INDIANAPOLIS – The fifth round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, today’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis (3:30 p.m. ET), provides the final race prior to the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. And the two couldn’t be more diametrically opposed while being on the same racetrack – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After qualifying and this weekend’s sessions, here’s what to watch for today:
PAGENAUD’S CONTINUED ROLL
I joked on Friday the only thing hotter than Simon Pagenaud right now in IndyCar might be his new livery on his No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet. It’s fluorescent, bright, eye-popping – perhaps even eye-gouging – and it accurately captures the roll of Pagenaud’s start to the season.
You know the story by now. Two seconds, two straight wins, and now two straight poles. Pagenaud had a 48-point lead heading into the weekend over Scott Dixon and if he banks another win or second-place finish, there’s a good odd chance Pagenaud could have 60 or 70 points in hand on the field heading into the Indianapolis 500 – when a maximum of nearly triple a standard race win number of points are available.
Three Hondas in the Firestone Fast Six – although one of them later got bounced in post-qualifying technical inspection – provided a good sign that Honda is capitalizing on the improved pace and performance package.
Several factors are in play here. Most of the Honda runners are on a new engine this race following a mileaging out of their first one to start the year. Secondly, a number of Chevrolet competitors feel the Honda drivers are closer this year because the aero kit is improved; it’s less sensitive and, frankly, closer in appearance and workability to the Chevrolet kit.
We’ve seen Graham Rahal be the thorn in the sides of the bigger teams but James Hinchcliffe and Jack Hawksworth are on the verge of breakthroughs, Andretti Autosport was better in practice if not qualifying, and Spencer Pigot has been a good surprise this weekend. We’ll see what happens if there’s more Honda presence on Sunday.
DIFFERENT DOWNFORCE LEVELS
The Indianapolis road course is one of the toughest to set up for because of the mix between the high-speed straightaways and the tighter technical sections. A higher downforce play can get you more pace through the turns while trimming out for a lower downforce option will pay dividends in a straight line. Expect a good balance here on this front throughout the field.
With projected highs in the mid-50s ambient, it’s going to make for one of the coldest race days in some time. How well teams will do to adapt and get their tires up to temperature on what’s a smooth, but yet abrasive track for tires will be an interesting tell-tale. The Firestone red alternates are magic in small doses and there’s a good chance a heavy primary affair will follow on Saturday.
Hinchcliffe described the challenge: “I mean, the tire’s good. It’s just that ultimate speed is only there for one lap. We obviously have no idea how it’s going to degrade over a full stint. If you lose a couple 10ths from your fast lap, I can stay there for a while. That will still be the tire to be on tomorrow.
“We’re looking at temperatures considerably colder than we’ve seen all weekend tomorrow. That’s definitely going to affect tire degradation and grip. Going into tomorrow, it’s a little bit of guesswork about tire strategy and setup and how to take care of them.
“I think traditionally here the red tire is a better tire. It’s just, yeah, for that one lap in qualifying, it’s so tough. Like I said, it so close, so easy to make a mistake at this place. There’s so many very inviting corners to overdo it a little bit.
“Like I said, such a dream to drive this thing on a brand-new set of sticker reds on that one lap, then you start finding problems with it. But it’s good till then.”
DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK… OK, CALL IT A COMEBACK
With Rahal and Newgarden cars bounced in tech and the five other new or returning drivers in the field – Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, Alex Tagliani, JR Hildebrand and Gabby Chaves – there’s a number of additional variables this week that didn’t exist in Barber a couple weeks ago.
And speaking of comebacks, today marks Hinchcliffe’s first start at IMS since his devastating accident in practice here last year. A podium or win would make for a phenomenal story for the Canadian.
A MORE CASUAL AFFAIR
Compared to the 500, which was announced as a sellout earlier this week, the Grand Prix is definitely a more casual atmosphere for fans and competitors, and a heckuva lot less crowded. It’s not that the urgency isn’t there – it is – but compared to the pressure of the 500 there’s definitely a lighter air around this race. Which isn’t a bad thing.
It provides a good race atmosphere without the same, super high, ridiculous stress as you get at some events, particularly the 500 later in the month.
HERE’S YOUR GRID