Indy 500 Insights: Townsend Bell’s take on latest IMS practice week format

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Every year, Townsend Bell puts together a one-off Indianapolis 500 program. The 2014 edition will be Bell’s eighth ‘500 appearance, after making his debut in 2006 and running every year consecutively since 2008. This year, he returns to KV Racing Technology, the team where he posted his career-best ‘500 finish of fourth in 2009, and where he seeks to improve upon it this year. The NBC Sports Group Verizon IndyCar Series analyst is able to provide both a driver’s an analyst’s perspective in the field. For part three of this daily series through this week (see parts two, one here), we get Townsend’s take on Indianapolis’ latest new practice and qualifying week format.

Change is constant. Change has been rapid over the course of the last 20 or so years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and certainly since 1996, when American open-wheel racing was fractured into a state that it’s been attempting to crawl out of ever since.

With past IMS elements such as “traditional qualifying,” or single-weekend qualifying, or “25/8,” or other tried-and-discarded formats utilized in the past, IMS has shook it up once again for 2014.

This year, there’s the new Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the week of practice before turning up the boost from 130 kPa to 140 kPa for Fast Friday (increases horsepower), and a new extra day of practice added Monday back to race boost to allow for more race running

For Townsend Bell, in his usual one-off appearance in the Indianapolis 500, the latest schedule adjustment is a welcome change of pace.

“The format is such that it’s difficult right now for the big teams to develop a technical advantage,” he explained in an interview with MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “There are lots of little things that can be done. But you see the ‘science projects’ pay off a bit more in qualifying.”

It’s not easy to find even a single mph – to go from 224 to 225 mph laps in race trim or from 229 to 230 in qualifying, for instance – but this format has allowed that to do so.

Still, the field is ridiculously tight. The 2014 field is both the closest in time (only 2.5399 seconds separate 1-33) and fastest (229.382 mph field average, beating the 2002 field of 228.648).

And for the race, after the week of practice, Bell noted the year-on-year improvement from Firestone in terms of grip level and more consistency over the course of a run.

“Firestone has made a dramatic improvement in the tire, without a loss of grip,” he said. “So we should see more green flag racing, by virtue of the balance not going away as much over the course of a stint.

“I’m hoping for hot conditions – as hot as we can get – so that some of the cars don’t have as great a balance,” he added, noting his car seems to run better in warmer conditions. “But if last year’s any indication, by halfway, it was still a pack of 20-24 cars in a freight train.”

Bell, driver of the No. 6 Robert Graham-Royal Purple-Beneteau USA Chevrolet for KV Racing Technology, ran his first 230-plus mph lap in practice at Indianapolis this year with the extra boost. His best 230-plus lap of 230.830 ranked him 14th in the field of 33.

Over the course of the week, in race boost, Bell had a best lap of 225.484 mph and an average, spread over his fastest lap from the six practice days, of 222.499. Both times were in the middle of the pack.

But Bell’s pleased with his car’s handling in traffic, and was the busiest driver in the 33-car field on Monday, that ultimate last real day of practice. He ran 148 laps, one of only six who ran more than 100.

We’ll see how his work during the new format translates to the traditional Friday Carb Day practice, and then ultimately for race day, Sunday, for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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