INDIANAPOLIS – A new car brought a new style of racing Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – along with raising questions about whether the old package was better.
The 102 running of the Indianapolis 500 began as a track-positon battle with pole-sitter Ed Carpenter leading the first 30 laps (the longest stretch to open a race here without a lead change since Dario Franchitti led the first 30 laps in 2010).
The complexion changed in the final 150 miles as divergent fuel strategies and a spate of four cautions in the final 61 laps bunched up the field for some hairy restarts that helped keep the outcome in doubt.
But the 30 lead changes ranked seventh in Indy history but still were the fewest since 2011 and came on the heels of a six-year stretch in which Indy averaged 44 lead changes (including a high of 68 in 2013).
Though Sunday featured a record-tying 15 leaders (matching last year), several drivers immediately said that some improvements were needed for the 2019 race (which will be broadcast on NBC).
“More downforce,” fourth-place finisher Alexander Rossi said. “We need more, man. This car looks great. The road course car is fantastic, but it’s pretty hard to pass around here.”
Said car owner Michael Andretti: “We’re going to have to look at it for next year and we’ve got to do something to the package to hopefully make it a little better.
“There’s a lot of things they could do. They could do aero. Firestone could probably help out a little bit as well. So there’s some things that can be done.”
Scott Dixon agreed an improvement could be achieved through the tire but wasn’t necessarily on board with altering the downforce levels to a great degree.
“It’s almost like the cars need a little more drag to make that happen or maybe a little bit of downforce so you can stay closer,” he said. “Even when I got into a scenario with a clear track, slow competitors in front of us, it was very tough to get a run. There was no real wind so no real corner that was distinctly harder than the others. Normally (turns) 2 or 4 has a big shift, and you can get some cars that are bad, get them off those corners. That just didn’t play true today.
“It won’t take much. It will just be a little tweak to help that out.”
Not unlike the ongoing philosophical debate in NASCAR about whether to implement rules that bunch the field and seemingly deemphasize drivers’ ability, there were differing opinions about whether Indianapolis should be as hard to pass as it was on a 91-degree Sunday (the second-hottest Indy 500 on record) that made the 2.5-mile track extremely slick.
“It was a totally different type of race,” said Carpenter, who led a race-high 65 laps. “I’ll have to watch it from the outside to see from that perspective. I like the way it drives. It’s definitely challenging to the driver. I like it when it’s hard. That’s why I was hoping it was going to be hot today because it makes things even more difficult.
“The old car, if you had a really good car, you couldn’t really get rewarded by getting away or getting separation. I think if you have a good enough car, you’re rewarded by being able to get away a little bit. I do think we need to maybe make little improvements just because it’s so hard in dirty air to do much, to even have a better finish at the end.”
Naturally, race winner Will Power was OK with a race that reminded him about the 2008-11 editions of the Brickyard.
“This was a race you wanted to lead,” said the Team Penske driver, who led 59 laps. “At last they had a formula, if you had a good car, the leader could benefit and pull away. I liked it. It definitely made it harder to drive. Put the driver back into it more, where before you could hang back, third, no one wanted to lead.”