Indy 500 field expects more drafting, packs on Sunday

Ryan Hunter-Reay rounds a turn during final Indianapolis 500 practice during Carb Day.

Prior to the 2018 race, the Indianapolis 500 had begun to deliver an on-track product that matched the pre-race pageantry.

Not that IndyCar racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was boring by any stretch, but it was often procedural and dictated by track position and pit stops.

Then came the DW12 chassis in 2012, which completely changed the expectations for what the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was supposed to look like.

Suddenly, IndyCar took advantage of the long straightaways at its home track, creating a car that maximized drag and created a slipstream. Passing and lead change records were no longer secure, rising from 28-to-34 in 2012 and then to 68 in 2013, when no one could seemingly hold the top spot.

The races from 2014-to-2017 remained equally chaotic with lead change figures ranging from 24, 26, 54 and 35.

While the 2018 race also featured a competitive 30 lead changes, most of those were split between the leaders with a strategy of fuel conservation, since a leader burns around 20 percent more fuel than a trailing car.

That race looked more traditional throughout the field, with the second-hottest temperature in race history largely stifling passing opportunities. That race was also the first using the next-generation race car, a universal aero kit, which was an evolution of the DW12 chassis.

With rain in the forecast on Sunday, temperatures should be kept down by clouds and that should result in increased grip and additional passing opportunities.

“That was the hottest race ever,” Andretti Autosport driver Conor Daly said of the 2018 race. “It’s tough to generate downforce and grip in those conditions. And that makes the racing tougher. From a driver’s standpoint, that was one of the most difficult races imaginable, even if it didn’t look like it because there wasn’t as much passing.

“Honestly, just 10 degrees cooler from last year would make for a huge add of downforce. I hope it will be a more entertaining race and it looks like it will be too.”

Defending winner Will Power believes that a harder front tire compound, combined with some aerodynamic changes to the rule book, will create a lot more drafting on Sunday.

“I think you’re going to see a slipstream race,” Power said. “I don’t think anyone is going to get away on Sunday. That only happened last year because it was 90 degrees, sunny and less grip. This car actually drafts as well as the old car, and maybe even better if it’s cooler, we saw that in practice on Monday. “

Which kind of race a driver hopes for is largely dependent by how good the car is.

A high-temp race with minimal grip limits the number of possible winners, whereas more grip and more passing could result in more attrition and a wider number of contenders.

“You could want both depending on where you are in the field,” veteran owner-driver Ed Carpenter said. “When you’re closer to the front, you want it to be a tougher race for passing becuae that’s less people you have to worry about.

“If you’re deeper back for whatever reason and have a good car, you’re going to want to catch some clouds and cooler track temperatures, at least until you get to the front.”

Five-time NTT INDYCAR Series champion Scott Dixon prefers the more traditional style of race, similar to one won by Team Penske’s Power last year.

“I thought last year was a great race because you saw the best driver with the best car that day win,” the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran said. “Some of those years we had pack racing, it was all about timing your run, and being the last guy to get a draft.

“I thought it was more rewarding to see a guy like Will win simply because he drove his ass off.”

Power himself agrees with Carpenter’s stance.

“If you got one of the best cars, you want to be leading and for it to be hot,” he said. “If your car is more equal to the field, you want to see a lot of passing so it can give you a chance.”

From the looks of it, Sunday will likely be closer to the latter.

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