A new qualifying format is set to make its début at this year's 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar officials announced on Friday.
Qualifying will now consist of three sessions of time trials over the weekend of May 17-18, with the series goal being to deliver increased entertainment value, fan attendance and TV viewership.
The qualifying session on Saturday will last from 11am until 5.50pm, with the fastest 33 cars composing the starting field albeit not assuring them of their actual starting positions. During the day, all entries will be guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify, and practice sessions before qualifying will be scheduled on both days.
On Sunday, the previous times are erased and those entries that had finished in tenth to 33rd positions go on to complete another four-lap attempt to determine their starting position. From 10.15am to 1.30pm, they will head out in reverse order of their speeds on Saturday (from slowest to fastest) and their new laps will set their starting positions for the race from row four down.
The top nine cars will hold back and compete in the Fast Nine Shootout from 2pm to 2.45pm. Each entry will receive one four-lap attempt in the order of the slowest to the fastest from Saturday times. Aggregate times will determine the Verizon P1 Award winner and top three rows.
"This new format includes two exciting days of on-track action, all culminating on Sunday with the Fast Nine Shootout," said Mark Miles, the CEO of IndyCar's parent company Hulman Motorsports. "Fans get to watch their favourite drivers battle to make the field on Saturday, and then fight for a pole position on Sunday. It will be a great show for fans attending the race and watching the broadcast."
"There is an enormous amount of talent in the field this year, which so far includes five former Indianapolis 500 champions," added Derrick Walker, IndyCar's president of competition and operations. "The new format presents an additional challenge to drivers who have one chance to make the field on Saturday, and start over again on Sunday to determine their starting position."
The Fast Nine Shootout was introduced in 2010 as part of time trials. Ed Carpenter claimed the pole last May with a four-lap average speed of 228.762mph, becoming the first team owner/driver since 1975 to earn the coveted No. 1 starting position. Eighteen drivers have won the historic race from the pole position, the most recent being Helio Castroneves in 2009.
"You have to take big risks when you're taking a run at the pole or trying to get into the shootout," said Carpenter, recalling his peak lap of 229.347mph during his final run. "We're always at the limit of what our cars have and never more so than qualifying at Indianapolis.
"The driver has to be perfect to execute a pole-type run and doing it while the car is right on the edge of its capabilities. It's extremely stressful and challenging and then rewarding when it goes well. It's definitely one of the hardest things we do all year long if not the hardest."
Qualifying results on Saturday and Sunday will also include new points incentives to be announced at a later date.