IndyCar journeys in to the unknown this weekend with the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana. Aero testing at the NOLA circuit in March gave us a taste of what to expect but there are plenty of interesting points to consider.
New circuit, new challenges
From day 1 during testing drivers were reporting high levels of grip, even on cold tires. For a new circuit that was particularly ‘green’ for testing, high levels of grip were not initially expected. NOLA is a fast circuit with some slower, technical sections. Confidence-building grip for the drivers will encourage them to push the envelope, which can only be good for track-side and armchair spectators alike.
Unsurprisingly we should expect the teams that switched on their new aero out of the box in Florida to run well again in Louisiana. Penske in particular were quick in testing and dominant on the South Florida streets a fortnight ago – with little to suggest that will not be the case on this weekend.
It may be a quick circuit with long straights but that simple combination does not necessarily lead to guaranteed overtaking. Two long straights on the NOLA circuit end with wide, virtually ninety-degree turns. At face value that will encourage drivers to make a pass. The corners preceding those straights however are fairly technical which may make it difficult for the chasing car to stay close enough for a draft on the straight. During testing, there was little running of multiple cars nose-to-tail so the impact of the aero kits will not be fully realized until practice starts.
Trickier than anticipated overtaking would certainly make restarts – as they were in St Petersburg – the main opportunity to gain places. Tactical use of the push to pass to defend on those long straights will also come in to it’s own this weekend.
Penske vs. the rest (again)
Penske will roll out of the trailer the team to beat but expect Ganassi to show better than they did in Florida. Scott Dixon typically excels at these types of flowing road courses that need a mixture of bravery in the quick sections and finesse in the tricky parts. Similarly so Ryan Hunter-Reay but with only 2 weeks elapsing since round 1 of the championship, that is not enough time for Andretti Autosport to have made significant in-roads to the advantage held by the Chevrolet teams (and primarily Penske).
Simon Pagenaud never quite managed to get on terms with his new team-mates in Florida. A frustrating weekend running in their shadow will likely fire up the Frenchman to knuckle down and focus on working with his engineering team. Naturally quicker on street circuits, Pagenaud is no slouch on road courses with a few top 5s on the similar Barber Motorsports circuit under his belt. Round 2 of the season is too early to expect him to be getting on terms with Power, Castroneves and Montoya.
Take 2 for Simona
I had been singing the praises of Simona de Silvestro prior to St Pete, delighted she had an opportunity with Andretti Autosports. Despite several silly moves and some rookie mistakes, the Swiss has another shot at securing a permanent return to the series.
Simona’s drive in round 1 was definitely not her best, looking like a bad combination of race rustiness and an overwhelming desire to impress. With a race under her belt and the nerves under some degree of control, Simona should be able to run strongly at NOLA. Compared to St Petersburg, her year out of racing should not be so much of an issue this weekend as most of the field will be similarly starting from scratch.
Michael Andretti has become a marketing whizz when it comes to getting sponsors for his team and promoting races. But there will be a limit to how much he can do for de Silvestro without tangible results. A good showing this weekend plus Indy in May could cement a full-time run in 2016. (Glancing briefly in to the distance, the prospect of Simona in a good car at Indy with a team that knows how to win the 500 is a really exciting one).
Less bodywork (hopefully)
After the first, debris strewn race of the year IndyCar quickly encouraged/cajoled/pushed Honda and Chevrolet to strengthen the many winglets that littered the south Florida streets. The hope being to reduce the risk to spectators after the freak incident in St Petersburg, and to deal with the number of full-course cautions needed to retrieve broken bodywork.
Taking the spectator incident aside, the debris ‘intervals’ did help the racing in some respects. Without the bunching up of the field and the restarts the Grand Prix of St Petersburg could have been a less entertaining affair.
From a series development perspective, an exciting race is what IndyCar will be hoping for on Sunday afternoon. A positive start to IndyCar’s adventure in Louisiana will be important so let’s hope someone has read the Penske script and stands ready to tear it up.