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Thermal Friday Stories: Degradation, festivities and nothing to lose

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Alex Palou has dominated the opening day of testing at the Thermal Club ahead uof the $1 Million Challenge this weekend, leading both the morning and afternoon sessions for a resurgent Chip Ganassi Racing outfit. There were 1119 laps run by the 27-car field across five hours of running, with second-place Christian Lundgaard 0.3601 seconds behind Palou.

Here are some of the key stories to come from the day from the drivers’ perspectives…

Rossi sees “no negative” to the event

The $1 Million Challenge event is the NTT IndyCar Series’ first non-championship event since a trip to Australia for the Niko Indy 300 in Surfers’ Paradise in 2008. Devised as a made-for-television event - to be broadcast on network television in the United States - this entertainment-based weekend is seen as a good chance to draw more eyes to IndyCar.

“One hundred percent,” series veteran Alexander Rossi said when asked by DIVEBOMB whether this is a good way to grow the series. “I think we were very surprised and interested when NASCAR, a couple years ago, did the Coliseum thing here in LA - like a made-for-TV event.

“Immediately we’re like: ‘Man, we’ve got to keep up, do things like this.’ I think this is a very good response to that. It’s our first go at it, it’s obviously going to evolve as hopefully we get more opportunities to do these sorts of things.”

Without this event, IndyCar would have had a six-week hiatus between the season-opening race on the streets of St. Petersburg and the second championship round at Long Beach. The overwhelming attitude does appear to be that any event is better than no event.

“The other thing is we all are very vocal about not liking the gap in the calendar,” Rossi said. “This does fill that. In a lot of ways it’s a win-win. I don’t see that there’s any downside in terms of putting on a show for fans in a period of time when race cars wouldn’t otherwise be on the track. There’s really no negative.”

There are drawbacks such as the inability to house many fans, owing to the exclusivity of the club and the lack of feasibility to put into place typical grandstands. It is less accessible than regular IndyCar races.

But, serving its purpose as a television event, there is optimism from drivers that it could be a success and something IndyCar may want to revisit in future years. And, with a backdrop of mountains, palm trees and million-dollar mansions, Rossi can be forgiven for saying: “It’s hard to believe it’s a race track.”

Weighing up caution, banging and bumping

Lots has been made of how drivers may approach the weekend. With it not being a championship round, the pressure may be off and risk averse approaches could be dropped. But, at the same time, there remains the burden of not wanting to set teams back by damaging equipment and negating any prize that could be won.

“We can” bump and bang, Scott McLaughlin told the media. The Kiwi expects the non-points-paying nature of the event will mean, come Sunday, the racing will be a spectacle for fans. And he won’t be holding back. 

“We’ll put on a show,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s funny when you dangle a carrot in front of a bunch of race drivers with a bunch of egos. We want to win regardless of what event we’re in. Whether it’s for a million, four million, 50 cents… we’ll just race for that. I think it’s exciting to do it.

“It could be [racing against] Josef [Newgarden], Alex [Rossi], Rinus [VeeKay]. I don’t give a s**t.”

McLaughlin’s fellow drivers concur. 

“It’s the same thing every time we hit the track,” Rossi said. “You're trying to be the best and beat everyone else. That side of it I don’t think changes the mentality.”

Rinus VeeKay added: “There’s a lot to win, there’s nothing to lose. You don’t have to think championship here. There’s less long-term damage you can do in being aggressive here.”

Come the heat races, there is expected to be a fierce battle to finish sixth-place or higher to transfer to the main event. Reach the final and there will be the enticement of a $500,000 prize for the winner amid the largest ever non-Indianapolis 500 purse of over $1.7 million.

“I think risk-wise obviously you can take more risks on a weekend like this,” Kyle Kirkwood said. “I guess the mentality is still the same. A lot of people might think that, because it’s not a points race, people aren’t going to try as hard. That truly isn’t the case because all of us are out there to beat each other.”

The topic of risks and damage has not yet been a topic for Kirkwood, who acknowledges the “risk versus reward” factor, and his Andretti team. But he believes the team will “want us to go for it” - even if they will not be wanting to have to rebuild cars in the build-up to Long Beach.

“Yes and no,” Alex Palou said on whether he will change his approach. “It also depends on the situation. I think if I’m top three, it’s always going for a win. You give everything you got, risking everything you have. But if you’re 10th, maybe it’s not the day to try and shine and try to risk everything. I think it depends. A win is a win.

“It might not reflect anything on the championship points. But, in how everybody feels in the team and in the car, I think it will be the same. The money will help.”

A degradation-based race approach

This is the first event of this magnitude to be hosted by the exclusive Thermal Club facility, with no race events of this size hosted as a precedent. The track is traditionally only used by members - largely amateur drivers - and their vast array of cars. The full-field 2023 test and nine hours of testing this weekend will be the only indicators as to how a race could play out.

Throughout the opening day of the test, and following on from a theme that came from IndyCar’s maiden Thermal visit last year, tyre degradation was a prevalent theme. The main race, which is 20 laps in length split by a 10-minute half-time during which fuel is added but tyres cannot be changed, could be defined by this.

“It’s definitely a possibility,” Kirkwood said when asked whether managing this could be a secret to success. “We’re seeing three or four seconds of deg at the end of our runs. It could definitely be a factor at the end of the race after 20 laps. Adding the fuel in the middle of the race is going to make the car super heavy - you would never go half a stint on tyres and add fuel.”

Temperatures are expected to drop somewhat across the weekend. But, given the fall-off across the opening day of testing has been significantly earlier than the 20-lap mark, with drivers not even putting together 10-lap runs, degradation is almost certainly going to be a factor in the approach of the 12 drivers that make it to the main event.

“I would think if you’re starting 12th, you might as well circulate slowly for 10 laps, make sure you don’t get lapped, then just have much better tyres for the second chance,” Kirkwood said. “Cruise for 10 laps, try to get it all at the end when you’re a second or two seconds faster potentially.”

This point was raised by Rossi on his podcast, Off-Track, albeit he did not seem to think the approach would be much different to usual when speaking on Friday. At least he did not let on to anything more. Still, he expects that “the last 10 laps are going to be very chaotic” in the final race.

“There’s no fuel save in mind,” VeeKay said, raising another factor of the race. “It's a tough track. It’s low grip. I think there will be mistakes made. The push-to-pass will bring opportunities to people. With the tyre deg, there’s going to be better racing than expected.”

There have been some reservations over whether the track, which is a combination of two separate tracks at the facility, would be conducive to good racing. It combines low and high speed corners - some long radius and lots involving bumps and tricky kerbs - but is quite narrow at points. But factors such as degradation should help the racing product.

“I was actually glad that we had such a big tyre deg - I think everybody is,” Palou said. “Without pit stops, that will make the racing very interesting. We will have the 10 first laps that you cannot fall asleep, but you cannot go crazy either. It’s a long track. With the tire deg we have, 10 laps, it’s a lot on a used set of tires.”

The value of nine hours of testing

If teams fail to make the final event after the heat races on Sunday, it will not have been a wasted trip to the Californian desert. Nine hours of testing, which allows teams to prepare for the remainder of the pre-hybrid section of the season as well as the qualifying and race portion of the Thermal event, are valued greatly by the teams.

“You have to maximise this point of the season knowing that there is going to be a completely new system [the hybrid system] coming into the sport,” McLaughlin said. “You've got to be on top of things right now. We’re working on things to make our cars currently better. It’s going to be a massive shift.”

It is expected the hybrid unit will be introduced in Mid-Ohio having been delayed from the initial planned date of introduction at the start of the IndyCar season. But, as acknowledged by Rossi, “the majority of non-hybrid running is going to be on tracks like this” given the closing portion of the season is composed mostly of ovals - six of the final eight races.

“I think for us really tyre wear is an issue,” VeeKay said of his Ed Carpenter Racing team. “This is a great place to work on it. I feel it is a test day. We’re trying to find anything and bring things here that we hope will make everything better on similar tracks later this season.”

Another topic, mentioned by Kirkwood in relation to Andretti but applicable to others, is braking after the introduction of new brakes. Kirkwood’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, suffered a brake fire on Friday morning - similar to that suffered by Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard during the St. Pete weekend.

Will Power spoke of an issue with the quality control related to the brakes, which he has said are “a bit finicky”. Colton Herta feels as though “the brakes took a big step back” last season and the feeling is similar so far this year.

“That is actually a big topic right now with the new brakes,” Kirkwood said. “They’ve cooled a lot. Everyone is trying to figure out what temperature range they want to be running. That wasn’t a test item but it clearly got hot. At St. Pete, a lot of the cars were catching fire and they couldn’t put them out with the blowers.”

McLaughlin’s golf and festivities aplenty

“I won a trophy already this weekend,” McLaughlin said when debate ensued about trophies for the weekend. He was successful in the Spring Invitational golf event put together by engineer Ben Bretzman. Competing alongside a number of his crew, it was more evidence of McLaughlin being “one of the crew” at Team Penske.

“I guess it’s important to all drivers,” McLaughlin said when asked by DIVEBOMB about the value of being embedded within the team as a driver. “You don’t want to be the dude that just sort of turns up and you don’t know any of their names and stuff. You always try and do things behind the scenes. Our team is pretty close on the No.3 car. 

“Benny, my engineer, does a great job of that. We sometimes play golf together. Mostly it’s catching up with the wives, girlfriends, husbands before the start of the season or after a race win or after a good result. It’s important to keep that grounding. I’m very lucky I’ve got a great team and a great morale there. People that help that team scenario.”

Elsewhere, there was lots of talk of food across the lunch break. Palou entered the press conference after an “amazing” meal - “Caesar salad, a little bit of bread, chicken, a little bit of veggie and a couple of French fries” - provided by the luxurious facility. 

Other festivities included a game of pickleball at the track for VeeKay, as well as drumming at the pre-event party for Power. 

VeeKay emerging as ECR’s leader

VeeKay has headed into the Thermal weekend off the back of a 10th-place finish in St. Pete after qualifying seventh. And he is relishing his new role as a team leader at Ed Carpenter Racing, entering his fifth season alongside rookie and reigning Indy NXT champion Christian Rasmussen for the road and street course races, plus the Indianapolis 500, in 2024.

Despite Rasmussen being 23 years old - the same age as his more experienced teammate - VeeKay is very much in a position where he feels the onus is on him to lead the team forward when team owner Ed Carpenter is not lining up alongside him.

“Definitely, the dynamic has changed,” he told DIVEBOMB. “I’ve always had way older teammates. I’ve never had a teammate that’s actually my age. It’s nice for a change. Definitely I think having Ryan [Hunter-Reay] as a teammate last year kind of showed me how to take on that role as team leader. 

“To be honest, actually this is year five for me in IndyCar - it really does feel like year five. I feel like I’ve really taken this responsibility and experience and feel like I’m really able to help Christian, too. I feel like that’s a task that’s asked of me, to make Christian have the best possible season he can have this year.”

After a difficult morning session on the opening day of the Thermal open test saw VeeKay finish a still-respectable 14th-place, he rounded off the second session of the day in fourth.

After a fun Friday of drivers getting up to speed on the Thermal track, a busy Saturday sees the final four hours of the open test, followed by qualifying. The field was split into two groups by a draw on Thursday, which represents who drivers will compete against in qualifying and the heat race that their session sets the starting order for.

A three-Penske first group consists of 142 combined pole positions and 142 race victories, compared to only 21 poles and 31 wins in the second group. When asked by Rossi which group he was in, McLaughlin simply replied: “I think everyone is in group one. It’s stacked.”


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