The NTT Indycar Series almost made it off the blocks at St Petersburg in March, but the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the teams instead drove home, season delayed. Since then it’s been lockdown for most and iRacing for some of the drivers, which in itself has brought its own controversies.
Now, the Indycar series is set to resume, behind closed doors, at the Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night.
After months out of the cockpit, is the 1.5-mile Speedway the best place to strap racers in again? Oval racing is not for the faint of heart, and Texas especially is one of racing’s ultimate challenges. In 2001, the CART cars were lapping at more than 230mph, and drivers – not willing to admit it – were getting dizzy after three or four laps. Sense prevailed and the event was cancelled on race morning.
March’s St Petersburg race would have been the debut of the aeroscreen, Indycar’s version of the halo, developed by Red Bull Advanced Technologies and tested by various teams in the off season. Now its debut will come on an oval. At night. Nothing like throwing the competitors in at the deep end.
Takuma Sato, last year’s Texas pole-sitter is looking forward to it. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver is keen to get going again, and no doubt that he is among the bravest, but he also knows he hasn’t got all the information he needs.
“Yes I’m a little bit nervous,” says the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. “But of course also excited because it is Texas and it will be the first time back in the car and you have to go 220mph!
“You ask is this a good place to go for our first race? It’s incredible! Imagine we have been out of the car for half a year. We did a little bit of winter testing. But with today’s regulations on-track testing is very limited. We had only two days open testing at COTA’s road course. It started raining, so our testing was cut by a half, and then we had one private test at Sebring and that is it.
“I’ve done only two days testing with the new aeroscreen, which only a few drivers have tested on oval. A lot of drivers haven’t, and I’m one of them that hasn’t. Texas will certainly be a little bit interesting.”
That brings so many new elements, as Sato continues. “Usually on ovals, the event is two days. We have day-time practice, qualifying in the evening and then we go to a night session. We can at least duplicate the conditions that we will have the next day for the race.
“We talk about safety, I really appreciate that. It’s really cool looking and I feel like a jet fighter pilot now, and feel really protected. However technically there are a lot of aspects that we do not know. It will probably make the race very interesting, but in terms of preparation for us and the engineers, it’s going to be a nightmare.”