INDIANAPOLIS — Due to wet conditions making opening day of practice for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 a washout, Wednesday’s activity was a busy one.
3,450 laps were turned in six hours of action under the sun filled Central Indiana skies. Scott Dixon turned in a very earlier flier of 229.174 mph which withstood the test for much of the day. However, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate of Takuma Sato one upped him just before Happy Hour in jumping to the top of the board at 229.439 mph and ending the day on top in his No. 11 Dallara-Honda.
“You definitely don’t have the momentum or rhythm,” Takuma Sato told me on Wednesday morning in the shadows of the victory podium of being a part-time driver this year.
That didn’t slow him though as being the quickest driver on the opening day of practice for the second straight year.
Last year, Sato went 228.939 mph late on opening day. Ironically enough, he topped Dixon (227.768 mph) too which Dixon’s early lap stood up to being second overall.
Last year, Wednesday’s practice was rained out, but on Thursday, Sato and Dixon went 1-2 again. Do they do so tomorrow?
Their teammates were just as quick on Wednesday. Alex Palou (228.720 mph) and defending Indy 500 champion, Marcus Ericsson (227.701 mph) ended up being fourth and seventh respectively.
Pato O’Ward said last weekend that he expected the Chip Ganassi Racing cars were going to be the ones that everyone was going to be chasing again.
“Obviously last year the Ganassi’s were the different benchmark. They’re the ones that we’re chasing,” said last year’s runner-up finisher, Pato O’Ward.
So far, he looks to be right with them having all four cars in the top seven.
In 2020, they led 119 of 200 laps and had the 2nd place finisher. In 2021, they 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. Last year, they led 163 of 200 laps (82%).
That’s 324 of 600 (54%) of the overall laps led in the Aeroscreen era and already this month leading the charge.
The day went virtually uninterrupted with just five stoppages, all for debris and/or track inspections totaling 35-minutes and 10-seconds of down time.
“Big 3” Strength
It wasn’t just Ganassi up front on Wednesday. Mix in Andretti Autosport and Team Penske and you get 7 of the top 9 speeds belonging to these camps.
Combined, Ganassi, Penske and Andretti have won 14 of the last 18 Indy 500’s and 18 of the last 23 (since 2000). RLL is the outlier who took two of the top three spots in 2020 and have won 2 of the 5 that the “Big 3” didn’t since 2000.
Mix Of Strategy
What’s fun about a long six-hour practice session is the fact that you get varying strategies and plans that teams elect to go through. Some will focus strictly on race running and find groups to practice in. Even then, the plans vary. Some will do so on new tires. Some will go out on scuffs. Some will use a full fuel run while others may experiment with varying levels of Shell fuel in the tanks.
Other teams will elect to jump onto an early qualifying simulation run. Several elected to do so on Wednesday afternoon. The reason for this is due to track position meaning so much here and with the value of technology in the sport, you can jump onto qualifying sims even days before the boost levels get turned up on Friday.
“Yeah, probably,” Josef Newgarden told me on if the Penske camp would alter their approach this year and to jump on qualifying setups earlier in the week. “Just because it is important to qualify well. I mean, you can win from wherever, but it’s equally important to qualify well too, so I think you’re seeing more people do that.
“We’ll probably see the same this year. But I think just even more so than the race just people are putting more emphasis on qualifying well and trying to find the speed in the car.”
Tony Kanaan agreed but notes that he’s not all about seeing his name on the speed charts early.
“Because a qualifying car is always gonna be a qualifying car,” says the popular Brazilian driver. “But, you know, you see less and less people doing that you see people working a lot on their race setups, because at the end of the day, I mean, the series is so competitive that you have to have a car that you’re able to pass and qualifying is a part of having a fast car.
“It’s so random, right? It’s the number you’re going to draw for Day 1 sometimes you have a huge advantage so even it doesn’t mean that the fastest car around is going to start on the pole. So I think that has changed a bit.
ECR Cars Quick On No Tow
The start to the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season has been abysmal for the Ed Carpenter Racing camp. Rinus VeeKay is 18th in points. He’s finished 21st, 11th, 26th, 16th and 13th respectively. Conor Daly is 24th. He’s finished 14th, 20th, 23rd, 25th and 19th himself.
However, this could be the race that the doctor ordered.
They had 2 of the top 4 starters in last year’s race. They’ve also had at least 1 driver in the final round qualifying shootout for 10 straight years now.
Ed Carpenter has 7 top 4 starting spots in the last 10 years and 3 top 6 finishes in his last 5 Indy 500 tries.
Conor Daly led the most laps in 2021 and was sixth a year ago after leading 7 more laps.
Rinus VeeKay has two straight front row starting spots and finished 8th in 2021.
That speed showed up again on Wednesday. ECR put all three cars in the top five of the no two including going 1-2. VeeKay led the weay at 223.212 mph and Carpenter at 222.341 mph was second. The next best was Will Power at 221.803 mph. Scott McLaughlin was 221.537 mph with Daly at 221.394 mph.
Is that a good omen for the rest of the week?
“So this is a month you know, we’re gonna be fast here,” VeeKay told me before practice even began. “We will definitely have a great car and hopefully get the pole.”
The other byproduct of having Indy up next is the benefit of extra practice sessions. It’s unanimous, the drivers that are struggling this season are all happy to get six hours of practice a day to get up speed.
“I think maybe the extra practice will just help us fight some of the weaknesses in the car this season,” he says. “You could definitely try a lot of stuff. You know, normally don’t take the time for it. If it’s one hour practice session, you take the car, put a different differential or gearbox in there and you know, it’s kind of all the time we’ve got. Here we can have a two-hour break to change the car make a huge change and then go back out.”
In saying that, VeeKay knows the pressure ramps up to perform. They need it and knows that if they don’t get the season turned back around this month, then the season could spiral out of control.
“Definitely longing to do better here to just have a great finish,” he says. “Of course we want to win and I think we can with this car. But we never know. So I’m definitely I definitely want to do well. This race, but it’s not like I’m beating myself up or doing anything. I want to win this race, but I just got to do everything on track. Well, then it will happen.”
DRR, David Malukas Start Cinderella Runs
The bigger teams may still win next week’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. However, Meyer Shank Racing just two years ago showed that the little guy can still compete and get the job done with the right amount of hardwork and skill.
Maybe this year’s Cinderella and glass slipper will fit the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing camp.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been competing in the famed 500-mile event since 2000 and qualified 45 cars over its course of competition. They’ve been phenomenal at Indy lately too which could make Ryan Hunter-Reay and teammate Stefan Wilson darkhorses when we come back for real next month. Sage Karam finished 7th in 2021 while Santino Ferrucci was 10th a year ago in the 2nd entry.
In last month’s open test, they were 2-3 in the refresher session and sixth (Wilson) and 14th (Hunter-Reay) on the Day 1 overall speed chart.
When the times counted in practice, they were right back to where they left off. Ryan Hunter-Reay (227.619 mph) was P9 after being in the top six for most of the day, while Stefan Wilson (226.285 mph) was P9 going into Happy Hour and slid down to 15th late.
You also can’t count out another sleeper in David Malukas. In what should have been last year’s Rookie of the Year, “Lil Dave” went out and finished second in Gateway last August, fourth at Texas last month and was fifth entering Happy on the opening speed charts (226.061 mph) on Wednesday and fell to 16th after most turned quicker times in the final hour.
Who’s In Trouble
While it’s only the first day and so many varying plans, the early look at who’s in trouble has to be Callum Ilott. He was troubled with a bad handling car during the open test and now that they’re back, they still didn’t produce a ton of speed. His top lap in the first half of the day was barely over 215 mph. He did gain five mph later in the day and went even faster after in going 223.408 mph, but that was good enough for last on the speed charts. He was the slowest (212.269 mph) during the open test.
RC Enerson did pass all three phases of ROP but was only 33rd (224.019 mph). Then you have some RLL cars next. Despite all that momentum, a few were at the bottom in 31st (Katherine Legge) and 32nd (Christian Lundgaard).
In the open test, RLL went 23rd (Rahal), 26th (Lundgaard), 28th (Harvey) and 31st (Katherine Legge). Last year, they had 2 of the bottom 3 qualifiers (Lundgaard 31st, Harvey 32nd) and earlier this season in Texas, they qualified 24th, 27th and 28th out of 28 cars.