Power Has Been Incredible – When He’s Been on Track

Will Power is third place in the championship right now. In a typical year this wouldn’t be surprising, but considering that he has failed to finish three of the nine races so far this season, this is an amazing feat.

With 321 points, he sits just 13 points shy of second place Rossi and 46 back from the championship leader Dixon. So how’s he doing it?

First, let’s address the DNFs. In the three races Power didn’t complete, he finished 22nd, 21st, and 18th. Those results gave him a combined 32 points or 10 percent of his total points through nine races. This means he has averaged 48 points in the other six races! Even once you account for Indianapolis’ double points, that’s still an average of over 40 points per race – this is equivalent to a second place finish.

Power has been on an absolute tear in the races he has finished this year. Despite completing only 85.8% of the laps run, the least of any driver in the top ten, he is third in the championship. In the races he completes, he is averaging a finish of 3.8. In those same races, he has never finished outside of the top ten and has four podiums.

One way to gauge how efficient a driver is on track is by looking at their points/100 laps. The best drivers who have consistently strong results will usually have a high value for this stat. A driver who DNFs a lot but is very good when he’s on track will also have a high points/100 laps. That is the benefit of looking at efficiency in this way–it equalizes drivers who have completed many laps with those who have not. 

Power has the highest value for this stat out of the entire field:

Power’s points/100 laps value of 31.2 is a full point ahead of Dixon’s, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this means Power has been better than Dixon overall: Power would very much rather be in Dixon’s shoes right now with the championship lead. What it does mean however is that we would expect Power to have a stronger second half of the season (in terms of points scored) than the first half. He has been driving superbly when he’s had the chance to, and that shows in his per 100 lap efficiency.

Power has not had a knack for racking up DNFs throughout his career. In the last ten seasons, the most DNFs Power has had in a season is four in 2017. The odds are he won’t have as many DNFs in the remaining seven races as he had in the first nine, meaning he’ll have more time to be on track and generate high points-returning finishes.

Look for Power to make a second-half season push towards the top spot on the championship table with the way he has been driving.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Owens/IndyCar

by Drew

I Think I Can Go Another Lap: Tire Wear at the Indy 500

All of the top finishers at this year’s Indy 500 stopped five times for fuel and tires throughout the 200 lap race. Most drivers came in around Lap 30-34 for their initial stop since the first caution didn’t come out until Lap 48 when Sato ran into the back of a slow moving Davison. Since this first stint was run completely under green, I wanted to use it to evaluate the tires at the race.

I chose to use the top three finishers of the race–Power, Carpenter, and Dixon–for my analysis for two reasons. First, since getting the data into the format I needed took a bit of leg-work, it’s simpler to limit the number of drivers I use. And second, since they performed the best on Sunday, I thought it would be interesting to see how the tires worked for them especially.

Both Power and Dixon ran 32 lap stints while Carpenter ran one lap less before pitting for the first time. Here is a graph of all three of their lap times for every lap of their first stint, not including the in-lap.

From a first look at the graph, it appears tire wear wasn’t too bad for most of the stint. There were fluctuations from lap to lap as is to be expected as drivers deal with passing other cars or get into the draft, but overall it is a fairly straight line for the first 25 laps of the stint. After that there appears to be a significant dropoff over the course of the next few laps before drivers came in to pit.

Taking a deeper dive into the data yields the same conclusion. Below is a table of the average dropoff in average lap speed compared to the average speed of Lap 2. The second lap was chosen because it was the first full speed lap for the field.

By Lap 20, the tires were on average 2 mph slower than they were on Lap 2. I would personally consider this fairly good tire wear for the 2.5 mile oval, particularly because many people were unsure how this new aero kit would react around Indy both in terms of downforce and tire wear. While there were complaints from the drivers about downforce levels and passing, the field generally seemed pretty content with the tire wear.

After Lap 23 or so tire wear really started to kick in and by Lap 25 the tires were losing nearly 3 mph off of their peak performance. Two laps before Dixon and Power came in and one lap before Carpenter came in the tires were losing 5 mph. Dixon, historically good with tire and fuel use, had the smallest dropoff of this sample of drivers. This could also have been a product of track position too, though. The leaders were catching the tail end of the field at this time and had to deal with overtaking lap cars, so it’s likely some of the disparity in their lap speeds is due to this and not simply just tire management. That is why I chose to look at a group of drivers and not just one.

What we learn from looking at this data is that overall the tires wore pretty well at Indy. They had a minimal dropoff for the first 22 laps of the stint and then a few tenths of a mile an hour per lap after that. The two laps before the end of the stint saw a much larger dropoff than other laps and it signaled to the driver it was time to come in.

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Photo courtesy of Richard Dowdy/IndyCar

by Drew

How Many Cautions Will We See at the Indy 500 This Year?

Since 1996, there have been an average of 8.1 cautions per race at the Indianapolis 500. As far back as my data goes to 1979, there has never been an Indy 500 without a caution and I would bet there hasn’t been as long as the race has been around.

It comes with the speed, length, and number of cars on the track. With 33 drivers racing at over 220 mph for 500 miles, cautions are bound to happen. But how many?

Using data since 1996, I created what is known as a Poisson Distribution for the expected number of cautions for an Indy 500 race. This distribution gives the probability of a set number of cautions occurring during the race. Here’s what it tells us:

There is a 14% chance we will see eight cautions at this year’s race, the most of any single number of cautions. Seven cautions is the second most likely outcome followed by nine.

The distribution also shows there’s a 42% chance more than eight caution flags will wave and a 19.2% chance there will be more than ten.

For all of the green flag enthusiasts out there, I have bad news for you. With a percentage chance of just 0.031%, it’s very unlikely there will be an all green race this Sunday.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

by Drew

Quick Notes From Indy 500 Qualifying

Ed Carpenter put his car on pole yesterday after running a blistering 230.088 mph lap one. He was the only driver to break 230 and you could hear it in the crowd’s reaction as his speed was put up on the screens around the track. The roar that erupted from an insanely fast lap is what May is all about.

The track was quick for other drivers yesterday too. Seven of the nine drivers in the Fast Nine improved on their speeds from yesterday and on average they improved 0.39 mph. That is a big difference off of Saturday and it shows how the track just got quicker as the day went on along with some improvements to the cars themselves. Castroneves, the driver I thought had the best chance to win pole position, slipped down to eighth position on the grid.

After his run Castroneves said his car was the Penske car chosen to run with the least downforce, and it hurt him in qualifying as he was unable to drive it through the corners. All Penske drivers ran a slightly different setup in qualifying so as to not put all of their eggs in one basket, and as Castroneves described it, he drew the short end of the stick. Expect him to be fast next week as they iron out a race setup.

The confidence intervals I wrote about yesterday didn’t capture the speeds we saw all that well. This is because I didn’t account for the changing track conditions on Sunday and how the racetrack was quicker the second day. I should have added an adjustment after the 10-33 qualifying session for the 0.1-0.3 mph increase we were seeing for most drivers. If this had been done, eight of the nine drivers in the top qualifying session would have had their true speeds captured in the confidence interval as opposed to just two of nine. Carpenter’s especially large confidence interval which I discussed in the article linked above did point to his big potential upside, and it showed on Sunday as he had the fastest car.

On average, the confidence intervals were off by .24 mph. I’ll be sure to keep in mind this adjustment for track speed in the future so the intervals are more accurate! Single Seater is always looking to improve and this will be just one way we will do so.

Practice will resume today for the Indy 500 at 12:30. Happy race week!

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Photo courtesy of Mike Harding/IndyCar

by Drew

What We Can Learn Through Four Practices at Indy

Half of the practices drivers will get before the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 are now complete. With four practices down, we can start to get a good look at which drivers are looking fast this May as well as which manufacturer has the upper edge around the 2.5 mile oval. 
Marco Andretti has been the most consistently fast driver of the week, finishing in the top five in speed in all four of the practice sessions so far. He is the only driver to do this and also holds the fastest lap recorded so far with a 227.053 mph lap in the third practice session. This lap speed is 0.7 mph faster than the second fastest driver so far, Scott Dixon. 
Andretti’s Honda was the first of what would become two Honda drivers at the top of different practice sessions: A Chevy-powered driver finished in the top spot in the first and second practice sessions, and a Honda-powered driver did the same in the third and fourth sessions. This led me to wonder which manufacturer has had the upper hand so far at Indy. 
For the purposes of this article, I chose to look at top to bottom speed for each manufacturer, meaning I included every driver’s top speed so long as they met the minimum 215 mph lap speed in the given practice session. I could have chosen to look at just the top five or ten drivers for each manufacturer, but in order to gain a holistic view of the field at this year’s 500, I looked at all 35 drivers who will attempt to qualify for the race
In order to see which manufacturer has the upper hand, I found the average top speed for all drivers in all four of the practice sessions so far, separated by manufacturer. Chevy had a total average top speed of 223.323 mph for the four practice sessions and Honda had a total average top speed of 222.775 mph. This is a close gap between the manufacturers, but our analysis isn’t done yet. In order to test whether the gap between the manufacturers is significant, we can use what is called a Two-sample t-test to see what the probability is that the gap we see between Chevy and Honda is just due to random variation and chance. 
Here are the results from that analysis:
As we can see, there is just a 3.33% chance that we would see a gap at least that big between Chevy and Honda if the performance of the two manufacturers was actually equal. This means it’s very likely the gap between Chevy and Honda, taking into account all drivers, is real. Chevy has a slight advantage across the field through four practice sessions. More specifically, since the top speeds of sessions (which we used in our analysis) are almost always set using a tow (following another car in the draft), we can say that Chevy has an advantage when running in a pack over Honda. 
Friday’s practice at the speedway will be used to get teams ready for the qualifying sessions that are scheduled to take place this Saturday and Sunday. This will hopefully give us data on no-tow speeds in qualifying trim and give an idea of what we can expect for qualifying this weekend. For now we can comfortably say that Chevy has the speed over Honda when running with other cars, but that’s not to say that won’t change over the next week as teams perfect setups and get ready for the Indy 500. 

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Photo courtesy of Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

by Drew