Indianapolis 500 qualifying was a humbling experience for Andretti Autosport in 2011.
The team owned by Indy car racing legend Michael Andretti struggled for speed on the IMS oval. Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick barely made the show, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway flat out failed to qualify.
What a difference a year makes. Armed with the IZOD IndyCar Series’ new Dallara DW12 chassis and turbocharged Chevrolet V-6 power, Andretti Autosport claimed four of the fastest seven speeds on Fast Friday, led by Marco Andretti’s 227.540 mph scorcher.
Team Penske ran second and third with Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, while fifth place for Target Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon at 226.224 mph represented the best effort from a Honda-powered car.
But the big story was the turnaround of the Andretti squad, which landed Hunter-Reay fourth, James Hinchcliffe sixth, Ana Beatriz seventh, and Sebastian Saavedra 19th.
“What a difference a year makes,” Andretti commented after collecting a $10,000 check for fastest time of the day. “Hopefully tomorrow if we’re knocking on the door for a pole it will be pretty ironic because last year we struggled to get into the show. The credit goes to the guys for working so hard, and my engineer Allen McDonald has a lot of faith in me and vice-versa.
“Obviously the five of us [drivers] work together as well, but most of the credit is down to the guys,” he added. “We learned attention to detail last just trying to get into the show. But now that we have pace, all those little things are putting us in position to potentially run for the pole.”
Some observers scoffed when the Andretti team often ran in tandem this week to simulate race conditions, believing that the draft effect from running around other cars masked their single car qualifying pace.
But running with the faster speeds in the draft may have prepared AA for today, when INDYCAR allowed engine manufacturers to run an additional 10 kPa of turbo boost. The modification, worth an estimated 40-50 horsepower, produced an increase in speed Friday of 4 mph over earlier practice days.
“As a driver you take to it [the extra power] well,” Andretti said. “You always want more boost and more power all the time. My car seemed to react to it really well and it would be nice to keep it for the race.”
Briscoe, who ran 226.835 mph in his IZOD-sponsored DW-Chevy, was also delighted to run his fastest laps of the month on Friday.
“I’m glad we’re back consistently in the 220s consistently and I’d really like to race with this boost level and qualify with our road course boost (155 kPa),” Briscoe said.
The Indianapolis qualifying boost level of 140 kPa is the same the cars will race with at short ovals like Milwaukee and Iowa. The cars will utilize 130 kPa during the Indianapolis 500 and for races at Texas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in California.
“You can feel the extra power,” Briscoe noted. “Not on track so much. You’re just going faster at terminal velocity. But leaving pit lane there’s definitely a bit more punch.”
There a re two more practice sessions on Saturday morning and the normally favored Penske and Ganassi teams may still make gains prior to qualifying. But on the evidence of what we saw Fast Friday, the Andretti Autosport cars are the ones to beat.
“Today was a big day for us,” concluded Marco Andretti. “I though we were at a bit of a deficit to our teammates as we started the month, but we kept rubbing on it and I think the extra boost really woke up my car in particular.
“I was working really hard on the consistency over four laps today because I think that’s going to make the difference tomorrow,” he added. “I’m really proud of Chevy and it would be a real statement if we put 10 Chevys in the top ten tomorrow.”