There’s nothing like the sight of super-light, high-downforce Formula 1 cars in qualifying at Circuit of The Americas. Low on fuel, looking like the world’s most expensive slot cars, the machines wielded by Lewis Hamilton and the rest of the F1 paddock set unattainable performance levels for any of the series that visit COTA.
And then we have the heavier, slower Indy cars, making their first visit to the 20-turn, 3.4-mile circuit. After seven years of Grand Prix cars serving as the only standard of reference, the sight of IndyCar’s finest drivers — even the second-tier performers — attempting to control a field of 24 bucking, pitching, protesting Dallara DW12s has fostered a brand-new level of appreciation.
Forget the disparity in pole times between F1 and IndyCar at COTA; of course they’re slower, and yes, they’re nowhere near the missile-like Ferraris and Mercedes and Red Bull creations. But take a gander at the frequency of insane slides, lock-ups, and off-track excursions as the combination of higher weight and lower downforce, all propelled by 750hp or so from Chevy and Honda, has turned the facility into IndyCar’s first drifting exhibition.
Consider how many times IndyCar drivers counter-steer each lap, and COTA might have something closer to 50 corners based on steering wheel movement. Come and watch F1 for the pinnacle of technology and speed. Come and watch IndyCar for the sheer spectacle of drivers fighting to tame open-wheel vehicles that refuse to behave. It’s the Professional Bull Riders show, IndyCar-style.
Of everything COTA has offered since it opened in 2012, they’ve never seen a rodeo show like this.
“You definitely realize how fun the place is,” fourth-place qualifier Ryan Hunter-Reay said with a devilish grin. “Especially when you start thinking about Turns 16, 17, 18, beneath the big tower, how we’re fifth gear…turning left into a right-hander the whole way through there…it’s ‘pretty unique.’
“To be doing that in an open-wheel car…it’s definitely a different form of racing than anything that’s ever been here.”
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was one of many drivers who spent qualifying locked in a fist fight with his car. Starting 22nd, it’s fair to say the No. 22 Chevy got the upper hand on the road course ace.
“It’s super tough to be fast here because you need a good kind of slow speed, which means, good braking stability, good traction,” he explained. “But that doesn’t work in high speed, because then the rear end’s too strong and it doesn’t rotate. So you need to trade a little bit of rear grip to make the car rotate. And it’s a very interesting exercise throughout. The hairpins, the fast corners…you never have the perfect car in each of the two types of demands. But that’s the best compromise. You have to be flowing. A lot of speed. You have to be patient. You can’t really hustle it around too much. It’s really enjoyable.”
Enjoyable, but only if the car responds to the will of its occupant.
“It’s tricky, and it’s no doubt I enjoy it, but I enjoy it when it’s good,” says Graham Rahal, who qualified 10th. “It’s like Road America in the sense that every little bobble or mistake is a huge lap time penalty. So for me in qualifying there, I just tried to reach for 10 extra feet in braking at the end of the back straight and it locked up and there goes your whole qualifying session.
“But it’s crazy. I mean this is active, low grip. Tires don’t have a ton of grip here. I would say it’s probably the lowest-grip feeling in the car that we get almost anywhere this year.”
Rahal, a lifelong fan of F1, says the lower-tech IndyCar formula is directly responsible for the big slides and dramatic wrangling efforts shown on the NBC broadcasts.
“I just think that, first of all, you don’t have the driver aids,” he continued. “No power steering, so you see every little movement in an Indy car whereas power steering, like they have in F1 … typically when you go over a curb it’s gonna numb some of that. In IndyCar, you feel it all.
“Secondly, it’s pretty clear they have tire options that are very soft. The cars are very light. The cars have a lot of downforce. We, since 2018, the cars just don’t have that much downforce. So you’re purely just sliding around, and this track really showcases that, I think, to the best of any of our abilities.”
Polesitter Will Power, who caught some major slides on Saturday, was able to hustle his No. 12 to the top starting spot for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. Rahal, more than a half-second slower, was taken aback by how similar efforts in the cockpit yielded such dissimilar results.
“No lap feels great here,” he said. “But there’s difference. When we’re struggling here and I kept saying, ‘I need grip,’ people are like, ‘Look at Will Power’s hands, for instance. They’re moving just as much as yours.’
“But there’s a different adhesion level for some cars with what they come up with on setup. Our car this week has been pretty good, but some are better, and some have it worse. So you’re sliding around a lot but there’s grip there if you can find it. You’re sliding into the edge of adhesion, and a lot of times, to make the lap time you need, you’re going beyond that edge. And I really enjoy that.”
COTA’s 60-lap IndyCar rodeo starts at 12:30 p.m. CT.