INDIANAPOLIS — For the 107th time, race cars will fill the Indiana air on Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This year’s race should prove to be one of the most memorable ones not just in recent years, but dare I say, ever?
Sunday’s race crowd is nearing capacity. Less than 5k tickets remain in the massive 235k grandstands that surround the famed 2.5-mile track.
This is the fastest starting field in the history of the Indianapolis 500 (232.184 mph). It’s the fastest front row (234.181 mph), the closest front row (.103 mph) and closest gap between 1st and 2nd (.0040-seconds and .006 mph).
The fastest female qualifier ever (Katherine Legge) and second fastest rookie (Benjamin Pedersen) are both among the 33 car field.
As the record setting month comes to a close, how will the actual race look?
It depends on whom you ask.
“I think it’s pretty hard when you are fourth, fifth and behind that. And it’s too easy when your first, second,” said pole sitter, Alex Palou, on passing.
This year, there’s more downforce on these race cars. The drivers are unanimous in that you don’t want to be the leader here. It’s almost too easy to pass up front they feel.
“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.
“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, but 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. 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.”
Last year’s race winner, Marcus Ericsson, isn’t so sure that his dragon move that he made last year to win the race would necessarily work this time around.
“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.”
Will Power agreed.
“Oh, it’s going to be easy to pass, not in the pack but at the front, because you’ve added downforce,” he says. “You actually haven’t added much drag. The cars are about the same speed because they’re very efficient, aero bits or strakes and some floor stuff, so it’s not big draggy wicker on the wing or anything. It’s the closest I’ve ever been able to run to a car at this place without an issue.
“I think, yeah, the front three will race pretty hard, and then as usual, you can’t — I don’t think there’s a series around — you can never have — it would be ridiculous to have enough downforce for everyone to pass, but the one thing there is is there’s tire deg, so I think that will create good racing in the pack.”
Power says the issue now is going to be not making mistakes.
“It’s almost going to be a day of no mistakes in the pits and just keeping out of trouble on track to give yourself a shot at the end,” Power said.
“The package I have, you can run on the gearbox.”
The other thing he notes is that the tire is softer and degrades more. He said that with the package the way it is, you’re going to see maybe some comers and goers as a result.
“I think if they have a better car that looks after the tire, yeah. The left sides are softer,” he said. “They get vibrations more easily and the tire degrades, so if it’s a hot day like this, there will be cars coming and going, I think.
“I think it’s just because the left sides are softer. They just degrade easier. I haven’t had a set without a vibration yet. I’ve had a couple that have been massive and you have to pit and I’ve had a couple — last one I just did a full stint, but it’s still there. It’s left side, left front, left rear. Depends which slides more.
” If you get an early one, yes, like almost to the point where you can’t drive it. Like if it’s a left rear, you get that early, have a big moment early, yeah, you’re going to be pitting on about lap 18 I feel like. Yeah, you might be able to hold on for a couple more, but it’s on the edge.
“But yeah, I think it makes for better racing. It needed some deg. Yeah, good hot day, I think it’ll be a good race. Colder day would be pretty tight. Yeah.”
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.”
“When you are fifth in line, like Conor was saying, it’s still very difficult,” he says. “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.”
Marco Andretti noted like most everyone else that you’re not going to be able to get away. The pack is going to be closely run together. So even if you have a run and make a look to pass, that car has a line of cars that they’re getting a tow with and that they can easily defend their position.
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.”
Which is why I think we’re in store for a photo finish.
30 times we’ve seen a late pass for the lead inside of 10 to go. Six times the lead was lost on Lap 199 (1912, 1989, 1999, 2012, 2019, 2021) and twice the lead was lost on the front straightaway coming to the checkered flag (2006, 2011).
I have a feeling that without a caution, we’re going to see just that with what could possibly be one of the top closest finishes ever.
.043-seconds in 1992 is the closest. .0600-seconds in 2014 is next best. 2006 was .0635-seconds. 2015 was .1046-seconds while 1982 (.16-seconds) rounds out the top five.
I think we break into the top five on Sunday.