The revised Indianapolis 500 schedule will feel familiar for most of the NTT IndyCar Series teams in attendance at the Brickyard. Like every other event on the compressed 2020 calendar, drivers, pit crews, and engineers will have a lot to do and limited time to complete their work as practice gets under way on Wednesday.
With Tuesday’s opening day cut from the event, the field will have just two days to learn about their cars in race trim and run in packs around the 2.5-mile speedway before turbocharger boost is cranked up on ‘Fast Friday’ where qualifying preparations will begin.
A swift move into time trials on Saturday and Sunday will dominate most of the running time, and, with Monday’s practice session also removed from the schedule, the last opportunity for teams to refine their race setups will come on Friday, August 21, as two hours have been set aside on Carb Day.
Altogether, there isn’t much time for experimentation with mechanical and aerodynamic tuning. With a pressing need to learn how IndyCar’s new aeroscreen affects handling, tire degradation, and passing on a superspeedway, drivers and engineers will be tasked with processing an extreme amount of information in an incredibly short window.
“It’s going to be tight!” Simon Pagenaud’s Indy 500-winning race engineer Ben Bretzman told RACER. “They’ve reduced running (time) — it’s dramatically reduced this year — with a lot of new things to figure out. I think qualifying is going to be really difficult as well.
“There’s just not a lot of time to figure out all you want to know.”
In the years where more days of practice have been offered, teams tended to follow a similar pattern: running for an hour or two when the track opened; sitting out during the heat of the day; and returning to pit lane later in the afternoon to run to the checkered flag.
Bretzman would be surprised to see the pattern continue this year.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of people staying out and packs running,” he said. “I doubt you’ll see the long lunch breaks and coming back a few hours later. In general, you’re going to see a lot of people staying out and using all the available time. There are a lot of rookies, too, who need to be out there running and learning all the time. I don’t think tire allotment will be an issue with the fewer days, so that should help.”
The anticipated increase in on-track activity prior to this weekend’s qualifying sessions could add a new complication to Fast Friday. As the 33 drivers look to find moments of quiet track time to venture out and perform qualifying simulations, Bretzman isn’t sure those opportunities will appear as frequently as desired.
“If it goes like we think it might with as much activity as I anticipate, it will be hard on Friday to get a lone run,” he said. “My general thought is we’ll tow back and forth between the garage to check the car and do bigger setup work, but there won’t be long stretches where we aren’t on pit lane. It’s going to be very busy. But it’s OK. That what this year’s been like.”
Every team entered in the Indy 500, barring DragonSpeed, is a multi-car operation. Three-time race winner Helio Castroneves expects the bigger programs to divide the work load and conquer faster than their smaller rivals once practice opens.
“For a team coming just for the 500, definitely it’s going to be very hard,” he said. “Big teams might have a good advantage, sharing more cars, sharing information — that means more opportunities and that will help to figure things out with not a lot of time. I believe the big teams will have each driver on their own mission from the first lap we turn.
“Like, ‘This car’s going to try something; the other car’s going to try something; the next car is going to try something else’; and then compare notes quickly and go to the next different things we’ll all try. We already do this, but I think it will be a lot more this way with how things are this year at Indy.”
Consider the challenge ahead for the rookies in the field. With the cancellation of the Indy Open Test due to the coronavirus shutdown, a handful of drivers will take to the track for the first time on Wednesday to complete their Rookie Orientation Program requirements. With that portion of the day completed, it will be full speed ahead into chassis tuning while also learning the finer points of navigating IMS at 230mph.
“It’s been the theme of the year,” said veteran engineer Eric Cowdin, who looks after Spanish rookie Alex Palou at Dale Coyne Racing. “For rookies it’s a bit more of a challenge — a pretty steep learning curve. We’ve got to take pretty much every opportunity we can to get laps, and the Speedway is obviously a unique situation where you’ve got to build up to it in a thoughtful and very methodical method — especially with a rookie. The first time that he’s going to see the place in all its glory will be leaving pit lane for ROP…”
Palou’s teammate Santino Ferrucci, a rookie sensation at Indy in 2019, will help with preparing Palou’s car Wednesday morning.
“In our situation, Santino is going to go out, he’s going to run our baseline setup for a couple hours and we’ll have a good idea where the stability is, and add a little bit more to that for Alex to do his ROP,” Cowdin explained. “That’s going to help a lot. We did that at Texas. Santino did a couple outings just to say, ‘Here, I’m handing you a car. It’s not going to swap ends on you the first time you go into Turn 1.’
“There’s a confidence factor in that, I think, with Alex knowing, ‘Okay, I just saw this car go. They’re running the same setup. I’m going to have, maybe turn of front wing more, and maybe up a hundred pounds on the right-front spring, but it’s nearly identical to what Santino ran.’ That way, when Alex pulls away for his first lap, he knows, ‘Okay, I can focus on driving this thing and not worry about something evil happening to me.’ I think that’s going to help a lot. Then we get through ROP and get down to work on race setups.”
Complementing Bretzman’s anticipation of frequent running throughout the field during practice, and highly focused work on setups, Cowdin is prepared to run through a flurry of options with Palou to ensure they have enough data logged to pick the best chassis and aero configuration for race day.
“I definitely think you’re going to see activity all day long, because if you don’t this year, you’re probably going to get caught out and miss something you could have used,” he said. When you’re practicing, you’re always like, ‘Okay, keeping an eye on the track temperature. It’s gotten hotter; what’s sort of downforce delta am I looking at from where we started?’ and such. Those are all notes that you’re basically putting into the records for your race setup.
“If you’re not working on your car, you’re going to be in pit lane running because of the compressed schedule. And, as competitive as things are, if you find one good setup change, that could make the difference. It’s difficult to fine tune these things on a good day, and then when you compress the schedule, the search is made that much harder.
“You’ve got a long list of things prioritize on the daily run list. This year, it’s just how far down that list do you get in the limited running time that you’ve got?”