INDIANAPOLIS — Jay Frye and his talented team around him have done such a great job of trying to make this racing package as close to perfect as one can. They know that passing shouldn’t be easy. It’s the most talented race cars drivers in the world, so you can’t dumb this thing down to where anyone can do it. But, with the UAK, passing started off almost too difficult. The flip side of things is these are the best drivers in the world and they rarely make mistakes. So, how can you pass a driver of equal talent in a car that’s equally as good on a track to where they’re going similar speeds?
In 2018, the first year of the UAK, the lead changes dropped from record levels prior to 30. The next year, it was down to 29. Most of those occurring during pit sequences. Then, factor in the Aeroscreen for 2020,= and it went down to 21 lead changes that year.
So, as they’ve done each season, INDYCAR has held multiple tests to figure out ways to improve the show. How do you make these cars race closer but not make it too easy. That’s the fine balance that they’re working with.
2021 though looked vastly improved from 2020. The front few cars could pass with ease while fifth on back was still difficult. We did see 35 lead changes, the most since 2017. If the lapped cars in front at the end weren’t in the way, I know with the upmost certainty that Helio Castroneves and Alex Palou would have had a hell of a battle for the win. Strategy played a part in how Castroneves got the victory, but Palou could have made a counter move back if cars weren’t in front of Helio.
So, what will Sunday’s 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) look like?
Chip Ganassi Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing appear to be the favorites but as we’ve seen here, the fastest car doesn’t always win. They’re the ones singled out as the favorites but aren’t necessarily the ones that WILL win.
We do know that track position is ever of the importance again though too. After over a week of practice, the common theme from Gasoline Alley is that from around 4th or 5th on back, it’s still difficult to make moves.
So, this race goes 1 or 2 ways then, a green race or one of carnage.
If we avoid any early race crashes are going to be more about settling in and hitting a fuel number as a result. That’s a key thing around here. Who can stretch the fuel the longest. Graham Rahal was doing such a good job of that last year that despite starting 18th, he found himself in the lead just past the midway point and was going to make it to the end on 1 less pit stop than everyone else. Unfortunately on Lap 118, his tire literally fell off after not getting it secured on his last pit stop.
So, for those likely 10th on back, you really focus on fuel numbers and not making a lot of passes. You are going to settle in early and ride around in a tow and hope to make it a bit longer than those in front.
For those cars in front, you too may elect on fuel numbers too. However, the ones in the top 2 or 3, well they may change the lead every so often to help get better fuel mileage. The one in front is getting no tow and burning more fuel. In turn, they can’t go as long as those behind so with 4 Ganassi cars and 2 ECR cars up front, you may see more give and take among them to help each other save fuel which leads to an exciting early portions of the race.
If they all settle in, then I can see this race going a while without any cautions. However, the key is IF. I don’t know how many drivers will “settle” in.
“Part of me thinks that you’ve got to do it at the beginning and wait to the next restart to do it again but another part of me excuse my French thinks it’s going to be a shit show,” said Alexander Rossi. “I think there’s going to be a lot of yellows and you can not be as aggressive and wait for the yellows. That’s the battle in my mind for the next 48 hours.”
As far as to why?
“If we use a banking analogy I think people have been banking their lines of credit this month and at one point they’re going to hit their limit,” he continued. “There’s no way people can continue to drive the way that they’ve driven. Those people that have done that, their confidence is only going up and they’re thinking that they can get away with this. It’s like maybe. I mean maybe. I don’t know. I would think not, right. A lot of these people have these moments and they pit. For 200 laps, you can’t pit. You’re going to have these moments and have to sort yourself out. It might be a super green race but last year was super green and not a lot of yellows so I don’t see it happening 2 years in-a-row.”
Graham Rahal agreed with that assessment.
“I do think this year there’s a good chance,” he said of a lot of yellows. “This year the check ups have been late and very aggressive. That’s probably going to bite somebody. There’s guys testing the limits all the time. That’s not going to last. I just see more mistakes potentially happening.”
Conor Daly says that no one wants to lead. He experienced that last year. If you’re leading, you’re burning more fuel and if you’re burning more fuel you have to pit sooner. So, in order to avoid that, you slow down to laps in the 207-210 mph range to save. As a result, you bunch everyone up and when you do so, you create havoc of what Rossi and Rahal are talking about in mistakes.
Then, it’s all about positioning yourself for that final stint to the finish.
If you’re in the top 2 or 3, you’re in good shape. If not, you’re going to push hard to get there. As long as there’s no lapped traffic in front, I expect a heck of an ending. Those cars up front can pass. It’s the train behind that can’t because if your car has tires falling off, how can you pass the car in front when that car has a tow from the car in front of them?
The only way you can get passing from 4th on back is if the car misjudges a run and has to back out of it or makes a mistake. These drivers are so good, those two instances can happen but they’re few and far between.
So, how do you get there then over the course of 400 miles? In and out laps are key. It’s like a road course race at that point. If everyone is single file saving fuel, the best option to passing is during pit sequences. Getting onto pit road as hard as you can and having a clean lap prior and getting clean air with the right amount of a tow off pit road as well as having a fast pit stop is key.
If you are slowed up on your in lap, get in a bunch of traffic on your out lap without a good tow of a car in front, you could lose spots.
“Yeah I feel like every year it just gets more competitive and more knowledge than years past,” Colton Herta told me on as to why this race has evolved to a road course strategy type of race. “It’s our 10th year with this car and this engine not a lot has changed. People are kind of on top of what changes that we want or how much fuel we’re going to burn. So yeah it does make it more difficult.”
So, pit strategy and fuel saving is likely the way to the front by the 400 mile barrier (Lap 160). The final 40 laps are more of a no holes barred street fight. Who can get the right position and who’s brave enough to make the daring passes.
“Let me put it to you this way, if I’m leading, I would love to be leading unless it’s any car that’s a Ganassi or Carpenter,” Rossi told me of coming to the final lap. “It’s 1 of those 8, I think you want to be in 2nd. Just because the car speed. They’ll probably be able to drive around you. I think.”