Practice began Wednesday, August 12 for the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. There are 33 cars entered in the race, which means all will make the field, denying the overall excitement of last year’s 103rd race when two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso was unable to gain sufficient speed over four laps of qualifying on the historic 2.5-mile oval.
Alonso is back, trying again to secure racing’s triple crown (Indy, Monaco, Le Mans), along with eight winners of the 500: Helio Castroneves (2001-2, 2009), Scott Dixon in 2008, Tony Kanaan (2013), Ryan Hunter-Reay from 2014), Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th race in 2016, Takuma Sato (2017), Will Power (2018) and Simon Pagenaud, the reigning Indy 500 winner.
There are five rookies vying for the award for best first-timer of the race; Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew, who are joined by Alonso on the Arrows McLaren SP team, Alex Palou of Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, whose helmet celebrates fellow Netherlands racer and two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk and Dalton Kellett from A.J. Foyt Racing. Interesting fact: all the rookies are driving Chevrolet-powered Indy cars.
In fact, Chevrolet has more entries this year than Honda, 17 of the 33 cars are powered by the Bow-Tie Brand. Honda and Chevrolet each have half the former winners on-hand to try and take another one. Castroneves, who has been racing in IMSA with Roger Penske’s Acura sports car team, is trying to join the vaunted Four-Timers Club, comprised now of A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, while Pagenaud is hoping to take a second consecutive trip to Victory Lane with Team Penske, along with an extra $360,000 for accomplishing the feat.
There have been three days of practice heading into this coming qualifying weekend, with Wednesday’s initial day of practice dedicated to Rookie Orientation, which the Speedway sandwiched between veteran’s opportunities to practice and a later all-skate session. Four of the five rookies and all but one of the returning veterans, who had to take a refresher test, passed during that mid-day session, while Dalton Kellett completed his ROP during the final session of the day. Suffice to say he wasn’t terribly quick and teammate Kanaan was in his car attempting to extract usable speed. Ben Hanley, in the No. 81 DragonSpeed USA Chevy had electronics issue that plagued him through to Friday.
At the close of the first day of practice, James Hinchcliffe, the 2016 pole sitter was quickest with a top speed of 224.526, driving for Andretti Autosport, followed by Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso, first of the Chevrolet runners. There were 34 cars noted to be on-track, but one was Kanaan checking out Kellett’s car and the other was Hanley, who turned three laps.
Thursday was another sunny and warm day where many laps were turned by 32 of 33 drivers. Hanley again was unable to be part of the grouping, but Scott Dixon, who made 107 trips around the oval over 6-1/2 hours, sat atop the scoring pylon at 226.102mph. He was followed by Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti, all driving with Honda power, while Conor Daly’s Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet was fourth-quickest.
Alex Palou, the rookie driving for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh was fifth, followed by Colton Herta (both drivers with Honda power), Charlie Kimball for A.J. Foyt Racing (Chevy), Alonso, James Davison’s Honda and rookie Oliver Askew’s Chevy.
Alonso was the first driver to impact the wall at the fourth turn Thursday afternoon, after clipping the rumble strips. He ended up backwards on the pit road but suffered no physical damage. The team had sufficient time to put his car back together again for Fast Friday, when speeds go up with an increase in engine boost from 130 kPa to 150 kPa.
An extra 50 horsepower for Friday practice and for qualifying intend to add interest; last year the boost increase was only 10 kPa to 140 but this year, with the added weight of the Aeroscreen – about 60 pounds – the added kPa was needed to keep speeds above 230mph.
With each session held – like race time – in the heat of the day, practice took on a different tone. Whee the first two days saw speeds in the mid-220s, by the time Fast Friday rolled around, it as time to corral lap times closer to 235 mph. From about an hour in, Marco Andretti was quickest with his lap of 233.491mph. Many would try to take over the third-generation driver’s spot at the top of the pylon; none would succeed.
Andretti, Indy 500 runner-up (to Sam Hornish, racing for Team Penske) in 2006, for whom great things were predicted turned a total of 43 laps and hit this big number on his tenth tour of the oval. Fully 23 of the 33 drivers on-site were in the 230-mph range; slowest was Hanley, who finally managed to complete his refresher course today and turned 79 laps overall, turning 222.086. It doesn’t matter because there’s no one to compete with him for that 33rd spot.
It should be noted that, with an hour left in the Fast Friday session, only two of the top 14 cars had Chevrolet power. Many of the Bowtie Brand’s drivers complained of imbalance in their cars that wouldn’t allow them quicker times. What will this mean for Saturday and Sunday qualifying? The top Chevy drivers are second-quick Conor Daly (Ed Carpenter Racing) and Team Penske’s Will Power, who had the 11th best lap and was one of the drivers complaining about imbalance earlier in the day.
The quickest drivers following Andretti and Daly today were Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Spencer Pigot in the Citrone-Buhl Honda entry being run by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR), Palou, Hinchliffe, Sato, Alexander Rossi and Marcus Ericsson, racing the third Chip Ganassi Racing entry.
Now, with Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying Day pending on Saturday, many should look at the setup Andretti’s No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco & Curb-Agajanian Honda-powered team has accrued, with the assistance of Bryan Herta on the stand. Not only was he quick around all four corners, but Andretti’s trap speeds in both turns 1 and 3 neared the 240-mph barrier.
Tomorrow’s schedule offers the ability to watch, either on NBC Sports Gold or on the NBC network. The latter is on-air from 3-5PM, while the former is available throughout the day. In addition, the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network, on www.indycar.com, offers coverage throughout the day on the website, as well as XM 205.