This weekend the Verizon IndyCar Series travels 700 miles northwest from the familiar city streets of St. Petersburg, Florida to the broad coastal plains of southern Louisiana for the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.
The excitement from two weekends ago at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petesburg will continue this weekend, as the series takes to the flat 2.74 mile, 13-turn road course at NOLA Motorsports Park in a race that will feature the highest straightaway speeds of any road configuration this season. While the inaugural event is a race into uncharted territory for IndyCar, the track is relatively familiar to most drivers as a result of preseason testing earlier this year.
The 40-50 foot wide road course offers more breathing room and passing opportunities for the series’ 24 drivers than the city/street circuit of St. Petersburg. The Alan Wilson-designed track (of Barber Motorsports Park fame) includes elements shared with the updated Indianapolis GP circuit as well as the Cleveland GP airport circuit during the CART era. It is very fast, with drivers reporting an unusually high amount of mechanical grip. NOLA recently modified the track configuration to straighten the back S-section while simultaneously enhancing safety features by expanding runoff areas and adding new gravel traps.
Preseason questions about the new aero kits’ performance characteristics were only partially answered by the drop of the checkered flag at St. Pete. The season-opener lived up to its reputation as a “street fight at 155 mph” with a cascade of contact and "carbon fiber confetti" scattered all over the track. The St. Petersburg race proved to be as hard on equipment as it was on team pocketbooks, with numerous teams replacing front wing assemblies that failed (some spectacularly) after various degrees of contact between cars. The Honda aero kits bore the bulk damage but it is still too early to tell if the failures were caused more by the manufacturers’ design choices or simply race circumstances. The race featured 22 laps of caution due to five full course yellows and subjected the new Honda and Chevrolet aero kits to their first real durability tests in race conditions. Results were mixed - and now so are the fans' opinions on the new aero packages.
This weekend’s race at NOLA is the next opportunity for teams and fans alike to understand the aero kits’ performance (and durability) characteristics, while further illustrating the inherent advantages and disadvantages of both the Honda and Chevrolet design choices. There is pressure on Honda to rebound from a St. Pete race in which six Chevrolets finished ahead of the first Honda to cross the stripe.
This inaugural NOLA race is shaping up to be a living laboratory for each team’s continued development of the new cars’ expanded downforce and aero options. Expect to see a wider variety of aero configurations between the teams (and manufacturers) as they adjust to the faster lines and higher grip of this Louisiana road course. The novelty of both a new track and new aero packages (for 2015) should make the Grand Prix of Louisiana a colorful, dynamic race with a hint of Mardi Gras thrown in for good measure.
Here are a few more specific stories entering the second race of the season.
Karam, de Silvestro Returning
Both are now confirmed for the NOLA race, solidifying the car count at 24 – identical to St. Pete. Both drivers had a challenging race on the streets of St. Petersburg and are looking for a strong showing this weekend. de Silvestro was announced as the driver of a fifth Andretti Autosport car at the Indianapolis 500 but has much more recently been confirmed for this weekend's race.
Turbulence At High Speeds
High straightaway speeds will finally reveal the degree of turbulence created by the new aero kits. Turbulence could make drafting, approaching and passing cars more challenging for drivers.
A Step Forward For Honda, A Step Back For Chevrolet
Earlier this week Honda received permission from IndyCar to strengthen their aero kits to enhance their durability. Look for some noticeable changes to the Honda kit this weekend in regards to how it reacts when if/when contact is made. The step backward for Chevrolet comes in the form of a major points deduction in the manufacturers' championship. Chevy proactively replaced valve springs on 11 of their 12 engines earlier this week out of concern for a potential manufacturing defect. Team Chevy incurred a significant penalty from IndyCar as a result and are now at a remarkable -90 points in the manufacturers' championship; Honda leads the standings between themselves and Chevrolet heading into the weekend in Louisiana.
Wet Weather A Possibility
A greater-than 50% chance of rain is the forecast for race day on Sunday.. Firestone rain tires will be the order of the day if precipitation is more than a passing sprinkle. Look for Sato, Dixon, and Montoya to notoriously perform well in wet conditions.
Coverage of the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana will be found at this Racing section throughout the race weekend.
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