Each year, Indianapolis 500 newcomers are tasked with proving their speed and control in an Indy car around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway by turning a certain number of laps at or above certain speeds.
Young drivers Matheus Leist and Kyle Kaiser both completed the three Rookie Orientation Program phases in under an hour while Robert Wickens battled gearbox issues en route to setting the day’s fastest lap, but the restrictive nature of the program proved to be an important challenge for each member of the trio.
“You nailed it,” Wickens said after being asked about the difficulty of driving an Indy car at a slower speed to satisfy 215 mph-or-below phases of the Rookie Orientation Program.
“Basically I understand you have to take this place with a lot of respect. Extremely high speeds.”
For Wickens specifically, the program is reminiscent of the longer one he went through to be eligible to race at a certain German circuit.
“(It’s) not the first time in my career where you have to do a type of orientation like this,” the 29-year-old Canadian said.
“It might be a surprise to a lot of people, but to race at Nurburgring Nordschleife, it’s like a one-week course. You actually have to go around in a bus, get a lesson on every single corner by certified instructors — you have to get a license to race there. This is no different.”
Phase 1 demands that rookies turn 10 laps within 205–210 mph. At more than 22 mph slower than the speed Scott Dixon laid down to earn the pole for last year’s Indy 500, that pace is hardly blistering.
“Phase 1 was an interesting phase,” Wickens continued.
“More difficult than I thought to keep the car between 205 and 210. It’s the first time in my life that I was lifting the entire straight to then go full throttle on a corner, which was a little weird. But then you learn.”
Once the first phase is checked off, rookie drivers turn it up to 210–215 mph for a minimum of 15 laps.
“I thought the 210 to 215 phase was a really good phase to learn,” said Wickens. “When you’re going that slow, you’re not really taking the line, the car kind of just goes where it wants — you’re kind of going too slowly. Once you got up to around the 215 mark, it started reacting, feeling balance issues with the car. Before you’re more or less cruising around at a speed where the car is not happy; they’re set to be going 220, 225.
“We actually have a lot less downforce on the car than what we would be when we’re doing normal laps. It was kind of a bizarre feeling.”
Having completed what feels more like a school test than an auto racing one, Wickens was glad to move forward with the month of May.
“I get why they did it. You have to take precautions. Happy it’s done.”
With the fourth rookie set to make his “500” debut, Pietro Fittipaldi, not on hand, Leist and Kaiser were the two young guns to take to the Speedway on Tuesday.
Driving AJ Foyt Racing and Juncos Racing machinery, respectively, both were cognizant of the importance of focusing fully on the first two phases before turning it loose for the 215 mph-and-above Phase 3.
“I think we prepare very well actually,” Leist said during a press conference. “When I was able to push, I mean, 215 plus, I was (completely) ready. I was comfortable in the car and everything.
“It was not difficult to take it flat out. I think the program was pretty good actually.”
Kaiser, who will contest both races at IMS to close out his partial-season deal for 2018 with Juncos, echoed Leist’s sentiments.
“I definitely agree,” he began. “It was more difficult probably in Phase 1 than it was for the rest of it because you have to consciously come out of it where your gut instinct is ‘I just want to go flat right now.’
“I do like Phase 2. I thought we had a good rhythm. The car was feeling good. When it was time to go flat out, it felt comfortable. So I agree with the program and getting people ready to run at those speeds.”
Having been carefully brought up to speed but still shown the seriousness of the Speedway, Wickens, Leist and Kaiser turn their attention to the INDYCAR Grand Prix, set to take place on the road course on May 11–12.
Fittipaldi, entered in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda for his first Indy 500, will have to complete his Rookie Orientation Program at a later date.