INDIANAPOLIS — Two-time Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato turned the fastest lap at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 27 years on Friday, and defending winner Marcus Ericsson was close behind him, making Chip Ganassi Racing the team to beat heading into qualifying weekend for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Sato turned a lap of 234.753 mph early in the six-hour practice, the fastest since 1996, before posting a four-lap average of 233.413 with about 16 minutes to go and rain bearing down on the speedway.
Sato said afterward that he was “on edge” as he coaxed as much speed out of his Honda as possible.
“I think we’re very satisfied with our performance,” he said.
So was Ericsson, who is in a contract stalemate with Ganassi and along with Sato knocked Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Will Power down a notch. Ericsson had the second-best four-lap average of 233.113 mph on a rapidly cooling track.
“Earlier today I was struggling a bit. The car was fast, but I couldn’t do four laps,” Ericsson said. “To come out and get a solid run — a solid four laps, still a little too much drop-off — but happy with that and right up here again.”
Sato was fastest in Wednesday’s practice, and Ericsson was quickest Thursday. Both days, Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon was right behind, but he said a problem during his qualifying simulation Friday forced him to shut down early.
“We’ll just have to see,” said Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champion. “It’ll definitely put us on the back foot a bit.”
Newgarden, who was fastest during the April open test, felt optimistic after posting the third-fastest four-lap average late in the practice. That positive attitude took a hit when he drew the 34th, and least favorable, qualifying slot about an hour later.
Pato O’Ward had the fastest trap speed at 243.142 mph as teams enjoyed the extra boost they will use for qualifying.
“I wasn’t aware of what we hit in the trap speeds until I saw it. It was frickin’ fast,” said O’Ward, who was second to Ericsson in last year’s race. “The engine sound was beefier, and it sounds frickin’ fast and it feels fast. It’s cool.”
Juncos Hollinger Racing was working feverishly at the end of practice to prepare a backup car for Callum Ilott, who decided early Friday that the new chassis he was driving not only couldn’t reach speed but also felt unsafe on the track.
Ilott couldn’t describe the exact feeling, and nothing the team changed on the spec Dallara IR18 seemed to help. So co-owner Ricardo Juncos made the late call to move Ilott into the chassis teammate Agustín Canapino drove during the open test.
“Yesterday was a little better, so we thought, ‘Carry on.’ But today was not even close,” Juncos said. “We have to put safety first, because I was talking to Callum and he, you know — he’s not going to be about to crash every lap.”
There was less than two hours left in practice when the team got to work, and IndyCar said it would grant an extension to allow it to keep working when Gasoline Alley typically closes. The hope was to get on the track Saturday for qualifying.
“I mean, I think we were going to be in the bottom [four] anyway, just being realistic,” Ilott said. “You’re going last in almost every session, whether it’s a tow or not. Doesn’t matter. So yeah, if that’s what it is, that’s what it is.”
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN IN TROUBLE
Graham Rahal, Christian Lundgaard and Katherine Legge all struggled to find speed in practice, and they didn’t even have the worst day in the garage. Their teammate, Jack Harvey, had smoke out the back of his car late in practice.
The team was still diagnosing the problem, but it’s possible an engine swap will be needed for qualifying.
“This place has challenged us before. It will again,” Rahal said. “Last night we had a good final 45 minutes or so of practice. We feel pretty confident in our race car. But the challenge is to qualify as far up as we can and give us a good footing.”
The traditional Indy 500 pranking began mildly Friday with Scott McLaughlin finding the scooter he uses to get from the garage to pit road shrink-wrapped. And it promises to get more vicious as the race approaches.
Last year, Alexander Rossi and Sage Karam filled Conor Daly‘s portable hot tub with Orbeez, which look like jellybeans but grow to 100 times their size when they absorb water; he needed a sanitation truck to get them cleaned out. Rossi once had the wheels taken off his golf cart, which was left on cinder blocks, and found them atop his motorcoach.
In perhaps the most elaborate prank, Romain Grosjean found his scooter atop the speedway’s famous infield pagoda.
Takuma Sato hits speed not seen in years before Indy 500 quals