I almost forgot the race was on. Saturday night June 6th at Texas Motor Speedway, Indycar’s season finally started after the aborted race weekend in St. Petersburg followed by a nearly three month shut down due to COVID 19.
It was a strange event with special rules littered everywhere. The whole paddock flew to Texas from Indy early Saturday morning, there was one practice, qualifying, the race, and then a flight home. No fans. Lots of social distancing rules.
And then there were the tire rules. Because of the shutdown, Firestone did not have tires made for the race. So each team was required to run spec tires from two different tracks not meant to be used together. Because of that, each car was limited to a certain number of green laps before they were required to change tires. Which meant almost everyone stopped together.
There were also Parc Ferme rules relating to the cars and the number of adjustments that could be made. Once qualifying was over, no changes were allowed (like F1). And no engineers from Chevy or Honda were allowed on the grid.
Combined, all this meant that if you were properly prepared, you did very well. Otherwise, you did not.
It was clear from the first lap of practice that Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi racing nailed the set-up. Dixon could drive by anyone almost at will (especially on new tires). Rosenqvist was doing almost as well. Unfortunately, Rosenqvist tried to make an ill-advised pass of a car (James Hinchcliffe) that was known to be having handling problems. Hinch’s car got very loose (rear-end started to swing out) and that forced Hinchcliffe wide, which forced Rosenqvist wider, into the dark area of the track.
That dark area was sealant put down to help the NASCAR cars, but because of the sealant and the way they tried to remove it, that area had almost no grip for the Indycars.
The other question is why he in that position? This was a mistake of the pit crew. Rosenqvist was released into slower cars. If he had pitted one lap earlier or one lap later, he would have come out away from that pack of slower cars.
So, he was in that position because of a miscalculation by the team. Once he was in that position, he needed to be more patient because by being aggressive, he threw away a sure second place. If you have the race recorded, watch how Dixon dealt with similar situations and contrast with Rosenqvist.
At first it looked like the Penske cars of Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden might be able to match Dixon and Rosenqvist on pace. But something about the way both cars were set-up induced a vibration halfway into each tire stint. Still, they managed second and third.
Of course, that might have been different if title contenders Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Grahal Rahal were in contention. Their races** was ruined before the race started.
The Cartoon Anvil: Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Rahal
Without the special rules, things likely would have been different for Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Alexander Rossi. None of the three cars would start when the call to “start your engines” was issued. Their McLaren-supplied ECUs went into shutdown mode.
This is a known issue with the McLaren Spec ECUs, which are not loved by anyone in the Indycar paddock. At random times, the ECU goes into “shutdown” mode when a team engineer tries to start the car.
It happens on the grid to someone at almost every race. And the answer is simple: The Chevy or Honda engineer assigned to the team plugs into the car and re-loads the configuration file from their laptop into the ECU .
For this race, going out and re-setting the ECUs was a violation of the parc ferme rules, which meant the drivers all got drive-through penalties, putting them a lap down. To make matters worse, Rossi was speeding in the pit lane, and got another drive-through, putting him two laps down.
All of this begs the question: “If this happens regularly, and there is a simple answer, why would Indycar want to put one-time rules into effect to keep the effective teams from fixing this random, known, problem?”
To answer that you have to look at what Indycar was trying to accomplish by running the race at Texas in the first place. The idea was to structure the event with the fewest number of people and the minimum amount of exposure to COVID risk. That led to these regulations:
1) All team staff (except truck drivers) would meet at the Indianapolis airport on race day morning and travel together to the tracks. This would be a skeleton crew. Each team had a limit on headcount.
2) There would be one practice, after which there would be a relatively short time to make adjustments before qualifying.
3) Once a car was qualified, the team could make only very limited adjustments, similar to the parc ferme rules in Formula 1.
4) Before the race, the cars were warmed up on the “cold” side of the pit wall. Engine techs were not permitted there on the “hot” side of the pit wall, where the shutdowns happened.
The idea was for there to be NO CHANGES once the car was moved onto the grid. This was done with the intention of limiting staff on the trip. And if the Engine Techs were allowed to download a calibration file, that could include a prohibited change. It is my understanding there is no way for Indycar to easily tell the difference between a re-send of a previously used settings file and loading a changed settings file.
In the end, Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Rahal were bitten by good intentions exposed by random incidents. One can only hope that Indycar changes this by the time the Indy Road race occurs on July 4.
Hunter-Reay fought back to eighth, but Rossi and Rahal ended up 15th and 17th. Is that a death knell for their title hopes? If they run all of the scheduled races, probably not. But Rossi will need to win both Road America races in the dominant fashion of last year, and bring some of his teammates along for the ride.
Next race is another novelty: A race on the Indy Road Course as part of an Indycar/ NASCAR doubleheader July 4 & 5. This should be interesting because Indycars have never raced at Indy in the middle of what is usually a hot summer.