IRL: Practice begins for the Indy 500

By Andy Darley

CalendarFriday, May 8th, 2009

 
 

With the Month of May well under way, rookies and veterans alike are dodging the weather to grab as much practice time as possible for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500.

For Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon, it’s a return to the arena where both have previously tasted victory.

By contrast, for rookie Mike Conway the Brickyard represents only his second-ever oval race, while Alex Lloyd will make his first IndyCar start since last year’s contest.

Justin Wilson will be hoping to lift perpetual underdogs Dale Coyne Racing to the sort of result he achieved at the season opener in St Petersburg – but fellow Yorkshireman Darren Manning has been unable to extend his St Pete and Long Beach drives and will be a spectator.

Meanwhile, the up-and-coming drivers of the Indy Lights series, such as Pippa Mann, Martin Plowman and Ali Jackson, are preparing for their own race, the Firestone Freedom 100, while watching and learning from the senior series.

Below is some of the action from the first three days – the rookie orientation programme and veteran’s refresher on Tuesday, the mostly rained-off Wednesday, and the first full day of practice on Thursday.

Practice resumes today with ‘Fast Friday’ – the last chance to practice flat-out before pole qualifying tomorrow, when the top 11 places on the 33-car grid will be filled.

Dario Franchitti, returning to the race after a year away in NASCAR, was fifth-fastest for his new team, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He said: “It was a long day, especially since we started early this morning. I think everyone expected it to rain, and the weather just improved as the day went on.

“The Target car definitely has the speed. We just need to make it a little more consistent. It’s good to be back at Indianapolis. I was worried that I wouldn’t be up to speed, but my second lap was above 220 (mph), so I was pretty happy.”

Dan Wheldon, who last year drove the car that Franchitti now has, will this year run with former IRL co-champion Scott Sharp as a one-off team-mate at his new team Panther Racing.

He was a surprising sixth-fastest and said: “It was a reasonable day for the National Guard Panther Racing car. We had a little bit of mid exit understeer that we will work on dialing it out but the pace of the car is pretty good – there is some more work to do but it was a productive day.

“It’s nice to have Scott Sharp on the team, he knows what it takes to be fast and that’s a good addition. We were consistent on our feedbacks, so that’s kind of nice too.”

The Isle of Man’s Alex Lloyd will compete in his only IRL race of the season in a car operated by his current team, Ganassi, and the team with which he won the 2007 Indy Lights title, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and is hoping for success from the reunion with his old race engineer Tim Neff.

Not having competed in an Indycar since the last Indy 500, he was entitled to take part in the veteran’s refresher session that ran in tandem with the rookie orientation.

Steering and clutch problems restricted him to just 10 laps: “Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to report about with our first day on the track. We had a couple of issues to iron out with the car like with the clutch and such. We’ll get those things taken care of and look to put in a load of laps on Wednesday.”

Wednesday was rained off, but he took part in Thursday’s session and ran 99 laps, including his first flat out: “It was nice to finally get a full day of track time to get myself back up to speed since it’s been about 12 months since I’ve been in this type of car. I think it was a good day, really.

“We started off with things very conservative in terms of downforce and gradually peeled it off, and we still had a fair bit of downforce on there at the end. The speeds that we’re running with the downforce we have in it is very encouraging. We still need to work on a small imbalance in the car, but once we work that out and peel away more downforce, we should be right there in terms of speed.

“I think we’re all pretty happy with the speed of the car so far. We’ll make some slight adjustments, take off some more downforce, and try to go quicker.”

Lloyd ended up 20th-fastest of the 31 cars that took to the track, a place ahead of Justin Wilson in the sole Dale Coyne Racing entry.

Meanwhile Mike Conway, as a newcomer to the IRL with no previous experience of the Brickyard, had to prove himself in Tuesday’s rookie orientation programme by showing he could run safely at the speeds required to compete at Indy. He breezed through the session with no problems, despite the intimidating nature of the circuit.

He said: “The first run was a bit daunting. It’s a big place here and a lot of high speed. Once I did the first run, I came back to the garages and sat down and thought about it.

“I felt a lot more comfortable and relaxed in the second run, which is the way that you have to be in these cars, just relaxed and feel what’s going on. Overall, I’m really happy with the runs we had – we learned a lot with the car and made some good setup changes.”

Once Wednesday’s rain and Thursday morning’s fog were gone, he put in more than 120 laps to learn the circuit, setting the 25th-best time: “Today was okay, similar to the first. We did quite a few laps today – we are just building it bit by bit, making changes on the car and making sure we are learning all of the time.

“It was just a matter of getting used to the car and running in traffic. I didn’t get loads of that, but I got an idea of towing people and how far you can be to receive the tow. Overall we are good. We just continue to learn. All four cars were learning from each other today, so we can go through that data tonight and put it all together.”

Fastest runner on the first full day of practice was Marco Andretti, while former stuntman Stanton Barrett brought up the rear, a full 7.5mph slower.

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