Most of the IndyCar paddock spent Friday evening trying to decode the softer-compound Firestones after an oddball opening day of practice at Barber.
After opening the weekend on the harder compound the field bolted on the reds in the afternoon in anticipation of the standard jump in lap time that the softer compounds generally deliver during their short peak operating window. But on Friday, the tires had other ideas.
“The reds seemed like blacks and the blacks seemed like the reds,” said Marco Andretti. “I’m in a mentality of being prepared to qualify on the blacks.”
Sebastien Bourdais noticed a drop-off in performance as soon as the temperature started to climb; the afternoon session being held in sunny conditions following a cool and overcast morning.
“As soon as the sun came out, the track got about a full second slower on the alternates,” he said. “That’s never been seen before.”
The only driver to go quicker on the reds was also the driver who finished the day fastest overall, but James Hinchcliffe admitted that had more to do with his not putting together a good lap on blacks than understanding the reds.
“At a track with a bunch of long fast corners, normally the reds were going to be significantly faster, and most guys didn’t improve their times,” he said. “I think our time was more just because we didn’t get the best out of our black tires, or I think it would have been pretty similar, as well. Everybody has got a bit of homework to do for qualifying tomorrow.”
This was good news for Colton Herta, who’d ended the day second-fastest and briefly worried that the problem was unique to his car.
“The reds felt kind of awkward for some reason,” said the COTA winner. “They didn’t feel good at all. And I thought it was just me when I was out on track, but it looks like a general trend. I actually went half a second slower on reds. So, it’s definitely something to look at. It’s going to be changing up the tire strategies and what people are going to be doing in practice compared to tires for qualifying and the race, but yeah, it’s definitely a different situation. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it should be a mix-up. I’m extremely puzzled and kind of threw out my whole qualifying prediction on what tires we were going to run, and the whole plan of the weekend has changed.”
The cause of the unexpected lack of performance might be linked to the tires being used by the Porsche GT3 E Cup and Formula 3 Americas cars that form part of the weekend’s support bill.
“It could be a function of track conditions, the various different rubbers on the track,” pondered Hinchcliffe. “Obviously there’s a few more supporting series here than they’ve had in the past – at least, different ones.”
Whatever the case, engineers all the way along pitlane were preparing themselves for a long evening with the laptops in search of answers… and knowing that any solutions that are discovered might be redundant, with weather forecasts suggesting the possibility of a rain-affected qualifying. But even if that comes to pass, there’s still the race itself to deal with.
“If it doesn’t rain on Sunday, at some point you’ve got to run both tires [in the race],” said Hinchcliffe. “Trying to find a car that is going to handle well with both of them is a little bit of a terrifying thought.”