I headed back out onto track, and was able to slot into a nice gap without traffic. Running around other cars is great when you already know what you have under you, and where you want to be, but for those first exploratory laps you generally want some nice clean air, and a little bit of track space so that you can play and feel out what you've got.
The first big thing I noticed was that without the aero on the car, the transitions to and from the high banks into Turns One and Three, and out of Two and Four, were extremely pronounced. It wasn't something you noticed in the old-style Indy car, but in this one they were a big part of the handling. The transition on the way in made the turn in feel faster than it had in the old car, and the transition on the way out would give you a pop of loose every lap, the size of the pop depending on the angle you hit the transition at, and the amount of steering lock you had in the car from the middle of the corner.
The compression in the middle of the corner at Texas has always been big, but when you are light on aero, and sliding your tires fighting for grip, it really helps push the car back into the racetrack giving you confidence. The lifts on the throttle were not the big lifts I was expecting coming into the weekend, but more “breaths” where you bring your foot slowly back to 80%, 70%, maybe even 60 or 50% throttle as the tires wear or you get into traffic. This helps the car keep turning, and means you can keep the entry to the corner over the first transition a little more delicate, and have less steering lock in the wheel over the transition on the way out to make sure the little pop of loose that's coming doesn't become any bigger drama than needed.
Then there's the line. For years IndyCar ran on the low line through the big ovals; however now it often looks much more like a classic racing line – with a wider entry, a low apex – than a high exit, or you get people up riding the cushion trying to carry more speed, in what is almost a stock car-style fashion. I also answered a very important question during the first run that had been hovering in the back of my mind – would I like this style of driving, and would I be able to use the same feel? While the Cyclops Cyclone was definitely a handful from the get-go, and certainly held my attention, the answer was an empathic yes on both counts.
For those wondering why there were so few people who spun all weekend when the cars were moving this much for most of us, compared to the old chassis, you can get the DW12 pretty sideways and still bring her back in line as there tends to be less of the big snap. When she goes, she still really goes, but until that point you can chase after her with your hands to try and bring her back in line. This is what people would be doing lap, after lap, after lap, all night long on Saturday. After my first full-speed run I was already starting to understand that having a setup which allowed you that forgiveness to chase and catch continuously would be incredibly important come race night.
For the rest of the session my engineer and I worked on the car, trying a couple of different strategies and directions. Justin had an issue and was not able to run representative laps during the session to provide more team feedback, so we were flying solo and relying on the feedback of someone making her second-ever DW12 appearance on her first Texas race weekend appearance, and her first time on the high banks with low aero.
However, as the session went on, the car started to come toward us. We didn't run as fast as we had earlier in the session due to the fact that when you slide a big, heavy Indy car around this much at high speeds, it takes its toll on the life of the tires, but we were confident we had found a direction and were making progress. The loss of downforce for our team, on our cars, did affect our handling, and did mean that last year's car was not going to be where we raced this year. The end of the session came far too soon for us as we had plenty more we wanted to try.
Back in the garage area, there was a big rush to get ready for qualifying. As I drew an early number, we had about 45 minutes to decide on any changes, and get them on the Cyclops Gear car before she was required in tech, and then in line to qualify. We made the group decision to not trim out, and instead to use the three laps as a clean air, quick read test – to re-baseline the car on new tires after all of our changes. It wasn't going to result in a big qualifying speed, but grid position was much less important to us than continuing the work on our racecar for the following evening.
Out on pit lane, we discovered that two other cars that were meant to be in front of us had not made it there in time, and as such would miss qualifying and start from the back. The extra three-lap run was too important to both cars in our team to miss, and the Dale Coyne Racing crew did a great job getting both Justin and I down there in time. My run was good and clean, and while we weren't fast compared to those who trimmed out, we were faster than we had run in the morning on the exact same aero, and the handling was better. Given we were running race trim, we were actually fairly pleased.
The big thing for the evening session was going to be to try and get me comfortable in traffic before race day. We would only have a 30-minute session, but we wanted to run fat with fuel, do long runs so that I could learn how to look after the tires, and find me a few people to try and play with so I would have more of an idea of what to expect. We also wanted to continue our work on trying to make the car handle better over the transitions, and trying to make her better up in the top lane where I hadn't yet been able to run.
My first long run showed our speed in race trim compared to everyone else, and the speed I set in that run stayed in the top 10 for the entire session, but in running that hard I learned a valuable lesson for race day about not abusing my tires early in a stint while the car was heavy with fuel. On my second set of used tires, I approached things a little differently and was able to rattle off a 30-lap stint of relatively consistent speeds with little drop-off. I started to work in traffic, and I tried the high line a couple of times but we just got too sideways up there with too little grip, so I was limited to trying to find air underneath people.
The good news was that few people could run as low as me in the middle of the corner lap after lap, and once they left my air for even a quarter of my front wing down there mid corner, it allowed me to get a good run off, draft up behind them, and make the pass stick on the inside at the other end of the track. I had a few big pushes up the track where the snap of oversteer on the transition made me hold my breath, but overall I was starting to get the idea of what I needed to do, and where I needed to be.
After the session the crew were pleased with both of my runs, and I had a couple of texts from people that I respect who noticed how things had gone. Still unused to the new scenario, at the time I wasn't quite convinced that my 30-lap stint would be quite fast enough for race day, but we still had a couple of areas to work on with the car. We were still working away at those transitions, and I was pleased to hear that Justin had not only been on track with his issue resolved, but had also found a solution that allowed him to run the high line if he needed to. That was one of the few key pieces of the puzzle I was still missing, and between Justin's engineer Bill and my engineer JD, a plan was made for the following night.