I had my first Indycar race this week, and it was certainly a memorable experience. The car is fantastic to drive and a lot of fun to explore the limits of, and this week I spent quite a long time just learning how to set up the car. By the time I was ready for a race I still felt I could have doubled my setup time and still have doubts.
I joined a race after scoring a reasonable qualifying time, and started the race 7th of 18 drivers. The novelty of doing a full pace lap in a road racing series was pretty cool, but I completely stuffed up the starting procedure as I was completely taken by surprise by how quickly the leaders started to accelerate (basically as soon as the pace car moved to the pit lane, and way before the green flag). I was prepared for a typical oval rolling start, where the entire field maintains pacing speed until the green flag is waved. I should have expected the faster start to be honest, given the way IRL races are started in real life.
I dropped from 7th to 10th based on that poor start.
The race itself was a mixture of good and bad. Had some awesome fights in the early laps, including going side by side in a few corners that you’d never really want to try! It proved to be fairly difficult to pass in these cars at Barber too, as you never really get the benefit of a long straight, and most of the corners feature a single racing line only. A lot of drivers made mistakes and I slowly picked up positions.
It was cool to see that setups play a pretty big part (like I experienced in my first race with the Star Mazda at Sebring) in that lap after lap I’d be hugely faster than someone in the first part of the circuit, and they’d pull a gap in the second. Lap after lap. I was really looking forward to the pit stops coming into play, as it would be a real chance to replicate a typical F1 style pass and pull out some fast laps during the pit overlap to get ahead of a rival.
I was stuck behind the 5th place car for the entire first half of the race, feeling I was marginally faster (1-2 tenths at most) but never really being able to get past. On lap 20 (of 40) 5th place headed for the pits and I was really looking forward to putting in 3 or 4 faster laps until my pit stop. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, as one lap later I got taken out in a heavy braking zone by a following car who misjudged my braking point.
That contact spun me out but my car felt fine and so I continued to salvage something of my race. It turns out many people were making mistakes and spinning out, so I was able to get back to 7th but towards the end of the race another hit from a following driver again spun out (the driver seemed to try a pass but later told me it was a braking mistake and not a passing move).
I limped the car home for 11th. I was pretty happy to finish the race, and I also felt that I hadn’t made any major mistakes of my own doing, so it wasn’t too bad. The incident(s) and safety rating hit was a bit painful (as I’m really trying to finish 2009 cleaner than 2008) but better to be caught up in another drivers mistake than to be the driver making the mistake in the first place.
My feeling is that drivers will take time to get comfortable with the car – too many drivers were pushing too hard (perhaps driving it as hard as they would drive the previous cars in iRacing), but this car is very tricky to drive at 100% for an entire race. Hard driving in close proximity to other cars is very difficult as the braking zones are so short and the speed differentials so huge that it only takes a slight miscalculation to end up in a very messy wreck. I do have hope that as time goes on the races will become a little cleaner and less mistakes made all around. It seems to be the same situation with the VW Jetta last season, when it was the new car. Huge numbers of drivers flocked to it and my early races in that series were riddled with incidents and safety rating hits.