Today sees the first of two qualifying days for the 2010 Indianapolis 500 – better known as Pole Day. The qualifying schedule has for this year, been greatly reduced by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from four sessions in order to reduce the costs for both venue and the teams participating; however it is has had the additional effect of reshaping the process of qualification for the teams. As noted in the first part of “Time” (published here last August), this is all part of the long road to rebuilding the fractured IndyCar series in the US and while some of the changes that are being made will rub against the grain of the traditionalists, the IndyCar Series must be seen to progress – if it does not, the result for single seater racing in America could be potentially catastrophic.
This year’s Indy 500 will also see the first participation for former-F1 pilot, Takuma Sato, who will be driving the joint KV Racing / Lotus Racing effort. Formula 1 drivers have rarely fared well at Indianapolis over the last few decade – Nigel Mansell apart, so many eyes will be on the ex-Super Aguri driver. Sato scored his sole Formula 1 podium at Indianapolis at the US Grand Prix in 2004 while driving for BAR Honda and it is a feat the Japanese driver will wish to repeat; however he may find himself against many obstacles, primarily his inexperience on oval circuits. Another familiar name competing will be former Minardi and Jaguar F1 man, Justin Wilson. The Englishman has been driving in the IRL since it swallowed up Champ Car in 2008 and was a driver in the now defunct series prior to that.
Prior to this season, qualifying at Indy for the 500-mile race was held over two weekends, with the top twenty-two positions decided over the second Saturday and Sunday of the month and the final eleven starting places decided the following weekend, including the often thrilling Bump Day taking place on the final qualifying Sunday. Only 33 drivers can start the event and with an average of 35 or 36 attempting to qualify; there were always going to those that went home disappointed. While that notion still exists in 2010, there has been an understanding that in the past few years those that did not make it were more often than not, simply lacking in the necessary skills to compete at any sort of heightened level; however a slowly strengthening series has raised the bar somewhat and for the first time in many seasons, those watching the tense qualifying show may see an unexpected early exit. This is partially due to the restructured qualifying set-up, but there is also a feeling that the overall quality of entrants this year is the highest it has been in many years as the unified category attracts a higher standard of racer.
Without wishing to cause offence to the likes of former backmarkers Marty Roth, Stanton Barrett or Jimmy Kite, it is highly questionable as to whether they could compete at a standard set by the likes of Alex Tagliani, EJ Viso or even the canny veteran, John Andretti. By the 2007 Indianapolis 500, the standard of many of the driver’s near the rear of the field was so poor that it was quite reminiscent of cast-offs of pre-qualifying in Formula 1 in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. At that event Phil Giebler lined up in 33rd spot with an average speed of 219.6 miles per hour – a speed that may not get a driver even remotely close to the field three years on – that Giebler qualified his Honda-powered Playa Del Racing machine nearly a full 5mph faster than the bumped Kite was an example of the quality drop-off outside the running 33. It did not go unnoticed that some of the speeds for 33rd spot that were set during this week’s practice sessions, would have got a driver qualified on the edges of the top 20 during the previous decade; but what has changed in the time since and what makes this year so different?
For one, a realigned IndyCar series now has a slightly more focused driver path and line-up, and secondly the rearranged qualifying sessions has sharpened the tensions within the Indy 500 show somewhat. Although backmarkers such as Milka Duno still attach themselves to end of the field, the quality of driver that permeates through is much higher this time around and for the first time in many years, the first bumped driver (34th place) may well be in the 220 mph zone – a speed normally considered safe enough to qualify.
A New Qualifying Format
So how will the new sessions work? Many elements of previous years remain; for example, a qualifying run is the average speed of a four-lap run and a driver has three attempts per day, yet if a driver that has put in a run but wishes to go again, (s)he must withdraw the original time, and qualify again. Any competitor that does this knows there is a very real risk that they could end up with a slower time than what was originally posted. Also, motor racing still cannot run in wet conditions due to the constantly high speeds and ever present dangers – in addition to that, only one driver being allowed on track at any one time, getting the timing right for a driver’s run could be essential to their eventual participation in the race. It is therefore vital that both the team judge the conditions and their potential rivals correctly, otherwise they may find themselves in a perilous position come 6pm and the end of running. Rather than confirming the top eleven (and pole) on the first day, the reconfigured first day will now see the top 24 positions confirm their spots for the race, but the changes do not end there. From this year, Pole Day will now be split into two separate sessions, with positions 10 through 24 being solidified prior to 4pm and then a “pole position shoot-out” to place the top 9 places commencing thirty minutes afterward.
For the 90 minute session from 9.30pm (GMT +1) onward, the fastest nine drivers from the opening stint will have their previous times erased and must set at least one run for pole position with an option to run for a second time. As with the rest of qualifying, should any driver wish to go out again, their initial time will be withdrawn; therefore a second run will either have the risk of dropping a driver lower in the order or the potential of placing them on the top of the pile. In previous years, pole position at Indianapolis – like all the other races on the calendar garnered one bonus point for the Championship race; this year a points reward has been extended throughout the field with the front row drivers picking up 15, 13 and 12 points respectively. The bonus points will flow through the field with even the last qualifier picking up three points and as well as that, the cash bonus for qualifying on pole has also been raised from $100,000 to $175,000 and there are also prize money expansions for some of the lower spots.
The Battle Just to be in the Field of 33
As enticing as the shoot-out may be, the first session may be just as tense if not more so as the fight not to dragged into Bump Day could be rather fierce. Make no mistake that up to thirty cars could be fighting for the top 24 spots on day one and those that do not make could find themselves shedding beads of sweat – once left to competing on the second day, the possibility of not making the race at all is a very real one and it could spell disaster for any squad that doesn’t quite have enough in terms of both finances and reputation.
The fight for thirty-third position for the last six Indy 500’s has been close (baring 2007) and is often one of the most tense battles of the entire season and the speed markers for these entries have respectively been:
- 2004 – Robbie McGehee (211.231 mph)
- 2005 – Felipe Giaffone (217.645 mph)
- 2006 – Thiago Medeiros (215.729 mph)
- 2007 – Phil Giebler (219.637 mph)
- 2008 – Marty Roth (218.965 mph)
- 2009 – Ryan Hunter-Reay (220.957 mph)
In previous years, the fight for last place has created some shocks including in 1995 when neither Penske of Al Unser Jr or Emerson Fittipaldi were able to make the cut and in 2002 a stunned Johnny Herbert proved far too slow to make it into the event proper. With top speeds well in excess of 226 mph during the week (and 227 mph on Wednesday), these could be sessions which will potentially see the pressure reach mammoth levels – even the final practice session saw 1st to 30th place covered by less than 0.5 of a second over the course of a lap – a tiny gap and with the bump spot possibly at around 222 mph, it may make for a remarkably close field.
Realistically, the battle for pole will more than likely be between the Target Chip Ganassi cars driven by Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti and Ganassi’s chief rival Penske motorsport. This year, Penske have three full-time entries for the first since they were all dominant in 1994 with their cars been driven by Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and three-time Indy 500 winner, Helio Castroneves.
Qualifying begins at 4pm (GMT +1) and can be found broadcast live on indycar.com with commentary from the Indianapolis Radio Network. For more in depth reports, analysis and commentary, there are three websites to check out – Pressdog, My Name is IRL and Oil Pressure, not forgetting the wondering Q&A sessions held by Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star which can be found at Ask the Expert.