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Published on Sat, Jun 27, 2015
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy, PhD
Photographs by Gabriela Moya
Juan Montoya went out first in the Friday afternoon qualifying session, which allowed each car to post two laps and took the total time to determine starting position for Saturday’s Verizon IndyCar Series MAV 500 race in Fontana. He was fast at 217 mph on his first lap and in an interview afterwards said that he had no way to predict whether his time would stand up. He said that he had thought last year that he was going to end up 15th, but that his pole position had lasted until the last guy went out and knocked him off the top spot. He posted a two-lap average speed of 217.250.
Second out came Graham Rahal, who was slow, and third, Simon Pagenaud, who bettered Montoya by a mile per hour and knocked him off the pole. As the late afternoon wore on (qualifying began at 4:45 local time and was scheduled to last until 6pm; the last car was done at 5:45), the speeds were up and down, with driver will and engineer skill, rather than track conditions, the difference.
Perhaps notable is that Pippa Mann started slow and never got better. Her warm-up lap was quite pokey, at around 202 mph (top cars were 212 mph-plus). She then posted two laps in the 210 mph range, which was three miles an hour slower than the slowest qualifiers to that point (eight cars). By the end of the session, she was dead last and two mph slower than the next car.
Drivers complained about the same thing they always do here—grooves in the track, though many like the aged surface. Earlier in the day, they had run essentially single-file on the first laps of morning practice, going to two-wide, then three-wide as the session went along. Confidence gained, it appeared, allowed for more risky and close driving.
Most drivers took a similar line around the 2.5-mile D-shaped oval, running through the bumps in turn one, heading to the wall for two and down the back straight, then almost hugging the wall into turn three. Going back toward the starter’s stand through turn four, most drivers took a low line, just skirting the painted line marking the left edge of the bottom groove.
Will Power was quick, but he got up almost into the wall as he exited turn four with a cloud of dust in his wake. He was a little slower on his second lap, which meant that he was provisionally third with more than 15 cars still to post a time. He would eventually end eighth.
Other notables included Tony Kanaan, who went out 11th and found himself sitting in fourth after his second lap dropped into the mid-216 mph range after he posted a first lap of 217.508. His ultimate placement was seventh.
Castroneves was second on the chart with more than half the field to take their laps. He had two incredibly consistent laps, differing only by 5/1000ths of a mile per hour. Most other drivers were in the range of a half-mph difference between laps, with the second being slower. That was not always the case, of course. For instance, Hunter-Reay picked up about 5/100ths of an mph. Anyway, the happiest Brazilian in the world (if that’s not a slight to all other Brazilians than Castroneves) stayed in the second position.
Another myth-buster was Takuma Sato. While most drivers warmed up slowly, he busted out a 215 mph lap, and he got faster as he did his first lap, threatening to be in the top three. But he slowed on lap 2, into the 216 range, and he was provisionally seventh as he headed back toward the pits. He would end up ninth.
In the end, the pole was Pagenaud’s, and he averaged just under 219 mph.
The battle between Honda, a perpetual also-ran this year, and Chevrolet was taken by Chevy, who had the top two cars. Honda’s best driver was Marco Andretti, a surprise run to land third. He qualified near the end of the order, and when he went out, Chevrolet had the first seven positions. He finds himself with no manufacturer teammate anywhere close. The second-best Honda is Sato in ninth and then Carlos Munoz, who is in 11th.
One car which did not qualify on time was that of James Jakes, who had blown up earlier in the day. The irony there—the car carried the race sponsor’s logo—MAV TV.
One driver to watch is Ed Carpenter, who runs only ovals but has won at Auto Club Speedway before, and who is lurking fourth in the qualifying order. He’s not just fast, but more important, smart. He’ll hang out all day, lead a while, then be right there at the end, it would be safe to guess.
“It’s a long race; there’s a lot you can work on in the race car,” Tristan Vautier commented after his run, and indeed, the Saturday spectacle will be all about adjustments made in the pits, though one thing that the engineers have dealt with over the past few years, radical changes, in temperature, won’t be a factor this time given the start time.
The race Saturday goes off just before 2pm. The weather is supposed to be a couple of degrees cooler than Friday, but when you’re north of 90 degrees, does one or two matter? The late afternoon weather for quals started at 96 degrees and was hovering at that same temperature by the end of the session. Saturday is supposed to be 93. Bring your water.
Read Brian Kennedy’s Speeding on Route 66 to the Verizon IndyCar Series in Fontana