INDIANAPOLIS — 48 hours ago, Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson shared the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. Both were trying to pass their Rookie Orientation phases before we got to next season.
Now, Helio Castroneves and Pato O’Ward were on track on the famed 2.5-mile oval doing some more testing. This test though was more about the future where as the one on Wednesday was more about next May.
See, a new engine regulation package is coming out for 2023 and the NTT IndyCar Series and Firestone wanted to be ahead of the game. With a part of the new formula is going to be more weight. That’s the transition to the hybrid era. You need a bigger battery for storage the drivers said.
In doing so, that adds more stress to the tires. High speeds and more weight change a lot of things with a car, most notably the tire life. So, Firestone needed more data and the top finisher from this past year’s race in Castroneves was on hand to help provide a Honda car while the top finishing Chevrolet driver that’s still a pilot for the bowtie program in O’Ward offered their services.
Simon Pagenaud finished one spot in front of O’Ward in the May 30 race, more on that later, but due to Pagenaud not being Castroneves’ teammate at Meyer Shank Racing, also more on that later too, he’s a Honda driver for 2022.
So, a whole slew of check list items were on the docket on a sunny Friday in the Circle City.
“Weight, weight and power, trying different left side tires, different right side tires, 2 different lefts and rights, then pick the happiest one of both and do some long runs with those,” O’Ward said on what was on the agenda for the afternoon portion of the test.
The morning part consisted of baselining the car for good balance. O’Ward said that they baselined this year’s tire and that they also baselined a long run on this year and this year’s tire built in a new facility. Same construction just built in different places he notes.
Once he and Castroneves had that done, they met with a small group of media members on the fourth floor of the IMS Media Center to discuss what was going to take place and to reflect back on their respective 2021 seasons.
“Every time you go around this place, it gives you goosebumps,” Castroneves said. “This is awesome. Same thing when you’re inside the car. It never gets old. It’s definitely fun to be back.”
For Castroneves, this is his first foray back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and turning laps on the oval. This obviously isn’t his first time back here as he’s raced here on the road course in August, but these were his first laps done around the oval since his last one on May 30 in which he bested Alex Palou for his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 triumph.
“It’s awesome. Any time that the yellow shirt people start recognizing you, that’s a good sign,” he told me on Friday. “You did something right here. It’s great to be back. Finally with MSR and everyone, still super excited to what happened in the Month of May. Now, we’re working again. Working like it used to be testing with Firestone, working with Firestone. Now working with INDYCAR for 2023 as well. Everybody’s doing what needs to be done for the future and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Now that he’s won four, does the drive to win No. 5 burn deeper than any of the previous wins? I mean, winning four is one thing and that’s something he tried 12 years to do. Now, he’s aiming to be the first driver in the 106 year history of this event to etch his face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy five times.
“Absolutely,” Castroneves told me on if the fire burns deeper to win No. 5 more so than it did for chasing No. 4. “It’s not because we accomplished something and now we’re going to settle. “I’m still on Cloud 9. To see everyone. I’m excited to be a part of history. For me it’s very special to give a young team this incredible amount of boost to continue going forward. It’s just awesome. I’m back what I was 10 years ago. Muscle maybe not. Body, maybe no. Wrinkles too. At the end of the day, it’s been incredible.”
He doesn’t have 12 years now to pursue a fifth. At 46 now and 47 by time next year’s race gets here, it’s not like he has another decade of racing ahead of him. The oldest Indy 500 winner is coincidentally enough a four-time champion too in Al Unser Sr. He did so in 1987. His brother, Bobby Unser, was also 47 when he won in 1981. Emerson Fittipaldi was 46 in his 1993 triumph.
So, is Castroneves doesn’t win No. 5 next May, if and when he ever does for 2023 or beyond, he’d also become the oldest winner in Indy 500 history too.
“I just want to keep it rolling as long as I have an opportunity to fight for wins and be competitive,” he said on how much longer he wants to do this. “That’s the fun part for me. Right now, that’s what we’re having. As long as we keep updating ourselves and pushing each other and keep getting those results, I’m going to keep it going. I don’t want to put a date, a number, a year because who knows. Certainly it would be great what Mario (Andretti) did and what the good old guys did, but at the end of the day, time will tell.”
For now, he comes into 2022 with a full time ride, his first since 2017 and doing so with a new yet past teammate. Simon Pagenaud was recently announced as the replacement for Jack Harvey in the No. 60 Honda. That gives MSR two of the last three Indy 500 winners under one umbrella.
“With the potential of the team, especially now that we have Simon (Pagenaud) with us, I really do feel like we can go to the next level,” Castroneves said. “That’s the goal. Mike (Shank), Jim (Meyer) and the whole group, we’re eager to get to the next level.
“Having someone (Pagenaud) that not only worked with an incredible organization like Penske but we also worked together and being active. It’s not like me where we stopped for three years and then coming back. When you have him and his caliber, it only is going to help. It’s going to help because it helps me. I was in sports car. Obviously learning on my own with the Andretti group as well, but now having him I believe MSR itself is going to increase to being more consistent and that’s the goal. It’s different when you have someone to understand on how to be a team player. That’s good.”
One guy hoping to chase him down is O’Ward. He’s had a stellar start to his young INDYCAR career. He was in the hunt for the last two series championships which also happen to be his first two full time seasons in the sport too. Is this ahead of where he expected to be at this stage of his INDYCAR career?
“2020 was definitely not what we expected but I felt like 2020 kind of set the bar for the near future and fourth in the championship is really high for a fairly new team,” he told me. “The series is getting so competitive so like we started off our journey really strong and you continuously want to get better. We did get better this year but I think we keep raising the bar for ourselves which is really good.
“I love it. I love that you’re always chasing that perfect lap, that perfect win, that perfect championship which is pretty much impossible. But you can make it as perfect as you can. But yeah, it’s already hard. Next year we’ve got an even higher bar to try and top but I think we can do it. We just need to continue doing what we have been doing and if we find the improvement that we need to in certain road courses. I honestly feel like our oval packages is really strong. It’s as good as anyone’s. I think we’re definitely lacking on certain road courses which is like we take that next step to being better will just help our overall championship next year that much more because points are gold at the end.”
He’s right in that sense. O’Ward saw that first hand this past season. A couple of different outcomes throughout the year and he, not Palou, may have been the one with the Astor Cup championship trophy in Long Beach.
“Honestly I came to to a conclusion that we did a great job and we just need to make our car better,” O’Ward told me on if he’s reflected on the 2021 season yet. “I think in doing that, it’s going to put us in a position to fight for a title again. In general, it should allow us to get to the end of the season in a bit of a stronger position because in my eyes, you always logically what you want to do is leave room for someone to do something that was done to me in Long Beach that was honestly completely out of our control.
“In my eyes we lost the championship during the year not necessarily in Long Beach. If we were better during the year specifically places where we really didn’t score well, we would have been better. I think we’ve learned.
“I think it was our first proper year of really fighting for the title. In 2020, we ended fourth, but really Josef (Newgarden) and Scott (Dixon) were gone. This time around, we actually got to the last race being pretty much one of the only 2 cars that can like have more of a chance to win it. Josef had a chance as well but definitely a lot harder. I think we should be very proud. We got our breakthrough win, you put another on top of that, we got three poles.”
The elephant in the room was if he’s talked to Ed Jones yet about that opening lap incident in Long Beach. I had to ask.
“Oh no, he’s not going to talk to me,” O’Ward said. “It is what it is I guess. Not sure if he’s coming back next year but before then, we didn’t talk much. I at least thought we respected each other in the way of don’t get in the way or think twice before making a move around championship contenders but yeah…”
O’Ward now is just settling into an offseason by watching a lot of fishing shows and relaxing. He likes to watch big fish shows. Especially sharks. He likes sharks but is also afraid of them. He doesn’t want to be chased down by one the way he was hoping to chase down Palou in the final laps of this past year’s Indy 500.
O’Ward was third crossing the yard of bricks for the 199th lap out of 200. Palou was in his sights. He was pushing it to the limit. Unfortunately, while doing so, he nearly crashed and lost third place to Simon Pagenaud. Does he reflect on what might have been in that. I mean, he lost six points in the process.
“Honestly no because I was trying to get Palou,” he said. “I had a big moment because I had to get out of it or I was going to finish last. Fourth for me was still fine. Better than what I did in 2020. We had a sixth. We had a fourth. Hopefully next year is better.”
If he’s going to get that win next year, Castroneves is going to be the one to beat that’s for sure. The scary part is, despite having made 21 starts here, he’s still learning the place and a day like Wednesday allows for further notes.
“Every time you come here is new,” said the Brazilian driver. “Doesn’t matter how many laps. Every time you go out there, I still respect this place like the first time. It’s actually incredible. The car is so sensitive. It kind of gives you a great reading out there. Right now, it’s not that easy. It seemed to be working during the race but not by ourselves. We need to make some adjustments. Then you’re like you see the wind and feel the revs and try a little bit a different line whether it’s higher or lower, those sorts of things, I’m so glad I’m here trying those things because it not only helps but it helps me improve on what I need to do. This is very useful.”
On what he’s looking for in terms of developing the tires for 2023, he says it’s all about consistency.
“Consistency is the key. You don’t want to have one set of tires and when you put on another one the car changes a lot. That happened before. That’s why Firestone is a great partner. They’re obviously trying to give us the best consistent as possible. Now, adding over 100 pounds in the car for 2023 for having the changing of the engine and of the battery, now Firestone is trying to be ahead of the game and we know what the degradation and the situation we’re going to have. So, consistent is the key. You want to have something you can trust.
“2022 is set. 2023 when you add so much weight to the car, you’ve got to be prepared. There’s so many components outside the actual car. It’s tires, suspensions, you keep it going.
“When you put a full tank, it’s about 100 pounds, it’s like to have another full tank in the race car. You lose about 1 mph on a full tank because it’s when clear with no cars around, you’ll lose about 2 mph. But, they’re find what the best strategy is to find the power. Am i going too fast? Am I going too slow? That’s why we’re here.
“I think this is a great test to get us in a direction where we want to go and I think the tires are a great place to start.”
“I think this is going to be a good teller on what’s onboard for the future,” he said. “Maybe not next year, but it will be kind of like a baseline feeling of lets see what this does to the car, what this power does, this extra weight. I think it will definitely have a hit on how the car balance shifts over a stint. You might not be able to feel it that much over 3-4 laps, but in terms of a stint, it will definitely have more stress on the tires. All this we’re doing is good and we’ll see where it shifts to.”
“This afternoon we’re putting 100 something extra pounds in there. We’re going to see what it’s going to do to the tire life, to the balance. I’m not sure how much quicker we’re going to go. I’m expecting in the ballpark around 3 mph. More weight. More power. But you also going to pack in the car with downforce so I’m expecting somewhere in the ballpark there. I’m assuming if you trim out it’s going to be way more. In terms of race pace I’m expecting it to be faster than this year just not quite sure on how much faster.”
“Hopefully it helps me and the team to gauge on what to expect for the future. I think having that extra weight and extra power this will have the extra stress of the tire.”
One interesting tidbit that O’Ward opened up some insight to is how much the driving styles vary between the younger drivers here and the older ones. He says the younger ones tend to run lower on the track where the veterans use a higher line.
“I feel like more than a driving style, I feel like the weight usually does it,” he said. “What the weight ends up doing is stressing the tire more. That will shift the balance of the car depending on where you start and where you end. That’s going to be interesting on what it does.
“For example, you see all the vets, they’re above the white line and very wide then you see all of us new guys and we’re always below the white line, a lot lower you do stress the tire a little bit less whenever you’re up above the white line but that does usually induce more understeer so like it really depends on what car balance you’re having. Obviously if we have a very nervous car under you then you probably have to go above the white line a little bit just to try and open the radius. You’re going to cover more distance but you’re going to calm down the balance usually.”
On why the disparity between the two sets of drivers?
“Back in the day, I heard below the white line was a no go zone. You go under that and you’re going into the fence. Now that seems to be the preferred line, at least in qualifying. In the race, you can kind of do what your car wants to do best depending on where you can position it. It all really depends on what balance you have. Specifically here, the short ovals to me are more like a road course and get away with it. Here, usually when you notice yourself going sideways it’s already too late. The cautionary part of you is a lot more on top of it. What’s the car doing? You have to be on top of it because everything is more sensitive. There isn’t much room to be like okay lets get to the limit, go over it and back into it. Usually, you go over it, you’re going to be like “bye.”