Hinc: Prioritizing Practice

IndyCar field lined up on Gateway Motorsports Park pit lane
With weather and time permitting just two sessions Friday at Gateway Motorsports Park, INDYCAR elected to cancel qualifying and extend night practice. | Photo: Adam Pigott / Spacesuit Media

Inclement weather Friday at Gateway Motorsports Park prompted INDYCAR to make a slew of schedule changes. In canceling single-car qualifying and extending night practice from 60 to 90 minutes, the sanctioning body made decisions that countered the ones that led to last weekend’s rain-affected schedule and may have impacted the run to the Verizon IndyCar Series championship just as profoundly.

Rather than focusing on providing drivers crucial track time prior to a 500-mile superspeedway race, the schedule at Pocono Raceway was reduced to a single hourlong practice where just 656 laps were turned — an average of less than 30 per car.

While qualifying was squeezed in under the threat of rain, the weekend’s final practice was washed out. INDYCAR kept the race day schedule the same, further limiting track time preceding the 200-lap event.

Lack of preparation may not be directly linked to the events that marred the opening seven laps of the ABC Supply 500 but drivers like Robert Wickens, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe may disagree. While not necessarily in the championship frame, all four entered the Pocono weekend in the top 10 and, with the exception of Rahal, didn’t see the checkered flag after two hours and 36 minutes of racing.

Six days after erasing practice time for its competitors, INDYCAR took the opposite approach at Gateway. Instead of setting the field by outright speed, the sanctioning body called off qualifying and determined that entrant points would create the grid. Communicated less than an hour after the weekend’s first practice had been shortened by a yellow flag for moisture, the decision also included added time for Practice 2.

With the grid based on points, some drivers near the bottom of the standings will miss out on an opportunity to qualify well and more easily transcend their championship position. AJ Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan is a member of this group.

“It’s a shame because I was looking forward to qualifying for sure,” said Kanaan, whose 298th consecutive start will see him take the green flag from 15th.

“We always talked about this race; we had high hopes. The team did well here last year and we have a strong car. I think we had a really good shot for the first three rows. … We’ll do some TK miracles on the restarts and get back to the front.”

Tony Kanaan exits Gateway Motorsports Park turn
Tony Kanaan’s visit to Gateway Motorsports Park in August 2018 may have been better if INDYCAR ended Friday with qualifying instead of an extended practice. | Photo: Adam Pigott / Spacesuit Media

Rahal, meanwhile, was glad he and his competitors were granted a race-like session rather than one where the field took turns turning a few laps alone to decide their starting position.

“It was the right call to abort qualifying in favor of another practice session,” Rahal stated after Friday’s pair of sessions. “Ultimately, after last weekend when we were pretty short on practice time, I think it’s important that we all get our time out here. I’m sure that the guys who tested here are fine either way, but for many of us this thing is a whole different animal with a lot less downforce.”

Drivers ultimately made use of the added track time, turning 2,180 laps in the 90-minute outing under the lights. With Practice 1 included, a total of 2,805 practice laps were completed — more than four times Pocono. Even with track length taken into consideration, the difference in practice time at the two events is staggering with 1,640 miles being run at Pocono compared to 3,506.25 miles of practice at Gateway.

Hinchcliffe chases Rossi during Gateway IndyCar practice
Without Robert Wickens’ No. 6 Honda present, James Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have just one set of data from which to learn at Gateway. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

Beyond added preparation, the decision to cancel qualifying in favor of practice created a starting lineup that reflects the championship battle in its purest form.

Alexander Rossi, coming off a two-race win streak, will start alongside championship leader Scott Dixon, setting up a duel from the green flag that never materialized at Pocono. The rest of the contenders, including Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Hunter-Reay, will be in the mix. Hunter-Reay, in particular, has an opportunity to make up ground lost due to his early retirement in Pennsylvania.

For others, though, the lack of qualifying meant that poor performance earlier in the season will hinder their final oval race of 2018. Zach Veach, for instance, has shown speed recently — including in Pocono’s only practice session — but will start back on the eighth row with Kanaan.

With the championship in proper focus and teams better prepared for the 310-mile race under the lights at Gateway, INDYCAR’s decision to prioritize preparation over speed may serve as a model for future tracks, relegating the ill-fated weekend at Pocono to the annals of Indy car history.

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