PRUETT: Notes from Road America

Image by Burke/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Notes from Road America

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Notes from Road America

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Just when I thought we were going to finally write about a team other than Chip Ganassi Racing, Felix Rosenqvist spoils the first win for Arrow McLaren SP and delivers on the potential that landed him the plum seat alongside Scott Dixon. Having committed plenty of words to CGR in our recent post-race analysis columns, let’s open in a different direction.

Our first major trend to note, while coming out of four races where practice time was limited, is how erratic the season has been for so many teams and entries. It’s to be expected. Without tons of practice sessions to bring each car to a state of near-perfection, drivers and engineers have been forced to make quick and bold decisions on chassis setup. As a result, those big swings have either hit or missed the target. Think of it as having hours, rather than days, to prepare for a big test, and feeling less than confident you’re ready to ace the exam.

Sunday was a prime example, with roughly two hours separating qualifying and the race. Pato O’Ward’s supreme short-burst speed in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy was good enough to take pole position, but as the race revealed, rear tire degradation was too high once he moved to Firestone’s primary compound in the middle of the contest, and again when he finished the race on used alternates. With more track time to develop the car around Sunday’s setup, it’s more than likely the rears could have been better preserved, but in the slam-bang schedule, the team did their best to nail the setup and soon learned that rear-tire limitations were becoming problematic.

O’Ward’s situation was mirrored by most teams. Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Palou was a beast on Saturday when he took third while in hot pursuit of Will Power and Scott Dixon, and with some chassis tweaks overnight, he improved 11 spots in qualifying from Round 1, lined up third for Round 2, and then spent the afternoon chasing the handling, which went south rather quickly. Expand the reality to the rest of the field (barring Dixon and Rosenqvist), and the results for most drivers over the opening four rounds look like almost nobody has a clue to what they’re doing from week to week.

While that isn’t true, the compressed schedules in reaction to COVID-19 have become IndyCar’s greatest generator of variables. It’s been a podium finish here, missing in action there, average finish the next time out, and a crash to close. If you like surprises, the 2020 season is on pace to be unforgettable in that regard.

Pivoting off this point, the random nature of the IndyCar races to date has played into Dixon’s hands.

Without a steady rival finishing in his wheel tracks, the five-time champion has amassed a 54-point lead over second place. For the sake of context, that’s one full race (50 points) plus pole (one point), leading a lap (one point) and leading the most laps (two points) worth of an advantage after four races. And that comes after a lowly 12th on Sunday.

Dixon is making a strong early play for becoming IndyCar’s first champion of the social-distancing era. Image by Abbott/Motorsport Images

After Texas, it was Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (P2) and Josef Newgarden (P3) on Dixon’s championship heels. After winning the Indy GP, Pagenaud stayed close (P2, -25 points), and while Newgarden held his position, a distant finish of seventh separated him from his teammate and Dixon in the standings (P3, -40 points).

Following Dixon’s Saturday win at Road America and Pagenaud’s 12th-place finish, the Penske driver was able to maintain his runner-up spot in the championship, but the gap exploded, more than doubling (P2, -62 points). For Newgarden, whose Saturday went pear-shaped, his run to 14th came with forfeiting third in the standings (P4, -71 points) as Colton Herta moved in behind Pagenaud (P3, -67 points).

By the end of Sunday, when Dixon’s three-race winning streak came to an end, his 12th-place finish could have been used by the Penske tandem to undo some of their poor finishes. But since we’ve yet to establish a consistent threat to the Ganassi driver, his bad day at the races had minimal influence on the championship. Pagenaud struggled once again, finishing right behind Dixon in 13th, and as a result, he’s been demoted (P3, -63 points). Newgarden, who placed ninth on Sunday, fell even farther (P5, -67 points).

Herta, IndyCar’s current master of consistency, is the only driver so far in 2020 to finish all four races inside the top 10, and he’s been rewarded in the standings (P2, -54 points). Sunday’s second-place man, Pato O’Ward, also received a boost in the standings, splitting Pagenaud and Newgarden (P4, -63 points).

In this season that defies prediction, who knows what Iowa will bring to the constantly rising and falling championship contenders behind Dixon and Herta?

Other thoughts:

  • How on earth are we already past the 25 percent mark in the season?
  • The 2020 IndyCar engine manufacturer war is a strange thing to behold. Chevy has four poles and zero wins. Honda has zero poles and four wins. Must be some kind of record.
  • When was the last time Team Penske went through the first four races without a win? Seven years ago, when it took until the eighth race of 2013 (at Texas) for Helio Castroneves to find victory lane for The Captain.
  • And how about the other winless powerhouse team, Andretti Autosport? The last time is was blanked across the four opening races was… not so long ago. Takuma Sato produced the team’s first win at Round 6 in 2017, at a little event known as the Indianapolis 500.
  • Sato has yet to feature in one of the three races he’s started, but the Japanese star has been highly efficient since missing Texas with finishes of 10th, ninth, and eighth. If he continues improving his finishes by one spot at each race, put your money on Sato’s No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda to win at Round 1 in Laguna Seca.
  • Ambient temperatures were down from the steamy GMR Grand Prix at Indy, which helped bring cockpit temperatures down to a place where they were a non-issue. A few drivers made use of the new, second cooling duct on the side of the aeroscreen, but most were fine with one. The most welcome note from drivers involved the relocation of their drinking systems to inside the chassis by their knees. With the drink bladder move away from the radiators, the piping hot liquids at Indy were replaced by cool drinks at Road America.

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