DiZinno: Indy 500’s 2015 “Fast Friday” dawns with more questions than answers after spate of crashes

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares for the final day of practice before qualifying, the week has felt like days gone by – not necessarily in a good way, albeit with good endings from a safety standpoint thus far.

It used to be the case going back 20 or 25 years ago, at least, that you’d have both a speed report and an incident report coming out of the day’s practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What has followed over the last 15 or so years, where more spec parts and spec cars have ruled the way, has been largely incident-free days.

If a big accident or engine failure happened, it wasn’t to the degree or volume of what we’ve seen this week.

“I think it’s too early to say what is happening or if there is anything happening out of the ordinary,” Derrick Walker, INDYCAR’s president of competition and operations, told USA Today Sports.

That may be true, but it’s been a far from ordinary week for the series in comparison to recent practice weeks at IMS the last few years.

Tuesday witnessed Simona de Silvestro’s fuel leak-induced fire, and two further mechanical issues for other Honda-powered cars, driven by James Jakes and Justin Wilson.

On Wednesday, Helio Castroneves’ car went airborne after slight wall contact and turning around completely backwards. He was unharmed, but the mere pictures of flight were enough to put a scare into folks.

Then yesterday, Josef Newgarden’s car also went airborne, following heavier wall contact, the left sidepod digging in (similar to past accidents with the Dallara DW12 chassis from 2012 to 2014) and rolling up on its side, before again going airborne from the rear and rolling over onto the airbox. Like the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Newgarden too emerged unscathed.

Not to be overlooked too was another hard impact, this one for Pippa Mann on Wednesday, but a more conventional if you will accident of spinning off Turn 4, into the inside retaining wall and then into the pit lane attenuator at pit-in. And like the other two, she was uninjured if a bit sore following the impacts.

The simple question that must be answered first is what caused the airborne accidents. While some have said it comes down to the new super speedway aero kits – and really the only commonalities between the Castroneves and Newgarden accidents is that both are Chevrolets, and both were on their second laps with the increased side pod ramp in front of the rear wheels (part introduced here) – the greater likelihood is that the giant floor, or underwing, has been a greater cause of the accidents. The cars lift off once that amount of air gets underneath and with the higher surface area, it’s helped propel the cars into the air. This year’s floor features a hole new for this year. How much of a correlation there is between the floor in tandem with the new aero kits is yet to be officially determined.

Beyond that, in the midst of the accidents has come a case of confusion over what has or hasn’t been said, by whom, and to whom.

Thursday seemed a day in sleuthing and as both RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett and Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich discovered on site, it seemed the answers were harder to pursue.

Prior to Newgarden’s accident, INDYCAR released a statement that the centerline wicker would be made an optional part for both manufacturers. Following that, Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell released a statement that phrased it as, “After discussions with the Series, we have decided to remove the centerline wicker on all of our cars.”

What this doesn’t properly answer is whether INDYCAR asked Chevrolet to remove the wicker first – a story which was reported by Motorsport.com’s Anne Proffit – or whether Chevrolet acted on its own accord.

Pruett added to the Chevrolet story with his report on RACER.com that, “According to multiple sources, Chevy teams were given instructions to remove the wickers around 11:30 a.m – 30 minutes before the start of practice – and the directive was made without an explanation as to why they were being removed.”

The next variable comes into play with Wittich’s reporting for Trackside Online on Honda’s status. There, a Honda spokesperson told TSO that the wicker was mandatory ON for Honda cars, but OFF for Chevrolets.

If this is starting to sound like a mystery novel involving 34 cars going over 230 mph … well it kind of is.

Here’s what we know, for sure, so far:

  • Three drivers have escaped three serious, or serious-looking accidents, largely unharmed. For that, we can thank the Dallara DW12 safety cell, which has protected the driver monocoque.
  • Come Fast Friday, today, the boost level will be increased from 130 kPa to 140 kPa for “Fast Friday” practice and this weekend’s qualifications. The change in pressure adds about a 40-horsepower boost to the engines produced by Chevrolet and Honda. The boost level will return to 130 kPa for the remainder of the month starting on Monday.

Beyond those two elements, there needs to be better clarification and communication from the sanctioning body over what was said, what was instructed and how that information was disseminated to teams and manufacturers.

And ideally, today needs to be a trouble-free “Fast Friday” where speeds, not accidents, emerge as the predominant talking point.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).