Tuesday, May 14, 2019

103rd Indianapolis 500 Practice Preview

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is open for practice in preparation for the 103rd Indianapolis 500. Thirty-six entries have been announced, 18 apiece for Chevrolet and Honda. This year has seven past Indianapolis 500 winners entered and seven rookies, all seven of those rookies will be making their first IndyCar start on an oval and four of the rookies have never raced on an oval.

With four days of practice, the amount of track time should give us some sort of direction into what will happen over the course of the qualifying days and the race. There has to be some sort of trend into how race winners run in practice and where pole-sitters are on the speed chart leading up to the Fast Nine session. On the reverse side, there has to be a trend for the cars that end up not making the race.

This preview looks at the next four days and clears up what will happen during the week as well as look back at the last eight years and see what happened during those practice days leading up to qualifying and the race that we should keep an eye on for this month of May.

What is the Schedule?
Practice begins today, Tuesday May 14th at 11:00 am. ET with a veteran practice session and that will run until 1:00 p.m. ET. Rookie Orientation will start immediately after the veteran practice session and go until 3:00 p.m. ET. Once we hit 3:00 p.m. ET, practice will be open to all drivers and run until 6:00 p.m. ET. 

Practice will continue on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and each day will from 11:00 a.m. ET to 6:00 p.m. ET. 

Where Do We Stand on Rookie Orientation and Refresher Programs?
Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci and Marcus Ericsson all completed the Rookie Orientation Program at the open test held at the track on April 24th. 

Three rookies will have to complete their ROP and those drivers are Patricio O'Ward with Carlin, Jordan King with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Ben Hanley with DragonSpeed. 

At the April 24th test, Andretti Autosport's Conor Daly was the only driver to complete the refresher program. Four other veterans took to the track that day but still have to complete laps in excess of 215 MPH to be cleared. The driver with the fewest laps to complete is Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's JR Hildebrand, who needs to complete two laps followed by Team Penske's Hélio Castroneves, who needs to complete three laps. Oriol Servià is eight laps short of completing the refresher and he will be driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Fernando Alonso has ten more laps to complete after his April 24th test was hampered with a battery failure in his McLaren entry. 

Five other veterans will have to go through the refresher program, Carlin's Charlie Kimball, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Sage Karam, Juncos Racing's Kyle Kaiser, Dale Coyne Racing's James Davison and Clauson-Marshall Racing's Pippa Mann.

The Juncos Racing entry with Kaiser is up in the air after the team lost its two biggest sponsors on the eve of practice commencing. 

What Can We Learn From Previous Years?
Indianapolis is a place where it is hard to draw conclusions from practice. It is a time when teams have to mix going for qualifying pace and race pace and with only a week to find both. It is the most nerve-wracking qualifying session of the season and teams will look to trim more and more speed out of the car to guarantee safety to make the race but qualifying pace does not necessarily transfer to speed in the race. 

Let's just look at the DW12-era...

There were seven practice days before qualifying in 2012. The fastest drivers on each of those days were Josef Newgarden, Sebastián Saavedra, Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti. 

Ryan Briscoe won pole position for the 2012 race and his practice results were 16th, 15th, 15th 14th, 27th but only completed six laps, sixth and second. Dario Franchitti won the race and his results were 18th, 14th, seventh, eighth, fifth, eighth and ninth. Briscoe led 15 laps and finished fifth. Franchitti led 23 laps and won from 16th. Scott Dixon topped the Thursday, was in the top five four of the days and was in the top ten in every day but the Wednesday. Dixon started a position ahead of his teammate Franchitti, led 53 laps, the second most in the race, only six fewer than Andretti and finished second. 

There were seven practice days again in 2013 but Fast Friday was abbreviated due to rain, ending before 4:00 p.m. ET. Ed Carpenter, Carlos Muñoz, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Dario Franchitti, Carlos Muñoz and E.J. Viso were the top drivers on each of the days, meaning Andretti Autosport had the fastest car on five of the seven practice days. 

Carpenter, Muñoz, Andretti and Viso were the top four qualifiers and Hinchcliffe started ninth. Franchitti started 17th. Carpenter and Andretti led 37 laps and 31 laps respectively, the most and third most. Muñoz was the runner-up finisher. 

Tony Kanaan won the 2013 race from 12th on the grid and led the second most laps, three fewer than Carpenter and his practice day results were seventh, tenth, ninth, 20th, 22nd, 17th and 14th. 

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis made its debut in 2014, shorting practice by one day but three days that year saw rain interfere with the proceedings. Practice ended before 2:00 p.m. ET on the Tuesday while practice didn't begin until 5:00 p.m. ET on the Wednesday and that session was extended to 7:00 p.m. ET. Fast Friday was a 19-minute session due to rain. 

Each practice day in 2014 had a different driver on top with Will Power leading the first day followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay, E.J. Viso, who was substituting for James Hinchcliffe after debris struck the Canadian in the head during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and gave him a concussion, Simon Pagenaud, Hélio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter. 

Carpenter won pole position for the second consecutive year and he ran the fastest lap of the practice week during the quick Fast Friday session. Four of the six drivers that topped a practice day made the Fast Nine and Hinchcliffe returned and made it five of the six cars in the Fast Nine. 

The lone miss was Hunter-Reay, who qualified 11th on the Saturday and was 19th in his Sunday attempt. Hunter-Reay went on to drive from 19th to the lead before the halfway point and Hunter-Reay led 56 laps, the most in the race and won over Castroneves by 0.0600 seconds. Hunter-Reay was in the top five in four of the six sessions and in the two sessions he wasn't in the top five he was eighth fastest. Castroneves was in the top five for five of the six sessions and the one session he wasn't was the rain-shortened Tuesday.

Aero kits were introduced for 2015 and that year was marred with a few cars getting air during accidents. It led to the entire qualifying kerfuffle with teams forced to run the aero package used in qualifying for the race. Practice was also cut to five days with the Sunday after the road course race given to the teams to turn the cars over. Monday had a rain shower cut out track activity from about 1:45 p.m. ET to 4:15 p.m. ET. 

Sage Karam topped the Monday with Hélio Castroneves and Carlos Muñoz topping the next two days and Simon Pagenaud topped the Thursday and Friday. Castroneves and Pagenaud topped the no tow report for Tuesday and Thursday as well.

Scott Dixon won pole position and had the fastest no-tow time on three of the five days. The Fast Nine session was not held that year due to a combination of weather and concerns after the accidents but Pagenaud started third with Castroneves in fifth and Muñoz was the third best Honda in 11th. 

Dixon would go on to lead 84 laps but finish fourth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power battled for the victory down the stretch with the Colombian coming out on top, however, Montoya was never in the top five on any of the practice days. He opened the week being 28th, running only three laps on Monday, and 20th on Tuesday before moving up to 17th on Wednesday. He was sixth on Thursday and tenth on Friday. Power only got up to fifth in practice and that came on Fast Friday. He ran only an instillation lap on Monday and was sixth, eighth and 13th on the other three days. 

There were five days of practice again in 2016 but the Tuesday was completely washed out. Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Gabby Chaves and Will Power topped the four days of practice while Townsend Bell, Josef Newgarden and Will Power topped the no-tow report each of those days with Bell topping no tow speeds on Monday and Friday. 

Hunter-Reay, Power, Bell and Newgarden all made the Fast Nine but James Hinchcliffe won pole position. Hinchcliffe was third on Fast Friday but 29th, 31st and 14th on the first three practice days. Hunter-Reay did led race-high 52 laps and was third, first, 11th and seventh on the practice days only to have his chance of victory taken away after contact exiting pit lane with teammate Bell. Alexander Rossi's victory is remembered because of his fuel saving efforts but he was fourth in the first practice, 15th on the Wednesday and Thursday and tenth on Friday and he was tenth during Saturday qualifying and 11th on Sunday qualifying. Carlos Muñoz was in the top five on every practice day, started fifth and finished second. 

In 2017, only Fast Friday saw significant track time lost due to rain but the Wednesday saw winds up to 45 MPH and it led to very little track activity. The fastest on each day were Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter, Jay Howard and Sébastien Bourdais with the fastest no tow times on the respective days belonging to Tony Kanaan, Carpenter, Carpenter, Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay. 

Carpenter, Sato, Power, Kanaan and Andretti each made the Fast Nine. Scott Dixon won pole position but his practice results yo-yoed all week with results of second, 13th, second, 16th and 12th. Bourdais ran the fastest lap of week that Friday and was on his way to being the top Saturday qualifier before his accident in turn two on his third qualifying lap. 

Max Chilton led 50 laps in the race but he mostly got to the lead after a gamble on pit strategy paid off and a caution allowed him to stay at the front instead of make a pit stop under green and take him out of contention. Chilton was sixth fastest on the Wednesday when wind kept most of the cars off the track and on the other four days, Chilton never got higher than 15th, coincidentally where he would start the race. 

The two front-runners that led the most laps were Hunter-Reay at 28 laps and Fernando Alonso at 27 laps. Hunter-Reay did not run on the Wednesday but his practice results for the other four days were fifth, fourth, second and second. Alonso started the week in 19th and 24th but he was fourth in the final three practice days and started fifth. Hunter-Reay missed out on the Fast Nine but qualified tenth on the Sunday. 

Takuma Sato won the race and he was at the front pretty much the entire month. He opened practice in tenth, moved up to sixth, did two laps on the Wednesday and was 18th and moved up to ninth and third on the final two practice days. Sato was second fastest in the Saturday qualifying session and qualified fourth on Sunday. He was at the front with the rest of the Andretti fleet from the start and led 17 laps in race on his way to victory.

Last year's schedule matches this year's schedule with the teams getting the Sunday and Monday after the road course race off and only four practice days. Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal topped the four practice days with Andretti topping the Wednesday and Fast Friday. Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan topped the no tow report the first two days with Will Power topping the Thursday and Friday. 

Pagenaud, Carpenter and Power all made the Fast Nine. Rahal was 30th each day. Kanaan qualified 11th on Saturday and tenth on Sunday and Andretti went from 17th on Saturday to 12th on Sunday. Carpenter took his third Indianapolis 500 pole position with Pagenaud and Power joining him on row one. Carpenter was in the top five in three of the four days and eighth in the other day. Power was 19th, 21st, 13th and fifth on the four practice days. 

Carpenter and Power led a combined 124 of 200 laps in the race with Power taking the victory and Carpenter finishing second. While Pagenaud topped the Tuesday, he didn't get back in the top ten in any of the other three days and only led one lap before finishing sixth. 

What Does It Mean For Qualifying and the Race?
In the DW12-era, the only time a driver was fastest on a practice day and went on to win the race in the same year was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 when he was fastest on the second practice day. 

While topping the charts might not point to a winner, consistently being in the top ten does point to a potential race winner. Outside of Will Power last year, every Indianapolis 500 in the DW12-era had been in the top ten overall for multiple practice days and the one thing against Power is he had fewer scheduled practice days last year than every other year prior in the DW12-era. 

The no tow report data is not readily available but based on what we were able to pull it does seem to carry over to qualifying. Since 2015, only twice did a driver that topped a no tow report in practice not make the Fast Nine and that was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2017 and Tony Kanaan last year and on both instances those drivers ended up starting tenth. Of the 11 drivers that did top a no tow report and make the Fast Nine, six started on the first row and four started on row two. The only one to top a no tow report and start on row three that year was Kanaan in 2017 when he started seventh. 

What Can Previous Years Tell Us About Bumping?
Since the start of the DW12-era, only three years have had bumping (2013, 2015 and 2018). The good news is this year's race will seeing bumping return with at least two, if not three cars depending on the fate of the Juncos Racing effort, making a qualifying attempt but not being a part of the field of 33 come May 26th.

Only one car was bounced in 2013 and 2015.

From the start of practice in 2013, Michel Jourdain, Jr. was at the bottom of the timesheet every day. On Fast Friday, he broke 223.266 MPH and was 30th fastest, ahead of Buddy Lazier, who only ran instillation laps on Thursday, and Sebastián Saavedra. Conor Daly had an accident on Thursday and did not participate on Fast Friday or Saturday qualifying. The slowest three qualifying attempts from Saturday qualifying were Tristan Vautier at 224.156 MPH, Lazier at 223.073 MPH and Jourdain, Jr. at 218.329 MPH. Pippa Mann did not make a qualifying attempt on Saturday.

Prior to Sunday qualifying, Katherine Legge was added to the entry list in an additional car with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Legge opened up practice at 223.569 MPH while Jourdain, Jr. could not get above 219.843 MPH. During Sunday qualifying, Mann ran a 224.005 MPH over four laps, putting her 30th with Daly 31st at 223.582 MPH and Lazier at 223.442 MPH. Legge put herself on the bubble at 223.176 MPH.

Jourdain, Jr. never completed a qualifying run during the Sunday session with the team unable to get the speed out of the car to come anywhere close to making the field of 33.

Two years later, Bryan Clauson spent the entire week at the bottom of the timesheet. He was 32nd on Tuesday, ahead of only James Davison, who did 15 laps and Alex Tagliani, who ran two instillation laps. The next day, Clauson was 31st, ahead of Sébastien Bourdais, who ran five laps in Clauson's #88 Chevrolet, and Tagliani, who ran ten laps. On the Thursday, Clauson dropped to 33rd and ahead of Buddy Lazier, who made his first laps on track, ten to be specific. Clauson found speed on Fast Friday, moving up to 31st ahead of Tristan Vautier, Pippa Mann and Lazier.

After the headache that was qualifying, the slowest four cars and those that participated in the last row shootout were Jack Hawksworth, Stefano Coletti, Clauson and Lazier, who did not make an attempt in session for pole position. Hawksworth had been in the bottom portion of the practice results, not taking to the track Monday and then following it with 28th, 25th, 23rd and Hawksworth jumped up to 11th on Fast Friday. Coletti was 24th on Monday and rounded out the week with practice results of 27th, 29th, 25th and 18th.

Hawksworth, Coletti and Clauson each picked up speed from their pole session attempt with Hawksworth finding nearly a mile per hour and jumping from 222.787 MPH to 223.738 MPH. Coletti broke the 222 MPH barrier in the final session, moving up to 222.001 MPH from 221.912 MPH and Clauson ran a 221.358 MPH attempt, up from 220.523 MPH. Lazier made two attempts in the 45-minute session but neither would have topped Clauson's first time with the 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner only running 219.438 MPH and 220.153 MPH.

Over the four practice days last year, all 35 entries made a practice run each day and of the eight possible entries that could fill the final two spots, seven different entries occupied those spots. The only entry that was in the bottom two on multiple days was the #17 Honda for Conor Daly. Daly was 34th on the Tuesday, running only nine laps, the fewest on the first day, and he was 34th on Thursday.

The other drivers to occupy the bottom two were Pippa Mann on Tuesday, Graham Rahal and Zachary Claman De Melo on Wednesday, Veach on Thursday and James Davison and Jack Harvey on Fast Friday.

Daly, Mann, Claman De Melo, Rahal and James Hinchcliffe. Daly was 34th, 31st, 34th and 25th over the four practice days. Mann's practice results were 35th, 25th, 32nd and 31st. Claman De Melo and Rahal each had a great Thursday. Rahal topped the day and Claman De Melo was seventh. On the other three days, Rahal was 27th, 34th and 33rd. Claman De Melo was 31st, 35th and 27th.

Come Saturday qualifying, Takuma Sato and Oriol Servià dropped into the bumping battle with fellow RLLR teammate Rahal. Sato had spent the week in fairly comfortable position. He was 14th and third the first two days but dropped to 33rd on Thursday and 24th on Friday. Servià opened practice in 22nd, moved up to ninth, dropped to 16th and wrapped up practice in fourth. James Davison was also struggling for speed on Saturday in a third A.J. Foyt Racing entry. Davison opened practice in 13th but was 33rd, 29th and 34th the next three days.

Many factors played into the outcome of the first qualifying day, multiple rain delays, changing track conditions and a loose tire sensor that Hinchcliffe experienced on the out lap for his second qualifying attempt with less than 15 minutes remaining. Hinchcliffe, Mann and Daly were each bumped on the day with Daly being bumped twice.

After everyone had completed their first attempts, Servià and Daly were on the outside with Mann on the bubble. Servià waved his second attempt and Daly followed onto the track and got back into the field, bumping Mann but only putting himself onto the bubble. Servià returned to the track for his third attempt and went on to bump Daly out, putting himself 31st with Davison in 32nd and Hinchcliffe in 33rd.

Daly started his third attempt with just over 20 minutes remaining in the session and he put himself 32nd, bumping Hinchcliffe and placing Davison on the bubble. Mann took to the track and waved off the attempt after being more than a mile per hour off Davison. Hinchcliffe's tire sensor vibration followed and Alexander Rossi took to the track to attempt to make the Fast Nine. Mann returned for her final attempt with under two minutes to go. She took the green flag with 30 seconds left in the day and Hinchcliffe at the head of the line but out of time to get to the track. Mann's final attempt was her slowest at 223.343 MPH, nearly a mile per hour off Davison.

Can You Sum That Up Like You Did Before?
Sure, if someone is at the bottom every day he or she is probably going to be sweating bullet Saturday evening into Sunday afternoon.

Jourdain, Jr. was in the bottom three every day he participated in practice in 2013. Clauson never broke the top 30 in 2015 and was fortunate that his main competition was Lazier, who didn't show up until Thursday and did not have an abundance of time to find speed. Clauson may have also benefitted from all the delays due to weather and safety concerns on Saturday and Sunday, keeping Lazier from getting additional track time.

Last year, Mann and Daly were in the bumping fight the entire time with Daly finding the speed in the dying moments. Both were outside the top 30 on three of the four practice days. Rahal and Claman De Melo were each outside the top 30 on two of the four practice days but Claman De Melo was never really in danger after his time put him 26th. Rahal made two attempts and qualified 30th but his first attempt would have been good for 30th but his second attempt gave him an extra 0.24-mile per hour cushion.

We have to remember the scenario of a driver having his or her worst possible day and after appearing to be contently in the field falling into a trap and not being able to gain speed. It is kind of what happened to Hinchcliffe last year. Yes, there were signs Hinchcliffe might have been in trouble. His four practice day results were 26th, 29th, 31st and 29th. Add to Hinchcliffe's poor practice results the rain delays and a loose tire sensor keeping Hinchcliffe from making a second qualifying attempt and it was the perfect storm against the Canadian. If the rain doesn't happen, he probably makes the race. If the tire sensor stays intact, he probably makes the race. That wasn't the case last year.

Of course, this year has a built in way of covering everyone's backside. IndyCar is protecting itself with the Last Row Shootout returning and running on Sunday. The three teams that are not fast enough on Saturday will keep one more attempt to make the race the next day. Granted, the teams outside the field and those teams on the final row at the end of Saturday will not feel any less stressed knowing it will have a final attempt on Sunday but it is a sign of hope for a team that couldn't get it right on Saturday especially if it had shown no signs of qualifying difficulty during the week. 

Closing Thoughts
It is crazy how four practice days seem much more rushed than five practice days. Add to it the bumping battle that will not see just one but two if not three cars home and the entire week has become a frantic affair. There is no time for an off day. There is no time for sandbagging. Every team has to focus on getting the most out of the car in every session and cannot afford to take a day off.

If it is wrong from the start there isn't a moment of relief that there is plenty of time to correct the issue. While the Indianapolis 500 does have more practice time than every other race in the IndyCar season it feels no different from Pocono, Road America, Toronto or Laguna Seca. The results have to come immediately and there cannot be any hesitation to jump to Plan B if Plan A is not working out.

We will have 28 hours of practice to see who has the pace to be competing at the top and who will need to find pace just to make row 11 and once we get to the weekend it is a different animal. Hopefully, the past seasons in the DW12-era point us in a direction into how qualifying will play out.