Edmonton City Center Airport has been hosting the annual IndyCar (or Champ Car) race since 2005, but drivers arriving there this weekend will find a completely unfamiliar track layout awaiting them.
After a winter off-season that saw the entire event cancelled for a time, organisers finally came to an agreement with local officials to allow the race to go ahead after all. But the track layout that has been used for the last six years is gone, with action moved to the airport's east runway and only sharing a short, twisty midfield section with the old configuration.
"It's completely different from the track we raced on here before. There will be much higher speeds. There are some tight corners," Paul Tracy said of the new-look track when he visited Edmonton a few weeks ago. "Nobody is going to complain about there being no opportunity to pass here. If you can't pass on this track ... I don't know where you're going to."
As a result of the switch of runways, the circuit will now be anti-clockwise, sending the drivers into a 90 degree left hander from the start line and with a 180 degree hairpin at the fifth turn and another at turn 13 at the end of the long straight to put the drivers back on to the start/finish straight, a total length of 2.256 miles. In the new configuration, six grandstands will be positioned much nearer to the track to make spectators feel far more part of the action.
"The new [circuit] looks really cool with some great passing opportunities, which the last configuration lacked a bit," said Tracy's fellow Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe.
"The other course was good and fast initially but it was too hard to pass on," IndyCar's track design consultant Tony Cotman agreed. "One of the big things we needed to focus on with this course was how to make the show better, and I think we've achieved that," he said, adding that the aim was that the race should be "exciting for everyone."
The challenge of learning the new circuit will be made even greater by the weather forecast, which has already delivered very wet conditions for start of the two Friday practice sessions and with persistent rain and cool conditions forecast for the weekend, which sees qualifying on Saturday afternoon and the race itself from 7.45pm BST on Sunday afternoon.
“In the first session you have to try things and make sure you find your way quickly there,” said AJ Foyt Racing's Vitor Meira. “The quicker you find your way, the more you can focus on the car. You have to figure out braking points, gears, turn-ins, which curbs to use and which ones to avoid, how much speed to carry into this corner, and what is the best way to carry speed in: braking later, or earlier?"
"It will be a new game for everybody but understanding what made a car work on the old track will definitely help to be competitive on the new one," said Newman-Haas driver Oriol Servia. Drivers are expecting a bumpy surface despite some recent re-surfacing work where the worst cases have been patched with asphalt.