Indianapolis: Paul’s Pole Day thoughts

IndyCar — By on May 20, 2012 6:12 am
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Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is in the books, and what a great day it was!  A day that started out with so many question marks and a field that saw as many drivers in the running for the pole position as any field in recent history ended with Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe on top of the pylon by only the very narrowest of margins over Canadian James Hinchcliffe for next Sunday’s 96th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

After Briscoe set down a blistering average of 225.484 mph, it appeared that Hinchcliffe was going to have enough to top the Aussie, but after a warmup lap of over 227 mph and three laps above Briscoe’s average, Hinchcliffe lost just enough speed on his final lap to fall below Briscoe’s average.  Just how close was it?  From a time standpoint, the difference of 0.0023 seconds is the closest between the first and second place starters in Indianapolis history.  The previous record of 0.01 seconds was set in 1970 when Al Unser nipped Johnny Rutherford for the pole position.  From a distance perspective, the difference over 10 miles was slightly over nine inches.

Stung by the minute deficit, Hinchcliffe — who had set the fastest time during the first five-hour qualifying session and paid homage to his fallen Canadian hero Greg Moore by carrying Moore’s red gloves in his driving suit — attempted to qualify again later in the shootout but was never able to match the speed from his first run.

Rounding out the front row is Hinchcliffe’s Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Other than Briscoe, no other driver likely left the track any happier after qualifying than Hunter-Reay.  After an agonizing Bump Day in 2009, followed by a disastrous Bump Day last year that saw him bumped by his own teammate as the final gun sounded, Ryan’s third place qualifying effort had to feel as good as any victory of his career.  Though he expressed disappointment immediately following his run to have only missed the pole position by 0.2 mph, Ryan will quickly look back and realize just what a turnaround this effort was from 2011.

Given the improved performance of the entire Andretti Autosport quintet, it is important to note that Allan McDonald, who was the chief engineer for Sam Schmidt Motorsports last year during the Month of May, moved to Andretti shortly after last year’s Indianapolis 500 and has led a resurgence of that program.  With the less-than-stellar results of Schmidt Hamilton Racing today, managing only 20th and 23rd place starting efforts with Townsend Bell and rookie Simon Pagenaud respectively, the importance of an engineer like McDonald cannot be overstated.

Perhaps the biggest story of the day, other than Briscoe’s pole winning performance, was the complete domination of the day by Chevrolet-powered teams.  Claiming eight of the nine spots in the afternoon shootout session, only Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing rookie Josef Newgarden was able to advance to the second session of qualifying.  Amazingly, all four of the Chip Ganassi-owned cars were on the outside looking in as the fastest nine from the early session went for the pole.  It was completely shocking to see the Honda teams that far removed from a chance to earn the coveted top spot.  Whether their lack of speed today is indicative of their competitiveness in next Sunday’s 500-mile race will be one of the big stories throughout the next week.

The difference is speed seemed to be substantially exacerbated by the increased turbocharger boost that INDYCAR afforded the teams for Fast Friday and qualifying weekend.  Many drivers have been pushing to keep the added horsepower for their cars in the superspeedway configuration, saying repeatedly that the new DW12 has a massive amount of grip and a lack of power.  Though INDYCAR has said the turbo increase was only for this weekend, reports indicate that the door for keeping the increased boost through race day may not be completely closed.  Given that these engines have never gone 500 miles in a single race, adding more horsepower for race weekend may be asking a lot of these untested engines.

On that note, Chevrolet suffered its first engine failure of the month today when Sebastian Saavedra’s engine expired before he even took the green flag for his qualifying attempt.  For those keeping score, Honda has had two visible engine failures so far this month with Graham Rahal and Michel Jourdain, Jr. having engine failures earlier in the week.  INDYCAR Race Director Beaux Barfield confirmed for More Front Wing today that Rahal will face a 10-spot grid penalty at Detroit for an unapproved engine change.  That engine, still the first of the season for the Service Central Ganassi Racing driver, was within about 50 miles of its scheduled 1,800-mile change out.

After six days of unusually clean practice running, the DW12 finally got its first significant crash tests today when three drivers made contact with the various walls around the 2.5-mile oval.  The first impact was courtesy of SFHR rookie Bryan Clauson who lost control in turn 1 on his final lap.  After saving the car on the first bobble, the rear end of the car stepped out and the car made hard contact almost at the beginning of the south chute.  Clauson was quickly checked and released from the infield medical center with only a light bandage on his right thumb.  Asked about it later, Clauson said he did get his hands off the steering wheel before he made contact but hit his hand on something he couldn’t identify.  He said he feels no effects from the accident and will be ready to push to the limit when his car is repaired in time for qualifications on Sunday.

A short time later, Panther/DRR driver Oriol Servia had a scary moment at the exit of turn 4.  As he was unwinding the car to head for the Yard of Bricks, it suddenly swapped ends and Servia found himself in a long slide toward pit road.  After making contact with the inside pit wall, the car rebounded back across the pit lane and made hard contact with the energy attenuator that shields the end of the pit wall.  The impact sent Servia’s car into a wild spin, but the Spaniard was able to climb from it with little assistance.

The most significant accident of the day was that of Ed Carpenter.  On Carpenter’s second qualification attempt, Ed lost control in the second turn and made very hard contact with the SAFER Barrier.  Upon impact with the left-front side of the car, the car’s right side lifted significantly off the ground momentarily but quickly settled back down.  Ed was able to quickly extricate himself from the car and was cleared to drive a short time later.

In each of the three accidents, it appeared that the new DW12 performed exactly as expected, protecting the driver and showing the resistance to lift that had plagued the previous generation Dallara.  It’s still a bit soon to make generalizations that the problem is fixed, especially after my concerns following the Long Beach incident between Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti, but the initial results look promising.

I was asked a couple of times today how I thought the crowd looked compared to previous years.  Quite honestly, I don’t really recall how good or full the attendance was for Pole Day last year, but I thought today’s crowd was pretty decent.  There were good crowds in the outside grandstands across from the Pagoda and in turn 1.  Turn 4 also had a decent crowd.  The area behind the Pagoda and Gasoline Alley were crowded all day long, and the stands behind pit road were well populated.  I wouldn’t even know where to start estimating the crowd, but I don’t think 40-50,000 people would be laughable.  No, it’s not the 150,000 people that used to attend Pole Day 30 years ago, but it is certainly not insignificant, either.

Speaking of crowds, I expect the Bump Day crowd to be pretty minuscule.  With almost no chance of bumping and with the Indiana Pacers playoff game set to tip at 3:30, many people are expecting the stands to be mostly bare by the time the final gun sounds at 6:00 signifying the end of qualifications.  It’s a real shame that there will be so little drama this year after the constant drama of last year’s Bump Day, but we can only hope this is a temporary issue and that engine supplies will be substantially increased in time for next year’s race.

More Front Wing will be back on site for full Bump Day coverage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Be sure to follow along on Twitter for live updates throughout the day.

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