INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis 500 activity is always a fascinating aspect of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. 16 of the 17 race weekends features just that, a race weekend. However, for the ‘500, you get now a full week of activity in May, a qualifying weekend, then two more practice sessions on race week. Even recently, you also yet a two-day open test in April too.
That took place this week as Thursday was Day 1 of the two-day test session. With how track time has dwindled during the Month of May in comparison to yesteryear’s, most teams treat this test session as a glorified practice day.
Rightfully so too. They might as well get a leg up on the competition and go through the typical things that you used to do on opening day. That way when you come back in May, you’ve already shaken the car down felt out the changes made between last year and this.
“A long, long way to go,” Alexander Rossi said on Thursday morning. “I think this morning was just about time to understand the new pieces. It was kind of to match the reality from the winter. So, we didn’t change the single like balancing arms on the car.”
As far as what can a past Indy winner learn on a day like this?
“Honestly, you know, it’s there’s a lot of different ways to slice the cake, but once you get to top cars around here, everyone kind of funnels down to a very similar place,” he told me. “So the car was was not too different. I don’t think then what I’ve experienced here before, you know, the methodology and approach is slightly different. But ultimately, you know, it was a car that was competing for a race win last year and so it was my so they’re gonna be similar.”
Helio Castroneves agreed. It was more about the changes made with more downforce as well as more drag that the four-time Indy 500 champion had to feel out.
“Well, we basically felt we’re feeling very strong and it’s some of the rules changed a little bit bigger than me,” said Castroneves. “This is the actual Indy 500 car. And, and we were able to we were able to have some too many laps on it, but feels like we’re in the right direction. And I’m excited man, it’s great to be back again. In the special with this weather, nice weather. Got to take advantage of these today, obviously. But yeah, we want to take as much as we want to run as much as possible so that we can learn just new aerodynamics bits.
“Every time you’re behind the steering wheel here you always learn something. And it’s funny because you like feel things you like, I didn’t feel this last year. So I’m telling my engineers always the same. It’s like, I know, but I didn’t feel this before. So, it’s funny, because you kind of like understand what the bar you like and that you’ve felt before and what you need to achieve. And that’s what we hear.”
Defending series champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner, Will Power, says that the changes in the aero department feel better to him this year in comparison to last.
“It’s a lot more comfortable for me,” Power said. “This time last year, I felt very, very uncomfortable. Yeah, it’s simply more downforce. It’s just more grip and feels easier.”
He too is in an agreement that Thursday’s test was more about getting through the checklist early.
“It takes off big items you don’t want to screw around with when you’re there like just yep we’re definitely gonna run this on the car and then set up around that so that’s yeah, it’s kind of just tickets a big boxes of development from the offseason,” he told me.
Power is a 68-time pole winner in INDYCAR. That set the new record. However, he’s not yet won a pole here.
“Man we we’ve done everything we can to get qualifying speed there’s not at the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of the speed of the car simply,” Power told me. “Then you’ve just got to put downforce to match.
“Honestly, it has you have to have the car. You have to have that that you have to have cars capable of doing it then it’s up to you to how much you want to trim. But unless you have that you just simply so you know, just at the mercy of what you want what car it is. Because very finicky here, you can just have a fast car and it can be the best of the team. They’re all built the same. One just slightly faster. So I would be waiting to have that car for many years. I’ve had it been close then. Yeah. Been on the front row. But yeah, yeah, it’d be nice.
“Like to get for flat out lap so team has worked I’d say last three years extremely hard on that. So we’re hoping to get all cars and the top 12 this year and closer to the front, but obviously it matters in the race because I got the top 12 and went all the way back to last with a loose car so I think I think we’re all pretty keen for a good run this month.”
Roger Penske bought the Speedway in late 2019 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-3 and surprisingly hasn’t even been close.
Heading into last year’s Month of May, Team Penske was off to an undefeated start to the 2022 season and the team everyone was talking about them to win last year’s Indy 500. They had won each of the 1st 3 races, started on the front row in 4 of the 5 and have taken 6 of the 15 podiums spots available.
They were once again, nowhere to really be found in Indy.
That included another winless Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
They failed to lead a single lap a year ago here and now have led a grand total of 19 over the last 3 years (600 laps). They finished 13th (Josef Newgarden), 15th (Will Power) and 29th (Scott McLaughlin).
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.
Can they improve this time around?
Veteran Only Session
The two-hour veteran only session went off without a hitch. There were a few cautions for debris, but nothing for an on-track incident.
762 laps were turned in the session with the top speed of 224.330 mph being set by defending Indy 500 champion, Marcus Ericsson. The current points leader led the 2021 champion, Helio Castroneves (224.280 mph) up top.
The guy who Castroneves beat in 2021 for the record tying fourth win here was third with Alex Palou going 224.088 mph in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda.
Scott McLaughlin (223.965 mph) was fourth in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet while Ed Carpenter (223.765 mph) was fifth in his No. 33 Dallara-Chevrolet.
2019 winner, Simon Pagenaud (223.540 mph) and Scott Dixon (223.466 mph) were sixth and seventh respectively to give both MSR cars and three of the four Ganassi cars in the top seven.
“I don’t know I think the biggest thing is to get through the new aero pieces,” Dixon said. “Just kind of tick all the boxes on that side of things. We’ve got our own test plan, test bench, dampers, all that kind of stuff that we kind of need to get some matrices done on those. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s kind of it’s an interesting day just because of the winds. So some of the stuff will be a little bit tough, especially this afternoon, but as always, it’s great to be back here and I could be wrong in some ways. Do you feel
In 2021, Ganassi had 4 of the top 9 starters including 2 more on the front row with leading 42 of 200 laps and having 3 finishers in the top 11 including a runner-up.
In 2020, they led 119 of 200 laps and had the 2nd place finisher.
In Texas, they put 3 of their 4 cars in the top 8 of the finishing order. That comes a year after getting all four in the top seven…
That’s 324 of 600 (54%) of the overall laps led in the Aeroscreen era and now you hand them Sato…
Ganassi has won 5 Indy 500’s in their history. Can they remain on top for another year and if so, how do they do it with everyone chasing them?
“Yeah, it’s a team effort,” Dixon told me. “You know, it’s every kind of department I think trying to get the most out of it our kind of our engineering group during a lot of homework in the offseason. Plus the addition you know, with your partners, right, you know, how do I know I’ve been digging real deep for qualifier speed, but also race, speed, drivability, all kinds of those things. “So you know, it’s never again, it’s never going to be 1,2,3,4 or five big things. It’s going to be hundreds of small things. And I think you know, this team last year the year before that, does that really well so you know, I know they haven’t made up so hopefully we can continue to have some great success here.”
I mean think about it, the car hasn’t changed much. The personnel mostly remains the same and if they change teams, they take secrets with them. That makes what Ganassi is doing even more impressive that they can remain on top with all these factors.
Refresher Course Session
The session ended somewhat prematurely but served its purpose. 8 of the 33 cars here had to complete orientation or refresher courses. 5 of the 8 were veterans that needed to complete the final two phases. Even with the light rain, they were all five able to do so.
2 of the 3 rookies finished all three of their phases. The only one left is Agustin Canapino who did completed the first two phases and while he needs to finish his final phase, he’s eligible to practice since the final phases consists of laps at 215+ mph.
The phases they had to go through was:
Phase 1 requires a driver to complete 10 laps at speeds between 205-210 mph. Phase 2 requires a driver to complete 15 more laps at speeds between 210-215 mph. The final stage, Phase 3, requires a driver to complete 15 laps at speeds over 215 mph.
Marco Andretti (221.569 mph) topped the speed chart in this session.
All Skate Session
It was familiar names up front in the final 4 1/2 hour session to wrap up the day. Josef Newgarden was quickest on the overall speed chart during the 2021 open test. He was also quickest in the 2022 open test too. Now, the two-time series champion was quick out of the gates again. The Team Penske driver went 227.686 mph to top the 33-car speed chart on a breezy, yet warm, Thursday afternoon.
Newgarden went 226.819 mph two years ago and 229.519 mph on the second day last year. What makes the 2023 version different than the previous two?
“Great day. Really great day,” Newgarden quipped. “I wish it was like race day today. But you don’t get to choose those. You got to show up on that day and be really good. I told the team, If this was race day, don’t touch it. It was very good.
“Sometimes have you that around here. Sometimes you show up and sometimes the cars is just great. Sometimes you got to work on it. Today was one of those really good days. We got through a list as well, we learned a lot, which is always positive.
“Sometimes you can go in circles around here, sometimes you’re inefficient. Today as a team I felt like we were very efficient with time, split it up, divided and conquered. Really happy for Team Penske today and feeling good next month for the Shell car.”
He feels like all the offseason adjustments to their Indy package is enough for the Tennessee native to be a factor in this year’s 107th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Conor Daly (227.466 mph) put down a fast lap late to end up second on the day. Scott Dixon (226.788 mph) wound up third in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda. Dixon led Daly on Day 1 of the open test a year ago whereas Newgarden’s top speed from 2022 was set on the second day.
Dixon was also fourth overall in 2021 and again in 2022 too.
The latest NTT INDYCAR SERIES race winner at Long Beach, Kyle Kirkwood, was P4 in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda. The Florida native turned in a lap of 226.727 mph.
Two-time Indy 500 champion, Takuma Sato (226.265 mph) rounded out the top five of a busy day of action. Sato was second overall last year.
Bottom Of The Speed Charts
While it’s not necessarily normal to be looking more towards the bottom than the top of the speed charts, my eyes will be geared more towards the bottom both days. That’s because it could provide some clues on who may be sweating out qualifying weekend.
The two cars that didn’t test here in 2021 were the only two cars to miss the field in that’s year’s race.
The bottom eight on the 2021 open test speed chart saw five of which start 25th or worse.
Last year, while there was no bumping, 5 of the bottom six on the second day speed chart started 25th or worse including 4 of which taking spots in the last 2 Rows. Stefan Wilson was the only entry not to test and he started last.
On Thursday, all three rookies were in the bottom seven of the speed charts. Agustin Canapino (222.162 mph) was 27th, Sting Ray Robb (221.785 mph) was 29th and Benjamin Pedersen (220.109 mph) was last in 33rd.
However, if you go from 25th on back, you get both Foyt cars (25th, 33rd), both Juncos Hollinger Racing cars (27th, 31st), three of the four RLL cars (26th, 28th, 32nd) and Devlin DeFrancesco of Andretti (30th) and Sting Ray Robb of Coyne (29th).
That’s why I’m curious on who’s struggling for all out pace on Thursday and Friday. Trends show that it likely means that they’ll be behind when they come back for when it counts next month too.
Jay Frye and his talented team around him have done a great job of trying to make this racing package perfect. They know passing shouldn’t be easy. It’s the most talented race cars drivers in the world, so you can’t just dumb this thing down to where anyone can do it. But, with the UAK, passing was almost too difficult to start with. 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 changed dropped from record levels prior to 30. The next year, it was down to 29. Most of those during pit sequences. Then, factor in the Aeroscreen for 2020, it went down to 21 lead changes.
However, we had 36 lead changes in 2021 and 38 more last year, which seemed to be a better version. Yes, it was sunny, but yes it was also cooler too.
Still, the last couple of years looked vastly improved from the 2020 race. The front few cars could pass with ease while fifth on back was difficult. If the lapped cars in front at the end of the 2021 race 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.
This year, there’s more downforce on these cars and if Texas was a preview for Indy, then watch out.
An insanely close finish last year in Texas saw 15 lead changes with 12 of the 27 starters leading at least one lap. I’d say Texas delivered.
How would this year look?
With some more downforce added and similar race conditions, this year’s PPG 375 delivered an even better show than the one of last year. The 26 lead changes were the most there in over two decades. The 2001 race was the last time that we had as many lead changes on the 1.44-mile-high-banked track.
The 482 passes for position was nearly 200 more passes last year.
Indy has even more downforce added which could only get better. On Thursday, it was.
The drivers made mention that you could follow closer to other cars in front of you. That’s great news because on a hot and sunny day that saw temperatures soar into the upper 70s and 80s, if you could follow close today, then you certainly can on race day next month.
The only problem that does need to be mentioned is the fact that when you get a run, but pull out to pass, you kind of hit a wall of air that slows you down to where you struggle to complete the pass. That’s natural right?
If you’re behind a car in tow, they’re punching a hole in the air which the headwind naturally slows them down like they’re carrying a parachute. The car behind doesn’t have that wall of air to run into which naturally makes them quicker. When they pull out, they meet that wall of air too.
So, what they’re needing is a little more horsepower to complete that pass and the ability to time the pass to be able to pull out and complete it.
Still, it’s great news that you can follow closer now than last year which is a massive bonus.
I think purely speaking from what’s available, there will be more load on the cars than last year. That should pack everyone up theoretically. I think that will happen.
I don’t think you’re going to get the Texas effect. This is not a two-lane racetrack. At least not currently. Outside of restarts and starts, you’re not going to have side by side lap after lap. You’re going to have really exciting restarts, really exciting start to the race, then it’s going to be a matter of how do you work traffic, et cetera.
“I think the goal would be giving a little bit more of the frontrunners an opportunity to shuffle around,” Josef Newgarden said. “Typically it’s just the front two shuffling. I think if we could get the shuffle going three, four deep, even getting people opportunities in the mid pack to make moves more often, that’s really the goal without overstepping it. It remains to be seen if we’ve struck that right balance. It’s just very hard to predict.”
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 they’re working with and so far, it seems like they may have found it.
The thing is, the beginning portions of the race are always going to be all about fuel saving with the ending an intense shootout, just as we witnessed in Texas. I feel like INDYCAR is close to a perfect package here and that the 2023 race will be even better with the direction that they’re heading in.
The series will be back on Friday for another six-hour session. However, there’s a big chance of rain overnight and into the early portions of Friday morning/early afternoon. If they don’t get any running, Scott Dixon isn’t too concerned.
“Not I think so maybe for some teams but you know, all of us have run here so much that you know, it’s always great to be able to run here but you know, they added some practice time today,” Dixon said. “I think there’s plenty of time. You know, if we missed tomorrow, then I think that’s going to be okay.”