INDY 500 Pole Day Story and Qualifying Speeds
INDIANAPOLIS -RIS- (May 21, 2017) For the third time in his career, Scott Dixon will lead the Indianapolis 500 field to the green flag, and he’ll do it coming off a near-record qualifying performance.
Dixon blistered the famed 2.5-mile oval with a pole position qualifying speed of 232.164 mph - the fastest Indy 500 qualifying effort since Ed Carpenter’s 231.067 in 2014, and well ahead of James Hinchcliffe’s 230.760 from last year.
2017 INDIANAPOLIS 500 STARTING GRID
Dixon admitted that his qualifying speed had caught him by surprise.
“Absolutely. I thought maybe the dash had broken on the steering wheel and had put up a fake number,” he said. “I don't think we expected to see the speed that we did,” adding that he believed the team had trimmed a bit too much downforce out of the car.”
Dixon’s team, Ganassi Racing, rolled the dice late last year by switching from the dominant Chevrolet engine to the Honda powerplant.
“We felt this would be one of the strong tracks for Honda, especially with the aero kit,” he explained. “It was good to have a change of scenery and a different look at how we need to do things. We made a lot of mistakes last year, and it’s nice for everybody to refocus. It’s been a good transition, and a fairly quick one.
“I think the balance was good. I think we had a little too much understeer on the car which definitely smoothed some things out. Turn 2 was definitely tricky today, and I think it was more in how you got the initial timing to turn. On my second lap I turned a little too late and had to lift, and later on I just kind of managed that speed by lifting a little bit to get the front to turn into Turn 2 and then go straight back out on the pedal to get it down the back straight. But if the car was good, then your day is a lot easier.”
This is Dixon’s third pole position at Indy, his previous poles coming in 2008 and 2015.
Today’s performance should come as no surprise. Dixon is arguably one of the best Indy car drivers in history. Since joining the IndyCar Series since leaving Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) at the end of 2002, Dixon has won the Indy car championship four times. In the last ten seasons, Dixon has finished third or better in the series championship nine times.
Quiet, resourceful, patient, and surgical. Dixon is a man to watch next Sunday. No one has won from the pole position since Helio Castroneves in 2009.
Two-time Indy polesitter Ed Carpenter (2013, 2014) was Dixon’s sole threat today. Fastest qualifier yesterday, Carpenter was the last to make a qualifying run. With an opening lap of 232.108, Dixon’s speed was just out of reach. Carpenter’s next three laps dropped incrementally as his tires gave out.
The Butler University grad admitted that he didn’t see Dixon’s blistering speeds coming.
“No. No, I did not. Not sure where Scott's speed came from totally,” he said. “It actually kind of made some of the pressure go away because I was like, well, I'll be way more shocked than I was yesterday if we run that fast for that many laps.
“I don't know that we could have gotten much more out of it today in those conditions, but proud of the effort from the whole team, to have the top two qualified Chevrolets, car in the first row (his), car in the second row (JR Hildebrand’s).”
Under sunny skies, the wind was a big factor in performance today.
“The way the wind was blowing made for quicker times,” Carpenter added. “Even though it was a bit of a cross, the backside of the track is way more exposed than the front, so you get a tailwind down the back and then the front stretch is sheltered.
“It's cool to see the speeds going back up, to hear the crowd roar when Scott did those laps, when everyone put up big times. It's cool. It's part of the mystique of this place, pushing the limits of the cars and us as drivers.”
Carpenter will start alongside Dixon on the front row.
Rounding out the front row is last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi.
“I don't really know what it was today. I think the lower humidity was helping the engines,” the former Formula 1 driver said. “The wind direction was favorable for lap time because it was a true crosswind. There was no penalty on either of the straights, and that makes the corners difficult, but if you can get through the corners, then it was a much more favorable wind for lap time today than yesterday, so I think those two things combined are probably the biggest differences, and yeah, like I said, they had to get it right, and they clearly did.”
Rossi admitted he really didn’t know visiting Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso well prior to this month.
“In my (Formula 1) debut in Singapore, he was the one of the only people that came up to me before the race and just said to enjoy the experience, and that meant a lot in a world where there's not a lot of communication across teams,” Rossi confessed.
“It was pretty exciting news, I think, for everyone when it was announced he was coming over, and the fact that he was my teammate for this month and will continue to be is a pretty special experience for me. He's proving why he's one of the best in the world right now.
Alonso is the focus of the majority of attention here this month, in large part because of his unexpected participation.
Alonso’s Formula 1 team, McLaren Honda, has struggled this season with engine performance in the extremely competitive F1 environment.
Regardless whether Alonso’s appearance here was self-motivated, or crafted by his former-Hoosier McLaren F1 team owner, Zac Brown, it allows the two-time F1 World Champion to skip what would be, for him, an uncompetitive Grand Prix of Monaco, and give his sponsors and a Honda eager for success an arena in front of 300,000 fans, millions on television, in the biggest motorsports event in the world.
And, as you’d expect, the performance of the enormously popular Alonso - rated by Autosport magazine as the ninth-greatest F1 driver in history, of the 217 who’ve competed in the series - has been dutifully followed around the world, inviting comparisons between F1 and IndyCar.
“I don't think that we need to separate too much F1 or IndyCar or rally or stock car,” Alonso said. “I mean, at the end of the day, it's just motorsports. The big thing which is just the race itself and the competition remains very similar.
“You know, we are all here to race hard and to compete and try to be faster than any other guy out there.”
Alonso recognizes that he, like NASCAR’s Kurt Bush’s Indy 500 attempt in 2014, that he arrived at one of the best teams in the IndyCar business.
“I am lucky that it's probably the best team for a rookie to come in with a lot of cars on the team and a lot of experience,” the Spaniard said. “We have Takuma (Sato), also, that came from Formula 1, and Alexander (Rossi). So yeah, the comments from them are very, very useful because they know how one car behaves and how the other car behaves and what they needed when they came here. Probably experienced more or less the same journey as them.”
Alonso’s impressive performance today came after what might have been a disastrous day.
Following the early practice session, Alonso’s team and Honda saw signs in his telemetry that they ought best replace his engine - normally a 2.5-hour operation.
“The practice felt good on the car, and then we spotted some issues with the engine,” he said of the engine concern. “But the team was amazing. They were guys from all six teams working on car 29 just to make it possible, so thanks to all that teamwork, I was able to go for qualifying.”
The qualifying run for his fifth place starting position, in the middle of the second row, didn’t come easily.
“I had an overboost problem in lap 2 out of the last corner, and it was like hitting the brakes,” he explained. “I went one gear down and started again picking up the speed. When I thought it was 225 (mph) or something, I nearly came to the pit lane because this qualifying run is over with this problem. Still running, I was happily surprised with the total time.”
In the end, the day was Honda’s six of the fast nine drivers were Honda-powered - an advantage many attribute to aerodynamic advantages.
A little over 11 mph covers the field, between Dixon and slowest qualifier Zack Veach at 221.081.
The field has seven former winners (Dixon, Rossi, Kanaan, Montoya, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, and Lazier) and three rookies (Alonso, Ed Jones, and Jack Harvey).
News from Sebastien Bourdais is improving. The former Champ Car champion, injured yesterday in a terrific accident, suffered fractures in his pelvis and hip. He underwent surgery, and the media was informed that surgery went better than expected.
“I want to thank everybody for the support and the messages,” Bourdais said in a statement today, provided by team owner Dale Coyne. “Quite a few drivers have already dropped by. It’s going to take time, but I’m feeling pretty good since the surgery. I’ll be back at some point. Just don’t know when yet!”
In the interim, Coyne is reportedly putting two-time Indy veteran James Davison in the car, which will be allowed to start 33rd without a qualifying time.
As impressive as the speeds were today, there’s a bit of the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” about the entire process of the last few years.
Recent qualifying speeds are a bit of a gimmick, it should be noted. Teams now given extra engine boost, sanctioned by the Verizon IndyCar Series brass, for Indy qualifying weekends - ostensibly to get a few headlines like these.
Honest top speeds didn’t come so long ago. During the Indy Racing League era, Helio Castroneves’ 231.725 mph came from an unblown Toyota V-8 in 2003.
The best Indy 500 qualifying performances came in 1996, with the old turbocharged V-8 Cosworth and V-6 Menard Indy car engines, when Arie Luyendyk and Scott Brayton set qualifying records of 236.986 and 233.718 respectively.
As nice as it is to see Indy cars pinging the 230 mph range, challenging Luyendyk’s 21-year old number, we would prefer to see it come from the same engine configuration the cars will race with next Sunday.
According to Scott Dixon, expect to see Camping World sponsorship on the Ganassi cars before the end of the week.
Practice resumes tomorrow afternoon for a four-hour session, reflective of the time of day the race will be held next Sunday, May 28th. That will end Indy car activity on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until Carb Day on Friday.
Stay tuned. The Indy Lights cars have the race track much of this week.
INDIANAPOLIS 500 FOUR-LAP QUALIFYING RUNS
|18||22||Juan Pablo Montoya||Chevy||230.445||229.766||229.133||228.924||229.565|
Tom has been a contributor to RIS since 1992. He was invited to join the staff as a full-time reporter/editor in 1995, and has covered IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR, Grand-Am, ALMS and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In addition to his RIS work, Tom has been a contributor for General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and the ACO.