Battle for final three Indy 500 spots could be a long waiting game

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INDIANAPOLIS – For the six drivers still seeking a spot in the 103rd Indianapolis 500, an extremely long week is about to transition into an even more nerve-wracking Sunday afternoon.

And the waiting game might be just beginning for Fernando Alonso, James Hinchcliffe, Sage Karam, Max Chilton, Pato O’Ward and Kyle Kaiser.

With a sketchy weather forecast hanging over Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar officials informed teams Saturday morning that the battle to make the last row of the race – three spots to be settled among six drivers – will be held regardless of whether rain washes out Sunday. That means the Last Row battle could take place Monday, if necessary (the Fast Nine and pole position would be set by Saturday’s speeds in the event of a Sunday cancellation).

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All six are involved in an uphill struggle to make the race. Alonso, Hinchcliffe, O’Ward and Kaiser are in backup cars after crashing during the past four days of practice and qualifying, and Karam and Chilton have been fighting handling problems all week.

The biggest surprises are Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion who made an impressive Indy 500 debut in 2017, and Hinchcliffe, the popular Canadian who was on the 2016 Indy 500 pole position.

Practice for the Last Row Shootout drivers begins at 10:15 a.m. ET, followed by a one-hour session starting at 12:15 p.m. on the 2.5-mile oval.

After being bumped from a guaranteed top 30 spot in the final 10 minutes Saturday, Alonso struck a philosophical tone about having one more shot.

“We’ll try to do these four laps clean, no mistakes, try to be flat all four, and then if it’s enough to be in the top three of the six, we’ll take it, and we will try to do a good race,” Alonso said. “If it’s not enough and we are fourth of six, it’s what we deserve. There were maybe three cars quicker than us. So nothing we can do more than that. Try to execute the runs (Sunday) the best we can, and same thing with did today, stay calm, stay focused, and yeah, try to do a good job.”

While it’s been a long slog for Alonso, who crashed Wednesday, didn’t get on track Thursday and then has lacked speed the past two days in his backup, Hinchcliffe seemed to be sailing along before disaster struck Saturday on his second qualifying lap in Turn 2.

The Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team scored a moral victory by getting his backup No. 5 Dallara-Honda on track in less than three hours, but his two attempts weren’t fast enough in a car that is tailored for road courses.

“It doesn’t have the love on it that ovals and superspeedway cars have,” Hinchcliffe said. “We made some changes, had some speed, but obviously, it wasn’t enough. I have a lot of faith in the crew. We just have to put our heads together and come out tomorrow and put it in the show. … There are tricks of the trade to find some speed.”

It was the latest cruel twist at Indy for Hinchcliffe, who wryly noted that Saturday at least “isn’t the worst qualifying day we’ve had here.”

Karam probably couldn’t say the same after fruitlessly searching for speed over more than six hours and scraping the wall on his first attempt. But the Dreyer & Reinbold driver, whose teammate J.R. Hildebrand was 21st fastest, struck a more optimistic tone than Friday.

“I’m not discouraged at all,” Karam said after his first attempt. “The car is still really, really fast. I’m not worried. We’re just going to have to make some adjustments. It’s all about getting in right now.”

Carlin Racing teammates Chilton and O’Ward will be trying to match the pace that teammate Charlie Kimball (20th) had. Kaiser is trying to write a Cinderella story for Juncos Racing after the team lost a sponsor earlier this week.

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

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The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.