Think qualifying for the Indy 500 is easy? Think again…
Indy is out on its own. Those four solo qualifying laps for the 500 are far more intense than any other race, but if you make pole you have a whole week to enjoy the prestige before the event. And of course that cheque for $100,000. I never made pole but four times I qualified third, which puts you on the outside and I think that gives you a better run into turn 1.
Waiting in the line-up for your run there will be five cars going through technical inspection, then you come into Gasoline Alley and line up. So you’re now strapped in the car, and all this stuff is going through your head.
For someone watching, or even a rookie driver, you think it should be fairly simple – two warm-up laps, four qualifying laps, four left-hand corners that are essentially the same – how difficult can it be?
The first thing to understand is this is the narrowest of tightropes. Anything is going to affect what you’re about to do – the temperature, wind direction, even a gust of wind has big consequences. One gust can spoil not just a lap but your whole week! It’s so critical, you’re on such a knife-edge. At that point, weather permitting, you’ve done six days in that car so your nerves are already a little frayed. Probably you’ve had a few close calls; it’s rare you’re sitting there completely confident even if you have a good car. You’re aware if the car isn’t quite right or if you’re going to have some issues in these four laps. But you’ve got to stay flat out; as soon as you lift your momentum is all gone so you have to
figure out how you’re going to do that, which angle of approach you want for each corner.
The pressure of those qualifying laps is immense, but if you make it into the top nine you only have to do it once more. If you’re outside that you’ll have to go through it another four or five times. It wears away at you. In all my years I only ever felt I was on top of it once, in 2007; that car was so good I didn’t even use all the road. Then someone beat my time!
Qualifying set-up has no relation to the race – you have far less downforce for your solo runs. You also have one day at higher qualifying boost and that makes a difference of as much as 5 or 7mph round the lap. (No-one talks about 40-second laps, it’s all about miles an hour.) You’ve had 5 or 10 simulated runs already so you have half an idea how things are – but from Friday to Saturday the temperature changes, or the wind, and it makes big differences to the car – I visualise the track as altering shape according to the wind – so the crew are tweaking things, even the ratios right up to lining up. I aim to run the whole lap in one gear – quick as the change is you still lose speed, but if the simulation shows it, the guys will tell me if a shift is quicker. And we’re talking just 50 or 70rpm difference.
The engineers have been building that car for six months and every trick they know is on there. Indy will be its first race, though you may use it afterwards at other speedways. But this is the quickest you’ll ever run. What I like is it’s all in driver’s hands – the engineers have given you absolutely the best car they can, then it’s over to you. You’ve got to have that faith in your team when you turn into turn 1. And I always felt we were in with a shout.
I’d be strapped into the car 20 minutes before, checking I’m comfortable. There’s a lot going on but I shut off; all I would see is just the car, the wheel, the readouts. I didn’t even look at other people’s speeds. I would run through the attempt in my mind, try to play the whole run in my head beforehand to plan my attack.
The biggest issue on warm-up laps is trying to build up momentum without killing the tyres because they will go away in those four laps. On your first warm-up, past the yard of bricks, you lift early to settle the car, not to put too much pressure on the tyres. Turn 2 is where you start to build momentum, you’re up to 230-something, even 240 by the end of the straight and you’re flat out through turn 3.
Probably you’ll adjust the weight-jacker, which compresses one
of the rear springs to push weight across the car; there’s a button on
the wheel for that.
One more lap, then out of turn 4 you’ll hear on the radio “okay, green flag”, and you’re into your four flying laps. Your strategist counts down the laps, but that’s the only time they will speak in these sessions; they know what the driver’s going through.
Turn 1 looks identical to 3 but it’s not; there’s something about the architecture of the banking that makes the car want to go into oversteer. To make matters worse the wind generally comes from the north, pushing the car into the corner, and you’ve got the lowest tyre pressures still, but you’ve got to keep your foot down. So this is probably the highest risk of the whole run. In fact you might even be backing off a little bit, using a bit of opposite lock in that first stage of the corner.
There’s a painted white line about a foot from the kerb; you’re not going to touch that on lap one, let alone go below it. As you clear the corner the wind is hitting the left side, causing a bit of understeer.
Entering 2 there seems less banking – it’s just an optical illusion. Then, as Jackie would say, you give the car its head; you’re unwinding lock as quick as you can.
Now you’re facing a headwind which is killing your straightline speed; you’re not accelerating the way you’d like, but as you approach turn 3 that wind become your friend because it gives you extra downforce and slows the car down, and here you value any downforce you can get.
As you turn into 3 there are three bumps at the apex, the only bumps at Indy. You feel the car touch the ground but only lightly. For some reason the car wants to go up the banking here.
Turn 4 is fairly straightforward on entry and apex but as you exit you feel the wind push the car toward the outside wall.
And that’s your first lap! What you’ve then got is the feeling tyre degradation; you have so little downforce on that car that you’re reliant on the tyres; you’re thinking how am I going to keep it flat next time? You’re taking deep breaths as you start to feed the car
in because the rear’s going to be less stable, so you can’t make the adjustments you’d like because then the car will understeer toward the wall. So mid-corner you have a to add a little lock – which slows you down and hurts the tyre. It’s Catch 22.
By the end of that lap you’ve an idea what’s going on so you start adjusting the controls – your weight-jacker, anti-roll bars, sometimes even in the ‘short chute’ between 1/2 and 3/4. Which means taking your hand off the wheel at a 230-some average…
From then on you’re heading down a slope, fighting the degradation, the wind, you’re looking at your speed bleed away because you’re trying to be more aggressive. There’s times after one of those laps you come down the front straight and there’s two laps to go and you think, how am I going to make those laps? You’re willing this car on, because you have to get this big number; you don’t want it to drop off because it’s the average that counts, not the fastest lap.
By lap four the back slides on the way in, the front slides on way out; five degrees of lock has become 10. You’re running out of road and that concrete wall is just waiting for you. You might even brush it once or twice. You’re almost in survival mode, keeping it all together for the final lap. Then you think, thank god that’s over!
But that’s just the mental run-through: you’ve got to the top of the line, a guy signals to start the engine, another waves you onto the track. Now you have to do it for real.