They don't call it 'Fast Friday' for nothing: after a week of times that only occasionally strayed over 225mph, the speeds spiralled dramatically right from the start of the final practice session of the week leading into the weekend's qualifying days for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500.
However, the weather conditions had been a concern from early on, with the air feeling muggy at 73F as early as 9am in the morning despite the breeze which rose to 80F by the start of practice at 11am EST, the humidity hinting at stormy weather to come.
With that threat in mind the drivers got to work quickly, Dragon's Sebastien Bourdais topping the charts and many drivers putting the formerly aspirational 225mph/40s marks firmly in their rear-view mirrors with practically their first flying laps. That was partly thanks to the new focus on qualifying set-up with tomorrow in mind, together with fresh engines for many in the field, but most of all the extra turbocharger power that all all drivers get for the next three days to see them over the qualifying weekend.
Marco Andretti continually pushed the benchmark faster and faster, but by the time the rain finally materialised it was his team mate EJ Viso who was sitting at the top of timesheets as the latest Andretti Autosport driver to set the pace this week. His best lap was 229.537mph (39.2093s), suggesting that qualifying times might top 230mph on Saturday, conditions permitting, compared to last year's pole position time of 226.484mph set by Ryan Briscoe. Viso's lap was 0.1342s faster than his team mates Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz.
“I think the car we have evolved from the team from last year has been really heading in the right direction," said Viso. "We have been testing a number of pieces in the car and I think we have a stronger car than what we began with. It's all about finding as much mechanical grip as possible and then when it comes time to trim it you should be in a good position if you did your homework.”
However, the top non-tow speeds - significant as they approximate the conditions of tomorrow's qualifying session - read somewhat differently to the official session timesheets. Will Power was unofficially credited top with a lap of 228.104mph followed by Carlos Munoz (227.928mph), JR Hildebrand (227.549mph), Marco Andretti (227.303mph), followed by AJ Allmendinger and last year's Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti with laps of 227.008mph.
Assuming that the weather dries up as forecast, the drivers will have two hours of practice time on Saturday morning before the official start of qualifying on Saturday at noon.
Buddy Lazier did make another appearance out on the circuit and was finally up to something close to race speed at 222mph as he completed his refresher course when he reported hearing a click from the car which concerned him. It resulted in the 1996 Indy 500 winner bringing the car back into pit lane and heading straight for the Lazier Partners garage to investigate. He had just returned to the circuit after a brief initial yellow for moisture when the car came to a halt near the entrance to pit lane that necessitated another yellow, which is when the serious rain rolled in.
Midwesterners come to expect huge hit and run thunderstorms, but others - especially overseas visitors - were taken aback with the sudden ferocity of today's storm, which hit fast and furious. The rain was loud, the wind fierce, and the visibility from the Media Center to the Golf Course was non-existent. The storm was so ferocious that despite it blowing itself out within twenty minutes, all track activities were concluded for the day.
The drivers were unconcerned that the rain might affect qualifying: "It rained pretty hard the other night and the track was OK the next day," pointed out Marco Andretti. However, fears that more storms might roll in later on Saturday will concentrate the minds of all concerned.
Conor Daly was one of the drivers hardest hit by the day's premature conclusion, left all dressed up in his firesuit with no where to go. The #41 AJ Foyt Racing car was still being put together again after its heavy crash on Thursday, and the team had been hoping to get it back out on track for the last two hours of the session only to find the weather had beaten them to it.
The only car not yet to put in an appearance on the track this week is the still-driverless #99 Schmidt-Peterson car, with the team opting to make sure that they get regular drivers Tristan Vautier and Simon Pagenaud firmly locked into the grid for next weekend's race before splitting their focus onto a third entry.
The all-French line-up at Schmidt had enjoyed some relaxed fun earlier on Friday morning, with Pagenaud turning into the team's crepe chef to serve up breakfast while Vautier offered up advice from the safety of the sidelines.Reporting from trackside by Lynne Huntting, PressSnoop.comSee pictures from the practice sessions so far.Practice 7 times
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