IndyCar has announced a change to how the start of qualifying will be organised, with immediate effect.
The first round of qualifying consists of the field being split into two groups which each have a 15 minute session on track to set a time, after which the top six cars in each group go through to Round 2.
Up until now, the make-up of the two groups has been decided by a blind draw, but this could lead to the two groups being very different in terms of speed and ability and has seen top drivers miss out on progressing to the next round in a strong group, while slow drivers get through in a weaker group.
Starting at Long Beach, IndyCar has decided that the composition of the two Round 1 groups will be determined the previous day's practice sessions. One group will consist of all the odd-numbered positions in the combined practice times and positions, while the other will consist of all those from the even numbered positions.
This change was made at the request of the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers, who were looking for a system that enhanced the competition," said Brian Barnhart, president of competition and operations for IndyCar. "It puts a premium on Friday practice sessions and helps even out the groups, which couldn't be achieved through a random draw."
The driver who tops the combined practice times gets to choose whether his "odd" group runs as Group 1 or Group 2. The decision could depend on track conditions - especially if there is rain affecting one of the time slots or if the track is particularly dirty and would benefit from "cleaning up" first, but generally Group 2 is thought to be disadvantaged by the fact that there is only a five minute turnaround between the end of its slot at the start of Round 2 for those who make it through.
Round 2 consists of 12 cars - the top six from Group 1 and Group 2 - on track for a ten minute session, which sets the starting positions from seventh through to 12th, while the top six progress through to the final Round 3 also known as the Firestone Fast Six shootout, which is another ten minute session that determines the starting positions of the top six for the race.
This weekend's road race sees the return to IndyCar duty of veteran Canadian driver Paul Tracy after he signed last week to appear in at least five races
with Jay Penske's newly re-formed Dragon Racing outfit.
Tracy was confident that the team's last-minute revival and lack of preparation wouldn't be a problem for them. "[We've] got a core group of guys that have been in the Penske organization a long time. They are guys that I have all worked with in the past ... I've worked with all of the guys on the team at one stage of my career. I've known some of the guys on the team for 20 years.
"The engineer on the team, Eric Zeto, has been my race engineer when I was with Forsythe, we won the Long Beach race a couple of times together. I think he understands exactly what I need and I understand exactly how he works," he continued. "So really it's just getting back on track and getting back in the groove of practice sessions and qualifying sessions."