AUSTIN, Texas – When the most accomplished Indy car driver of his time questions his ability to efficiently navigate Circuit of The Americas, it’s safe to say the track is a beast.
“I haven't really got the flow around this track,” five-time champion NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon said Saturday after qualifying sixth for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. “I think the car is quite decent. (It) just needs somebody to steer it in the right place.”
INDYCAR CLASSIC: Race start tire selection
The first NTT IndyCar Series race at COTA presents numerous challenges for teams and drivers. Foremost among them, it appears, are three issues: finding the right racing line in each turn, how drivers deal with Turn 19 and the removal of track limits, and uncertainty about tire degradation.
Here’s how each issue shakes out:
Finding their groove. Drivers spent much of their practice time Friday and Saturday trying to find the best lines through the most difficult portions of the 20-turn, 3.41-mile circuit. The ones who get it right more often than others are likely to be at the front of the field when Sunday’s 60-lap race ends.
“We're just experimenting,” said Simon Pagenaud, who failed to advance from the first round of NTT P1 Award pole qualifying and will start 22nd Sunday in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet. “It's basically a new track. We've been here testing. First (practice) session was interesting because it was quite different to the end of the test, less grip on the track. Practice 2, we had to try something we wanted to try. Wasn't the right timing with the (Firestone alternate) red tires, (but) we were able to revert back and find our ducks in a row again.”
For many, finding the right balance to handle COTA’s ever-changing turn combinations is the weekend's science project. If the car is strong in one sector, it’s likely to be not so strong in another sector.
“In Turns 2 through 8, I feel like we’re good,” Dale Coyne Racing rookie Santino Ferrucci said. “We understand what the car needs to go through there. But in another set of turns – 12 through 15 – I feel like I’m struggling because I feel like I don’t have enough rotation. It’s a little bit of driver, a little bit of setup, it’s a little bit lines – a little bit of everything.”
Texas no limit. A decision by INDYCAR officials to remove “track limits” at Turn 19 will allow drivers to swing wide of the boundaries on the sharp left-hander to set up for Turn 20 and the return to the frontstretch. Drivers going far wide in Turn 19 created several problems in practice and qualifying, including spins in the turn’s runoff area that shortened both segments of the first round of qualifying.
“We want track limits,” Josef Newgarden said of his Team Penske teammates Pagenaud and Will Power. “It makes it easier in some ways when you don't have track limits. It takes away some of the difficulty of having to get that corner right. We don't like that. Certainly, there's other aspects that we don't like with it, too, such as safety, the way you pull into pit (lane).
“Right now, we just don't have a great solution to police it, how we implement that for the way INDYCAR puts that on for a race. They don't like being involved too much. They don't want to put penalties out when they don't need to. They don't want to alter a race result if they can get away with it. I understand their position.”
The decision, some drivers said, may have been the best available option.
“I’ve been dealing with track limits for the last five years,” said Ferrucci, driver of the No. 19 David Yurman Honda who came to the NTT IndyCar Series from Formula 2. “In Europe, all the tracks are like this. Your No. 1 topic at every race is where track limits are and how you police them. … We don’t have a curb set up or a timing loop set up for (Turn) 19, so they can’t police it perfectly in black and white, so to not have a track limit at all is the better solution. This way, you leave it in the drivers’ hands to figure out how to deal with it.”
Degrading circumstances. Concerns about tire wear, specifically how quickly the Firestone soft-compound reds will degrade and when to use them, will be at the core of strategy decisions.
“The degradation here, it seems pretty big so far,” said Power, who won the NTT P1 Award pole position Saturday and a chance to reel in a $100,000 bonus if he wins the race. “Sometimes that changes once the rubber goes down on the track. We'll see how that plays out. I'm hoping there is degradation. It helps with the racing and definitely helps people run different strategies and such, creates opportunities. It's good for the fans.”
It’s not good, though, for the strategists who make the decisions about when to use the harder primary black tires and the alternate red tires. INDYCAR rules require a minimum of two laps on each tire compound. While the softer red tire is faster and grippier, it also degrades more quickly, leaving strategists with a tire management dilemma: When is the right time for a stint on reds?
As Dixon’s strategist, Mike Hull, told an inquiring fan on Twitter, “no flinching.”
Coverage of Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic begins at 1 p.m. on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
INDYCAR CLASSIC RACE FACTS:
Race 2 of 17 on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule
Track: Circuit of The Americas, a 3.41-mile, 20-turn permanent road course in Austin, Texas
Race distance: 60 laps/204.6 miles
Fuel: Each car receives 70 gallons of Speedway E85 ethanol
Push-to-pass: Each car has 200 seconds total duration for the race, with a single maximum use of 20 seconds. Push-to-pass adds approximately 60 horsepower when utilized.
TV: NBCSN, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, 1 p.m. ET (including network affiliates, Sirius 216, XM 209, IndyCarRadio.com, IndyCar.com and INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA)