5 things we learned from the opening week of 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 practice

INDIANAPOLIS — Three day’s worth of NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice has been conducted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week. 7,534 laps were logged. Friday was only about qualifying pace with the boost levels turned up. Wednesday-Thursday was more of a balance between qualifying sims as well as race sims taking place. 6,614 laps were turned on those days.

Here’s what we’ve learned this week.

Aero Package Works

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. During the open test, it was. What about during practice?

“The adjustment I think is pretty massive this year, especially if you decide to run all the rear wing,” Scott Dixon said. “It’s a lot of downforce. We’ll have to see how that plays out.

“I think once we get to some hotter conditions, you may see that play more of a factor. But yeah, I thought last year — this place is meant to be difficult, so I’m never a fan of making things easier.”

Simon Pagenaud agreed on the added parts helping affect not necessarily on the easier aspect.

“I feel like we have a good range of downforce level, parts that we can use to make the car behave a certain way,” said the 2019 race winner.

“I think INDYCAR allowed us to have a bigger wrench, and I feel like it’s better for racing. But it doesn’t stop the fact that when you are fifth in line, like Conor was saying, it’s still very difficult. The car ahead of you is still drafting, going same speed as you. Even if you’re good there doesn’t mean you’re going to pass.

“It’s still going to be first, second trading every single lap, similar. We have a better range to work with, and that’s enjoyable.”

The drivers made mention during the test that you could follow closer to other cars in front of you. This week, it wasn’t as strong as a point that you could pass earlier in the pack, but up front, it’s for sure easier.

“I think it’s harder to lead this year with the aero specs we have,” said last year’s Indy 500 champion, Marcus Ericsson. “I think if you lead in a scenario like last year it’s going to be harder to keep that lead is my feeling.”

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.

 “I mean, if you’re talking in traffic, it still is a challenge I would say,” said Conor Daly. “If you’re deep in the pack, it didn’t matter what car it was, it was rare to see people making progress unless people were letting people by.

“The first two cars, boy, it looked like they were having a heck of a race. So I don’t know if that’s the case. I don’t think it brings us closer. I think the entire field is just closer because everyone is really good, and the teams are really good.”

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,” Josef Newgarden said. “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. 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.

“I will say that I think INDYCAR has done a good job with the aero tweaks,” Graham Rahal said. “I think it’s a lot — not a lot easier, but it’s quite a bit easier to pass this year and follow than in years past.

“I think if you were fourth, fifth, sixth car in the train, let alone 15th last year you were in deep trouble as far as trying to stay close.

“I think it’s a little more open this year. If you have a good car, I do think you can make your way through. But naturally, the further forward, the more you can just control your whole day and you don’t have to worry about being in X position by lap 50, 100, 150.

“If you can be up front and just stay there and kind of control the pace, it certainly helps.”

Scott Dixon leads a pack during the Indy 500 open test. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Chip Ganassi Racing Are The Favorites

Chip Ganassi Racing went 1-2 in the first two practice sessions of the week. They went 1-2 on the four-lap average chart on Friday and had all four of their cars in the top 11 on that metric. Marcus Ericsson was quickest in not only the single lap practice chart on Thursday, but the no tow report too. Afterwards, he said in his press conference that his car feels better now than it did last year when he won the race.

“I think last year we were super good all practice, the whole week as well,” said Ericsson. “I think we are as good this year for sure.

“I think the team has done a really good job of trying to improve the package that we already had last year very strong.

“I thought yesterday I was struggling a little bit in traffic. Today we made some changes that made me more happy with my race car. I was actually quite pleased mid afternoon when we started to change over to quallie trim. I definitely feel we’re in a very, very good spot.

“We feel strong. We feel better than last year, and last year we were pretty good.

“We feel better. We worked hard in the winter already to improve on a strong package. Testing is testing, it’s hard to make conclusions. But of course we feel we’re going to be fighting up front. From what we’ve seen so far, we should be up there.

“We don’t want to underestimate our competition because there’s a lot of good teams that work really hard to improve. We can’t underestimate that challenge going into this weekend and the next one.”

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.

The drivers have all made mention that the Ganassi camp seems untouchable right now, but a lot can still obviously change.

In 2020, they led 119 of 200 laps. 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. They didn’t have a win in either race.

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. However, with all those laps led, they do have just one win in this span.

Indianapolis is a hard place to win. It picks its winners. It’s why there’s no reason to give up and hand the Borg Warner over to Ganassi…yet.

A lot can happen over the course of a 500 mile race. A bad pit stop. A badly timed caution. A speeding penalty. You can be good for 199 laps, but not the one that matters.

Right now, Ganassi are the favorites, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much at this point either.

Alex Palou leads a group during practice for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Varying Practice Agends

As teams begin practice this week for next weekend’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network), the customary check lists and plans could differ this year in comparison to years past. Normally, with how the schedule would go, you’d have three scheduled days of “race” practice before the boost gets turned up on Fast Friday. At that point, you’d transfer from race mode to qualifying setups. You’d then not focus on race setups again until the Monday post qualifying practice.

However, that may now be changing.

As simulations have evolved over the years, teams have found ways to simulate boost levels throughout the week before you even get to turn them up. Why wait until Friday when you can split the plans in half?

“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.”

Penske cars 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). Their drivers 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.

That’s why qualifying pace is very important for their resurgence.

That onus had a split mindset inside of Gasoline Alley though. Some teams felt like it was beneficial to spend some parts of the day focusing on qualifying sims and others on race trim. With technology able to get a feel out of the car early, you might as well get a head start.

Others felt like it wasn’t true data and that why waste laps on track without the boost? After all, knowing that you’re likely in the race, why not just focus full-time on race setups and have an advantage of tons of race day data to work off of.

“Because a qualifying car is always gonna be a qualifying car,” says Tony Kanaan. “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.”

In the early years of this DW12 era, track position didn’t tend to mean a whole heck of a lot. From 2012 through 2016, every race winner came from a starting spot outside of the Top 10 (16th, 12th, 19th, 15th, 11th). In that era, it paid more to focus on getting your car feeling great in traffic because you could still move your way up no matter where you started.

Since then?

The last six winners have each started in the top 8 including five of the six from a top five spot.

With that said, you now can’t wait until Friday to simulate qualifying setups. You have to almost start as early as possible because track position has been a big factor in deciding to wins the Indianapolis 500 again or not.

If you have it, it really takes a self-inflicted mistake to lose it. That’s partially why Team Penske hasn’t won here in the last three years. They’ve not qualified well enough to give themselves the best shot at victory here.

Chip Ganassi Racing has been the vast opposite.

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, Scott Dixon led 95 laps, Alex Palou 47, Marcus Ericsson 13, Tony Kanaan 6 and Jimmie Johnson 2. That’s 163 of 200 laps (82%) and the win.

That’s also 324 of 600 (54%) of the overall laps led in the Aeroscreen era. For them, they’ve been among the top starters and it’s paid off.

Drivers Playing With Other Teams In Traffic

In the early hours of Thursday’s practice session, we saw all four Chip Ganassi Racing cars practicing in tow. Between them however, was Alexander Rossi. One lone McLaren within four Ganassi Honda’s. That was by design.

“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.

Ganassi drivers led 163 of 200 laps (82%) last year. They went 1-2-4-7 in Wednesday’s practice.

“Marcus (Ericsson) out of nowhere just came out with insane speed,” O’Ward said last year when he finished second. “Got by me like I was standing still. Got up to Felix (Rosenqvist) I think within two laps, passed him like he was standing still, left him. I got to Felix finally. I passed him. I had nothing for him. I said, I need a yellow to try and have a shot.

“Tony was also really quick coming behind me. I know he was catching me faster than what I was catching Marcus. When the restart happened, I said, I have one shot, I have to go flat, and still wasn’t enough.

“Too fast in the straight. Maybe if I would have timed it a little bit better. I really don’t think I could have done it much better. I did enough to what we had been doing all race.

“But, yeah, at the end I was surprised with how much more pace they had in a straight line with quite a bit more downforce. I was just trying to time it as good as possible.”

They even qualified 1-3-4-6-12 a year ago and 1-3-7-9 in 2021.

That’s why they’re the ones to beat. That’s also why Rossi was the Guinea pig to run with them to see not only where the McLaren Chevrolet stacks up, but maybe see if they can pinpoint some things the Ganassi’s are doing too.

“I mean that traffic that’s the that’s the whole reason that you get into traffic, right because you can see what other people are doing to an extent and understand what you need to excel on with your car,” Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood told me about learning on what other teams are doing in traffic. “And it’s also good to work with teammates, because you know that they have some differences and that they’re trying to tune in on something here like where did that help them because it’s almost easier to see how someone else’s car is reacting compared to yours than it is when you’re actually in the seat.

“So that’s the whole point that we all run together and we all get as many laps together as possible because we all know that we’re on different setups and we know where each other thrive and where we don’t.”

If you can’t beat them, join them. Why not see how you stack up and see if you can see some subtle things on their cars while doing so.

Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves chat on pit road practicing during practice for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

MSR/ECR/Foyt Looking For Bounce Back

This has been a dismal start to the season for these three camps. They’re the only teams yet to lead a lap this season.

However, most of their drivers are fast on the Indy oval. Is this the reset that they need?

Meyer Shank Racing sits 20th (Helio Castroneves) and 24th (Simon Pagenaud) in points. This duo has won two of the last four Indy 500’s between them but this season, Castroneves has finished 23rd, 10th, 21st, 21st and 22nd respectively.

Pagenaud has been 26th, 17th, 15th, 18th and 25th respectively. These two didn’t forget how to drive….

That’s not what’s going on over at MSR. What’s going on is a mix of everything else. Cars not fitting the drivers’ styles. Bad luck. Bad timing. Bad pit stops. Bad setups. A lot. Mix all together in the most difficult form of motorsports, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and you get a driver 20th in points (Castroneves) and 23rd (Pagenaud).

“Oh, yeah, man. It’s been a tough season for us,” Pagenaud told me on opening day of practice for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. “It’s tough because you know, the potential of the team is great. I have great people. It’s just been a lot of bad luck, a lot of issues. It’s just seemed to be everything at once on his first few races.”

He’s not wrong. Being an innocent bystander in the opening lap St. Pete crash relegated the Frenchman to a 26th place finish. The speed just wasn’t there in Texas. Long Beach saw him start 14th and finish 15th. Barber was more of the same (start 16th and finish 18th). A pit error in the GMR Grand Prix left Pagenaud 25th.

He and this team just need a good old fashioned hard reset and the most perfect place for that to occur is up next – the Indy 500.

Pagenaud won here in 2019 and cautions that the last time he felt this way was back in that 2019 season. He didn’t have a top five finish in either of the first four races run that year. He then rattled off an Indy sweep.

Last year in his first year with Meyer Shank Racing, Pagenaud finished eighth here. Maybe this is exactly what the doctor ordered.

“Let me remind you, ’19 was the same for me,” he continued. “And then we turned things around right here so why not? Why couldn’t it happen this time? I’m not going to make it a habit, but I just feel like sometimes is this things you can’t control and you get stuck pointing fingers at people and saying, Yeah, you guys made a mistake. I made a mistake. We all make mistakes. It’s not really the way to go about business. We just need to keep focusing and believe in what we have. We had a great test here. We have five Indy 500 wins in a team. So we have all the ingredients to do well.”

The good part of Indy is that you get plenty of on track time. Wednesday-Friday is six hours of practice each day. You get four hours of race practice on race week. By comparison, most race weekend’s you get an hour on Friday, 45 minutes on Saturday morning and a 30-minute warmup. That’s not even a half day on the oval here.

“Yeah, Friday, Saturday at the Grand Prix, we don’t really have time to do anything,” Pagenaud said. “Either the car is good right away, or it’s not and you suffer. You don’t have time to change you know, you can’t reach to make a change or it could make it worse when you’re fighting for seconds.

“So here is different. You have time to go through the changes you have time to analyze everything dissect. It’s actually better to do it that way and not get lost.”

Pagenaud is a world class driver with 204 career starts, 15 wins, 12 poles, 38 podiums, 71 top five finishes, 133 top 10’s and 1,313 laps led. He’s finished an astounding 93% (189-for-204) starts. I would never doubt his talent and in a place that rewards drivers of Pagenaud’s caliber, I say watch out this month ahead.

For ECR, 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, VeeKay has qualified on the front row in each of the last two years while Daly led the most laps in 2021 and was sixth in 2022. They get bossman Ed Carpenter back this month too.

“Like a four out of 10, not happy,” VeeKay told me on Wednesday morning to grade the start of the season for him. “I’m happy with my performance, but we’re just not there as a team. We are just struggling a bit to keep up with the other guys.”

That could change this time around. The oval around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is up next. This is a place to where Ed Carpenter Racing and VeeKay are typically fast.

VeeKay has made three prior starts here for the Indianapolis 500 and has qualified no worse than fourth in either. In fact, he’s been on the front row the last two consecutive years.

“So this is a month you know, we’re gonna be fast here,” VeeKay told me. “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.”

VeeKay led the ECR brigade on the no tow list on opening day in going 223.312 mph on Wednesday. His boss and teammate Ed Carpenter was second with Conor Daly in fifth making this grouping ones to watch to make an 11th straight shootout on Sunday.

“It was pretty good, good no-tow speeds,” VeeKay said post practice. “We think there’s still a lot more in it, so that’s a good sign, but also mostly the focus all afternoon has been race running, just making sure the car is good enough for the race, getting behind the backup cars, and yeah, we found out a lot about bad and good changes.

For Foyt, Benjamin Pedersen is a rookie but finding ways to finish races while Santino Ferrucci is undefeated with top 10 finishes here and is hopeful to bring Foyt their first INDYCAR win since 2013 and their first Indy 500 victory since 1999.

Callum Ilott practicing for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Ilott, RLL In Trouble

The favorite to be the one to miss the show has to be Callum Ilott right now. They were terrible in the test (33rd out of 33), slowest on Opening Day (34th out of 34), 32nd on Thursday and last again on Fast Friday. Ilott only turned 80 laps on Wednesday as he was battling the same issues that crept up during the test last month for which he only turned 31 total laps in. On Thursday, he was out there for 71 laps. On Friday, he only turned seven laps as they elected to finally change cars.

That’s 158 total laps this week and only 31 in the test. They’re WAY behind and struggling. He was 3 mph off from the next best and at this rate, I fear he misses the show.

RC Enerson could keep him company. Enerson did pass all three phases of ROP on Wednesday but was only 33rd (224.019 mph). He was 28th (225.112 mph) on Thursday and 3oth again on Fast Friday (231.242 mph).

The other ones I’m watching are the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing camp.

Katherine Legge was 31st, 33rd and 29th respectively on the speed charts. She was 28th on the four-lap average chart.

Christian Lundgaard was 32nd, 27th and 32nd across the three days. He was 30th on the four-lap average.

Jack Harvey was 28th, 21st and 31st this week and was 32nd on the four-lap average. He blew an engine with 10 minutes remaining in Friday’s practice too.

Graham Rahal was 23rd, 12th and 33rd on single lap speed and 31st on the four-lap average chart.

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.

I think your Last Row Shootout could come down to Lundgaard, Harvey, Rahal, Legge, Enerson and Ilott.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s