Penske was back on top of the Indy 500 practice timesheets on the fourth day of official practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday, with Simon Pagenaud ending up fastest of the 34 drivers in action on the two and a half mile oval with a lap of 228.793mph.
CLICK: Full times from practice 3 for the Indianapolis 500.
“Today was a really good day,” said Pagenaud. “We've been focusing on understanding what the car does in qualifying runs. Very happy to see the preparation from Penske and how fast the #22 car is. So far, so good.
"We're happy - but we can be happier," he continued. "At the end of the day we did some pack running and once again we're very happy so far. What's difficult is it's really cold right now, so you get more downforce because the air is so thick. We know it's going to be warmer in the race, that's what makes it tricky. You're trying to understand what the car's going to do in the race. It's definitely going to be warmer."
Pagebaud's speed was some way down from Carlos Munoz's eye-watering lap at 230.121mph on Wednesday. The Andretti Autosport driver continued to look strong on Thursday with the second-fastest time, 0.1149s off Pagenaud's best lap. Munoz finished ahead of three Chip Ganassi Racing cars (Sage Karam, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan) with Juan Pablo Montoya sixth fastest for Penske ahead of Ed Carpenter and Sebastien Bourdais.
Once again however the headlines were dominated by another spectacular and scary crash in which a car went airborne, this time proving a roller coaster ride for Josef Newgarden who spun in turn 1 in the #21 CFH Racing and then went backwards into the wall, where the car flipped up and over on its side with 40 minutes remaining in the day's practice session. The accident happened in around the same place as Helio Castroneves' crash on Wednesday, but Newgarden was going faster and had a narrower angle of contact with the wall than the Penske driver had done, meaning that the car did not go anywhere near as high into the air as the Brazilian had. It was unclear whether the car was launched by the impact with the wall, or bodywork folding underneath the floor of the car, or because of aerodynamic factors.
"I got around pretty quick in turn 1," said Newgarden, who was able to climb out of the wreck although he did look understandably rather winded by the experience. "It definitely surprised me. I knew it happened when it did, so I'm just lucky that everything's good. The Dallara tub held up well. I just want to get back to my guys and see what the damage is. I'm sure it's bad, but we'll see what we can do going forward. It was a hard bit, (but) I feel fine."
He was checked by the in-field medical centre and quickly released after being cleared to resume driving. ""I hit my hand a little bit and I think I have a bruise, but other than that I'm fine," he insisted. However his car did indeed in a bad way, the floor bent at an angle that suggests the monocoque might be damaged beyond repair meaning that the team will need to build a new car overnight with time running out now for qualifying on Saturday.
The second incidence of a car being launched skywards in as many days will be of concern to IndyCar officials and teams alike. It's the first race for the new oval-specification aero kits and everyone will be looking closely to make sure the new bodywork components aren't contributing to the cars going airborne. Both Castroneves and Newgarden use Chevrolet-provided aero kits, while Pippa Mann - who uses the Honda version - also crashed on Wednesday but did not go into the air as a result, although her accident was very different from those of the two Chevy drivers so little can be drawn from the comparison.
On the subject of the aero kits, IndyCar released a brief notice on Thursday saying that they "made the centerline wicker an optional component for both manufacturers." Beneath that generic statement however it appeared that Chevrolet had been specifically instructed to remove the wicker while Honda was told to retain it. Essentially a small 'fin' down from the cockpit to the bottom of the safety cell, the wicker was mandated by IndyCar only last week for the road course race and is designed to act like NASCAR's roof flaps to provide stability in the event of a spin.
"After discussions with the Series, we have decided to remove the centerline wicker on all of our cars," said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet's US vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports. However, Honda's Dan Layton told reporters "Nope, that's between Chevy and IndyCar" when asked if he had any comment.
In other technical news from Indianapolis, the series has decided to delay the introduction of LED displays carrying real-time positioning information on the sides of all cars until after the Indy 500, contrary to earlier stated plans. "The car position display panels will not
be introduced for the Indianapolis 500 in 2015,” the series stated, giving no reason for the delay. "Information will be distributed as to when it will be introduced when further testing has taken place."
Lynne Huntting of PressSnoop.com reports from trackside on the fourth day of official practice at the two-and-a-half mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
The weather was cloudy and forecast to remain that way all day Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the fourth day of Indianapolis 500 practice. The temperature was low sixties with wind, albeit not as breezy as the past two days. All thirty-four drivers named on the entry list were at the track, and at least thirty-three of them are expected to be on track today at one point or another.
Simona de Silvestro's #29 car is looking brand new again after a long 48-hour thrash by the Andretti Autosport crew to repair the fire damage she suffered from her Tuesday afternoon fuel leak fire. Honda confirmed that she has been provided with a new engine as the old one was burnt badly including all the wiring. As it was crash-related, there is no IndyCar Series penalty for the engine change. The car was due to go through technical inspection early int he afternoon to allow the Swiss driver to get back to work out on track.
Buddy Lazier's #91 Wynn Iowa Vision Research Lazier Racing Honda has already been through tech and was getting its final prep on Thursday morning so that Lazier could take to the track for the first time this week. His short program calls for him to practice on Thursday and Friday only, and then to make his qualifying run on Saturday.
Pippa Mann was back at the speedway on Thursday, but walking noticeably stiffly following Wednesday's nasty accident coming out of turn 4 that saw her take hits off three different walls before coming to a halt. When she admitted that she "felt like I had a fight with the wall," it was hard not to ask "Which one?" The #63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda itself is being worked on in the team garage behind emphatic closed doors: she does not have a backup car, so the crew has no option but to knuckle down and put all the pieces back together again. Mann hopes to have the car ready to go on track Friday afternoon, provided the weather cooperates.
As expected, Tristan Vautier has been officially entered as a driver for the fellow Dale Coyne Car, the #19 Honda. He went out at the start of Thursday practice and quickly completed his refresher program. The plan is that he will drive the car in Saturday's qualifying and get it on the grid for James Davison to drive in the race - in the Indy 500, it's the car that qualifies rather than the driver. Davison has conflicting pro-commitments this weekend at Mosport, Canada where he is due to race a Nissan in the TUDOR sports car series.
"I have to thank James and Dale for trusting me for this job," said Vautier, who was 2012 Indy Lights champion and 2013 Indy Rookie of the Year. "We're not going to get out there trying to break records but work toward the qualifying. It's an interesting task to be in an IndyCar and qualifying it for another driver, but I'm approaching it like I would any other race."
Friday's practice session will start at noon and is scheduled to last for last for six hours in total. Dubbed "Fast Friday", it should see a big boost to driver times as a result of manufacturers being allowed to increase turbocharger boost pressure from 130 kPa to 140 kPa, which will generate more horsepower and likely higher speeds, track conditions permitting.
Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 will then take place this weekend on Saturday and Sunday, and the race itself is the following week on Sunday May 24.
Additional trackside reporting by Lynne Huntting of PressSnoop.com.
See full times from practice 3 for the Indianapolis 500.