PRUETT: Talking points ahead of COTA

Image by LePage/LAT

PRUETT: Talking points ahead of COTA

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Talking points ahead of COTA

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IMS GP 2.0

I’ve been to COTA more than a dozen times, most often for sports car racing, and if there’s one unfortunate fact to accept, it’s how the lavish Formula 1 facility looks completely empty, unless it’s completely full.

I think of COTA in the same vein as the Indianapolis Grand Prix. Even with 30,000 or 40,000 fans in attendance, the sprawling grandstands built to hold nearly 300,000 people serves as a reminder of how many fans aren’t in attendance.

Despite offering some amazing cars and racing, World Challenge, Grand Am and IMSA — all well-known American road racing properties — struggled to draw the smallest of crowds. The addition of the amazing FIA WEC from Europe and its insane LMP1-Hybrid prototypes on doubleheader bills with IMSA was a financial failure as well when tiny crowds turned up to watch.

F1, with its giant imported crowds, and MotoGP, with a similar fly-in fanbase, has packed COTA. On the domestic front, American fans of both series have also been loyal supporters, making the annual pilgrimage to Austin for their fix of Grand Prix or two-wheeled competition.

COTA’s confusing attendance history, with Europe’s F1 and MotoGP thriving, Europe’s WEC failing, Australia’s V8 Supercars failing after one visit, and IMSA failing and leaving makes it hard to predict how IndyCar will fare.

The obvious hope is for IndyCar to succeed, even modestly, where others have underperformed. Without naming the target number, one series official did say advance ticket sales for the COTA race are performing near the level the track expected.

As long as the front straight for Sunday’s race has a solid crowd, it will be a victory compared to most others series that race in Austin.

TIRE LIFE

Most drivers and engineers are convinced the INDYCAR Classic at the Circuit of The Americas will be a 60-lap marathon spent trying to avoid torturing their tires. It was the big topic during the recent open test, and as Dale Coyne Racing engineer Michael Cannon explains, it has little to do with the quality of Firestone’s tires.

Austin’s a great place if you’re looking for music; less so if you’re looking for grip. Image by LePage/LAT.

“The type of aggregate they use [in the track surface at COTA] is very weather worn,” he said. “If you go to racetracks in Florida, you’ll see a lot of sea shells in the aggregate; it’s broken up and sharp. At COTA, the rocks and the pebbles in the aggregate are very polished. It makes for a very slick track.”

Lacking the sharp aggregate to dig into tires and provide a high degree of natural grip, Firestone’s primary black tires and its faster alternate reds will be asked to shoulder most of the performance burden. As a result, tire life and usable grip could be at risk.

“With the reds, remember we have 20 corners in a 3.4-mile track; Road America is four miles long and has 14 turns,” Cannon adds. “You pick up a tenth per corner and the reds will be a huge difference. Come to the race, and durability? That’s anybody’s guess.”

WEATHER

It always rains at COTA in March. Always. We could be in for a happy reprieve, however, as forecasts of light rain on Friday and more significant rainfall on Saturday are moving in a positive direction. With uncharacteristic warmth on the horizon, IndyCar’s debut in Austin could be a pleasant affair for teams and spectators alike.

TIME FOR SOME ACTION

Pato O’Ward’s season kicks off in the state he’s called home for most of his teen life. The Mexico-born, San Antonio-domiciled Indy Lights champion will be one to watch closely from opening practice through the race. But don’t be surprised if his debut with Carlin Racing isn’t a carbon copy of his debut at Sonoma last September with Harding Racing.

O’Ward’s season starts here. Image by Levitt/LAT.

Warm and in the groove from a full season of Lights racing, the IndyCar season finale was a perfect venue for O’Ward to make a splash. Outside of the Race of Champions in January, the 19-year-old hasn’t turned a lap in open-wheel machinery for almost six months. He also missed COTA’s Spring Training February, and with zero circuit knowledge, his first laps in the No. 23 Carlin Chevy Friday morning will double as his first opportunity to learn COTA’s 20 turns.

The young phenom is always good for delivering the unexpected, so there’s every reason to believe O’Ward will make big strides in every session. Coming in cold, with lots of rust to knock off at an unfamiliar track, it’s worth remembering he’s facing the steepest learning curve in the field.

TOP SPEEDS

One of the more interesting threads coming out of the Spring Training test at COTA was the discrepancy in top speeds between IndyCars and Formula 1 machines. Stuck in the 185mph range, the Chevy- and Honda-powered Dallara DW12s were seen and heard hitting the rev limiter rather early on the long run between Turns 11 and 12.

Compared to F1 cars on the same backstretch, which have run through the traps at more than 205mph, it’s a massive separation.

It’s also worth noting that with F1’s Drag Reduction System fitted to the rear wings of its cars, top speeds soar and engines keep pulling until the braking zone. Without DRS technology in IndyCar, teams are forced to carry high downforce every step of the way while navigating the twisting, 3.4-mile facility. With that downforce held firm at the rear, those Chevys and Hondas hit an aero well before the braking zone, and that’s where the 20mph difference comes from.

MENDED MEN

Ed Jones has been cleared to drive after fracturing a finger in his hard St. Petersburg crash. Felix Rosenqvist, who completed St. Pete with a right arm and shoulder that went numb after an ill-fitting seat affected circulation in that area, is also in good working order.

“We worked on my seat to remove the area that gave me problems,” the Swede said. “I used it at my rookie [oval] test in Texas, and if it was going to be a problem, it would have been horrible there with all the G-forces pushing you to the right in the seat.”

WHO’S GOT THE HANDLE?

Team Penske has the magic handling sauce at St. Petersburg, which begs the question of whether the Captain’s Chevy-powered outfit will maintain its form as IndyCar moves to its first natural terrain road course of 2019. Using 2018 as our guide, St. Pete winner Josef Newgarden won at Barber Motorsports Park, teammate Will Power won at the Indy GP, and Newgarden won again at Road America. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi claimed Mid-Ohio to the delight of Honda and its home state employees, Takuma Sato won at Portland for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay took Sonoma in dominating style.

It’s predictable, but yes, look to Penske and Andretti — including Colton Herta’s Harding Steinbrenner Racing entry that uses go-fast parts and personnel from Andretti Technologies — as the front-runners, and using its St. Pete output, the third member of IndyCar’s Big 3, Chip Ganassi Racing, should be in the mix as well. While a win by one of the Big 3 won’t surprise anyone, the most important kernel of info will be when we learn which of those teams has an upper hand. Street courses and road courses comprise the majority of the calendar; COTA will tell us a lot about where the victories should fall in the coming months.

 

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