INDIANAPOLIS — Last summer, there was a lengthy break between the July Mid-Ohio race and the August Nashville street event. That’s partially because COVID-19 restrictions kept the series from being able to race in Toronto then and the other part because NBC Sports didn’t have much time slots available to air races due to the Summer Olympics over in Tokyo.
So, the NTT INDYCAR Series teams adapted. Some took some time off. Others went west to test. For one organization, that test in Portland propelled them to a strong push to the finish. While we don’t have that gap again this year, Arrow McLaren SP is hoping Thursday’s test session among 8 total drivers around the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is that one that helps them move forward again in 2022.
“I think this is a great opportunity today,” Felix Rosenqvist told me. “If it stays like this you can definitely learn stuff. If you can do progress in this weather then you’re going to be set.”
Pato O’Ward tells me that this is a very sensitive track in terms of temperature and with it being hotter in July than it is in May, he doesn’t expect a similar race.
See, for whatever reason, despite the races being just a couple of months apart, they’re run entirely different than each other.
Some may automatically think that next month’s race would look like May’s. Well, with it raining this past May and for most instances the Month of May being on the cooler side here than it is during the summer months, it completely changes the way that these cars react to this 14 turn track.
“For sure it does,” Rosenqvist continued. “During the race in May we were running up front the whole time. We were quick. But it was with a damp track.”
So, being able to test here on a beautiful day he says, that goes a long way.
“Testing is so valuable because you don’t get to do very much of it,” O’Ward told me. “Before St. Pete we had just 1 day in Sebring. Yeah this is huge. To have it right before the 2nd half of the season is really good for us. It just gets us into the groove of what’s coming up which is Mid-Ohio, then Toronto, then so forth. It’s going to be intense.
“Indy road course would translate to Portland, maybe things you can find here you could use at Mid-Ohio. I think this is a good place to have a test and especially because it’s beautiful.”
Having 4 natural road courses among the final 9 races of the year would at one point have been a detriment for AMSP. O’Ward told me last year that these were their worst tracks on the schedule. They had nothing for Penske or Ganassi or even the Andretti teams on them.
I mean here as an example, he’s never finished better than 5th on the road course and that’s even with a pole last August. However, they know this too and spent a lot of time improving in this area of discipline.
“I think we’re getting better. Our car is better,” he told me. “We made some changes in the offseason and into making our car just better. Not much faster but definitely easier to drive in a way. We haven’t really hammered it everywhere but we’ve been quick. We’ve been qualifying in the Fast 6 ever since Barber. That’s huge for us. I told the team pole is cool but I don’t really care about the pole I care about Fast 6’s. As long as you’re in the Fast 6, you always have a chance.”
Plus, they may have dodged a bullet with Penske and Ganassi not being here this weekend either. Penske has dominated the return trip to the Indy road course in each of the last 2 years.
With Penske having 4 wins in 7 races run this season, this is a huge test for Andretti and Arrow McLaren SP.
Penske and Ganassi have 6 of the top 9 in points including 5 of the top 6 in general. They’ve won 13 out of the last 14 series titles including 9 straight.
Plus, during the Aeroscreen era (17 races) on natural road courses, both Penske and Ganassi have each won 6 times on them accounting for a 71% win rate.
However, Ganassi was pedestrian again last month and with both them and Penske electing to not test on Thursday, this could open the door for Andretti and AMSP now.
“I think they’re still going to be good right,” O’Ward said. “They’re championship level teams and always fighting for wins and poles everywhere they go. That’s what we strive to be and hope for and hope to make it harder for them this year.”
O’Ward sits 4th in points. He has 4 top 5 finishes in his last 6 starts on the season. But he knows that wins are needed to really make it hard on the “Big 3” and a test like Thursday can go a long way to making it happen.