The track’s green from overnight rain, ambient temperatures are expected to reach 94 degrees, and the cars are already a handful. But here’s why the racing was always going to look different from what we’ve been used to.
“It’s so hard to pass,” became a refrain we all got used to hearing from drivers and race engineers over the course of practice for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Some even modified it to “It’s too hard to pass.”
Most complaints, inevitably, came from those who didn’t feel their cars were quick enough.
“Good,” said one engineer with a quick car. “Now you can’t have a slow car but just sit in the slipstream of a fast car, save fuel, and then draft past whenever you feel like it. There’s actually some reason to do what we do – make the car good over a long stint.”
So if you’re looking for constant slipstreaming battles where there are 20 possible winners and the cars are so stuck that the tires barely go off from the start to the end of a stint, then this year’s Indianapolis 500 may not be for you. If you appreciate the skill and judgment of 33 racers driving that fine line between adhesion and collision with a SAFER barrier, while also wrestling with each other, then this is going to be a classic 500.
The new superspeedway aerokit has less downforce than its predecessor but also more drag. Yes, despite looking so much prettier, so much more svelte, than its predecessor, the “new car”, by eliminating the rear wheel guards, is actually more blunt when cutting through the air. Consequently the draft has changed too, the lead car creating a much bigger tow than before. Whereas once the motto was “if you can see another car ahead, he’s helping you,” that effect has doubled according to some.
But the reason that some people were moaning is that the shape of the draft has changed too. Dale Coyne, whose lead driver Sebastien Bourdais has qualified fifth for the race, described the tow as “more intense, but narrower, so you tow up real fast – faster than with the last car – but when you move out to pass, you just don’t pull past at a great rate of knots. The passes you have seen are coming at the end of the straights, where you come up the inside and just steal the line of the guy on the outside.”
As they’ve lapped in packs, during practice we have been seeing passes without the aid of the driver in front feathering the throttle on the straights, but it’s generally only going on at the head of the pack. Further back, things get sketchy, as JR Hildebrand discovered on Day 3 of practice when his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet squirmed out of shape while running at the tail of an eight-car convoy and slapped the Turn 3 wall.
Later, Graham Rahal empathized, saying: “I can't tell you how many times I thought I was going to be in that scenario today where the right front tire is so overworked, you have so much slip angle in it, it just gives up. When it gives up, it's like driving on ice and then, bang, you hit a curb… That's exactly what it feels like.
“It's difficult because you don't know what a fine line it is. Sometimes it's slide, slide, slide, then OK. Other times it never comes back. I just think the further back you are, you have to hang on. These cars, you’ve got to drive the you-know-what out of them. The rear is sliding around, the front is pushing.
“A lot of it is trying to understand the way that it wiggles. We're used to the old car. This car is a different animal. Fortunately with this car when it does tend to go, the front is what gives up. In the old car, the rear would tend to go. This is much better…”
So, as most of the better drivers hoped, track position is more important this year and the guy or girl behind can’t pass with impunity. Popular pole-winner for the third time, Ed Carpenter, commented: “I think this new car does race a little different than the old cars, and clean air maybe is a little more important than it has been in the past. So I definitely feel fortunate to be in this position for next week.”
Not surprisingly Team Penske seemed to get a handle on making passes work, and third-placed qualifier Will Power agreed with Rahal and others that action at the head of a line of cars will remain strong.
“I think it'll be good racing at the front,” said Power who was Indy runner-up by 0.1046sec in 2015. “The top three will be switching positions constantly. If it's a really hot day, I think you'll see people spread out a bit more, but you can't help that. But at the front, there's such a big draft, no one is ever going to drive away. There will be switching of the lead like there always is.”
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