May 27, 2012
The great unknown
By Dean McNulty, QMI Agency
James Hinchcliffe is no longer a rookie in the IZOD IndyCar Series but when he steers the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet down the long front straight on Sunday shortly after 12 o’clock for the start of the 96th Indianapolis 500, he will still feel like one.
It will be his first time starting on the front row in the world’s most famous oval race after qualifying second a week ago just behind pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe.
Hinchcliffe will hardly be at a disadvantage in this regard, however, as all 33 drivers on the grid will, in fact, be rookies in the sense that none have driven the new Dallara DW12 — named in honour of the late Dan Wheldon — with the new engine packages introduced this season, in an oval race.
And certainly none will have driven it the 500 miles it will take to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
That is one of the reasons that Hinchcliffe is reluctant to make any bold predictions about how he will fare in this, his second attempt at glory at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“There are so many unknowns,” he said. “When we got here I had never driven this car on an oval, the team hadn’t done a ton of testing here yet, there were still so many things to learn about this new car.
“We had almost a decade worth of data with the old car, so we had a lot to go off of no matter what the conditions were, hot, cold, high track temp, low air temp, whatever it was we had some experience with it. This month we didn’t, so we had to do all of that learning each and every day.
“So, the expectations were really wait and see what we got.”
After almost three weeks of testing Hinchcliffe said he and the Andretti team do have a better idea of how the car will react early on Sunday but the big question of how will the new car and the new motors react near the end of 200 laps around the big track remains unanswered.
“Now we’re heading into the race, obviously we qualified well, but nobody has done a race distance on this car, nobody has been on track with 32 other drivers,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly how this race is going to unfold. I really think this race is going to come down to the driver and team that is the most flexible with their set-up, with their strategy, just staying on top of the changing conditions out there.”
Hinchcliffe said on Saturday that he is already starting to feel some butterflies but it is not nervousness but more anticipation of what is about to happen.
“This is he biggest race in the world,” he said. “It is going to be damn hot and there are going to be about 300,000 people in the grandstands watching.”
Hinchcliffe said he won’t allow himself to think about the what ifs that such a big race can present. He just wants to make sure he gets through the first 100 or so laps.
“I don’t think it’s right to start thinking like that before the race even starts,” he said. “I don’t think it’s even right to think about that 100 laps in.
“This race, as it has proven time and time again ... it’s not over until it’s over. It’s just such a long race, and you’ve got to be so patient and you never know what can happen.
“So, for us its really is just trying to take this thing one lap at a time, because there are going to be curve balls thrown at you, there’s going to be wrenches thrown in the plans.
“Like I’ve been saying, it’s going to be the sort of team that can adapt the most to what’s thrown at them, I think that going to come out on top.”
Hinchcliffe said he is still anquished about losing the pole to Briscoe by what amounted to less than a blink of an eye but that in the big picture his performance on Pole Day was remarkable.
“At the end of the day you are still starting in the front row for the Indy 500,” he said. “It’s tough to lose it when you know you had a legitimate shot. It’s tough to lose it by the closest margin in history.
“I get over it quick when I think about not what we lost, what we missed out on, but what we actually achieved. Not only on just the Go Daddy car, but as a team and that’s when it puts things back in perspective.”
Then in typical Hinchcliffe fashion the 25-year-old from Oakville makes light of how he will handle the start of Sunday’s race with pole sitter Briscoe to his right and Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay on his left.
“You go kick Briscoe in the shin, and you slip something into Hunter Ray’s cornflakes,” he said with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek.
“No, the biggest thing is you’ve got to appreciate it’s a long race. It’s not all about leading the first lap. It’s about leading the 200th lap. There’s not a whole lot of a plan to the start other than just get through it and go racing.”
TAGLIANI LITERALLY PUMPED FOR RACE
Alex Tagliani has a quiet confidence about him that befits a race car driver on the eve of his fourth attempt at winning the Indianapolis 500.
Tagliani will start on Row 4 of the 33-car grid in the No. 98 Barracuda/Bryan Herta Racing Honda — the same team that guided Dan Wheldon to victory a year ago in a car with the same number.
He said on Saturday that there is nothing more to be done except get a good night’s sleep in the motorhome that has been parked in the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the beginning of May.
One thing Tagliani has done is install a machine in his motorhome that will pump oxygen to give him the best rest on the night before the big race.
“I want everything to be perfect for Sunday,” he said. “I am excited because I think we have a car that can win the race.
“It feels even better than the car I won the pole with last season.”
He said he isn’t even concerned about the expected heat — forecast to be above 40C — for the race.
“Everybody will face that same obstacle,” the native of Montreal said.
Dean of Speed's Top 5 things that will be affected by the forecast 40C temperature Sunday at the Indianapolis 500:
The drivers will be going out to start the race wearing fire retardant underwear and a fire suit that is made up of three layers of cloth.
Then they will pull on a balaclava before putting on their helmet.
Even in normal temperatures that makes for a very hot environment inside the cockpit.
The race cars are equipped with a hydration system that allows the driver to sip water through a small plastic hose that runs from the back of their helmet to a water bottle on the inside of the cockpit but if that fails the drivers will have to pit to get water or face severe dehydration.
The drivers’ suits also have a series of tiny cooling tubes that somewhat reduces the heat on the pilot.
The V6 turbocharged engine used in the race is not so different from what is in the car in dealer showroom in that it needs to be cooled to run properly, just like the driver.
The Dallara DW12 chassis has several ducts that push cool air into the engine area to keep temperatures down.
And the engines all have not one, but two radiators that continually pump water around the motor to further keep it from overheating.
The drivers will be constantly checking their instrument gauges on the steering wheel to make sure the engine temperatures don’t spike.
Maybe the most critical component of the modern IndyCar is the tires.
Firestone, who provide all the teams with identically prepared Firehawk tires, have brought two types to Indy — one set of reds (softer compound) and one set of blacks (harder compound) — that have been used from the start of the first practice earlier this month to the ones that will be used on Sunday.
The softer reds provide more grip early in the race and the harder blacks are better as the temperatures rise.
Because of the extreme temperatures forecast, teams will likely rely more heavily on the blacks because the reds will wear out much faster the hotter the track gets.
4. The track
The 2.5-mile oval that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also very heat sensitive.
Unlike many past years, there has been very little rain in the Indianapolis area over the past month.
That has allowed the rubber from the weeks of testing to build up around the track. While under normal conditions that is a good thing because it provide the drivers with more grip, but when the heat at track level hits near 50C, as it is expected to on Sunday, that rubber literally starts to melt.
And when that happens the drivers describe it as like racing on ice.
To counter this the teams will be adjusting the wings of the Dallara DW12s to give the race cars more downforce and therefore more grip.
5. Pit crews
Just as it is important to keep the drivers and the engines as cool as possible over 500 miles on Sunday the pit crews from the teams must also be looked after.
Many races have been lost by mistakes on pit road during the race at Indy.
And the heat will affect the pit crews just like it affects the driver.
Teams like Alex Tagliani’s No. 98 Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosports Honda have provided each of their crew members with cooling vests and there will be plenty of ice-cooled fluids available to them throughout the afternoon.