happiness through my professional life, through being able to show that with my family, was the risk that we take.”
Wednesday was the first step.
“The car reacted super well to all the changes I made with the tool onboard, which make me feel that maybe that was a very good race car because I could get it to turn more or less depending on what I wanted to do on the tools.
“I mean, there are a little bit of different lines you can take. You’re talking meters, one meter, which is three foot difference. I don’t feel like I could tell there were how much different options. Looking at the race, they were all kind of using the same line.
“Yes, there is a way you can go faster through the same speed, downforce, same conditions, there’s a way you can go faster than other ways. It’s just about trying to find that momentum and getting the car as free as you can.
“Gateway was I would say maybe harder just because of the nature of the track, two corners different, it’s not flat out. I think in Indianapolis it’s all about having the confidence that you are flat out. Again, we are 20 miles down from qualifying speed, so we’re not up there yet.
“That’s probably going to be another difference going at 230 plus. Once the car feels good, it just is smooth and it runs well. In Gateway you had the braking, tighter corner, downshifting, going back on the back straight, it wasn’t flat. Just felt like there were a little bit more things going on, whilst at Indy when you’re on your own and there is no wind, like today, it’s cold, things are quite straightforward.”
Johnson, got five laps in after a brief delay to dry the track this morning while Grosjean only got install laps before rain fell again. Then, at 3:05 p.m. ET, the track went green to finish the day. Unfortunately, it was an abbreviated session with more rain falling ending the day just short of the scheduled 6 p.m. ET checkered flag.
Still, both drivers are close and both had great days at the Speedway.
“I mean, I think if I look at the past year, it’s an incredible journey from fire to racing for one of the biggest name in motorsports,” Grosjean said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity I have. Every day I remind myself how lucky I am to be alive, how lucky that I came in INDYCAR and realized that it’s a place where I can be super happy.
“So obviously being in a team like Andretti, having Michael coming in the morning, having all the engineers and the database, all of that together, it’s just a great thing to live.
“I realize every day that I live something quite special. When it’s a bad day or when you know things are not right, I’m like, Hey, you can be grateful of what you’re having at the minute and I need to enjoy that.”