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Indy 500 Monday Practice Stories: Herta’s happiness and O’Ward’s “annoying issue”

Written by Archie O’Reilly

The penultimate practice session ahead of the 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500 has concluded, with two hours of clean but high intensity race running as the teams work tirelessly to refine their race cars ahead of the final two hours of pre-race Carb Day practice on Friday.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden topped the session from Andretti Global’s Colton Herta, Penske teammate Will Power and Juncos Hollinger Racing sophomore Agustin Canapino, whose teammate Romain Grosjean was eighth. Pato O’Ward was fifth, ahead of all-action Ed Carpenter Racing rookie Christian Rasmussen. 

The speed charts suggested some improvement for Chip Ganassi Racing in race trim as Scott Dixon sat seventh. But as some of the stories from the day suggest, speeds border on irrelevant compared to the teams’ desire to make up for lost track time amid last week’s inclement weather as they look to perfect their race set-ups…

Race running intensity ramps up

Monday’s session was certainly productive. There was a combined total of 2,655 laps run - the most from any test or practice session on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) oval in 2024, despite the session only lasting for two hours with a brief punctuation for track inspection. But while the session was short, the on-track running was frenetic.

For nearly the duration of the two-hour period, there was essentially a non-competitive, generally risk-averse reenactment of race stints as teams attempted to simulate how their cars performed in typical race settings. Many organised team-to-team who they would run with in advance as they tried to run with as many different drivers and teams as possible.

There was a range of passing on display as drivers worked different lines, including Rasmussen boldly holding on against Herta up high. This followed on from an aggressive moment early last week as Rasmussen held onto the high line and caused Herta to brandish some unfriendly gestures towards the 23-year-old. He could be fun to watch come the race.

Drivers were keen to drop back into the packs and tried to cycle forward across longer stints on full fuel to simulate any degradation that may occur, which Herta was seemingly most effective in doing. Some of the racing was relatively hard-fought even amid drivers trying to preserve their equipment, with several three-wide moments. 

For the rookie crop, including Kyle Larson as he continues to rapidly adapt to driving an Indy car in traffic and making his way through the field, Monday’s running offered yet more crucial experience of running in the pack along with a chance to tune their cars to their liking. Even for the veterans in the field, there is a need to get back in race rhythm.

Getting back into ‘race mode’

It is not easy for drivers to reacclimatise to the slower race configuration and running around other cars in large groups after three days of lone 100-horsepower boosted running. 

“It’s definitely a lot slower,” O’Ward said. “Qualifying is a different dimension in terms of just how much lighter the car is by yourself. But in race mode, you can scare yourself for sure. Today the track in [Turns] 3 and 4 and [Turns] 1 and 2 for me was a bit different than what I had felt in the past couple days of race running. 

“On race day maybe it’s the absolute opposite or maybe both ends of the track feel the same. That’s why you’ve got the tools inside of the car. But ultimately it’s just all about staying on top of it and then just having enough things that you can pepper in throughout the race in order to have it comfortable enough. 

“The worst thing that can happen is the front wing or rear wing or the bars that you’ve got, and the weight-jacker… if you can’t really alter the balance to a somewhat comfortable liking, then it really is a miserable three hours.”

As much as qualifying is adrenaline-filled and as fast as drivers will run year-long, some prefer race running and being around other cars. Herta is within that camp, admitting that qualifying is “exhilarating” but that it is “a lot more fun to pass guys and run around guys and play with the tow” during group running.

Herta rolls out “really good”

Arguably no driver looked better than Andretti’s Herta in Monday’s session full of race running. No matter how deep he was in the roughly half-field packs, he was able to scythe his way through as others struggled to pass. 

“I definitely felt very good,” he said. “I felt very confident in the car and what it was able to do, especially with the tailwind where you usually get big understeers. Out of Turn 2 today, the car felt solid, was right underneath me. So I was happy with that.”

Such was Herta’s level of comfort, he ended his race running after a productive 96 laps and practised several ‘ins and outs’ from the pit lane, which drivers can now enter from the front stretch unlike the opening week of practice. Some others, namely Alex Palou for Ganassi, were still scrambling for changes while Herta made “no massive changes” all session.

“The car was in a nice kind of window,” he said. “Tried out some small things, found some stuff that was a little bit better, some stuff that was worse and overall was just happy with it for most of the time out there.”

How could Herta’s race pan out?

Herta believes it will “100 percent” be a similar race to recent years, with the majority of passing coming inside the top five with more difficulty and reliance on mistakes deeper in the pack. But the driver of the No.26 Honda did manage to pass from deep in the field on Monday, which could be a good sign of his prospects come the 500 miles on Sunday.

A drop-off in tyre performance is usually one way that passes come about but the new construction in anticipation for the introduction of the new hybrid power unit has led to a more durable construction. Couple that with the pre-hybrid car being used this month having lighter components than the 2023 car and the fall-off is expected to be less.

“Left sides are a different construction and I believe the sidewalls are a little stiffer,” Herta said. “You would expect a little bit less deg from that. When I did the hybrid test here, the car actually felt very similar and the racing was very similar. I don’t think weight has too much of an effect on these cars at super high speeds…  The tyres are holding on really well for me.”

In terms of competition, Herta believes the three Penske cars - all starting on the front row - will be strong, especially having run around Newgarden. He also said teammate Kyle Kirkwood “looked good” on Monday while others “seemed to be struggling” and could cause some disparity within the field.

Herta also voiced his sympathy for 2022 winner, 2023 runner-up and new teammate Marcus Ericsson, who will start 32nd after escaping from Last Chance Qualifying. Ericsson had to change his chassis after a heavy practice crash on Thursday and has struggled for speed since.

“I think his first car had speed and, in the wind tunnel, it was similar to mine,” he said. “I think he probably would have been right around where I was. It’s definitely a difficult situation - it’s one I was in in ‘22 when I tubbed the car Friday on Carb Day and had to go into the race and could barely run 205 [miles per hour].”

O’Ward’s “helpless” feeling

Despite being fifth on the speed charts, O’Ward was not happy with how his Monday practice session panned out - evidence of the day’s classification not telling the whole story. He said it “definitely hasn’t been the best of days” as they likely continue to try and catch up on their programme amid the time lost to last week’s rain delays.

“We’ve had some annoying issue that we just can’t seem to perfect,” he said. “I just hope we can fix it. If not, we’re going to be in handicapped mode for the race. But in terms of balance, I think we’re pretty sporty if we fix that.”

O’Ward added that there are “too many variables” to explain exactly what the issue is that is holding his No.5 Chevy back. The team is making an effort “to at least minimise it” ahead of further, final laps on Carb Day.

“We’re slow,” he said. “We know what it is but it’s a lot easier said than done to fix it or not have the issue. It just sucks when you’re not fast enough around here. You feel helpless.”

O’Ward believes “all you can do is ignore it and try to make all other things work” while trying to avoid the unspecified issue from rearing its head on race day. He is not ruling out that, if not solved, the problem could hamper his race.

“It’s just part of what you have to battle with around this place,” he said. “There’s a fine line with everything. If you want more speed, you’re going to give up in other performance areas where you need them all in the race. It’s just part of it. I’m confident my guys are going to fix it and truly dig in to just see how we can not have that issue and/or get rid of it completely.”

O’Ward has theorised that there will be “more than I can count with my fingers” in terms of contenders for the win.

“Maybe it’s just because I felt a little slow. We speed up, we’ll be fine.”

Productive Blomqvist learning the limits

The Monday practice session was a whole lot cleaner than last year, when a check-up caught Katherine Legge out and caused her to run into the back of Stefan Wilson. The squareness of Wilson’s contact with the SAFER barrier led to a fractured vertebra and ruled him out of the race.

This year, Herta flirted with the wall but judged his line to perfection and Newgarden caught a significant moment after getting down low on a kerb. But that was as close to an on-track incident as there was, with the only slightly consequential moment of the day a minor pit lane spin from Meyer Shank Racing (MSR)’s Tom Blomqvist.

Unlike Legge hitting the wall after a pit lane spin and Rinus VeeKay semi-spinning into leader Alex Palou in the pits last year, Blomqvist did not have any contact with anything. It can probably be put down to a lesson of the limits.

It has been a quietly impressive week for Blomqvist, who qualified a comfortable 25th off his one run on Saturday. He has been among the most productive drivers throughout the Indy 500 campaign - the only driver to log half-race distance on any one day last week. He again completed half-race distance with 106 laps on Monday, with Rasmussen next with 100.

Blomqvist has been relishing his maiden oval experience after his switch from the sportscar world, learning from four-time Indy 500-winning teammate Helio Castroneves.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” he said after qualifying. “I’m grateful for this opportunity - it’s going to be on my CV forever. It’s been a really exciting experience. I’m actually starting to really enjoy it. Going around here at 230-plus is something else… It’s been very fun to be a part of so far.”

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