Ferrari flexibility again, or can a rival power to victory?
The schizophrenic track is how the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) is affectionately known in some Formula One racing circles. Thats because it effectively has two parts with two separate characters that require contradictory capabilities from the cars and place unique demands on the teams' engineers.
The first creates the longest continuous full-throttle running in Formula One racing the 22s it takes to go from Turn 12 (Turn Two on the two and a half mile oval on which the famous Indy 500 is run in an anti-clockwise direction) all the way through banked Turn 13 (the ovals difficult Turn One) down past the pits to the road courses Turn One. The cars go through Turn 13 flat-out at 320 kph and exceed 330 on the straight, so this section demands low downforce and drag to boost speed to its absolute maximum in order to give the driver either the chance to pass another car into Turn One or sufficient velocity to avoid being overtaken. Second gear Turn One is the most popular overtaking place because the drivers are braking heavily going into it and there are a number of possible entry lines.
The second character is the infield, from Turn One to Turn 12, which includes Turn 8, the slowest part of the course taken at 60 kph in second gear as it is part of a difficult ess section. This whole part demands maximum downforce to generate traction and grip.
Of course, you cant have both so IMS is one of those tracks, not unlike Montreal, in which the art of good set-up lies in compromise. The two circuits thus require similar medium levels of downforce so the teams will run the same aero packages they did in Canada last week.
Like Canada, IMS also has a smooth surface so teams can generally run softer compound tyres, though the longitudinal grooves on the oval part of the circuit can have a negative effect on tyre wear.
The other good point is that brake wear is much less critical here than in Canada. There is a high brake energy demand in Turn One as drivers downshift from sixth to second and shed more than 250 kph in a matter of metres, but elsewhere there is plenty of time for the brakes to cool down.
None of the teams have had any time in between races to make significant modifications to their cars in the wake of Canada (Williams and Toyota excepted, given their brake duct problems there), and everyone did their pre-race testing for Indy either in Monza or Silverstone prior to Montreal. The odds naturally favour Ferrari, who have the most competitive overall package coupled to Michael Schumachers acknowledged brilliance and the teams startling tactical ability. However, BAR have high hopes of taking home two trophies from this race: the third place trophy that Jenson Button did not stick around long enough to pick up in the wake of the disqualifications in Canada, and another for a podium at Indy. The team wont have the ultra-spec engine that was originally slated for Canada but held over because of reliability concerns, mainly because of Takuma Satos problem there, but in any case the basic package should be extremely well suited to IMS as the current Honda V10 is thought to be one of the most powerful units. Remember that Button led a Grand Prix for the first time here, in September last year, and was on target for a podium finish before his engine broke.
Williams made some good set-up progress in Canada, the ultimate result notwithstanding. Sauber too are hopeful of scoring yet more points as their C23 should be well suited to the track. The team have built a new car up for Felipe Massa, around chassis 001, following his accident in Montreal. Meanwhile Renault could very well have won there as both Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso were also on the same two-stop strategy as Ferrari and the Spaniard was keeping up well with the leaders. He disagrees with those who think Renault might struggle on this power circuit.
"To be honest, we were quite surprised by our competitiveness in Canada, and that certainly makes us hopeful we can be strong in Indy. On paper, Indianapolis is not our best circuit, so we need to be cautious making predictions. However, the R23 was actually quite strong there last year, and as a team, we have been very strong in the last three or four races. So there is no reason not to be optimistic.
Renaults engineering guru Pat Symonds sounded a warning to rivals, too. "There is no reason to think the team will not be strong at Indianapolis. The circuit essentially demands good top speed down the straight, and then plenty of grip through the slow corners and under traction. In those respects, it is quite similar to Montreal, and we demonstrated there that we could run with competitive top speeds, while still performing well during the traction events exiting the slow corners. Equally, the cars operate well in slow corners with low downforce.
"Obviously, we were bitterly disappointed to have experienced our first double retirement of the year in Canada, as I felt we lost the opportunity for our best result of the year. Without his car failure and the delay at his first stop, Fernando could well have led the race from Michael to the end, while we can only assume Jarno would have performed better thanks to his higher grid position.
The race, which marks the half-way point in the season, starts at 1200 (noon) local time (1700 GMT) and will run over 73 laps of the 4.192 km circuit (306.016 km). At present the weather is sufficiently unsettled that it is highly likely it will have a significant influence at some stage, most likely during qualifying (see separate story).