Another day, another car going upside down at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was not the start to proceedings that the Verizon IndyCar Series needed after already losing Saturday to the elements, as crisis meetings ended up making emergency technical regulation changes ahead of qualifying for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.
After their enforced day off on Saturday because of heavy rain and the postponement of the first day of qualifying, drivers started Sunday with a pre-qualifying warm-up session with the field split into two groups (to reduce overcrowding on the track) each getting up to 20 minutes of practice to get them ready for their official qualifying laps later in the morning. It should have been a routine affair: after all, the times set first thing were entirely academic and the most important thing was to do no harm to the car before qualifying.
As the pole winner for the last two Indy 500s, Ed Carpenter knew this as well if not better than anyone else. But it didn't stop the #20 spinning as it went through turn 2, the car then going backwards into heavy left-wide contact with the wall on the exit of the corner.
That wasn't the worst of it: the car then climbed the wall and dragged on the catchfencing, showering the track with carbon fibre debris that had formerly been integral bodywork. And as the rear-end (now leading-edge) of the car was pulled upwards, the air got underneath and flipped the car over so that Carpenter was obliged to spend the rest of the car's slide down the backstretch with his helmet just inches away from the track surface overhead.
It's the third time this week that a Chevrolet entry has been flipped over in practice. The most spectacular crash was that of Helio Castroneves whose Penske was sent somersaulting high into the air on Wednesday. Carpenter's team mate Josef Newgarden had a similar but lower-altitude outing the following day after suffering a high-speed puncture at the same spot in turn 1. CFH Racing co-owner Sarah Fisher later told the media that the loss of two race cars represented a one million dollar blow to the team's finances.
By contrast to Newgarden's incident, the #20 didn't quite get airborne on Sunday morning but the catchfence contact and the 180-flip was bad enough as it was. A clearly furious Carpenter was able to get out of the car and climb into the ambulance under his own power, and he was taken to the in-field medical centre where he was quickly checked, cleared and released. The same couldn't be said for Carpenter's race car, which is beyond use; or for the fencing which required a lengthy red flag for repairs meaning that the second group of cars was put on indefinite hold in the garage.
"I definitely think we have an issue going on that we clearly didn't have in the past," said Carpenter when he emerged from the medical centre and was asked why the Chevrolet teams in particular seemed to be having trouble keeping right-side-up this week.
"I am so pissed off but I can't really say what I want to," he said. "Hopefully this series will be smart and react sooner rather than later so we don't have to keep seeing things happen like this."
The reaction came swiftly with team representatives called into an impromptu meeting with senior executives from the Verizon IndyCar Series including Hulman & Company chairman Mark Miles and IndyCar competition director Derrick Walker to decide on what measures to put into place for the remainder of the day. In due course it was announced that the additional increase in turbocharger boost pressure from 130 kPa to 140 kPa traditionally available to teams for qualifying was being rescinded meaning that cars will be running below 230mph again. In addition, teams would have to race whatever aerodynamic trim they used for the rest of Sunday, meaning that low-drag qualifying set-ups were effectively ruled out. As a result of the last-minute changes, no championship points will now be awarded for qualifying.
"Had this been a one off we wouldn't be as worried as we are right now, but we have had 3 of them," IMS president J Douglas Boles told the media. "The cars have come in, hit the wall. What we are trying to do right now, the best we can and IndyCar can ensure this is not going to continue to happen, so we are letting the IndyCar folks and engineers know how to do that."
"This morning we saw a third car get into the wall, turn backward and lift into the air. We've said all along we want to go faster, but we want to do so safely," added Miles "As a precautionary measure, Indycar will require that the cars qualify today in the same aero setup that they will run in the Indianapolis 500 next weekend.
"Also, for today, boost levels will return to race conditions. Given these changes, we have elected to not award points for today's qualifications," he continued. "Safety for drivers and fans is the top priority for IndyCat and we will continue to be proactive in our research and development to improve all safety aspects of our sport."
That left everyone in the garage area scurrying to carry out the required changes to their cars in light of the latest rule changes. Meanwhile the CFH Racing team was keeping its head down and racing against time to prepare Carpenter's back-up car in time for its qualifying slot. Everyone was pressed into service - even Carpenter's stepfather Tony George, himself a former series CEO of IMS and ex-team owner who was seen hard at work pushing a broom around the team's garage area.
As a result of the rules changes, all drivers got another chance (or in the case of Group 2, their first opportunity) for a 30 minute warm-up session to get used to the new 'detuned' cars and settings. Once again the field was split into two groups for practice, with the first group going out at 1.30pm local time and the second at 2pm.
Topping the timesheets for this session was Penske's Will Power with a lap of 39.5818s (227.377mph) putting the reigning IndyCar Series champion 0.0106s ahead of a surprisingly impressive Jack Hawksworth in the #41 AJ Foyt Racing car.
Those laps compared with Helio Castroneves' top speed of 233.474mph in Saturday practice before the rain stopped play, and Scott Dixon's Sunday morning lap of 233.001mph before Carpenter's crash and the new rules detuning the cars were introduced. Dixon dropped to tenth place in this new final practice session with a best lap of 39.7726s (226.286mph).
The best news of the day was that the CFH Racing team had taken advantage of all the furore over the revised rules to get the #20 backup car fired up and ready to go out for a shakedown in the final practice session and completed 12 laps before the chequered flag came out. Clearly still on the back foot, his best time for the short session was 40.1819s (223.981mph) - but still much better than being stuck in the garage and possibly missing the race. At this point, just getting in - even on the back row - would be a triumph in the circumstances. "That's what we're shooting for," Carpenter admitted.
Qualifying will now see the drivers have just a single shot at setting a four-lap average speed. The session gets underway at 3.15pm meaning there will be no time for a Fast 9 pole shoot-out round. However there will still be a four-car battle for the back row which will see one of the drivers fail to make the grid and have to pack up and go home early.
1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier continues to look under most threat of failing to make this year's race after he posted a time of just 41.2091s (218.398mph) in the final afternoon session before qualifying, putting him 1.6274s behind Power's best and almost a second off Stefano Coletti's time in 33rd place for KV Racing Technology. Even looking at the best laps set without an aerodynamic tow from other cars out on the track - which is a more accurate simulation of what they face in qualifying - Lazier's best was just 216.897mph compared to Coletti's 223.592mph.
The 'bump' stage of qualifying for those on the back row or without a time at all will take place 30 minutes after the end of the full qualifying session. The 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 itself will get the green flag on Sunday May 24.
Additional trackside reporting by Lynne Huntting of PressSnoop.com.
See times from practice 7 for the Indianapolis 500.
See times from practice 8 for the Indianapolis 500.