Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Chaos causes IndyCar to dumb down pole day

(by Gregg Doyel indystar.com 5-18-15)

This was chaos. This was Indianapolis' Ed Carpenter skidding upside down at 200 mph, his car disintegrating and his helmet inches from the sparks that became a blaze. This was media surrounding the IndyCar operations trailer for answers, and fans surrounding the media seeking the same, and team owners like Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta standing around the same trailer, waiting for the bad news they knew was coming.

This was avoidable. Let's get that bit of hindsight out of the way. Fair, that hindsight? Oh, probably. Seeking the delicate combination of added safety and speed, IndyCar switched this season from universal Dallara bodywork to distinct aero kits by Chevrolet and Honda — but didn't test the designs until the series reached Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 3. That wasn't enough time. That's hindsight. And, as Sunday showed, factual.

"We set out an ambitious schedule, no doubt," IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker said. "Hindsight gives us a different perspective."

But …

"Clearly we'd like not to be where we are right now."

Where they were Sunday is chaos. In a morning practice session Carpenter became the third driver in five days to get turned around, hit a wall and go airborne. All three drivers — first was Helio Castroneves on Wednesday, then Josef Newgarden on Thursday — are in Chevy kits.

That's the same manufacturer that dominated the first five stops on the 2015 IndyCar Series, winning all but the rain-shortened March 12 event at NOLA Motorsports Park. Those were road courses, and Chevy's kits manhandled Honda's.

IndyCar never came to Honda's aid. As far as arguments go that one is a non sequitur — a speed differential is not equal to a safety differential — but it's a complaint that was raised to me in multiple Honda garages Sunday: IndyCar did nothing to help Honda keep up with Chevy on the road courses, but made the enormous decision to scrap the qualifying trim and have cars compete on pole day with the same — slower, safer — setup they'll use during the 99th Indy 500 on Sunday.

Basically, IndyCar dumbed down — neutralized — one of the most exciting days of the series: pole day at the Indy 500. No Fast Nine Shootout. No shot at a speed record. No danger.

"It was a flat, easy go-around," said Will Power, who qualified second on Sunday, one spot behind pole winner Scott Dixon.

Sitting next to Power in the press room was his Penske teammate, Simon Pagenaud, who craned his neck to see the qualifying times on a TV screen before adding his two cents.

"We're talking (a difference of) just 5 mph, and it feels like you're going really slow," said Pagenaud, who qualified third. "This level in down force and boost, is not really hard for us."

Said Power: "That's what's always been cool about this place. You can trim out, you can get fast through the straight, but can you hang on around the corner? You don't want your grandma to be able to drive around on your back rear, like some of these places we drive at."

But that's what IndyCar did, slowing down both manufacturers because it had no idea what was making one — Chevy — go airborne. Or if the issue was just to Chevy.

moderately injured in the last week — but enough's enough. IndyCar realized that after watching Carpenter skid upside down, summoning both teams to its competition trailer to hash out what Honda knew was coming.

The scene was surreal. After meeting with IndyCar, Honda engineers literally ran out of the trailer to their garages to make the setup changes. Honda owners stood around the outside, forming a semicircle around the trailer. Media formed a larger semicircle around the Honda owners. Fans formed an even larger semicircle around the media. We became a 500-person Russian nesting doll.

On the outer semicircle, with the fans, a dour-looking man was standing too close to Gasoline Alley when an IMS security guy in a yellow shirt yelled, "Keep this area clear, please."

The dour-looking man walked away. Tony George, member of the track's ownership family. He was as lost as everyone else.

And everyone's lost, believe it. Some of the smartest people in town were in that trailer on Sunday, engineers and Ph.Ds who were studying video and data and talking to drivers and each other. And after all that, IndyCar emerged from the trailer with no answers. Why does Chevy keep getting airborne? Is this just a Chevy issue? So many theories. No answers.

"We don't have complete clarity, and that is the reason to be careful right now," Walker said. "It would be fairly negligent on our part if we focused on one manufacturer. …

"I don't believe a year from now we'll still be sitting here, scratching our head. We just don't have the time … (but) the problem is solvable."

Sure, just not here. Even if someone figures it out before Sunday, qualifying is over and cars will use the same setup next weekend.

On the other hand, with less horsepower available on pole day to separate good drivers from the great ones, legit Indy 500 contenders like defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (qualified 16th), 2000 winner Juan Pablo Montoya (15th) and three-time top-10 finisher Ed Carpenter (12th) will start back in the field. Cars will be passed next week, count on that. Could make for an exceptionally exciting edition of the Indy 500.

And wouldn't that be something — for this race, and this racetrack, to see this weekend's chaos become next weekend's catharsis.

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http://www.indystar.com/story/sports/columnists/gregg-doyel/2015/05/17/doyel-chaos-causes-indycar-dumb-pole-day/27505399/

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