Best Indy 500 strategy? Charge on restarts, consider undercut

Several stars who have qualified in the back half of the grid for tomorrow’s 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 are left debating whether they will need to go off-strategy to make progress through the field, or whether they can rely on strong restarts.

Best Indy 500 strategy? Charge on restarts, consider undercut

With all drivers concluding that it will be a “track position race”, in which passing may be difficult as temperatures rise and grip falls, the idea of going off strategy to get out into clean air is a tempting one. However, such an opportunity depends very much on fate, in terms of when cautions fall within a car’s stint of approximately 30 laps.

Therefore all the front runners who find themselves unusually buried in the pack have had to accept that they will be running in extremely disturbed air for at least some of the race but also need the car to be not too ‘draggy’ in clear air should strategy play in their favor.

Fernando Alonso, whose Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet will roll off 26th, said: “No one is on top of the problems with traffic. We’ve been working a lot from Day 1 trying to put ourselves in the worst positions possible and trying to work the car around that. It seems like the speed of the car is there and we can move forward in the race but to win the 500 you need everything right.

“[Regarding strategy] I think we will see how the race unfolds and what are the possibilities. Having three cars on the team it’s likely that the team could optimize all three cars and use maybe different strategies and one of the three is lucky enough for the win at the end.”

Going way off-strategy under green-flag conditions – for instance, pulling in on Lap 15 – is not the smart option, Alonso says.

“At Indy if you stop out of sequence [under green] before pitstop time, you lose exactly one lap, so if you stop early to be out of traffic, it doesn’t help because you exit in almost exactly the same place where you were!”

Team Penske’s most recent Indy 500 winners Will Power (2018) and Simon Pagenaud (2019) will start from 22nd and 25th respectively, with their veteran three-time Indy-winning teammate Helio Castroneves in 28th. Splitting ‘off-strategies’ would, theoretically, allow Penske to cover more bases and keep Josef Newgarden (starting 13th) on the same strategy as the leader. But both Power and Pagenaud give the impression they’re more keen to just charge on every restart and remain roughly on point with the front pack.

“The more restarts there are, the more chance you have to move forward,” said Power. “There still needs to be a lot of strategy involved, but we’ll take it as it comes.

“I spent [practice] at the very back of the train just to experience what it’s going to be like at the beginning of the race. It’s obviously difficult to run close to someone when you’re that far back because the air is so turbulent. But the car feels balanced, it feels pretty good.

“When I went out on the first day of practice I said to my engineer [Dave Faustino] it’s the best car I’ve ever had at this place. But it seems like everyone has a pretty good and comfortable car. I think it’s because the weight moved forward and that simply made the car more forgiving to drive. It’ll be a tough day but we’ll just chip away and see where we end up.”

Pagenaud said that however much downforce he runs, he’s expecting life in the pack to be hard. Before Carb Day practice, he commented: “On Friday I’ll have a better answer saying how much downforce we should be running in the race or not, but certainly it becomes very difficult when you’re 20 cars back. You can really feel the disturbance in the air. It’s going to be a very different life to the one I had last year [when he started from pole position]. But hey, if I can bring it to the front, it will be two completely different years and ways to demonstrate my skills!”

Following Carb Day, he added: "It’s going to be all about finding the balance in your racecar the entire day. The wind might change, and when the wind shifts, you might find yourself good in Turn 2 and bad in Turn 4. The cars are very sensitive this year, much more than last year. So, balance is going to be everything.

“It’s also going to be about downforce, no question. We are going to have to run close to people, and we need downforce. So, the question is going to be how much. For me, it is going to be about balance. We are going to have to be aggressive from the start to pass people to get clean air.”

Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi doesn’t have such a big problem this year having qualified ninth, but he did back in 2018 when he started from the last row. He concurs with Power and Pagenaud that fast drivers who start ‘artificially’ far back in the boonies need to be aggressive on track.

“If you look at that [2018] race, I started 32nd but the first half of it I didn’t make a huge amount of progress,” he said. “I probably only made it up to about 23rd or something, and restarts were where most of the positions came from. I think it will be similar this year.

“Everyone’s very aware of how important track position is so people are going to be aggressive on restarts because that’s when the second lane at Turn 1 really opens up; your approach speed is so much slower because you’re coming out of Turn 4 slow. But I think everyone’s kind of aware of that trick now, which means we’ve got to find clean air somewhere else.”

And if that isn’t working, would he consider going off strategy?

“Yeah I think so,” he replied. “I think you’ll see guys who pull a pretty big undercut and deal with the consequences later because it is going to be a track position race. I’m sure the first stint will be pretty normal for everyone but then we’ll start to see some big and bold strategies coming between stints two and four.”

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