Well, the lead-up to the 103rd running of the Indy 500 was certainly packed with drama. James Hinchcliffe had a vicious crash on his qualifying run and was in danger of missing the race for the second year in a row. The McLaren team could not get Fernando Alonso’s car dialed in and he was also in danger of failing to qualify. There were little one-off teams punching above their weight to get into the field. The weather was all over the place—cold, then hot, rainy, windy, challenging teams to make adjustments for the conditions.
From the opening of practice, it was clear that this year was going to be very competitive. Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, and teenage phenom Colton Herta set lap speeds of 228 mph minutes after practice started. While these were “tow” laps (if a driver can see the car ahead on the straight, he is getting a tow), this was an indication of what was to come.
Of course, the biggest story was that two-time Formula 1 champion, Fernando Alonso, failed to qualify for the race. A wreck on the second day of practice forced the team to go to the backup car, built by team partner Carlin Racing, instead of the primary car, which had been built by McLaren in England. The backup car, as were the other cars for the other three teams whose primary cars were involved in wrecks, was set up as a road course car. With the swapping of various aerodynamic body panels these cars were then re-configured as speedway cars. However, the backups did not have the extensive tweaking of details that the primaries did. Much work had been performed on mechanical and aerodynamic drag to obtain the maximum speed. Wheel bearings and gearbox internals had been dialed in to reduce friction losses (just as is done with slot cars). Body panels had been adjusted for panel gap and perfect fit to gain the last little bit of smooth air flow. The backup cars lacked some of these details.
McLaren CEO Zak Brown candidly chronicled the team failures that led to the embarrassing result, starting with the realization that, one week before their scheduled test at Texas Motor Speedway, they did not have a steering wheel! The backup car, supplied by Carling Racing had been painted the wrong orange color, and, a month later, after Alonso’s crash, was still not repainted. This resulted in nearly two days of missed track time. The car was not dialed in, resulting in Alonso having to tweak weight jackers, roll bars, and other settings throughout his qualifying runs on Saturday. The car was clearly twitchy. After a desperate plea to Andretti Racing Saturday night, the team was able to obtain the superior Andretti shocks and use the Andretti setup specs. Sort of—there was confusion between Metric and ‘Murican measurements, resulting in sparks as the car bottomed out during practice Sunday morning. They thought they corrected this but had no chance to try it out before their final qualification run Sunday afternoon. As it turned out, this final setup worked and the car was stable and smooth. However, the team had installed the wrong final gear—a 227.5mph gear when they had a 229mph available—resulting in an ignominious end to their month of May.
Zak Brown fired Bob Fernley, the head of the McLaren IndyCar program on Monday. In hindsight, Fernley, the previous deputy chief at F1 Force India, was the wrong choice to lead the team. Zak Brown had been busy with the beleaguered F1 team and admitted not keeping a close enough watch on the Indy program. He had also brought Gil DeFerran on board too late. It remains to be seen what happens to the McLaren Indy program in the future. Through all this drama, Fernando remained open and approachable. Gil DeFerran publicly apologized to Alonso for McLaren’s failures.
Then there were the little teams. Kyle Kaiser, the 2017 Indy Lights champion, driving for Juncos Racing, was the driver that finally bumped Alonso from the field. Juncos Racing is an Argenitne/American team that has primarily been racing in the Weathertech Series and has only made limited appearances in IndyCar the last two years. Two weeks ago their sponsorship for the Indy 500 fell through; they practiced and qualified with no sponsorship on the car. Things looked tough for the team when Kyle crashed earlier in the week. Everyone from the Juncos sports car crew showed up to prepare a backup car. They did not practice before going out in their final chance to qualify.
Sage Karam with Dreyer and Reinbold had a rough week with the car not working right. Sage was clearly nervous but he and the team pulled it together in the last row shootout to make the field.
Dragonspeed Racing managed to field a car for European junior racer and endurance driver Ben Hanley, again with no sponsorship on the car, and put it in the field.
Michael Shank Racing, another sports car team, has shown promise this year with Jack Harvey, topped by a third place finish in the Indianapolis GP race.
Pippa Mann is making her seventh appearance in the 500, after failing to qualify last year. She is racing with Clauson-Marshal Racing founded by members of the late dirt-track driver Bryan Clauson. Although they have sponsorship, they are still a very small team.
Conor Daly has his best ride in the 500 as part of the Andretti team. His Air Force-sponsored car has a great jet fighter livery. The Andretti team, as usual, looks strong, particularly Alexander Rossi. Marco Andretti also runs strong; he has a throw-back livery based on his grandfather’s 1969 race-winning livery. Marco has been relaxed and comfortable this year, despite all the attention over Mario’s 50th anniversary of his race win
Nineteen-year-old Colton Herta continues to impress. Amazingly cool and poised no matter what the racing situation, he has run at the front everywhere, already a race winner at the age of eighteen at COTA in March. As qualifying speeds are very weather-dependent at Indy, most of the fastest speeds are from drivers with early draws in the qualifying lineup or late runs when the track is cooler and speeds are higher. In addition there was a very strong and gusty wind blowing from Turn 1 to Turn 2 giving the driver’s fits. Colton’s first qualifying run was in the hottest part of the day and he still went out and ran fast enough to be in the Fast Nine when no one else was running that fast in the heat. Then, later, while it was still hot, the team trimmed the car out and he ran even faster, to end up fifth for the day. This demonstrated the faith and the trust that the team had in his ability. He drives like a veteran, despite his age. Colton ended up fifth and fastest Honda.
James Hinchcliffe had decent practice speeds, but suffered a crash in his first qualifying run on Saturday. In a scary replay of his horrendous 2015 crash, a gust of wind caught his car as he entered Turn 2, resulting in a hard hit to the wall, almost turning the car upside down. The Arrow Schmidt-Peterson team scrambled to prepare the backup car and had it ready in two and a half hours. Hinchcliffe bravely climbed back in and went back out to qualify in the untested car. Not quite good enough for the top thirty on Saturday, he had to run again in the last row shootout on Sunday and made the field.
The Chevy engines appear to have a little more power than the Hondas, with Ed Carpenter’s team and the Penske’s leading the way. Spencer Pigot is on the pole, followed by Will Power, only .002mph back. The whole field is separated by only 1.8 seconds over the 4-lap qualifying distance. The field is really too close to project a winner. And the weather will likely be a factor. Rain is predicted for Sunday. A penetrant has been applied to the racing surface; the asphalt is blacker than it has been previously. The darker color retains more heat, producing trickier conditions on sunny day. However it does seem to have improved track drying. After rain quits, the track can be dried in 1 ½ hr.
NBC has done an excellent job in their first year of broadcasting the Indy 500, particularly with the IndyCar Pass app, with the NBC team providing commentary for all the practice and qualifying sessions. The insights from former drivers Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, and Danica Patrick have been very informative, keeping track of everything going on. The broadcast promises to be the best coverage since the days of Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and we will witness an exciting and safe race!