Austin FP2: View from the ground

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AUSTIN – As last year, I spent the majority of today’s second 90-minute free practice session at Circuit of the Americas perusing the grounds and scoping things out. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith has the details on the latest Mercedes 1-2 practice sweep on-track. A few observations to follow, after the changes from last year:

THE SOUND CHANGE

I’m really torn after this session. When you’ve had a taste of the visceral, screaming, blow-your-eardrums-out V10s and V8s, it’s impossible not to feel a little bit disappointed after hearing the softer, quieter V6s. Yet at the same time, there are positives.

You can carry on a couple conversations while the session was ongoing. If you’re thinking of catering to families, particularly young children, the V6s are brilliant… because that noise is no longer something that is jarring and affects their ears at a young age. You’re also still aware there is mind-blowing technology currently in the new V6s, they’re in their first year of a several-year development process, and F1 remains on the cutting edge.

But a comment I heard from IMSA prototype veteran Guy Cosmo, here in Austin coaching in the Ferrari Challenge this weekend, I would tend more to agree with: “You want this to be a spectacle in every way, shape or form. The sound right now isn’t that.”

Hear hear, Guy… and of course I heard him so much better because the sound was that much quieter.

SPEED AND DIRECTION CHANGE

The noise change affects the visceral, on-the-ground perspective because even though the cars are faster than other series here, and appear faster, they oddly don’t feel faster.

Allow me to explain. A year ago, pairing the noise of the V8s with the intense, rapid-fire change of direction through the esses was just mind-blowing. It was surreal to witness.

And although the change of direction and speed was evident again this year, it didn’t feel as intense as it did some 12 months ago because you don’t hear the shrieks coming at you – you hear more of a whistle. It’s an intense, cool whistle more than a ground-pounding whistle, if that makes sense, of an Audi, Toyota or Porsche hybrid.

The speed of course is still there. Although the fastest lap in COTA history was recorded by Sebastian Vettel – with that pesky V8-powered Renault in the back of his Red Bull in 2012 at 1:35.657 – times are down thus far this year to the 1:39 range. Lewis Hamilton was fastest today at 1:39.085 in FP2, in the all-conquering Mercedes W05. That was on Pirelli’s medium and the times will go down once they get onto the softs.

By comparison, the WEC pole this year was a 1:48.993 from the Toyota TS040 Hybrid; the TUDOR Championship saw best times of 1:57.808 (P2-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda) and 1:58.643 (DP-spec Corvette DP) in qualifying.

CROWD GAUGE

I think there’s a good chance the Friday crowd numbers are down from last year’s announced total of 58,276, but I hope I’m wrong.

Judging from a walk through from the paddock across the bridge at Turn 3, up to Turn 11 and then back down to Turn 1, it was noticeably lighter on the grounds and definitely lighter in the grandstands. Notable here too is that at the west side of Turn 11, a grandstand has been removed and vendors in the area have been reduced.

The upside for COTA? If they can get more than 50,334, which was the announced total for the Lone Star Le Mans WEC/IMSA weekend in September, the Friday of the Grand Prix weekend will have outdrawn an entire sports car weekend for the second straight year.

Overall though, the passion and intense knowledge of the fans was there, and there were some great costumes given it was Halloween. One that stood out to me beyond the obvious was a young kid in a McDonald’s French fries suit, except instead of the McD’s “M” it had a Scuderia Ferrari Prancing Horse. Brilliant stuff.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

Even with half the purse and no fans, Indy 500 still has major team value

Indy 500 purse fans
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Even with reportedly half the purse and no fans in attendance, NTT IndyCar Series driver-owner Ed Carpenter believes it remains “absolutely critical” to hold the 104th Indy 500.

“Far and away it’s what makes and breaks our season as teams,” the Ed Carpenter Racing namesake told reporters during a Zoom media availability last week. “It’s the most important event to our partners. It 100 percent sucks not having fans there and not even being able to have the experience with our partners in full being there. But it’s necessary.

“We’ve got to look at all the hard decisions now of what we have to do to be in a position to have fans in 2021. It’s critical for the health of the teams that we have this race to make sure we have teams back here next year. That sounds a little dramatic, but that’s the reality.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500 ON NBCDetails for the Aug. 23 race

DAILY INDY 500 SCHEDULEClick here for all on-track activity in August at Indy

“We live in not only a very volatile world right now, but our industry and motorsport in general, it’s not an easy business to operate. When you lose your marquee event, it’s a lot different than looking at losing Portland on the schedule or Barber. They’re in totally different atmospheres as far as the importance to us and our partners.”

Robin Miller reported on RACER.com that IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske told team owners last week the purse for the postponed Indianapolis 500 was slashed from $15 to $7.5 million. Miller reported holding the Aug. 23 race (1 p.m. ET, NBC) would be a $20 million hit to the bottom line.

Carpenter still is supportive of Penske’s “outstanding job” of leading the series through the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Even with a 50 percent purse reduction, the Indy 500 remains the linchpin of teams’ economic viability.

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The schedule has taken many hits with the cancellation of races at Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of the Americas, Detroit, Portland International Raceway, Laguna Seca and Toronto, and another race weekend doubleheader at Mid-Ohio has been indefinitely postponed.

That leaves the 2020 slate at 12 confirmed races of an original 17, which has raised questions about how many races teams need to fulfill sponsor obligations.

“It’s a moving target,” said Carpenter, who announced the U.S. Space Force as a new sponsor for the Indy 500. “I think we’ve been pretty blessed as a team with the level of commitment of our partners and their understanding of COVID-19 and the impact on our schedule, our contracts.

“All of it is out of our control, out of the series’ control, the promoter’s control. At the end of the day is there a firm number (of races) I can give? No. But definitely every one that we lose, it does make it harder to continue having those conversations.

I think everyone’s as confident as you can be right now with what we have in front of us with what’s remaining on the schedule. Things are so fluid, it changes day-to-day, let alone week-to-week. We just have to take it as it comes. Right now the focus is on the 500 and maximizing this month to the best we possibly can given the situation.”

That’ll be hard this month for Carpenter, who grew up in Indianapolis and is the stepson of Tony George, whose family owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades.

Having spent a lifetime around the Brickyard, Carpenter will feel the ache of missing fans as he races in his 17th Indy 500.

Ed Carpenter, shown racing his No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet at Iowa Speedway last month, led a race-high 65 laps and finished second in the 2018 Indy 500 (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“Over that time you develop relationships that are centered around standing outside of your garage in Gasoline Alley,” he said. “It stinks, it sucks that we don’t get to share that passion we all have that is the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately it’s the reality we’re in right now.

I think this is the best that we can do unfortunately. Without a doubt it’s going to be a different environment. You’re going to be missing the sounds and a lot of the sights and colors. For sure I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a different morning, different lead-in to the race. After 16 of them, you have a cadence and anticipation for the buildup. That’s all going to be different this year.

“I’m confident it’s not going to affect the type of show we put on or the excitement and how aggressive we are fighting for an Indy 500 win. It’s still going to mean the same thing. We’re just not going to have our fans to celebrate with after the fact. But it’s going to be historic.”