Once again, the bosses of the IndyCar series changed the format for qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Instead of the top 24 starters locking in on Day One with the remainder of the runners locking in on Bump Day, the drivers had to lock into the field on Day One with the actual grid being set in single-run qualifying on Day Two.
However, the latest change in the qualifying format didn’t change anything from the previous Indy 500 qualifying weekend. When you’re hooked up at Indy, there’s little anyone can do to stop you. Just ask the now twice-defending Indy 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter.
The first day of qualifying at Indianapolis was supposed to create drama from drivers being forced to bump their way into the field on Saturday. However, only 33 entries for the race this year, the drama came from cars trying to make the Fast Nine. I guess you’ve got to get people interested in a day of qualifying with no meaning somehow.
Another change to the dramatic formula of qualifying was that drivers who took another qualifying run didn’t have to withdraw their previous time. It removes a bit of the drama of will a driver be able to improve or will taking the risk of improving their time prove to backfire. Now, the only drama comes from a driver keeping it off the wall and there weren’t many instances of drivers coming close on their qualifying runs.
What was exciting was that it allowed drivers to push on their second and third runs of the day. The result was that the drivers in the Fast Nine had to average over 230 MPH on their four-lap runs. Transferring to Day Two’s Fast Nine shootout were Ed Carpenter, Carlos Munoz, Helio Castroneves (who made three attempts on the day), James Hinchcliffe, Will Power, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud and JR Hildebrand.
Unlike last year, only one part-time driver made the Fast Nine. Last year saw AJ Allmendinger and Carlos Munoz come in for the big race and score starting spots on the first three rows. This year, only Hildebrand went from one-off racer to top starter. Mind you, one could make the argument that he’s such an Indy specialist that you probably shouldn’t classify him in the same group as other drivers making their first IndyCar appearance or a long-awaited return.
While there wasn’t any bumping on what became a sort of de facto Bump Day at this year’s Indy 500 but there was speed. A quick calculation of the average speed came to just over 229 MPH (I had exactly 229.072 MPH as my calculation). Only one MPH covered rows six through ten. It’s pretty cool when breathing the throttle just a little bit is the difference between mid-pack and back of the pack.
The second day of qualifying started with the one-run shootout to determine starting positions 10 through 33. Each driver got one four-lap attempt to run as quickly as possible and start as far up the grid as possible.
For some drivers, this proved to be a bit of a downfall. Rookie Sage Karam, for example, was 21st on Saturday but only managed 31st on Sunday and that’s where he’ll start. Ganassi teammate Ryan Briscoe fell from 17th to 30th thanks to the new format.
Not all drivers lost positions, obviously. Tony Kanaan climbed seven spots to 16th. Oriol Servia improved 11 spots to an 18th place start. The big winner was Juan Montoya. He may have only improved three spots on Sunday but it got him to 10th place and made him the first driver over 231 MPH. He’ll share Row Four with Scott Dixon and Kurt Busch.
The Fast Nine shootout for the pole also had its fair share of drama. While the first couple of runners were slower than their Day One times and the fastest qualifiers outside the top nine, the pace picked up as we continued through the drivers.
A couple of interesting storylines developed during the day. James Hinchcliffe held the pole for a couple of runs despite missing most of practice after suffering a concussion during the GP of Indy. He was only bested by Ed Carpenter who became only the 11th man in 98 years to score back-to-back poles for the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsport. What made Carpenter’s run more impressive was that this was his first time turning the wheel in anger this season and the fact that he improved his speed on Lap Four when most cars were slowing.
So the first row of the grid has Ed Carpenter on the inside for the second straight year with James Hinchcliffe and Will Power to his outside. Helio Castroneves will lead Row Two to the green with Indy GP winner Simon Pagenaud looking to complete his own Indy double and Marco Andretti alongside. Last year’s Rookie of the Year Carlos Munoz is on the inside of Row Three with Josef Newgarden and JR Hildebrand rounding out the Fast Nine.
By the way, the state of TV coverage of qualifying up here in Canada… I thought that we had a new TV partner but it seems that one season of caring is all that we get in Canada.
While ABC seemed to randomly jump in with Indy 500 qualifying coverage, they did cover some of the more important and exciting moments of each day of qualifying. Meanwhile, the three Sportsnet channels in Canada (counting the regional channels as one channel since they usually cover the same thing) didn’t show a second of qualifying. I’d bet that qualifying wouldn’t have been mentioned on the networks if Hinch didn’t qualify 2nd.
After all the effort of hiring two analysts, flying a crew out to the races and making more of an effort than TSN has with any of its originally produced racing coverage for the last five years, the 2014 IndyCar season on Sportsnet is like TSN. Live coverage doesn’t happen. The promotion of the races has stopped. Rob Faulds and Bill Adam have been relegated to one appearance an hour in a studio in Toronto. It’s TSN but with better looking studios and graphics.
Now that Sportsnet bought The Score, we’re out of sporting networks who we can convince to care about motorsport coverage and motorsport fans. I don’t ask for much from the local broadcaster. I’ve given up on their own analysis. Just give me the races live on channels that everyone gets and not destroyed by commercial breaks. I can’t even get that now. Motorsports broadcasting is in a pretty sad state here in Canada.
The 2013 edition of the race saw 68 official lead changes in the 200 laps of running. However, if you were a Honda driver, you didn’t really sniff the lead. This year, with five drivers in the Fast Nine, it looks like the engines are back on par and we’ll see everyone giving it a good run for the checkered flag.
Ed Carpenter has to be an early favourite for winning considering how fast he is on ovals and in Indy. Hinchcliffe is leading a strong Andretti contingent that are leading Honda’s challenge. Most eyes will be on Kurt Busch who’s trying to pull the Indy/Charlotte double but no one attempting the double has won either race. And don’t count out the Penske cars. They had two of the top four starters and the fastest car in qualifying. That’s a good way to enter the biggest race of the season.