Welcome to Indianapolis, where we seem to be headed down the front straight the entirely wrong direction! The “greatest race course in the world” (read oval… you haven’t earned any claim to fame with the road course yet Mr. IMS…) awoke a few days early this month and welcomed The machines that made this track famous for a weekend of road racing on the newly configured infield road course. Obviously, being the inaugural race, any kind of true preview is tough other than “watch out for the big guys” so I’ll share a few things I have learned while walking the track for two days.
Five Things to Watch
Oval Transition – While exiting turn 11, the drivers will have a slight transition onto the banking for the quick blast down the south short-chute. During testing, it was quite clear how soft or hard sprung the cars were. All three Penske machines had nearly no give and were almost skipping back onto the banking as opposed to the softer sprung cars that made the transition much smoother. In the heat of battle, this transition could cause the stiffer sprung cars to become slightly unsettled if they are forced away from the normal driving line.
Downforce – The largest unknown of the weekend will be how much wing is the right amount to produce both speed, and grip in the corner. With 750 horses on tap, the balance between grip and speed will be key. How easy will it be to pass an out of shape car in the twisty bits, because you know they will pull away as soon as both cars hit the straights. The reports out of the garages seem to point to… nothing. No one has the right answer yet. However, remember back to testing. The cars had much more downforce cranked into them that the first practice day and guys were breaking into the 1:09’s and breaking 190 miles per hour on the straights. Maybe high downforce is the correct answer.
Mechanical Grip – One of the plusses of racing on a repurposed F1 track is the quality of the racing surface. The roadbed is expertly prepared and the entire infield received a fresh coating of high-end racing asphalt. The track is also wide, and flat; perfect for carving quick racing lines around the facility. With so much grip, one would think peeling off as much downforce as possible would make for a great idea, but on such a grippy surface without the wings to help the tires will slide. This undoubtedly shortens the tire stint and could possibly force another pitstop. The balance of aero and tire grip will be more important here than at just about any other road course the series visits.
The Chicane – Already this morning, Ryan Briscoe had an off track excursion. This was probably cause from bounding over the wet curbing and landing just a little wonky, but into the tires he went. A fast lap and possibly the race will be determined through this chicane and the speed the drivers can carry through the straight and into turn 7. Get it right, and you wont have to crack the throttle even a hair to make it through. Get it wrong, and you lose time hand over fist down the same straight as drivers watch their competitors easily pull away from them. And any kind of side by side shenanigans through there will almost guarantee some kind of contract.
Top Speed – With so many downforce option available, and teams working through an insane amount of permutations, we should see some variable top speeds. Drivers have crested 195 already, and for an indycar on a road course, that a pretty big deal. The cars are just not as slippery or aerodynamically efficient as their european counterparts, so catching this type of top speed is impressive. My main complaint about indycar road racing is that most cars aero-stall at about the same speed. And that speed can be low, anywhere from 165-175 at most facilities. I love speed, so seeing the drivers bomb into turn one that fast is very exciting. And it could present some separation as drivers reach different speeds at different places. This could cause more than some action and confusion into the braking zones.
Pole – Simon Pagenaud – AKA, the giant killer. He’s close to the top of the time sheets in the wet and the dry. Seems like him and Schmidt have it figured out.
Winner – Juan Pablo Montoya – He’s been quiet this weekend, but this is exactly the type of track he could claim is first victory on… and start his steamroll over the competition.
Epic Performance – Martin Plowman – The guy finally gets a shake at an IndyCar, and with Mr. Foyt no less. Simply surviving the Foyt garage should be an accomplishment in of itself.
Biggest Loser – Anyone not watching – Of course someone has to finish last, or crash, or start the downward slide away from a championship hopeful, but by all accounts this event is going to be a hit in every possible way.
So thats it, Make sure you check out my youtube videos from the first few days of practice. The 98th running of the Indy 500 is up next, but first drivers will have to tackle IMS headed down the front straight the wrong way. i think the word of the weekend will be “unknown” and nothing will start to make sense until after the final fuel and tire stop of the race. Of course the fast guys will be fast, but this is exactly the kind of event that could throw a totally random finishing order into the mix. Please, enjoy the Grand Prix of Indianapolis for what it is: another event on an ever growing schedule. Sure, we’re at The Speedway, but just live every other race, this one will still have to prove itself to the fans, teams and management.