Development comes quickly
Adrian Fernandez and an entourage from Fernandez Racing slipped out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area during Wednesday's "Happy Hour."
Fernandez' rookie teammate Kosuke Matsuura had never seen cars circulating at 220 mph around the famous oval, so the Mexican owner/driver commandeered a golf cart and he and his group headed to the north end of the track to a spectator viewing area inside Turn 3.
That's where they found a familiar reporter, out enjoying a sunny spring afternoon at the Speedway, who wanted to know Fernandez' opinion of who is winning Indy's 3-liter horsepower battle.
"We'll see on Saturday," replied Fernandez, whose consistently fast practice speeds have been one of opening week's biggest surprises. "Honda is looking strong right now, but I'm sure the other manufacturers are going to respond. We won't know for sure until Pole Day."
At that point, one of the famous IMS "Yellow Shirts" (security) broke up the conversation because he didn't like where Fernandez had parked the golf cart. "That's OK," Fernandez said, shruggin. "We should go down to the exit of Turn 2 anyway. It's more exciting to watch there." And with that, they left.
An hour later, Tony Kanaan delivered the same message when he appeared in the media room after turning the fastest lap of the month at 222.668 mph. "It's Wednesday so it doesn't matter who is fastest now," noted the Brazilian. "Obviously on Friday everyone is going to show up with more and I'm sure all three engine manufacturers have more to come. The real war is Saturday."
Given that the IRL IndyCar Series' 3.0-liter engines have only been on track for about five weeks, developments are coming on an almost daily basis from Toyota, Honda and Chevrolet. And so far, it seems Honda has the upper hand. Aside from Kanaan's lap (the only 222 lap of the week), Honda drivers filled six of the top seven spots on Wednesday and seven of the top 10 on Thursday, when Helio Castroneves' 221.156-mph lap paced the action.
But until Saturday, when cars run four qualifying laps on their own, we won't get a clear picture of who is winning the power struggle. Toyota engineers reckon that following within 10 seconds of another driver on the track creates a noticeable draft and Kanaan summed up his 222.6 lap on Wednesday in two words: "Big tow." Most observers believe the 222.1 mph lap Fernandez ran on Tuesday was the week's fastest solo effort.
"Most people won't put qualifying engines into a car until this afternoon or tomorrow so it's really difficult to tell," said Joe Negri, project manager for the Chevrolet IRL engine program. "I think we're fifth quick on laps without a tow and we're within three-quarters of a mph of the best Honda lap without a tow.
"We've made significant progress since the test in early April and we seem to be on par with everybody else," Negri added. "I'll be very surprised if we don't see a Chevrolet on the front row."
Toyota Racing Development's IRL Program Manager John Faivre is also confident about his powerplant's chances on pole day -- and more importantly, race day. "Obviously, everyone will bring out their best available engines for qualifying on Saturday, but I think you'll continue to see new development throughout the month," Faivre said. "What might be the best on Saturday may not be the best later in the month."
Because the move from 3.5-liter to 3.0-liter engines was made on safety grounds, the IRL received tremendous cooperation from its engine manufacturers. The change was made easier in that most major components carried over to the new short-stroke powerplants. But in normal circumstances, a new engine is track tested for several months before running its first race.
"I don't know that we've ever had this rapid a rate of in-season development," Faivre said. "Normally, development of this nature would take place in the offseason, but everyone has had to take a different course with the mid-season engine change. You may see more development this month than in the rest of the year combined."
New engine components are arriving daily at the Speedway from all over the world, all in a quest for more horsepower -- and perhaps more importantly, more torque.
"One thing evident with the 3-liter engines is that as we have reduced the displacement we have reduced the torque and the powerband is extremely critical," Negri said. "The fastest engines around this racetrack may not ultimately make the most power. With a rev limit and a short stroke, it's difficult to generate torque and that's what everybody seems to be working on right now.
"We're doing a lot of simulation work to determine the optimum torque curve for this racetrack. Generally if you opt for a little less horsepower and more torque it's more drivable and guys can accelerate from behind cars better. We have to learn a little bit about this formula."
Despite the lack of miles on the new engines, there have been no public failures throughout the first five days of practice. Of course, nobody is attempting to run 500 miles during a single afternoon yet either.
"New engines for everybody may result in more engine failures than we've had in the past due to the limited development time," Faivre said. "Last year, these engines were almost bullet-proof and our Toyota Indy V8 suffered only one engine failure in more than 20,000 miles of testing and preparation leading up to the Indianapolis 500. At this point this year, that's still a question mark."
Scott Sharp suffered the biggest accident of the week with less than 10 minutes of track time remaining on Thursday. Sharp lost control of his Delphi Dallara/Toyota unusually early in Turn 1 and the SAFER barrier minimized what would have been a major impact for the American. Sharp stepped out of the car uninjured, but his primary car will not be ready for action this weekend&Greg Ray issued a statement Thursday explaining why he and Access Motorsports have not run any laps this week. Not a surprise -- the team lacks sponsorship. Speculation has run rampant that Access is unable to pay its Honda engine bill. "We ended the 2003 season and began 2004 without the financial resources and stability of primary sponsorship support," Ray said. "Now we have reached the all-important month of May -- the Indianapolis 500 -- and we are still without primary sponsorship. Focusing on the longterm health of this program and the lack of track time is absolutely affecting our preparation for this year's Indy 500. As much as we hate that, we are making decisions today that we believe will allow us to navigate toward a successful longterm future." Ray gave no indication when or if he will be on track soon.
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.