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

Spanish GP: Strategy Review

Hamilton cruised to victory at the Spanish GP on Sunday 20 seconds clear of his teammate in second place. The race was a fairly easy one for the championship leader, especially once Ferrari decided to bring Vettel in under safety car and put on fresh medium tires. From there on out it was a simple case of staying on the track that brought Hamilton his second win of the year. 
Vettel was the first of the leaders to pit on Lap 18, attempting to undercut Hamilton who had a 7.5 second lead on him at the time. With a pit-lane delta of about 21-23 seconds, Vettel came out 30 seconds behind Hamilton after his out lap. Over the next 5 laps, Hamilton continued to stretch his lead over Vettel, even though the former was on fresh tires. By the time Hamilton pit on Lap 25 he had close to a 33 second over Vettel and would end up coming out of the pits with fresh medium tires 12.5 seconds in front of Vettel. 
Hamilton’s tire management during the first stint while he was on the softs was spectacular as he was able to pull out a lead on Vettel even once he had pit. It allowed the Mercedes car to go seven additional laps past what Vettel did on softs comfortably. This made his second and final stint, 40 laps on the mediums, relatively easy for Hamilton. 
Besides the difference in pit-stop laps between the primary contenders, the first stint strategy was what we had expected for this race. The interesting strategy component of the race came on Lap 41 when a virtual safety car was deployed. While Hamilton, Bottas, and Verstappen all stayed out, Vettel decided to pit from second place while the virtual safety car was out. He put on fresh medium tires, but because of a very slow 5.6 second stop from his team, he came out behind both Bottas and Verstappen. Had he had a good stop, he would have come out about one second in front of Verstappen but still behind Bottas. 
For the rest of the race, Vettel struggled to make up any time on Verstappen while Hamilton continued to pull away from the field. Vettel finished just off of the podium in fourth. 
Now, let’s break down the decision to pit Vettel under the virtual safety car.
If Vettel didn’t pit under the virtual safety car, he would have had to stretch his first set of medium tires 48 laps, which is right at the edge of how long the data indicated the mediums could go. Both Bottas and Verstappen would have had slightly fresher tires (2 and 17 laps) and be about 5 and 12 seconds back, respectively. The fact that the two guys behind him had fresher tires could have partially played into the decision to pit as well, especially if Ferrari had any thought that the other teams would need to pit as well.
What’s interesting is that Bottas had tires with 15 more laps on them than Verstappen at the end of the race and was only losing around two tenths a lap in the closing part of the race. This leads us to believe that had Vettel stayed out, he would had a good shot at holding off Bottas and a near lock on third place even if Bottas got by him. 
But this assumes Vettel’s tire wear would be similar to that of Bottas’, which it wasn’t. After the race Vettel said, “we were going quicker through the tires today” than other teams, so it’s unlikely the one stop strategy would have worked for Ferrari. The two stop strategy employed for Vettel on Sunday was necessary to get him to the finish. If he had more speed on the medium tires, he might have been better able to track down Verstappen for a podium finish at the end. 

While initially a head-scratcher during the race, after breaking down Ferrari’s strategy, it appears they made the right call by bringing Vettel in. If he and the team knew the tires weren’t working well for them at Spain, it was preventative to bring him in and get fresh tires for the rest of the race, especially under the virtual safety car when his loss of track position would be minimized. Leaving him out on tires that weren’t aging well could have put him at risk for a puncture or very poor traction at the end of the race, causing him to slip even further down the grid. 

What is the Indy 500’s Rookie Orientation Program?

Every driver who competes in the Indy 500 for the first time has to complete the speedway’s Rookie Orientation Program before being allowed to test the rest of the month and eventually qualify. The program is meant to get new drivers up to speed at Indianapolis’ 2.5 mile oval and show they can run laps safely and consistently before they are sent out with other drivers.

The program has three phases.

First, the driver has to run 10 laps in a range of 205-210 mph, followed by 15 laps at the 210-215 mph range. The final phase is 15 laps at 215+ mph.

The Rookie Orientation Program for this year’s Indy 500 will take place May 15th from 1-3 p.m. for Claman De Melo who has not already completed it. Wickens, Leist, and Kaiser completed the program earlier in the month.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Owens/IndyCar

by Drew

Indy GP: Strategy Review

The winning pit-stop strategy for the Indy GP was most likely what the majority of teams were planning on before early incidents shook up the race on Saturday: a red-black-red-red three stop race that saw Will Power finish ahead of runner-up Scott Dixon by a little over two seconds.
An early incident between Charlie Kimball and Ed Jones as well as minor bumps between other drivers on the first lap of the race brought out a caution that affected the strategies of a third of the field. Eight drivers were forced to come in for premature pit-stops in the opening laps of the race, with many of them opting to stay on scuffed reds and get damage fixed only. Of the drivers that came in for early stops, the highest finishing was Simon Pagenaud who came through in eighth after starting one spot up from that. 
Power managed to stay out of trouble in the opening laps and execute his strategy almost perfectly, but not without a challenge from Robert Wickens first. Wickens, after switching onto fresh reds at the first pit-stop, overtook Power on the blacks for the eventual race lead on Lap 22. After the rest of the cars ahead cycled through the pits a few laps later, Wickens was in P1 on Lap 26. Power stayed close behind Wickens all throughout the second stint even though he was on the slower of the two tires, keeping Wickens within five seconds of him at all times as they neared the second stop.
On Lap 41 Wickens came into the pits to switch onto blacks while Power attempted to utilize the overcut and came in a lap later to switch onto reds. With the tire roles reversed, it took Power nine laps to break down the lead Wickens had built up and pass him for the race lead. Power held the lead from there on out, with a caution on Lap 58 bringing in essentially the entire field to switch onto fresh reds for the final stint.
With the fuel window for this race around 23-25 laps, the final 27 lap stint was a fuel saving one. This played well for veterans Power and Dixon who had no trouble making their fuel numbers, but IndyCar newcomer Wickens struggled greatly in the final stint. With no prior experience in fuel saving in an IndyCar, Wickens was overtaken by Dixon easily and then slipped back to Sebastian Bourdais but managed to defend his position for the final laps and finish on the podium. 
Power’s strategy was what was to be expected from the pole-sitter of this race. Starting on the fast tires, a switch to blacks, and then back on reds for the final two stints to finish fast. Wickens took an alternative approach by taking red tires at the first stop. This wasn’t a bad decision as he was able to overtake Power when he needed to and even build a gap on him. The problem came when he had to use blacks and Power could use the reds: he didn’t have the speed on blacks to keep Power from regaining the lead and it dropped him to second. Once the final fuel saving stint started it was all over for Wickens, even though both drivers had fresh reds to compete on. He didn’t have the experience Power did hitting the fuel numbers and there was no chance he was catching him.

Dixon started the day in eighteenth and finished in second thanks to an alternative strategy spearheaded by Mike Hull. He was one of the six drivers who started on the black tires and went on to take three sets of reds at the pit-stops. He pit early on Lap 13 to get off the primary tires as soon as possible while still keeping the race a three-stopper. From there on he settled into the race, slowly picking his way through the field as he completed twelve passes on the day. Because Dixon had good pace on the blacks and had actually gained five spots after the first lap thanks to incidents by other drivers, he was able to set himself up for a good run on the reds later on. 
He didn’t need to worry about switching onto slower blacks at one of his stops and could instead focus on picking through the field on quick reds and simply making up time. This strategy is one that required the experience of Dixon to pull off. He needed to be okay running somewhat alone when he went off cycle early and pacing himself to the times required to make the strategy work. When it got to the final stop and fuel saving time, he was already in P4 and just had to use his experience to pass Wickens and Bourdais while hitting fuel numbers. 
The three different strategies the top finishers utilized were all effective in getting them onto the podium. Wickens and Power’s strategies were essentially interchangeable and I feel that if they had run each other’s, the results would be the same. It came down to speed and Power had more of it, no matter the order the reds and blacks were used on the second and third stints. Dixon’s on the other hand was definitely a brilliant one for a veteran driver starting in the back. He worked his way through some slower cars on the blacks and got help from incidents as well, and then it was three sets of reds to move him the rest of the way up the field.

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Photo courtesy of Matt Fraver/IndyCar

by Drew

Are Veach’s Minimal Wins in Indy Lights a Cause for Concern?

Zach Veach sets up for Turn 12 during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Zach Veach will race in his first full season this year at Andretti Autosport after competing in just two races last season. His first IndyCar experience was the GP of Alabama where he was a replacement driver on short notice after Hildebrand got injured before the race. Veach also had a chance to run at the Indianapolis 500 for Andretti where he finished 26th after retiring because of a mechanical failure. Although his first two outings in the series weren’t what he would have hoped for, Veach showed promise in Alabama and it resulted in a full time ride for Andretti in 2018.

At the GP of Alabama, Veach finished where he started in 19th place. While this isn’t a good result, he did show those watching a few important things that might have helped him land this year’s ride. First, with no race experience before Alabama, he managed to stay on the lead lap which is an impressive feat on its own. The second and more important thing is that he showed he can learn the car and how to find speed quickly. His teammate Spencer Pigot was 1.5 seconds faster than him in the first practice of the weekend. By the time qualifying came around, Veach had gotten the gap to his teammate down to just 0.54 seconds. This is still a fairly large gap, yes, but compared to where he started it is a vast improvement.

This is just a one-off example of his ability to learn quickly, but it might have stuck out to some people at Andretti as a positive sign when evaluating Veach for a seat. Veach’s experience in Indy Lights is encouraging too, although it isn’t spectacular by any means.

In three seasons of Lights racing he had six wins and 18 podiums in 44 races (14% win percentage). His podium performances are impressive, but it is the lack of race wins that makes me concerned about his performance at the next level. Compared to some of the current IndyCar drivers who raced in the Lights series, Veach is lacking in race wins. Carlos Munoz won six of his 24 Lights races (25%), Josef Newgarden won five of his 14 (36%), and Spencer Pigot won six of his 16 (38%). Veach hasn’t been able to win many races throughout his three seasons — or do particularly well in the championship for that matter. His finishes of 7th, 3rd, and 4th are not indicative of someone who will be a top-tier IndyCar driver, especially since the drivers he came behind in the points — Karam, Chaves, Munoz — all have been mid to low-tier IndyCar drivers.

Indy Lights History

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  Season     Races     Wins     Podiums     Poles     Pts Pos     Avg St     Avg Fn  

Veach isn’t a bad pick for Andretti as I think he’ll be a top-15 average finisher and maybe even come away with a result or two in the top-10. I see him as a temporary replacement for Sato unless he starts developing quickly in the IndyCar series. He’s shown he can learn quickly, but to stay on a team like Andretti he will need to be a driver that can consistently challenge for a top-15 spot at least. His three year contract could give him just the time he needs to develop, but time will tell.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

by Drew