Takuma Sato (234.753 mph) fastest practice lap at IMS in 27 years on Fast Friday at Indy, recap with my top takeaways

INDIANAPOLIS — Chip Ganassi Racing is winning the week of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They’re 3-for-3 with Takuma Sato being quickest in two of them. The two-time Indy 500 champion turned the fastest practice lap in 27 years on Fast Friday with a top speed 234.753 mph in his No. 11 Dallara-Honda.

Sato’s lap was done in the opening minutes of the six-hour practice session and remained there when it was all said and done. That was nearly two mph quicker (232.789 mph) than his top speed in last year’s windy Fast Friday session.

With Sato being quickest the last two years on opening day and Fast Friday, does that bode well for Chip Ganassi Racing this weekend?

MORE: Day 2 Practice Recap/5 Takeways

MORE: Day 3 Practice Recap/5 Takeaways

They had all four cars in the top seven on Day 1, all four in the top nine 24 hours later (1-2-7-9) on Day 2 and all four in the top 14 of single lap speed on Fast Friday.

Sato scored the clean sweep of the day with the fastest overall lap (234.753 mph), the fastest no tow (same speed) and the quickest four-lap average (233.413 mph).

His four-lap average though occurred late in Happy Hour as he was sixth on the chart prior. Similar with teammate Marcus Ericsson who was outside the top 20 after his initial run earlier in the day before a set of changes to get reaffirmed in Happy Hour. The defending Indy 500 champion quickly shot to the top of the four-lap chart at 233.113 mph before Sato topped him shortly after.

On the overall speed chart, Marco Andretti got a tow late and moved up to P2 on the day at 234.202 mph. Rinus VeeKay (234.171 mph) was next best in his No. 21 Dallara-Chevrolet. The Dutch youngster has qualified fourth, third and third respectively here and looks once again to have another shot at the front row on Saturday.

Ericsson (234.029 mph) and Pato O’Ward (233.796 mph) rounded out the top five in the third straight incident free day.

Who Looks Front Row Worthy?

The speed chart doesn’t tell the whole story on Friday. The four-lap averages paint a clearer picture. Going quick on one lap is one thing, but for here, you have to do four. Sato was tops among all 34 drivers on the four-lap average chart at 233.413 mph. He led teammate Marcus Ericsson (233.133 mph) in Ganassi going 1-2 in practice on Wednesday and Thursday and again on Friday on the four-lap average chart that matters the most.

Team Penske went P3 (233.086 mph) and P4 (233.070 mph) with Josef Newgarden and Will Power respectively while Rinus VeeKay (232.898 mph) rounded out the top five.

The four speeds in front of VeeKay were all turned in Happy Hour.

With being quick on the no tow this week (1st, 6th), I’d say VeeKay is the early pole favorite this weekend. Will he have company from his teammates?

Conor Daly was 16th with Ed Carpenter in 23rd.

Arrow McLaren Racing (7-9-12) were all three towards the front within the Chevrolet camp. Felix Rosenqvist (232.777 mph) was tops among them in seventh while Alexander Rossi (232.535 mph) and Pato O’Ward (232.306 mph) being behind.

The McLaren cars all sat out Happy Hour which leads me to wonder if they could have improved like the others.

Team Penske had all three cars in the top 12 with Newgarden (3rd), Power (4th) and Scott McLaughlin (12th).

The sleepers I feel are Andretti Autosport. Kyle Kirkwood backed up Thursday’s pace on Friday. He was ninth on the no tow in Day 2 and second on the four-lap average chart on Friday before falling to eighth in Happy Hour.

Colton Herta was eighth on the no tow list Thursday and sixth on the four lap averages on Friday. Romain Grosjean was 14th on Friday’s list and Marco Andretti in 17th.

Will Power and Alexander Rossi cross the yard of bricks during Indy 500 practice. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Honda vs. Chevy

I wondered coming in who would have the leg up on the competition between Honda and Chevrolet. With just two engine manufacturers, their dominance usually ebbs and flows here at Indy. One year, one has the top engine. The one that was down, spends the next 11 months trying to improve. Usually, they do so. The cycle goes on and on. Now, after Honda thumped Chevrolet last May, how does Chevy respond?

Chevrolet had the preferred power in this race in 2018 and again in 2019. They’ve swept the front row both years.

Then in 2020 it was all Honda. This time Honda swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. In 2021, it was more Honda dominance in taking 7 of the 9 spots into the Fast 9 and 9 of the top 11 overall.

Last year, Chevrolet swept the provisional front row on opening day of Time Trials but a day later (Pole Day), the Honda’s adjusted and took 4 of the top 6 starting spots instead.

Now, who has the advantage heading into this weekend’s Time Trials?

“I think we’ve done the work and I think Chevy has improved a bit, and I’m really hoping all three of us are in that top 12, and if everything goes really well, fighting for a pole,” Will Power, the all-time winingest pole winner in INDYCAR history said.

On the four-lap average chart, Chevrolet and Honda were pretty evenly matched. Each had 7 cars represented in the top 14.

For Chevrolet, Team Penske went (3-4-12). McLaren had (7-9-13). ECR was fifth.

Honda had Ganassi (1-2-10-11) and Andretti (6-8-14).

I think this will be a fierce battle between the two manufacturers.

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

Ilott Most In Trouble – Who Else Is Last Row Shootout Worthy

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.

Will Power during practice for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Is Team Penske Back?

Qualifying has been Penske’s Achilles Heel here. Penske 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.

Last year, they qualified 12-14-26 and led no laps.

This year, they’ve been quick. They had two cars in the top six on the no tow on Wednesday too and went 1st (Power), 2nd (McLaughlin) and 4th (Newgarden) on Thursday. On the four-lap average chart on Friday they had went P3-P4 and P12.

At one point, Power made the Fast 9 in 11 straight years here, including four front row starting spots (2010, 2014, 2015, 2018), but none of those resulted in a pole. He’s finished 14th or worse in 4 of the last 6 Indy 500 starts.

“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.”

Is this the year?

Power was seventh on the overall speed charts this week before Fast Friday and turned in the second quickest no tow lap on Thursday.

“Yeah, we’ve worked extremely hard in the off-season development-wise,” said Power on Fast Friday. “Just sort of two days in of running I feel like we’re in a pretty good place, definitely in race work.

“The no-tow laps look good right now, but you never sort of can rely on that. I think today we’ll get a pretty good idea of where we stack up pace-wise.

“There’s so many good team-driver combinations now, people — all these teams turn up, they just improve every year, and the car doesn’t change. So there’s a ceiling.

“I think Ganassi was the top, and everyone is sort of getting up there now. I think it’s going to be one of the tightest qualifyings in history here, especially to get in the top 12.

“I think we’ve done the work and I think Chevy has improved a bit, and I’m really hoping all three of us are in that top 12, and if everything goes really well, fighting for a pole.”

Contract Talk

When the Indianapolis 500 is up ahead and there’s some big named drivers without contracts in place for the 2024 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, you can’t avoid the topic, especially on a day dubbed Fast Friday.

The current points leader is a free agent. So is the defending Indy 500 winner. Both are teammates. So is fourth in points Romain Grosjean. So is veteran Graham Rahal.

However, if Friday was any indication, don’t expect a lot of movement on that front.

“Yeah, I want him to stay. Yeah, I’m working hard to do it,” Chip Ganassi said of Marcus Ericsson.

So what’s the hold up? Ganassi says the same thing as everything else.

“I’m not a big guy to be talking about our deals or our contracts or anything, but Marcus has a big future in the sport, and I want it to be on this team, sure, “he says. “Yeah, we just need to finalize some sponsorship, and away we go.”

He says they’re close.

We know Alex Palou is likely heading to the Arrow McLaren Racing destination so that opens up at least one seat with Ganassi and that’s a seat you don’t need to provide funding for.

Word is Ericsson wants to be a pay driver and not a driver who has to bring funding. He wants his worth. I don’t think Ganassi can necessarily afford to lose both he and Palou and if push comes to shove, Ericsson sliding over to the 10 seat makes the upmost sense.

What about a return to Ganassi for Graham Rahal? He was open with me that he’s not actively looking to leave and hasn’t even talked to any other teams about doing so. If he does, it would come next month but he wants to get through Indy first.

“Well, yeah, of course,” Bobby Rahal said of if he wanted Graham, his son, to stay.

Graham says that it’s not just the team performance, but he is looking in the mirror too.

“I think a lot of what they (other media members) keep bringing up about I don’t want to run 20th is that it isn’t a reflection on the team,” Graham said. “As I say and of course, you know, I don’t want to run 20th and that eventually, I need to look in the mirror to and understand if I’m the cog in the wheel that’s not working too.

“Because from an unselfish perspective, I know that I could stay within this team and a management role or something else, and I feel that I could have a really strong effect on them. Sure. And so that’s what I said. But of course, things go whatever way they go.

“At the end of the day, you know, the major positive is that I have this organization if they whatever sponsor dollars come in, I can guarantee you that plus some has been spent on going racing. You know, their commitment is better, I would say higher than any other team, other than maybe Roger (Penske) who can literally do whatever they want, you know. We are improving. I know it doesn’t look like it, but things are gonna get better. It does take time without testing without all of that. It is very hard to improve. It’s very hard to go forward. And you’re trying to find things like last night and race trying to you know, you stumble across a ride height change it suddenly wakes the car up and think feels totally differently. Like why now why like, what are we missing? You know, in our data that isn’t showing, you know, but that’s where we’re at.”

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