Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday At The Mile

After last week's slightly disappointing race at Texas, the IndyCar series headed to the Milwaukee Mile Friday, and after practice and qualifying it seems like things are getting back to normal.

Normal, as in, crazy and unpredictable.

Yeah, I know Andretti Autosport dominated qualifying by taking four of the first five spots, and Honda was again left in the dust as Josef Newgarden's eight-place starting spot is the best of any Honda team, but the top 20 cars were separated by roughly 1.3 seconds over two laps. Still, I think tomorrow's race will still be a battle because if you look at the field as a whole, there is still a lot of parity and some of the drivers who had less-than-stellar qualifying efforts have a history of going fast here.

Friday Andretti Autosport definitely had the field covered, as Marco Andretti took the pole and James Hinchcliffe shook off a brush with the wall in the morning practice to take the outside of the front row. Ryan Hunter-Reay goes off third, Will Power fourth and EJ Viso takes the inside of row three to cap AA's dominance.

While speeds topped out in the 167-168 mph range in practice, it really cooled down by the time qualifying started at 4:15, and while there was a bit more wind it was still ideal conditions to going fast.

Hinch was the first driver to crack 170 mph in his qualifying run and stood atop the pylon for quite some time before Marco came along and delivered his pole-winning speed of 170.515. In all the top 11 qualifiers went faster than Dario Franchitti's pole speed of a year ago.

All told those 11 drivers represent seven different teams (hence the parity). A couple of other highlights include Sebastien Saavedra qualifying a career-best P6, while Tristan Vautier will go off in P10 after winning the Indy Lights race here a year ago.

A few drivers will have some work to do Saturday, as Takuma Sato, Alex Tagliani, Franchitti and points leader Helio Castroneves will go off P15 through P18, respectively. Drivers talked about track position being so important, so it will be interesting to see this group do work.

This year is my second trip to the Mile, and the more time I spend here the more I am fascinated with the track. Historically, of course, the track has hosted racing for over 110 years (in fact it opened six years before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway), meaning that any open wheel driver who has ever raced in this country has more than likely turned laps here.

I also like it because it takes a lot of technical skill to get around. In a Q&A session before qualifying, Viso said the radius and lack of banking to the turns means half of the track drives like a road course, and the other half (the straights) are like an oval. When you look at the list of drivers who have won here over the years it reads like a who's who of drivers who have a high level of technical skill.

That's why I'm not counting out a driver like a Franchitti or Castroneves working their way through the field to the front. It's one thing to post two fast laps, it's another to manage a car on this circuit through an entire stint. Indy and Texas both had green flag runs of over 130 laps, and while that would be tough to do here with the tight spaces the drivers are working in, they might stretch out a couple of runs, making the driver (and setups) even more important.

Patience comes in here as well. This isn't like Indy where you can jump in a draft and out-run a car down the straight before making a pass, instead it might take one lap to set up the car in front for a pass, and another one to actually complete it. When all of the cars were on the track for practice, I saw a good bit of passing, but it takes a little longer to get it done.

Predictions: So many choices! You know what? I'm taking the easy pick (at least to me) and going with Hunter-Reay to win for the second year in a row and the third time in his career. Since his win here a year ago he has gone P1 (Iowa), P4 (Fontana), P3 (Indy) and P2 (Texas) on the ovals. He's hooked up.

As for the rest of the podium, I think Hinch, Marco and Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan (who starts seventh) as possibilities, and as I mentioned earlier, don't be surprised to see a guy like Helio in the mix at the end. This is the type of race Roger Penske likes, I bet they will do something like go off-cycle on pit stops for track position and do something creative to get him moved up.

So that gives Helio darkhorse status, and I'll throw Scott Dixon in that category too, because I think the Hondas will run better in the race. He's due a little luck as he was lost during the 500 had had that unfortunate gearbox issue last week at Texas.

Don't forget, this race is 250 laps, which makes it 25 miles longer than last year. Hopefully that takes the whole fuel-mileage thing out of the equation. Oh who am I kidding...but I hope it's not a big factor.

Now all we have to do is hope the weather cooperates! Like last year, there is a chance of rain in the forecast and with a 3:40 p.m. start local time there isn't a lot of wiggle room in terms of windows. Crossing fingers they get this one in as it should be a good show.

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