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PRELUDE TO INDY 500 QUALIFICATIONS
Author: Mark W. Theisen
Photo by  Brady Whitesel - BroncosPitstop.com
Photo by Brady Whitesel - BroncosPitstop.com
May 19th 2012 - INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 18, 2012:   For the first time since 1998 I have not had to use the word “rain” in any my stories preceding qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 and it could not have come at a better time.
     Despite the story lines that include the development of the new Indy car Dallara Chassis, the new engine suppliers and competition among them and the appearance of a stellar rookie class that includes not only domestic talent but the infusion of several international stars the focus this week has been on the struggles of one of the new engine suppliers, Lotus Engineering.
     As reported on last week, Lotus who joined Honda and Chevrolet as engine suppliers to the Indy Racing League fell behind early on in production and missed the first test at Indianapolis in March.  Since then it has been a downward spiral culminating with the loss of all but two of their teams.
     Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing team was looking for a way out as I left Indianapolis last Sunday and their struggle continued all week long until an “amicable” solution was reached on Wednesday that allowed the switch from Louts to Chevrolet and allowed their drivers, Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge to get on the track for the first time this month yesterday.
    It was most important for Legge, whose Indy car experience has been limited to just one prior oval track race, and she needed to pass her rookie orientation program before being allowed to qualify for the race.  For Bourdais he had to pass a refresher course at the Speedway prior to his qualifications run because he had not been at the track for several years.
     Indy Racing League officials, because of the stressful circumstances allowed both to complete their courses well after the May 10th. formal orientation program that the other rookies completed.  The league went so far as to keep the track open past 6 P.M. yesterday so as to have Legge get her programs in.  Bourdais was able to complete his two stage program on Friday with Legge to get her final programs in with qualifying looming tomorrow and Sunday.
    While the engine drama continued to dominate the discussion it was also clear that the two remaining Lotus teams with Simona de Silvestro and Jean Alesi were way behind the rest of the field when it came to speed and they were allowed the extra “boost” that was to be available to all the teams for Friday practice and Saturday and Sunday qualification just to get them up to 210 miles-per-hour.  It was evident early on that these two cars, while being able to qualify for the 500 field because there are just 33 cars, may not be able to attain a safe race speed come the 500 and they may be forced to exit the race early if the necessary speed can not be found.
     The new Dallara was making its first appearance at Indianapolis under the new oval track body, aerodynamic, formula put in place after it’s initial test at the track in March and it was clear that the track time from last Saturday through today was spent more on what the car would do and what it could not do in race trim.  Over 9,000 laps of practice were put in and the fact that time was not lost to rain contributed to a build in speed from Saturday through Thursday as drivers became more and familiar with the new car and engine combinations.
     What was discovered that a “tow” was becoming a significant factor in negotiating the track and that a car or cars in front contributed to the overall speed of the car behind.  This resulted in more and more cars and teams racing in backs to gain experience in just what the car would do or how it may be difficult to pass the car in front.  The engineers were working overtime to log as much data as possible in a short period of time to be able to formulate a “race” strategy as the week wore on.
     Rookie Josef Newgarden paced the Monday practice session with a top speed of 222.486 miles per hour but he was now pursued by drivers from the major teams that elected to spend Saturday and Sunday getting familiar with everything that was new and allowed the rookies such as Newgarden, Bryan Clauson and Sebastian Saavedra to dominate the headlines.
     Newgarden was joined by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Saavedra at the end of Monday as it was clear that the Chevrolets of Andretti Autosport were a team to be reckoned with.  Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Saavedra are part of the five car juggernaut that is Andretti Autosport.
     Tuesday it was Team Penske’s turn to show it’s prowess as three time Indy 500 winner, Helio Castroneves finished the day second to Andretti’s 223.676 miles-per-hour top speed.  The fourth Andretti driver, James Hinchcliffe showed that the team is running on all cylinders as he finished third for the day followed by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Graham Rahal.  Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five as the track closed on Tuesday.
     Teams reported making real progress on race set-ups by the end of the day on Tuesday and said they would continue to work on those set ups until Friday when the “wild card” extra boost would come into play for qualifying.
     Wednesday did not produce a jump in speed as Newgarden in his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda Dallara was back on top with a 222.785 mile-per-hour average but the Andretti team was right behind with Andretti, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe behind.  Two-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti made his first appearance in the top five with a 221.623 average.
     Thursday saw Dixon on top with a 223.088 average and he was joined by Newgarden, Rahal, Will Power and Justin Wilson in the top five as nearly 2/3s of the field were within in the top speed of the day and it was a conclusion that the 223 area would be the race speed come Sunday May 27th.
     Attention to race trim and setup changed significantly with the dawning of today as focus turned to qualifying for the 500 with an increase in Turbocharger boost levels that will be in place today thru qualifying on Sunday.  This “wild card” was added by series director Randy Bernard to add “excitement” to qualifying in a year that would produce ho-hum results with only 33 cars, the maximum numbers of car for the race, entered today.
     As reported by the Indy Racing League, the standard boost level for superspeedways will be upped from 130 kPa (kilopascals) to 140 kPa in attempt to attain the qualifying speeds from last year.  The boost level returns to 130 kPa on Monday and through the race.
     It was predicted that the extra boost would see a jump of about 4 miles-per-hour and as today progressed speeds slowly approached that level.
     Once again it was the cars of Andretti Autosport that were most prepared and their five cars dominated the practice early today with Marco posting a quick lap of 227.540 miles-per-hour before the cars of Penske made their statement with Ryan Briscoe coming out of the middle of the pack with less than a half –hour in the session to record a lap of 226.835 eclipsing his team mate Castroneves who had record a 226.716.  Hunter-Reay was fourth with 226.400 and Dixon rounded out the top five with 222.224.
     Late in April Honda requested a change to the cover of their turbocharger unit that was professed in court but up held and approved by the league for the Honda teams to implement.  Chevrolet cried foul but today the top ten included just two Hondas, those of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the rest were Chevrolets as they established themselves as the teams to beat for the pole tomorrow and the race on May 27th.
     Hinchcliffe and Ana Beatriz from Andretti Autosport were also in the top 10 as was JR Hildebrand and Tony Kanaan. 
     Formula One standout Rubens Barrichello was 21st.  Newgarden, who had dominated the practice until today additional “boost” day was 13th.
     In the span of a week the teams have dialed in the cars and competition is extremely close as 23 were separated by less than a half second.
     Tomorrow’s qualifying should be exciting with any number cars capable of capturing the pole.  The format is for 24 cars to qualify from noon until 4:30 P.M. at which time the top nine will return in a shootout to capture the pole and shuffle the first three rows in the final hour and a half.  A car that was quick all day long could wind up starting ninth as result of this format that was added two years ago.
     It will be exciting.