Track Problems Plague IndyCar In Baltimore

Will Power was fastest in a 30-minute IZOD IndyCar Series practice in Baltimore, Md., Friday. (Al Steinberg Photo)
Will Power was fastest in a 30-minute IZOD IndyCar Series practice in Baltimore, Md., Friday. (Al Steinberg Photo)

BALTIMORE, Md. – When the IZOD IndyCar Series returned to the Baltimore Grand Prix for the second year they were hoping to “Fly Through the Streets of Baltimore.”

Boy, they weren’t kidding.

On the very first high-speed lap on Friday morning’s practices session all four wheels on Simon Pagenaud’s Dallara/Honda came off the ground when it hit the pavement on the long straightaway on the race course coming out of the 12th and final turn. Pagenaud did not lose control of his car but suffered a hard jolt after landing on the course.

Other IndyCar Series drivers said there was no way they could race with the pavement serving as a launching pad so IndyCar Series President of Competition Beaux Barfield shortened the practice session to review options available to solve the problem.

Last year, a three-curb Chicane was in that area because of a large bump where the tracks for the Light Rail system were paved over. This year, IndyCar and track promoter Michael Andretti had an ambitious plan to have a long straight from Turn 12 to Turn 1 to create a hard braking zone and improve passing around the 2.04-mile temporary street course. Some of the drivers and teams predicted on Thursday that it would not work because of the dip and bump on the course and those fears were realized on Friday.

A Drivers Meeting was held after the abbreviated practice to discuss possible solutions.

A grinding machine was brought out to smooth over the surface but Andretti realized it wouldn’t be enough. So after the Star Mazda and USF2000 completed practice sessions on the ground surface Barfield decided it wouldn’t be safe enough for the faster IndyCars so a temporary Chicane made of tires was created in order for IndyCar to have a 30-minute Friday afternoon practice session.

Curbs will be built overnight in night for a Saturday morning practice session and a Saturday afternoon Firestone “Fast Six” qualifications for the IZOD IndyCar Series.

“(The grinding) was a good effort,” Barfield said after practice. “They wanted to try it and I don’t blame them. From feedback I was getting from the teams with the grinding, I was very sure I was going to stick with my chicane program. The two together certainly look likes what we needed to get this race going. We lost some time today, but I think that was some good quality time at the end there. With the proper chicane that we will install tonight, that will make the track different enough that they’ll be able to go out and adapt to it pretty quickly and we’ll have a good productive session in the morning.

“I believe the problem with the track is the pavement before you get to the railroad tracks. A lot of the problem is the tracks are the high ground in that area, whereas the pavement in the Turn 7 area or at pit in the tracks are the low ground, so it’s easy to pave across them and achieve what we’re able to there. As quick and as easy as that is and it appears to be, it’s really impossible to do the same thing to do on the backstraight. It’s really an unfortunate challenge there for us.”

Construction crews went to work after the American Le Mans Series qualifications to build the curbing that will serve as a stronger barrier than the tires that were used on Friday. The curbing will create a “right-to-left-hand” Chicane.

“They come out of Turn 12 on the left,” Barfield explained. “They will naturally fade back to the right and then (the chicane) takes them from right to left and they just get straight and settled before they get to the tracks, which is how we intended.

“We will be out there late constructing the chicane tonight, but we have a good plan in place, much like we did when we brought the tires out. We will have to move some walls around to get some room to lay the asphalt in. The asphalt is on its way. It will be a slightly different chicane from last year because last year we had a three-curb chicane and this year it will be two and a layout identical to what the tires laid out just now. So we can go out and use the rubber laid down as a good guide for how we’re going to lay the curbs out.”

The qualifying groups for Saturday’s qualifications will be based on Saturday morning’s practice session. None of the times on Friday counted to separate the groups.

Barfield hasn’t decided on how he wants to address the start of Sunday’s Baltimore Grand Prix because the field will have to go through the Chicane before getting to the flagstand to start the race.

“I’m going to have to look at it,” he said. “Honestly from issues I had with ALMS last year, the start looked good when I had the drivers straddle the curbs. I think there’s a possibility to do that this year, but we had an issue with some of the cars in the back of the field that were on the right that were going too fast when they got to the tracks. So as much as it did look good, I don’t see be able to do that this year based on the speed that the cars will be going and the right-hand side is bumpier than the left.”

Because the race course is contested on the city streets of this East Coast port city INDYCAR’S options are limited in terms of repaving the area of concern. City officials need to have the streets back in service by Sunday night.

“There’s really no chance for paving over the tracks on the backstraight, so we’re really going to have to look at our options for the future,” Barfield said. “It would require what I think would be a pretty significant commitment from the City, and beyond what they already showed us, it would be a pretty tall order. They’ve been great with a lot of the paving they’ve done in other areas. It would probably include a significant repave job and what my expectations are for an event like this and it would an above and beyond what we’ve asked for. For what we created today with a little simpler chicane, I’d live with us being able to do this event like that in the future.”

Will Power of Team Penske can clinch his first series championship of any kind of Sunday’s Baltimore Grand Prix, which can be seen on the NBC Sports Network at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Power had a 36-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay entering the race.

“I understand that things can switch pretty quickly,” Power said. “Right now it is a great lead, but you have to focus on the job at-hand. It is going to be what it will be. So, we will just focus on what we can control and get the most out of the weekend. Just keep heading toward that goal. That is what we need to do”

Power is the defending pole and race winner of the Baltimore Grand Prix. He was the fastest driver in Friday’s practice session when he lapped the now 13-turn, 2.04-mile street course in 1:21.0185 (90.646 miles per hour) in a Dallara/Chevrolet.

“I think that was definitely the right thing to do,” Power said of installing the Chicane. “It completely fixed the problem we had over the train tracks. I think they will make a few more adjustments overnight, but, all-in-all the track is all good. They will put curbs up there instead of the tires. It definitely affects your rhythm through the five-six-seven (turns) complex. That used to be a very nice flowing part of the track. But I think they might actually take one of the curbs out, and that is going to make things easier. It is what it is. It is the same for everyone. It is another street course that we have to learn to be quick at.

“At the end, we left last year thinking that taking the chicane out would be a great idea to improve passing. That was the logic behind it. If we could have run over the train tracks, we would be doing it. But we can’t. That is the way we fixed it. I don’t know if it is going to improve racing or not. It will be what it will be, and I think it will still be a good race.”

Pagenaud was second at 1:21.488 (90.123 mph) in a Dallara/Honda followed by Target/Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon’s 1:21.721 (89.867 mph) in a Dallara/Honda.

Rubens Barrichello was fourth at 1:21.919 (89.649 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet followed by James Hinchcliffe’s 1:21.923 (89.644 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet.

Hunter-Reay was seventh at 1:22.0263 (89.532 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet behind Sebastien Bourdais’ time of 1:21.9288 (89.639 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet.

Tony Kanaan spoke on behalf of the drivers on the changes made to the track.

“After this morning, we all agreed that we couldn’t go over like that, the railroad tracks,” said Kanaan, who was 13th quick in a Dallara/Chevrolet. “We got together; those are the things we face sometimes. We all thought last year, it was unanimous through us drivers, that we could actually take the chicane out. Tony Cotman (NZR Consulting-track design consultant) had the perfect explanation. Those railroad tracks, they sit on the rubber; their construction, they sit on the rubber. It’s not the same from a year ago. We all thought we could avoid the chicane and have a better passing zone, and obviously we found out there was not. It was a great response between us drivers, IndyCar, Cotman and the city itself to be able to change it. We worked extremely hard, especially the drivers, with Tony Cotman, the past three months, to try to make changes to the track to make it better.

“I think one of the things we realized…we asked them to actually change turn six as well. We made the change, and we still don’t think it is right so we are going to try to work on that curb. As far as the chicane, I think it was unanimous through us that we didn’t want it. But right now the challenges we face on a temporary street course, I think it was the best solution for what we got. Hopefully we will put on a good show for the fans.

“I think it was unanimous among us that we don’t want three curbs. Two is definitely the way to go. The way the tires were this afternoon, if they make that when they put the curb in, I think that we did slow down enough. It is quicker than last year, for sure. I think that is a better solution; two curbs.”

So after getting off to a “Flying Start” on Friday the IZOD IndyCar Series has altered the track in an attempt to keep the racing on the streets instead of off the ground.