As always with the Indianapolis 500, there is a lot on the line. But for Sunday’s 500-mile race, there seems to be even more to gain for teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
With a brand-new aero kit that levels the playing field and temperatures forecasted in the low 90s for race day, you might as well draw tomorrow’s winner out of a hat. The conditions will be brutal for fans and drivers both, and Firestone’s Indy 500 Firehawk tires will be pushed to their limit.
Earlier in the week, the headlines were filled with not only Pippa Mann’s exemption from the starting grid but also James Hinchcliffe, the driver currently fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship, being bumped from the field of 33 drivers.
As the rumors that Hinchcliffe would be placed in an already-qualified car began to wane, the concerns from drivers in the IndyCar paddock began to be heard more often while they struggled to follow other cars in traffic.
Sebastien Bourdais said that the passing may be limited to drivers making mistakes while pushing too hard, Marco Andretti noted the difficulties but viewed the challenge as an opportunity, and Will Power even said that the leader may be able to break away from the pack with the current conditions.
With all of that being said, each driver noted that the conditions will be same for all of the race’s participants and ultimately it will play out just how they wanted: the pilot will make the difference.
For Open-Wheels’ Indianapolis 500 preview, we will follow up on the treacherous conditions and a few more headlines going into race day. Check them out below.
Passing at a premium on Sunday
As noted above, an ambient temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a mostly sunny forecast on-deck for race day is going to push track temperatures higher than any values we have seen thus far in the month of May.
Expect the racing surface temps to exceed 125 degrees Fahrenheit, creating an incredibly slick sheet of asphalt for our 33 drivers to deal with over the course of 500 miles.
Drivers have been complaining of difficulties following other cars while on the race track this week, and here is why. With IndyCar’s new universal aero kit, the reliance on extra bits and wickers has been reduced in an effort to create a more visually appealing car, along with a machine that was designed to follow other cars more closely in traffic.
For the most part, this plan has been executed wonderfully with improved racing on the road and street circuits thus far in 2018, and a better (though still lukewarm) race in the desert at ISM Raceway last month. The issue has really only been at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval as temperatures have risen and the effectiveness of underside downforce has been reduced.
On this Dallara IR-18 aero kit the front wing is not as efficient as its predecessor, so while most of the downforce on this car is generated by its underwing, the front wings are still important in traffic as it serves as the first line of defense in dirty air.
The front wing has not performed as well as drivers would have liked, and with underside aerodynamics being marginalized, this has contributed to difficult driving in traffic.
Look for drivers on Sunday to be more aggressive on starts and restarts during the race’s duration as those will be the best opportunities for overtaking. The tires will be fresh and that will help overcome some of the aerodynamic shortcomings that the drivers are facing.
After 10 to 15 laps, the field will settle in and passing will become a lot more difficult, and earned. Veterans will wait for drivers with lesser experience to push too hard and make mistakes, which will be the way to generate passing opportunities as fuel stints come to a close.
Veterans coming from the back of the grid
One exciting development to watch for will be some of the most high profile drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series starting from the tail end of this field of 33.
Notables Sage Karam (starting 24th), J.R. Hildebrand (27th), Ed Jones (29th), Graham Rahal (30th) and Alexander Rossi (32nd) have all been threats to win the race in years prior despite their starting positions on race day.
While Jones will start a full 20 places behind his teammate Scott Dixon on the grid, the driver from Dubai is pleased with the direction his team is headed for Sunday.
“I think we had a very positive end to practice here at Indianapolis,” Jones reported on Carb Day. “The NTT DATA car felt really good and I was very happy with the direction and changes we made. I was also pretty happy with how the car handled in traffic, which is important for the race.”
For Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, second generation driver Graham Rahal is feeling better about his chances after a positive hour of practice on Carb Day.
“At the end of the session, the United Rentals Honda was pretty good,” Rahal admitted. “We definitely, at the very tail end of the session, got it into a decent window. We just ran used tires from the start and I know a lot of guys were running stickers (new tires), but we wanted to save a lot of stickers for the race and I think we just ran them too long, initially, and probably made our lives a little tough, but for sure we got the car much better in the end. We’ll be OK (in traffic).
“We don’t have the quickest outright pace, which has kind of been the case all month, but at the end of the session in heavy traffic I felt pretty good. Obviously, tire life and stuff plays a role, so we’ll have to see how we are on Sunday.”
Andretti a bit more comfortable entering race day
In speaking to a couple of open-wheel veterans at Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 media day, there were two individuals that boasted a bit more confidence than their peers. They were Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais.
The Nazareth, Pennsylvania native noted the difficulties he and the 32 others will face on race day, but slipped in a quick note about progress made over the final week of practice.
“I think as a team, we are in a pretty good position,” Andretti inferred. “I think the temps are going to suit us, because if you miss the mark, people are going to pay for it more with the temps where they are going to be.
“I think as far as playing to our strengths and hopefully not making any mistakes and getting a good car balance beneath you, it is going to put an emphasis on (running well in heat). That plays right into us, for sure.”
Interestingly enough, Marco has been the only Andretti driver to consistently show pace this month.
He led the Andretti Autosport stable in qualifications last weekend by placing his No. 98 U.S. Concrete Honda 12th on the starting grid with the rest of his teammates 14th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 21st (Carlos Munoz), 23rd (Stefan Wilson), 25th (Zach Veach), and 32nd (Alexander Rossi).
During Friday’s Carb Day final practice, Marco was again the quickest out of his crew of teammates (3rd) while the next Andretti driver was Munoz in 18th.
Maybe there has been a bit of truth to the news that Marco prefers to drive a car that slides around a bit more, because he has certainly been the class of the Andretti stable thus far.
Bourdais makes strides in final week of practice
Across the way in the garage area, veteran driver Sebastien Bourdais is feeling a bit better about his chances in the race after some gains were made during Monday practice.
Still, he understands the challenges ahead and how the field of 33 will be on edge throughout the afternoon.
“I don’t think anybody is comfortable in traffic,” Bourdais said. “The car being very sensitive, losing a lot of downforce and washing out the front very quickly and unpredictably… or it is becoming predictable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to follow closely and make passes.
The Dale Coyne Racing driver didn’t mention any improvements following Carb Day practice, though he feels much better about the situation after his team found that bit of consistency on Monday.
“We went back to race trim on Monday and we definitely found a couple of things which has made a significant difference on the way that I am going to approach and start the race,” said Bourdais. “Just to be honest with you, if we had not found that, I would be sitting in front of you thinking, ‘Jesus, how am I going to drive and race this thing on Sunday?’
“I was just about as bad as I have ever been here.”
Look for Bourdais to be one of those drivers on the move early on.
Chevrolet slides by Honda with power advantage
For the past few years, Honda teams have enjoyed not only a power advantage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also have been better on fuel mileage (you are welcome, Alexander Rossi).
This season, it appears that Chevrolet has at the very least narrowed that gap with fuel mileage (Scott Dixon thinks Team Chevy has eliminated the gap) while they have surged past Honda in terms of power.
Seven of the nine drivers in Fast Nine qualifying last weekend were Chevrolet drivers, and only 3 of the top 12 starters are Honda pilots.
Bourdais had the best Honda qualifying effort in 5th place with a speed average of 228.142 MPH, a full 1.5 miles per hour off of the four-lap average of pole sitter Ed Carpenter in a Chevrolet.
Honda teams are comfortable with their pace in race conditions, and Chevrolet teams are aiming to run in clean air with their high-strung machines.
Team Penske driver Will Power even mentioned on Thursday that he thinks the leader may be able to break away from the pack during the race as tires fall off and trailing in traffic becomes even more difficult. If a Chevrolet driver is leading when that happens, it could be a run away race until the next yellow falls.
Fabulous four rookies with something to prove
A stout rookie class in this year’s Indianapolis 500 will certainly command attention on race day. The quartet of drivers will all start better than 19th in the race, and are on the grid ahead of notables Carlos Munoz, Oriol Seriva, J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Jones, Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi.
Robert Wickens qualified his No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda 18th despite his team’s lack of qualifying speed all season while Kyle Kaiser and his Juncos Racing effort improved dramatically on their qualy pace from 2017 by placing the 2017 Indy Lights champion 17th on the grid.
For Dale Coyne Racing, Zachary Claman De Melo has done an admirable job thus far filling in for the injured Pietro Fittipaldi. Claman De Melo will roll off 13th Sunday afternoon in his No. 19 Paysafe Honda, though he was not quite pleased with his car after Carb Day final practice.
“It was a tough session today,” De Melo reported. “The Paysafe car wasn’t exactly how we wanted and it didn’t feel like Monday. But, I’m still feeling confident going into the race. I’m sure we’ll figure out the problem and that we’ll be really strong going into Sunday.
“You can’t count anyone out here, so it should be interesting on race day. The build up to this race is huge, it feels like we’ve been here a long time but it’s been fun. I can’t wait for race day.”
Finally, the highest qualifying rookie of the month is A.J. Foyt Racing hot shoe Matheus Leist. The Brazilian teenager will grid alongside his fellow countryman and teammate, Tony Kanaan, as they make up the first two spots of row four.
Leist has shown a boat load of confidence all month and is your classic feast or famine rookie, meaning he could be right there in contention for the win on Sunday afternoon, or, an early race crash will end his day.
Either way, it will be a race to remember for IndyCar’s four rookies as they look to place their face on the Borg Warner Trophy.
Stay tuned to Open-Wheels.com for coverage of the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
Images courtesy of James Black/INDYCAR Media.