until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Who's hurt most by Indy 500's curtailed build-up

by Jack Benyon
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Between the pre-event test and two days of practice for the Indianapolis 500, teams and drivers should have had over 24 hours of track time available to them by now. Because of poor weather, however, they’ve so far managed under six hours - and the forecast is promising to interfere again.

We’re at crisis point for some teams and drivers who desperately need to get out on track if they're to have a hope of winning the Indy 500.

In lap terms, this year’s grid - as well as that much lower track time - has subsequently managed 2933 fewer laps over the same number of days. It’s an incredible situation.

It shows no sign of improving either as while the weather forecast seems friendlier for Thursday, the most important practice day of them all - Fast Friday - is at serious risk of being a wash out.

That's when teams get the huge horsepower boost to prepare for qualifying with, and on Fast Friday alone in 2023 teams completed more than double the number of laps than they had across two days of practice (the first day of running was rained off) and the open test before then.

Given that this is the ‘Month of May’ - a name it was given because practice used to run throughout the month - this is a really low amount of track time. Still, if you’re a neutral, it hasn’t half spiced things up!

Here’s a run down of the impact of far fewer laps than usual.

Trying aero updates

Aero updates from IndyCar are usually available for the open test in April but as that was shortened to less than a few hours, no team will have really got a proper read on any changes they have made, especially not across multiple track temperatures and in conditions like you need to prepare for in qualifying and the race.

Racer.com has reported a series of parts changes that have not yet been publicised by IndyCar, but that's not unusual.

Last year a new rear wing stanchion was introduced which allowed the rear wing angle to increase from two to five degrees. This year, it’s up to nine degrees - the maximum it can be - so that will give the teams lots of options in the race.

IndyCar also has what it calls bargeboards, which are winglets underneath the sidepod that are attached to the floor. Last year it introduced a new one, on the side closest the driver, but that has been dropped for this year.

At the back of the car, in the diffuser, only the longer length strakes which go from top to bottom vertically that were introduced last year is available now, with the trimmed one closest to the tyre not being available.

The wing angle especially will have a massive impact on how a team manages its car set-up through the race, so a lack of practice with it could lead to some gambles, big payoffs and mistakes with less data available than usual.

Kyle Larson and the rookies

The weather really does impact Kyle Larson on multiple levels.

Of course, all of the rookies in the field will be suffering with less time to get acclimatised, but Larson has another issue: he can’t give up his day job.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup champion is 'doing the double', which means he’ll race in the Charlotte 600-mile NASCAR race just hours after he does the Indy 500.

While his NASCAR team Hendrick Motorsports has agreed to Larson's entry, entered into a partnership with McLaren, sponsored the car and has even put on a plane to shuttle Larson back and forth from where he needs to go, it’s still clear that NASCAR has to take the priority.

Any sort of rain delay for Larson is going to be problematic.

His best-case scenario for qualifying is that he manages somewhere between 13th-29th, because that would mean his place is set on the grid and then he can focus on NASCAR’s $1million All Star race taking place at North Wilkesboro.

He’s already likely to miss the All Star heat races on Saturday evening with IndyCar qualifying, so he’ll start the All Star Race at the back of the field seemingly regardless.

If he qualifies in the top 12 or in the Bump Day spots, he’ll be back for more qualifying on Sunday and that will make getting to the All Star Race that bit more tricky.

Then there’s race weekend, where The Race understands Larson and his family is super-keen to be a part of the Saturday parade through Indianapolis and to the track. That usually starts around 12pm, but there’s a NASCAR Cup practice in Charlotte just after 5pm. So he has to make the call on whether he flies from Indy to Charlotte twice in consecutive days.

Last year’s race had three red flags and finished right in the window where it would have been tight for Larson to make it to Charlotte in time for the 600-mile race. So he’ll be praying for an uneventful 108th running of the Indy 500.

None of those already awkward scenarios features any rain. So you can see how impactful delays might be to this effort.

Hendrick, McLaren, Chevrolet and Larson have put so much behind this and are aware it's one of the biggest stories in the race’s history, especially for a North American market in which Larson is revered.

If they do well in either race at a minimum, it will be impressive given what they’ve gone through.

The other rookies in the field are also dealing with a year of little testing plus the Texas race has been dropped for this year so no driver has done an oval race weekend before the Indy 500. That’s a big ask for a rookie especially.

Five extra sets of tyres have made running easier in impromptu practice running around rain, but it hasn't solved the issue of reduced time on track.

Newgarden's new crew

After the push-to-pass scandal that rocked IndyCar and brought a disqualification for Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, heads rolled at Team Penske and a number of people were suspended.

That included reigning winner Josef Newgarden’s engineer Luke Mason, strategist Tim Cindric (who is also Team Penske president) and chief data engineer Robbie Atkinson. Team Penske managing director Ron Ruzewski - Will Power’s strategist - was also involved and is out for the Indy 500.

Penske subs

Newgarden's car
Jonathan Diuguid, strategist
Raul Prados, race engineer

Will Power's car
Jon Bouslog, strategist
Paulo Trentini Filho, data engineer

Newgarden worked with Prados at last weekend’s Indy GP and knows Diuguid from engineering Scott McLaughlin in 2021, but having so little track time to get used to working with these ‘new’ people isn’t the ideal way to prepare for defending an Indy 500 win - or for a team trying to win the race for a 20th time.

It might be inconsequential, but if you had the option of having a new crew with lots of running, and having a new crew with very little running, I know what you’d choose.

Last year's Bump Day shock

Last year Graham Rahal - who is still certain he should have won the 2021 race, in which he was released from the pits with a loose wheel and crashed - was bumped out of the starting grid by his own Rahal Letterman Lanigan team-mate, Jack Harvey. For a team that won in 2020 with Takuma Sato, it was unforgivable.

The team is much more confident this year having found many things it did wrong in 2023 - including one that would have had it comfortably in the race, which Rahal says it found a few months after the Indy 500.

The drivers are more convinced there’s speed in their cars, but still, a bit of proper qualifying prep would have helped, and on Fast Friday too.

Sato - returning to the team this year after leaving at the end of 2021 - did at least get some qualifying runs in on Wednesday but there were a lot of cars on track which is not the case during Indy 500 qualifying.

The loss of Friday will have everyone worried that Rahal could be in the same situation, only this time more out of not being able to check all the changes it has made from last year, rather than being plain slow.

Quiet Wednesday drivers

The 2020 polesitter Marco Andretti and the driver with the best average finish, Santino Ferrucci, have both had very quiet starts to the month.

Ferrucci - who could set new Indy 500 records with a strong finish this year given his incredible record of seventh, fourth, sixth, 10th and third so far - managed 25 laps, while Andretti did two more.

Both were trying new set-ups and either didn’t get the track space they needed to try the items properly or didn’t like them, and because a lot of big set-up changes require going back to the garage area and take some time, not to mention the intermittent showers on both days, time was limited.

Both drivers need to get some heavy running in on Thursday.

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