Drivers forced to use their backup cars to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 are in a collective fight to fill the final row of the grid.
Only the 29th-place Felix Rosenqvist from Chip Ganassi Racing, who crashed on Wednesday and barely scraped into the top 30 on Saturday with his spare No. 10 Honda, was able to break the trend and earn a place in the field.
The rest of those who crashed, represented by Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe, Carlin Racing’s Patricio O’Ward, Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser and McLaren Racing’s Fernando Alonso, have gone from feeling confident to teetering on being sent home before next Sunday’s 103rd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
These men are piloting cars that, in a general sense, have not been polished and perfected to the same degree as their damaged primary cars. With most laps spent traveling 220 mph or more, hundreds of hours are invested in making the bodywork fit seamlessly and all manner of mechanical drag by reducing friction in wheel bearing and those within the transmission.
A very basic problem of lacking the time needed to transform a chassis used last weekend at the Indianapolis Grand Prix road course race into a specialized low-drag/low-friction superspeedway machine is where little fragments of performance are lost.
Take a few areas on the car where one piece of bodywork sits up a millimeter or two and both catches and slows the passing air, then throw in the tiny amounts of extra effort required to spin a few bearings, and together, an estimated 1-1.5mph is surrendered in average lap speed.
In a series where so many components are identical, where hundredths of a mile per hour can make the difference between failing or qualifying, the plight of being outside the top 30 is revealed.
“No, I don’t think there’s not much you can do,” O’Ward told RACER when asked about any overnight improvements at the team’s disposal. “I’m flat. It’s very frustrating because we’re just plain-out slow. I feel like a turtle, and we’re just not fast. We’ll see what we got.”
The Mexican’s plight, like the others at risk of missing the race, is worrisome. And in the case of Alonso and Hinchcliffe, who are driving semi-optimized speedway backup cars, a general lack of speed has been the limiting factor. Whether it’s a draggy road course car or a spare speedway car that can’t match the pace of the primary, the sensation inside the cockpit isn’t drastically different from the fast and undamaged cars they had earlier in the event.
“It’s not like the car feels bad,” O’Ward continued. “I had a little understeer moment in the last lap, but the three first laps were just slow, and I really don’t know why. As everybody knows, there’s a lot of things that go into speedway cars, detail-wise, and this car has been running road courses. It hasn’t been running speedways, so the time crunch has been something that hasn’t been on our side, and we haven’t gotten a lot of running after the incident just because of issues.
“As a driver, I’m giving it everything that I can just like I always have, and my Carlin crew are working harder than they ever have, so I guess we’ll just see what we have. I really hope we can just get a little bit of speed. I don’t really care where I qualify. I just want to be in the show.”