Honorary starter Amos Brown (a popular local Indianapolis radio presenter) waved the green flag at noon on Thursday, and it was a sight many had started to believe they might never live long enough to see again at the 2011 Indianapolis 500 after a depressing week of weather. But finally, the grateful teams and drivers were able to get back to work at long last.
Unfortunately, the proceedings were under caution just 25 minutes into the session, after a major crash for Simona de Silvestro
. The suspension of her #78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy HVM car appeared to break going into turn 3, sending her into the wall. The car ended up sideways, and the aerodynamic elements then conspired to lift the car airborne on two separate occasions.
The second time was at the entry of turn 4, which resulted in the car getting flipped upside down by contact with the SAFER barrier and the catch fence. The car ground to a halt like that, leaving a trail of burning gas as the car started to catch fire.
Simona was able to extricate herself with assistance and walked away under her own power, but she had suffered second degree burns on the back of her right hand and superficial burns on the other which required hospital treatment. Her injuries will be reviewed in the morning by IndyCar doctors to see whether she is able to resume practice, or whether she will be sidelined - possibly for the whole of the qualifying weekend.
The team subsequently confirmed that the #78 was damaged beyond repair, so they will also have to prepare a new car for her to climb into assuming she's medically cleared. "We can build a good car, but it probably won't be as good as the original car because that was built specifically for [Indianapolis]," said HVM owner Keith Wiggins. "There are a lot of specialities about building a car for here ... So the question is will this car be as quick as the other one? That's the challenge."
Practice resumed before 1pm, and before the day was out there was a familiar name at the top of the time sheets: Penske's Will Power, the same man who has been on pole at each of the four IndyCar races we've seen this year. "We're happy with the race car and we want to be on top on Saturday," said Power, matter-of-factly.
The Australian is typically seen as more of a road course specialist and less comfortable on ovals, but his speed on the biggest Speedway of them all has belied that simplistic view: he looked very strong out there, as did both his Penske team mates Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves.
However, Power was quick to caution that "I don't think the speeds are very representative of where anyone is at. You go out and happen to get a really good tow, and you get a big number. That's what happened at the end."
"We ran a lot of laps and all of them were really about race setup," said Helio Castoneves. "My teammates, Will and Ryan, did some qualifying runs so we know what we need to do there, but we really just focused on getting our car right for the race."
Neither Briscoe nor Castroneves could dislodge Sam Schmidt Motorsports' Alex Tagliani from second place in the timesheets, however. Tagliani had raised eyebrows by topping the times on Monday - the only prior day of clear running that the drivers have had since Opening Day on Saturday. At the time, Tagliani's fast time was rather dismissed, being set during cold and windy conditions unrepresentative of the weather expected for qualifying and the race itself; however, he repeated the feat in the warmer conditions on Thrusday and demonstrated that his pace is absolutely not a fluke or one-off.
"We did well today. We learned a lot. We had good track position, and we weren't in a lot of traffic," said Tagliani. "It shows that the car is quick and capable of doing it. I think we still have more to come. We just need to make sure that when it comes time to do it, we have the right balance ... We should be proud that guys like Roger and Chip are looking at us, going, 'Why are those guys so quick?' That's kind of our mindset right now!"
However, Tagliani aside, Penske's main opposition for the Indy 500 (and for the IndyCar title overall) is Ganassi, and they had a more muted day with Scott Dixon in eighth, 0.2313s off Power's time; and Dario Franchitti a disappointing 16th and 0.3809s off Power.
"It was a good, long day. Running lots of laps and in race setup was what is was all about," said Dixon. "It was nice to have the sun out after we lost a few days!"
"We focused on race setup because we weren't sure how much more time we'd get doing that," explained Franchitti of his own performance. "We're just working through the program right now, but we've got more work to do. I'm OK with where we're at right now. The last run there we found something. Looking forward to tomorrow."
Andretti Autosports continue to be the more worrying of the big name teams, with Danica Patrick their highest-placed driver in 10th.
Notably, Danica seemed to be in a reflective - even nostalgic - frame of mind when talking about the Indy 500 today, wistfully remarking at one point that "It seems like it was not that long ago that it was my first time here [in 2005] ... It was a great day, a life-changing day." She narrowly lost the race to Dan Wheldon that year, but it was Danica who was made a national star by that year's events. Her nostalgia sparked a fresh run of rumours in the media that she doesn't expect to return for another Indy 500 in 2012 - and that she may be on the verge of announcing a full-time switch to NASCAR.
For the time being, however, Patrick was just staying focussed on the immediate task in front of her. "I really am approaching this like any other year," she said. "Actually, I feel like I get more nervous every year. I'm more nervous coming into it this year than last year. Maybe it's because you're getting older and on some level you think you have less of them to do, I don't know. I also think after this many years, being here, it starts to really sink in what this event is all about."
On the basis of the times shown today, anyone not already running at 224mph or above is in trouble - and that's bad news for Davey Hamilton, Raphael Matos, James Jakes and Sebastian Saavedra, and less surprisingly for the Dragon rookie duo of Ho-Pin Tung and Scott Speed who are suffering from lack of on-track time so far.
"It was an eventful day, to say the least," said Speed. "We had a lot of trouble with the car earlier in the day, luckily without doing any damage. However, on our last time out today, we were able to get the car where we wanted it to be."
Mike Conway is also in this drop zone, having suffered from seemingly intractable problems with the handling of the #27, but with team mates including Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti it has to be expected that the combined efforts of the Andretti Autosports organisation will lift Conway up before Pole Day, and Conway is confident they're already going the right way.
"I think we found a direction for tomorrow," he said, adding that the "car felt pretty comfortable at the end there, so it's just a case of finding what speed we have tomorrow. I just feel more comfortable now with the whole package that we have, so that's good. Just more track time, really, is what I needed."
Simona de Silvestro is also in the danger zone, but that's because her crash today took place after she had managed to run only 6 laps - so in the circumstances her time is actually rather encouraging.
It was a better day than Monday had been for the many of the Brits, with four of them grouped together in 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th: Dan Wheldon was the top British driver in a very healthy-looking Bryan Herta Autosports car, while Justin Wilson was just behind for Dreyer and Reinbold ahead of Franchitti, and Jay Howard impressive in his first real track time after he had opted to sit out Monday's session in order to conserve tyres.
"We had a good day. It was obviously nice to be on track," said Wheldon. "The car today was good. It seemed certainly reasonable in qualifying trim ... There are still some improvements to be made but, for as limited running as we have had, I am pretty encouraged."
"What we were able to do [today] shows just how hard this team works and how good their development process is," said Howard. "We just take the car out with those changes they suggest and keep going faster. I am very encouraged by what we did today."
Pippa Mann was also looking much more comfortable, just breaking the 225mph mark to go 21st, and she agreed that they were getting on top of the handling problems that had blighted their Monday runs.
"On Monday when we were first running, we were struggling a bit with the back of the car. Today we finally got on top of that, and picked up quite a bit of pushing off the corners, so the oversteer had changed to a bit of understeer," she explained. "We've been battling that for most of the day, and this afternoon, right at the very end, we finally made a little bit of progress toward understanding what that is and why it might be happening ... I never thought I'd be so happy to be 21st in a practice session, but in this instance, I genuinely am."
Alex Lloyd was in 28th and Conway in a very disappointing 36th. James Jakes continues to struggle at the bottom of the timesheets, and his speed today - 220.709mph - strongly suggests that he will find it extraordinarily difficult to make it onto the 33-car grid at the weekend.
All 40 drivers spent time out on the track today, and between them they ran 2394 which is more than has been run on all five previous days combined. The warmer conditions meant that everyone was running faster than they had done earlier in the week, so the combined times were largely a reprise of the Practice 6 timesheets; times are expected to tumble still further on the appropriately-named Fast Friday tomorrow, for which the weather forecast is even better than today's had been.
The time trials for the final three spots in the IZOD Indy 500 Pit Stop Challenge - which had also been cancelled on Wednesday because of the weather - were also finally completed on Thursday morning. The simulated four-tyre-and-fuel pit stops saw Tony Kanaan/KV Racing Technology-Lotus, Mike Conway/Andretti Autosport and Helio Castroneves/Team Penske go through to the finals to be held on Carb Day a week on Friday. KVRT's top time was 7.895s.
What's Will Power's plan for Fast Friday? "I think tomorrow, early on, we'll be working on race stuff, and then we'll start trimming out for qualifying," he said. "I think it's pretty important to focus on the race. You could spend a lot of time screwing around with qualifying things, and then it'll be different conditions the next day. We have to have a good car in the race. That's what we'll be focusing on."
"Tomorrow will be all about speed for us," said his team mate Castroneves. "It's going to be fun!"