Takuma Sato continued his domination of the speed chart this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, completing a sweep of all three practices by setting the pace once again in tricky conditions on Fast Friday for the 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
But on the eve of PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying, the oldest and youngest drivers in the field also are contenders Saturday to lead the group of 12 drivers advancing to the second and third rounds of qualifying Sunday, with a possible shot at the NTT P1 Award for pole.
Sato led with a lap of 232.789 mph in the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda during a four-lap qualifying simulation run in the last hour of the six-hour session, which took place in challenging conditions of air temperatures in the high 80s and steady winds of 20 mph, with gusts reaching 41 mph. It appeared Sato was headed to the fastest qualifying sim of the day, but he was forced to lift on his third lap. He still ended up fifth on the qualifying sim speed chart at 229.680.
“We divided the program so David had more downforce,” Sato said of the team’s plan for today. “It’s good to have at both ends, and we’ll just combine it tomorrow. I would say Lap 3 and Lap 4 are the key. It’s a great feeling, the entire team did a fantastic job to prepare for this.”
The speediest driver in a four-lap qualifying sim was 2013 “500” winner Tony Kanaan, at 47 the oldest driver in the field. Kanaan averaged 230.517 in the No. 1 The American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda in the final hour of practice, toppling Sato’s Dale Coyne Racing teammate, rookie David Malukas, from the top of qualifying sim chart.
Malukas, 20, the youngest driver in the field, ended up second on the qualifying sim chart at 230.287 in the No. 18 HMD Honda. Malukas could become the first “500” rookie to win the pole for the Indianapolis 500 since Teo Fabi in 1983.
Speeds climbed Friday due to additional boost provided to the Chevrolet and Honda engines that power the field, with approximately 90 more horsepower. But all 33 drivers chose quality over quantity in the gusty, shifting winds and searing track temperatures, with just 473 total laps turned.
2016 “500” winner Alexander Rossi was second fastest overall at 231.883 in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda. Pato O’Ward was third at 231.798 in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet and fourth on the qualifying sim list with a four-lap average of 230.111.
O’Ward will be at the head of the line at 11 a.m. (ET) Saturday when the first round of qualifications starts, as Arrow McLaren SP pulled the No. 1 coin in the qualifying draw Friday evening. Positions 13-33 will be set Saturday, with the top 12 advancing to two rounds of qualifying Sunday to set the first four rows and determine the NTT P1 Award winner.
“I think tomorrow is going to be quite different with less wind,” O’Ward said. “I think we were one of the first cars to complete four laps and we have seen where it goes to. It’s a bit terrifying. The conditions are just very unpredictable. That first run, it was decently hairy!”
Marcus Ericsson was fourth overall Friday at 231.782 in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, with 2008 “500” winner and six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon rounding out the top five at 231.530 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Indy 500 rookie Jimmie Johnson became the first driver to make wall contact this week, grazing his No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda against the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2 at 1:25 p.m. But the team repaired the car, and Johnson rallied later in the day to produce a qualifying sim with a four-lap average speed of 229.094, good for sixth on that chart.
“I’ve hit plenty of things during my career in racing,” Johnson said. “Luckily it wasn’t a full yard sale; it was just crossing the line a little bit. I was able to download with my teammates and get a better feel for positions with the tools inside the car. I was too cautious with my settings and had a lot of understeer in the car, and I just didn’t get on top of it quick enough.”
The important thing to remember for tomorrow is that positions 13-33 will be set in the event that everyone is able to make an attempt. Those 21 drivers will know where they are starting in the race, and they will not be on the track at all on Sunday.
Ed Carpenter, who has started on pole three times here, is not thrilled with the new procedure. “I do love qualifying here, but I don’t know that I love doing two runs within 30 minutes. It’s kind of nice to do one and then recharge the batteries a little bit because it is stressful and draining, even though it’s only four laps. But it’s the same for everyone. It will be interesting for sure.”
cars will be split into two groups for morning practice, which now begins at 8:30 tomorrow. Each group will get 30 minutes of practice time before it is time to qualify for next Sunday’s race. If all 33 cars are not able to make a qualifying attempt tomorrow due to the rain, it will all start over again on Sunday.