INDIANAPOLIS — Mother nature didn’t cooperate with us like she should have but she still didn’t fully take the checkered flag and drink a wet glass of milk under the rainy skies of Central Indiana either. We got most of the day in on Wednesday and an abbreviated day in on Thursday still.
All 7 rookies have passed their orientation. Also, all the veterans needing refreshers have completed their courses too.
We saw laps pushing 230 mph without any extra added boost and Chip Ganassi Racing looking like the class of the field.
Now, in saying that, what did we learn?
Pit Road Is Trecherous
For the first time in the last several years, pit lane as well as the pit access roads (warmup lanes) were treated with a sealer last Fall. That’s customary to do so on the actual racing surface between years, but this time around, pit road and the access roads around the track were sealed too. That proved to be a major storyline during the two-day test.
The sealer was used on a different day than when they did the 2.5-mile track and they’re wondering if that was the culprit to the three crashes we witnessed on Wednesday.
We instantly had a stoppage for Alexander Rossi spinning on the warmup lane while coming onto the track when we got underway at 12:30 p.m. ET on Day 1.
At the time, most thought it was just another odd example of bad luck that has been striking the 2016 Indy 500 champion lately. 6 hours later, we found out that maybe it wasn’t such bad luck after all. We had a problem…
The 2 hour session for the 24 eligible drivers would go off without a hitch after. Same for the 2 hour rookie orientation/refresher course participants. In the all-skate though, that’s where issues really arose.
At 5:11 p.m. ET, just 39 minutes after the green flag dropped on the final session of the day, Helio Castroneves spun in similar fashion as Rossi in the same warmup lane. He’d spin back up on the track though and hit the outside SAFER barrier in Turn 2.
Castroneves was unhurt, but his Indy 500-winning No. 06 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda suffered significant front, right-side and floor damage.
“I didn’t feel anything strange, anything bottoming, I wasn’t pushing,” Castroneves said. “And the rear just spun out. I was trying to control it, making sure I didn’t crash, and it was a very odd situation. Unfortunately, we couldn’t avoid that. It was very unusual.”
Again, we felt like something was brewing but maybe these were flukes. 22 minutes later, just six minutes after going back green, we saw another problem again. This time, it was Will Power who spun in the warmup lane in Turn 1 and when he went back up on the track in front of oncoming traffic, Colton Herta went high to avoid him and as a result, made right side contact with the Turn 1 SAFER barrier.
These incidents were starting to become reminiscent of Alex Zanardi’s in Germany in 2001. That crash left him with both legs amputated. We graduated from a fluke to a concern because when you have 3 of the last 6 Indy 500 winners spinning in the warmup lane, including 1 of which a 4-time winner, you have problems.
INDYCAR decided to halt the session 30 minutes early as a result and go back to the drawing board.
“The first thing I said all day was I thought the warmup lanes felt slick,” said Conor Daly who was 2nd fastest on the day at 226.985 mph. “I didn’t know if I was just a bit of a weirdo, but then I saw Alex (Rossi) spinning, so it made sense.”
When asked if his incident was a case of cold tires, Power said it was quite the opposite actually. He had warm tires from coming off the track. He just came off the track to not impede a draft behind and went back out. He still spun.
“We had a sealant, but it’s the first time since 2018 the pit entries and exits have been done,” said Scott Dixon. “I don’t know. I know when we did the engine test here, the painted sections of the circuit were quite slippery to start with, then it comes good. That hasn’t come good yet.”
The actual track itself while slippery early, wasn’t bad they all said. It’s just getting off pit road where the issue lies.
“The track surface feels good,” continued Daly. “I think, like Marco said when we walked in here, you can usually get out of pit lane, be flat right out of the gate. I think there was a little bit of nervousness on maybe we can’t be flat out of pit lane.
“I mean, it just took a little bit of conservativeness. I didn’t necessarily say it would have been worth stopping the whole day. I think we probably could have still kept running because the track surface was fine. It was quite enjoyable running in traffic, getting a feel for it again. I didn’t think it was worth stopping the day. Obviously since people were spinning and crashing, yeah, that’s probably not great.”
Dixon, says that while the situation isn’t similar to his in his crash here a few years ago, it’s not an ideal one to be dealing with.
“Well, I think any situation like that is not great,” said last year’s pole sitter. “I think Will was extremely lucky there that the car didn’t roll back any further because it would have been massive.
“To compare situations like that is pretty tough. It was in the middle of the race, somebody crashed in front of me, had nowhere to go. His, he could have lost it on the pit exit.
“Yeah, I’m sure he had a few bowel movements in that situation. I know I would have (laughter).”
Still, in a day and age of racing where the smallest margins are measured differently and a bobble here, a slow stop there, getting on or off pit road slower here can be the difference in winning or not, drivers push the limits on and off pit road. Colton Herta was a little bit slower in the last race at Long Beach getting onto pit road. That cost him the lead. It cost him the win too because he pushed harder coming to pit road the next time around and crashed.
At Indy, you’re pushing onto pit road and in the warmup lanes for just the slightest advantage. With as slick as both spots are now, this was glaring.
IMS ran a tire dragon and did prep work on the warmup lane areas until after midnight last night. They felt like they made progress. Unfortunately, heavy rain fell last night and into this morning. They couldn’t truly know if it worked or not until the rain stopped, the track was dried and a grip meter test was done.
Firestone felt like the fix overnight added more grip so away we went. However, Tony Kanaan says that it’s still not ideal yet.
“Better in one lane. They have a lot of work to do,” he said. “They know that. If there’s a track that’s going to make it happen, it’s going to be this one, so..”
Dixon Still Fast
He was quickest in nearly every practice session last May. Dixon, topped the speed charts in not only practice but won the pole as well. Now, he’s picked up where he left off. The six-time series champion was fastest in both sessions on Wednesday and 4th on Thursday.
What’s odd is, Dixon is just 1-for-19 in the Indy 500. He’s not won the race in his last 13 attempts. In fact, he’s had a top two starting spot in 4 of the last 7 years here. He’s just not won.
Furthermore, Dixon is third on the all-time lap leaders chart and is only 74 laps led away from tying Al Unser for most laps led in Indy history. He led 111 laps alone in 2020. He’s also just 43 laps led away from moving past Ralph DePalma for second place on the list.
Did Penske Close The Gap? Why This May Be a Ganassi/Penske Show For The Milk
Roger Penske is undefeated this season (3-for-3) but winless in the Indy 500 (0-for-2) since he took over the keys to the gates in the winter of 2020. Is this the year the Captain gets back to victory lane in his own house?
They said all the right things leading up to this year’s race. However, the speed charts didn’t necessarily reflect much improvement on Wednesday but told a different story come Thursday.
On Wednesday’s overall speed chart, Penske was only 14th (223.984 mph by Scott McLaughlin), 18th (221.936 mph by Will Power) and 22nd (221.131 mph by Josef Newgarden). While they didn’t have the time on Wednesday to fully dial in, neither did everyone else.
On Thursday, Josef Newgarden (229.519 mph) set the fastest time of the entire test. His teammate Scott McLaughlin (228.397 mph) was 5th. Will Power (227.204 mph) was 14th. Does Thursday or Wednesday signify what we’ll see out of Penske when we come back next month?
Penske qualified 13-22-25-28 in 2020, finished 5-11-14-22. They’d lead a grand total of 16 laps that day. A year later, they’d qualify 17-21-26-32 and finish 3-12-20-30 with just 3 laps led all day.
19 total laps led in 2 years.
Simon Pagenaud has looked like the best Penske driver the last two years with him leading all three laps last year and 14 of the 16 in 2020. He’s since departed for Meyer Shank Racing, the team that won last year’s race with former Penske driver Helio Castroneves.
Can Penske find the qualifying speed to get up front in 2022 and then become a factor in the race itself?
So far, it seems like it.
Roger Penske bought the Speedway and turned the ultimate flex up to a whole new level. See, his parking space is located just outside of the media center in the shadows of the pagoda. Everyone else’s space is known through initials. Mark Miles’ is MM. Doug Boles’ is DB. Penske’s? It’s 18. Not RP. The 18 stands for Indy 500 victories.
At the time, he had won two straight Indy 500’s. A third seemed likely in the very near future. But, as we sit here today, he’s 0-for-2 and surprisingly hasn’t even been close.
“We want to win an Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “For me specifically, that’s a big goal. I’ve not won that race. Obviously as a team, we’ve had a lot of success there. They’d like to add to that. For me, I’d like to get my first.”
Penske has started 2022 off as perfect as one could. They won each of the 1st 3 races, started on the front row in all 3 and have taken 5 of the 9 podiums spots.
Still, even with all this early success, they’re talking Indy. It’s all about Indy and Indy only.
Even after his Long Beach win, Newgarden instantly started talking Indy even with one more stop at Barber before. He’s as locked in as ever on winning the Indy 500.
“I do. I’m focused on it,” he said of a Borg Warner Trophy. “I can’t do more than what I’ve done in the past, I can tell you that. So I’m not putting extra pressure on myself that I have to do some superhuman feat. It’s for whatever reason just not clicked yet, so I’m just staying the course. I’m going to put effort forward like every year, and I’m going to put myself in position to maybe win the race and I just — one of these years it’s got to work out.
“I would love to do that for our team. It’s a tough one to win. I think that’s what makes it so special. You can go your whole career and not win the Indy 500, and I accept that if that’s the case, but I’m not going to go down without a fight.”
That’s also not good enough for Penske. It’s honestly been rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2022.
“Last year our qualifying form was not strong,” Newgarden continued. “We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.
“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.
“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”
Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.
“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”
Can they close the gap this year?
Chip Ganassi Racing may have something to say about that.
This race next month may shape up to be a battle of Penske vs. Ganassi. What’s new, right? The two teams have only combined to win each of the last 9 series titles to go along with 13 out of the last 14 overall. Not only that, they’ve combined to win 44 of the last 67 races in the series (66%) since this new UAK car came out. Since the Aeroscreen?
24 wins in 33 tries (73%). They’ve combined to win 9 of the last 11 races overall and if you count Texas last month, the only other superspeedway on the schedule, they combined to sweep the entire top 7 of the finishing order.
On the overall speed chart for the two-day test, they took 4 of the top 5 speeds and 7 of the top 10 overall. Is this their race to lose?
Throw Andretti Autosport in there, and these three organizations have won 13 of the last 17 ‘500’s overall and 17 of the last 22 (since 2000).
RLL and MSR are the only two outliers with RLL taking two of the top three spots in 2020 and have won 2 of the 5 that the “Big 3” didn’t since 2000. MSR won a year ago with Helio Castroneves.
Plus, the last non Penske Chevrolet driver to win at Indy was Al Unser Jr. with Galles in 1992.
Chip Ganassi Racing has won 4 Indianapolis 500’s themselves. The thing is, 3 of them came in a 5 year span between 2008 and 2012. In the nine years since?
Last year seemed to be their year. They led the way in 5 of the 6 practice sessions last May. They also put all 4 cars in the Fast Nine Shootout too. However, none of which was victorious in the end.
Alex Palou narrowly lost to Helio Castroneves in the end. The thing is, through two days of testing, it appears that they may be in an even better situation now than they were then.
Ganassi, put all 4 of their cars at Texas in the top seven of the finishing order. On Wednesday, they were quickest in both sessions including putting 3 cars in the top 7 in session 1 and a pair of cars in the top 5 in session 2.
On Thursday, it was more Ganassi strength. They looked race ready and put all 5 cars in the top 10 of the speed chart.
Callum Ilott Quietly Strong
Among the 32 cars here this week, just 1 of them doesn’t have a teammate. That driver also happens to be a rookie. Still, that didn’t stop Callum Ilott who’s had 1 total race on an oval (Texas) to lead the speed charts among the rookie and veteran refreshers session at 222.184 mph in his No. 77 Dallara-Chevrolet. In the all-skate after, he was P3 at 226.308 mph.
On Thursday, he was an impressive 17th behind only Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean in terms of rookies.
It was a statement being made for the current Ferrari Academy driver who’s on loan to Juncos Hollinger Racing again this season and one that in a talented rookie class, may have a surprise driver get Rookie of the Year honors when we come back a month from now.
Chevy vs. Honda
Chevrolet had the preferred power in this race in 2018 and again in 2019. They’ve swept the front row both years. In 2018, they led nearly 150 of the 200 laps run. 2019, they combined to lead 155 of the 200 laps. In 2020, it was all Honda.
This time Honda swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. They’d lead 180 of the 200 laps and sweep the top four finishing spots and take 8 of the top 10 finishers overall.
How much could Chevrolet close the gap?
They did by a lot. They led over 100 laps but it was closer between the 2 manufacturers. Each had 3 cars in the top six while Honda had better qualifying pace, it was virtually even in race pace.
So, what happens this time around?
It was fairly even this week. Yes, there were 3 Honda’s in the top 4 on Thursday but there was also two Penske’s and an Arrow McLaren SP car in the top 10 too including both Penske drivers in the top 5.
If you go back to the top 15, we had 8 Honda’s and 7 Chevy’s. Graham Rahal told me on Wednesday that Chevy had really upped their game from last year to this on the speedway package but he also feels like Honda has too.