By: Tanner Watkins
May 16, 2019 | 10:00 AM
After two days of official Indianapolis 500 practice, the field of 36 competitors have enjoyed some rather delightful weather conditions to test and tune in. Beginning on Thursday, the heat is supposed to ramp up and create more challenging variables with grip levels – an issue that was prevalent last year, and seems to be another theme this year.
At the end of practice on Tuesday, multiple drivers noted the difficulty that comes with running behind another car in traffic this year. If you remember back to last May, multiple race-winning veterans in this series were caught out by unpredictable handling conditions in the Indianapolis 500.
INDYCAR and Firestone have done their best to remedy the issues from 2018 by adding new aero bits and a fresh tire for this month of May, but the improvement has been marginal at best.
“(It is) pretty similar. I think maybe a touch easier but not much. It feels like a very similar car to last year, so I think the race will probably be similar, maybe a bit better,” said Josef Newgarden, the quickest driver on Wednesday.
“I think there’s more downforce we can put on that we’re not doing right now, which the series has done. So we have more options to work with that might make it easier on race day.
“It really depends on the heat,” Newgarden continued. “If it’s a 90-, 95-degree day, I think you’ll probably see a similar race. If it’s 70 degrees, maybe it’s probably going to be a bit closer, a bit more packed up. So it really just depends on the temperature in my opinion at this point.”
While Newgarden ended the day P1 with a draft-aided lap to top the charts, rookie Felix Rosenqvist was in different spirits following his Turn 2 crash. The Swedish driver was following another car in line when his No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda swiftly stepped-out on him.
“I was behind Colton (Herta) and I was just trying to run the NTT DATA car in traffic and I felt a very sudden change,” relayed Rosenqvist. “I had a bit of push and it went very loose, very fast. I couldn’t react to it. Luckily, my team has built a really good car and a really safe car, so I am completely fine.
“I just really have to analyze what happened there. I’m not sure if I was down on the curb. It kind of looked like I could have been up a little bit and that probably explains it. I cannot really remember. It’s a shame, but that’s how it is.”
Another driver that got a firsthand glimpse of how quickly things can go wrong is Graham Rahal. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver was leading Fernando Alonso into Turn 3 when the former Formula One world champion hit the wall in the No. 15 car’s wake, and then Rahal had a moment of his own.
“The one felt close (to the wall) behind Spencer (Pigot),” said Rahal. “I knew that what happened to Fernando could have easily happened to me. I could sense it was coming, so luckily, I lifted before it got bad.
“Unfortunately, it seems like when you get in the wake and the car decides to understeer, it goes pretty big.”
Rahal’s teammate and former winner of this race, Takuma Sato, felt that the evolving track conditions have had as much to do with the difficulties seen thus far.
“By yourself, it felt good, but in traffic it was a very different feeling,” noted the 2017 winner from Japan. “The track is getting more rubber laid down and everyone is getting more competitive and the whole pace is raised. It’s even more difficult to follow. In fact, trying to overtake is extremely difficult.”
The additional options offered by INDYCAR plus Firestone’s tire change were made in the effort to restore some of the action-packed lap-to-lap racing that fans were spoiled with during much of the Dallara DW-12’s existence at Indianapolis. It appears, to this point, that the most important variable to help the series achieve that combination will be weather.
If temperatures are in the high 60s or low 70s Fahrenheit for race day, we could see a return to something similar from the mid-2010s races. If May 26 is another scorcher like last year’s race, fans and teams alike will be facing duly challenging conditions to pass – and unpredictable losses of stability once again.
Header image by Christopher Owens/INDYCAR.
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.