IndyCar teams take cautious approach to practice

May 14, 2012 - 5:38 PM
IndyCar Indy 500 Auto Racing

Helio Castroneves, left, of Brazil, pulls out of the pit area around teammate Will Power, of Australia, during practice for IndyCar's Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — IndyCar teams have used the first three practice sessions at Indianapolis as a virtual classroom.

They're collecting data about how their new cars react in different conditions on Indianapolis' 2.5-mile oval. They're trying to decipher fuel calculations. They're studying how the cars run in traffic and trying to keep the mileage down on engines and tires.

The combination has forced drivers into an unnatural game plan -- taking things slowly.

"I feel like the car is responding well, and I think it's going to race well," Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe said. "It's a new car, though, so we're still fairly conservative."

At first glance, slower speeds seem like the antithesis of what the Indianapolis 500 is all about.

During Saturday's pole qualifications, race officials will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Parnelli Jones breaking the 150 mph barrier. Tom Sneva is still revered as the man who broke the 200 mph barrier in 1977. Speeds kept increasing up until Arie Luyendyk set the four-lap qualifying average of 236.986 in 1996.

Series officials ditched the turbochargers in 1997, which brought speeds back down and eliminated one of Indy's feature attractions, breaking records.

Now, the turbochargers are back, but the records aren't being challenged.

The series has reduced the horsepower at Indy from 650 last year to something less than that this year.

While league officials wouldn't say how much has been cut and team officials declined to offer a guess, it's clearly being reflected on the speed charts. By Day 3 of practice last year, the top speeds were already hitting 225 mph, and Alex Tagliani won the pole with an average of 227.472.

This year's fastest practice lap was turned Monday by rookie Josef Newgarden at 222.486. Ryan Hunter-Reay was second at 221.639 and Marco Andretti was third at 221.519.

Those numbers are likely to climb, at least a bit.

"They're going to come back up by qualifying," Tagliani said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it will be close to my pole lap last year, depending on the weather."

Series officials have already announced they're adding enough horsepower to give cars a boost of 4-5 mph on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing spent Saturday's opening practice breaking in backup cars. Team Penske, which has won all four races this season, was still working on race setup Monday and intends to do the same thing until Friday. Some cars have even run with full fuel loads to test their mileage. That's the reason Michel Jourdain Jr.'s car was towed into pit lane Monday after running out of fuel during a practice run.

Lotus engines have been slow all season and haven't shown any indication they'll perform any better at the first oval race of the season.

Rookie Jean Alesi was the slowest of 29 drivers on the track Monday at 211.516, but it was good enough to pass his rookie test. Simona de Silvestro, who has the only other Lotus engine, was Sunday's slowest car at 202.179.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," said de Silvestro, who qualified for the race last year with burned hands. "We're just focusing on what we have to do, but we have to be realistic."

Officials at Honda, which won its case to add a new compressor cover to its single turbocharged engine, are hopeful the change will make its engines more competitive with the Chevrolets that Penske is using.

But the biggest problem may be the car.

"It has much more drag than we anticipated and you can't get the car as much down force," Penske president Tim Cindric said after another practice with his three drivers. "We need more power and less down force, that's what needs to happen before next season."

Until then, drivers will have to be patient in figuring things out.

When Dario Franchitti climbed into the cockpit of his car Saturday, it was completely different from the one he drove in a test at Indy back in November. Back then, he was worried about the handling, a problem that seems to have been resolved.

"A lot was done to the car by the team and the series and it's definitely better," he said. "But we've done minimal running here."

How many more laps teams will turn this week remains unclear. Mileage limits on tires and engines have prompted forced a cutback in the number of laps drivers are running this week

"It's not about showing up for three or four days with a tow," Ganassi managing director Mike Hull said. "I think what will happen Friday is the grip level will change because of the boost level increase and how you approach it with the grip will change. So it will be a two-day exercise in what works."

Notes: Marco Andretti explained that the reason his father, Michael, will no longer call his races is because the two were too passionate. Marco said he's animated on the radio and that his father is the same and that it just "didn't work." ... There is no resolution yet to the Dragon Racing's quest for two engines. Team owner Jay Penske met with team members Sunday and told them he was hopeful of getting on the track Tuesday. .... There have been no crashes in three days of full practice or the two rookie orientation days.