Two practice sessions took place at COTA today ahead of IndyCar’s first race at the circuit this Sunday. Practice one was relatively slow on track with all drivers doing ten or fewer laps, but the second session of the day saw more people come out and run quality laps.
In 2018, only three races were won by drivers starting outside of the top ten. Qualifying has always been recognized as a pivotal part of the race weekend as it is what sets drivers up for a good result on Sunday.
Using data from 2008-2018 which includes 187 races, I took a look at three interesting questions related to starting position and how races play out.
The third and final full length practice session has finished up at St. Pete and now teams will head out and qualify this afternoon. A few red flags came out this morning that took away some practice time, but every driver still got some solid time on the track on the black tires.
Both of Friday’s practice sessions for the season opener at St. Petersburg have finished up, which means we can take a closer look at the sector heatmaps from each of these sessions.
As a reminder the heatmaps show the percent above or below the field average a driver’s sector time is. Purple is above average (good) and red is below average.
Andretti said after this week’s test at Indianapolis that Chevy was sandbagging — intentionally running slower than they truly could in an attempt to make the two manufacturers look even. The test took place on a cold and windy day, slowing down both the Honda and Chevy cars equally — so we can’t strictly compare speeds from last year to this year.
But we can compare how the leaderboard stacked up with Chevy and Honda at this test against the opening practice of the Indy 500 last year. Honda took the top two places at the open test compared to their high of fourth at the first practice last season.
At this week’s test the gap between the third place Chevy of Pagenaud and the first place Honda of Andretti was over 2 mph. The gap between first and 13th place at last year’s opening practice was the same. And I don’t think the windy and cold conditions causes more disparity among the cars (I could be wrong). Last year’s Indy 500 winner, Montoya, ran a 219.102 mph lap, 4 mph off of Andretti’s pace.
Even if the teams and manufacturers were trying out different things, a gap of 4 mph is huge. 85 percent of drivers who put in a competitive time at last year’s practice were within 4 mph of the leader.
The results from the Phoenix race don’t show that Honda’s new aerokit was more competitive on the ovals, either. So I don’t think we can chalk up Honda’s strong performance to a better car. Chevy looks to have taken the pedal slightly off of the metal at this week’s test. Another alternative — that Chevy’s new aerokit pieces just aren’t performing very well — is hard to believe given the success of Chevy so far.
Hunter-Reay added his comments to this situation, saying that Andretti put up such a good time because he was in a “big tow” and that he was in qualifying setup on his fast lap. This could serve to reinforce the argument that Chevy was sandbagging, too. The Chevy teams chose not to run with qualifying boost or get in a big tow to hide their true speed.