MAVTV 500 2014
Fontana on a Friday
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Published on Sat, Aug 30, 2014
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
Two things were on everyone’s mind Friday afternoon at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana: the grip of the track, which was nil on the hot asphalt with the sun high and the air temps running around 98 degrees, and the dirt which flies around, making it difficult to see and demanding that the drivers wear a large number of visor tear-offs to cope come racetime Saturday night. Some were more willing than others to talk about that, because to some, it just wasn’t a story. More on that in a moment.
Graham Rahal was the most outspoken about the timing of qualifying. He said that he felt his lap was solid, the first one, and then the second he wanted “a little more pace.” He had told his guys that he wanted to be trimmed out to go high on the track, unlike what many of his competitors were doing. He was happy with the result.
But and tomorrow for the race [7:20pm], so we’re hopeful that we’ll be alright then.” He said he was good in the test Wednesday night, and that set off a bit of a rant.
“I don’t even know why we practice at 10am here, to be honest. It makes no sense. It’s a waste of equipment and tires, because as you guys know, the temperature makes such a big difference. We don’t race anytime close to that, so why we qualify now, too, doesn’t make any sense either.” He further cited the problems cars can have with heat and picking up dirt (which leads to overheating).
Ed Carpenter more or less agreed with him, commenting, “This is nothing like we had the other night [Wednesday] when we were race running, and nothing like we’ll have tonight when we’re race running. It’s a bit of a crapshoot. We thought we’d have a chance at the pole. We took a shot at it, what we thought it was going to need, and just overstepped it a little bit. Just a little bit of an adjustment and we would have been right there. . . . But the great thing about this track is that you can move forward. We’ll just have to pass more cars earlier than what I was hoping to.”
But then he got to the good stuff. “I’m kind of tired of guys complaining about the track, to be honest.” And with that, off he went.
James Hinchcliffe was more mild in his thoughts. “We’ve had some of the worst luck of anybody in the series [this year], but at the same time, we’ve had a lot of pace,” he said. “We ran well here last year. It’s a long race. We might well end up in victory circle, but [if we don’t], we’re not on suicide watch just yet.” He will be starting 11th.
He was actually the one who started the tear-off discussion, at least with the media, commenting that he’s going to find some thinner ones so he can use more than last year, when he used was seven. He said that even then, he was looking out the bottom of his visor for one entire stint, because he had no more tear-offs to use. He remarked, “It’s not the normal kind of debris that you see on a racetrack” which is on the Fontana surface. It’s impossible to clear. “You blow it up in the air, and it just comes right back down,” he finished.
He said that the track supposedly had been groomed, especially in turn one, but that he feels no difference. “It’s the same as it’s been in the last few years. We have to manage it over 500 miles.” He further commented that guys who have gone out and looked at the track see no difference in the surface from prior times they’ve been here.
On the debris on track, Ryan Hunter-Reay was in agreement with Hinchcliffe. “I just wish there was some way to do something about the debris,” he said. “The extraction of the gravel. It’s not sand; it’s not dust; literally, it’s gravel. There are marks all over my hands,” he commented, showing his paws, which seemed to be kind of reddened as if pebbles had been hitting them. He said that he’d be more focused on his tear-off strategy than fuel or tires. He may have been speaking hyperbolically on this point, but of that, I’m not certain.
When LA Car asked him whether there have been improvements to the track surface, he said, “I don’t feel any changes,” but added the obligatory, “It’s a great race track.” But he also said, “It’s still as rough as it was.” When I asked him whether he had to pretty much stick to one line in the corners, he said, “Pretty much, especially later on tires. New on tires, you can change lanes a bit, but as you get further into the tire run, it’s a bit of a trap trying to change lanes, because all you need is just a little bit of a hook up a grab at the front, and it will send the rear [around].”
For all the cars, race setup will be entirely different with the race starting past 7pm, after it’s already getting dark and, one presumes and the drivers hope, cool in Fontana. Simon Pagenaud said, “It’s going to be a lot cooler in the race, so the race car is going to be very different. I worked with my engineer hard on the race car. We have a good race car.”
When LA Car asked him whether the uncertainties of a 500-mile race play into his hands, third as he is in the championship and with an outside shot at winning it, he said, “It doesn’t make me shake. Maybe it makes them shake,” referring to the two men in front of him. “I can only focus on myself and do my job, try to go out and win this race. Whatever they do, it will play in my favor or not.” He said that he had no strategy mapped out as of yet. But he did say that, “We need to score points, so we need to go to the front as quickly as possible.” When I asked if we’d see a miracle, he said, “There’s always a chance. You have to believe in it.”
To sum up the two themes of heat leading to false conditions compared to race time and debris leading to lower visibility, Tony Kanaan said, “We’re coming here in the middle of the summer; I mean the end of summer. It’s extremely hot. And our cars don’t like hot conditions. It’s slippery because of that.” But he said, “It’s just another racetrack, guys. If you’re complaining about tear-offs, put some more.” The race begins after the sun has gone behind the grandstand. Drivers will have had a chance to prep for it late on Friday, with a practice session. Originally scheduled for 6:15pm, that was moved back an hour to give them a real sense of what the feel of a cooler surface will do for setups. And everyone was taking the chance, late in the afternoon, to work on their cars, not the least, the Penske teams of Power and Castroneves, which both had gaggles of mechanics crawling around their machines when I last looked in on them after 6pm. For more stories on the MAVTV 500 by Brian Kennedy: NEARLY TIME TO RACE – MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships MAVTV 500 2014 – Power Pounds for Points [nggallery id=fontanafriday2014]