To practice and qualify for most IZOD IndyCar Series races, we get two days on track, with about three hours per day of track time. By the end of this weekend – weather permitting – we will have had nine straight days of running for the 96th Indianapolis 500, with six hours of track time available each day for our No. 12 Verizon car. Because this isn't just an IndyCar race: it's the IndyCar race and it's the biggest race in the world.
With that said, it's not as if we can run endlessly through those practice days. The tire allocation means we get to do a little over 40 laps a day on average, so on Tuesday I think we did 80, but on Wednesday we did 10. So it becomes a case of spending the time in a smart way, just acquiring more and more knowledge of the new car, seeing how it works from full fuel load to empty, from new tires to old tires, and how it works in traffic. When you see us driving in packs during practice, it isn't just to measure the effects of the draft on your straight-line speed; it's to see how running in dirty air speeds up tire degradation, or how running up close to the car in front improves your fuel mileage.
Hunting and gathering
Coming here with a new car this year – and this is our first oval race with the DW12 – means there has been a lot of extra information to gather, not just for us drivers but for our Team Penske engineers. Sure, we've done one or two oval tests, but Indy is pretty unique because of the length of the straights and the relative flatness of the corners. Compared with last year's car, the new aero package and weight distribution are totally different, and obviously Chevrolet want to gather information about their engine in oval spec.
But this is Team Penske – we have a lot of strength in depth, we got the car set up pretty quick, and so we're at the point of just making small changes now. We're flat on the gas all the way around the track, even when we're completely trimmed out. This car is very, very solid and that's why you're seeing hardly any mistakes this year and why the rookies have been going very fast throughout practice. One of them even said the car's stuck down so much around here that it feels like a speeded-up Indy Lights car!
So what's the challenge? Well, the fact that everyone else is trying to do the same as you. I think it could create a very exciting race for the fans, because we're discovering this car is not a handful in traffic. Despite there being a huge tow-effect, once you get up close to another car, your car's still well planted and you can follow him or her very closely through the turns. The crucial thing on race day will be how bad the marbles are off-line. If they are cleared up and there's a shootout 10 laps from the end after a caution, you could get an amazing sprint to the checkers.
Yesterday was Fast Friday and everyone got their first chance to run the extra 40-50hp that the series has granted us for today's Pole Day qualifying. It was interesting because it gave us a few more unknowns, but in those circumstances, where setup tweaks are required or when we need to think ahead, then Verizon Team Penske is the team to be with. I've got to also say that having access to Rick Mears' brain is a great help, too! As a six-time polesitter here, he's a great guy to have on our side.
The big question among fans has been, “What speed will take pole?” Well, I'd love to give you an insight, but I think most drivers would agree that it could be anywhere between a high 225mph average over the four laps and a low 227. The reason we can't be more specific than that is because the usual rules apply at Indy, regarding track temperature, wind speed, wind direction… You can't make your predictions too definitive. That's the intriguing – and sometimes annoying! – thing about the Speedway. Drivers and teams have to be ready for anything.
As a three-car team, it's been interesting to see that although myself, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe started at different points in setting up this new car, we all sort of converged on very similar setups. There really isn't much variation in how to drive this car, although the extra horsepower for yesterday and today does give you a couple more variables. (I really wish we were running this qualifying boost on race day, because I think all of us Chevrolet runners would also have the edge on reliability.) However, I think the top 30 cars on Pole Day will be amazingly close in speed. A lucky gust of wind on your qualifying run could be make or break.
The race itself is still hard to predict, other than to say that almost all the drivers will be operating at a similar level of driving on race day, and it will be the team and driver who are smartest who should come out on top. It's all about time: timing the pit stops, timing your passes – and the thing that's out of your control – the timing of the yellow flags. There's still a lot of work to do to gain an edge, I tell you that. But if any group can, it's the people on the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske entry.
Will we have a clearer picture of where we stand by the end of the week? Yeah, a little, because everyone who safely qualifies today will use tomorrow as a test day, switching down to the lower boost settings and working solidly on race setups. But let's be honest, who's best will be a mystery until the drop of the green on Sunday, May 27. In fact, maybe we won't know until the final stint of the race…
I'll get back to you next week.
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