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.