Penske cars struggle with speed as Andretti tops 233 mph

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Marco Andretti packs up his gear following practice for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS – Honda claimed a clear edge over Chevrolet in speed on Fast Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Marco Andretti topped 233 mph in the final practice before qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

Andretti jumped to the top of the speed chart by logging a lap at 233.491 miles per hour (375.77 kilometres per hour). It was the fastest lap in a practice — which is considered unofficial — since Sebastien Bourdais went 233.116 mph in 2017.

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He was one of nine Honda drivers to crack the top-10 in speed after IndyCar allowed a turbocharger boost of approximately 700hp to prepare for Saturday and Sunday qualifying. Track temperatures and heat both factored into how cars performed Friday with the fastest speeds posted early in the day.

So it was just Andretti's bad luck when he drew the 28th spot for Saturday qualifying, ensuring he'll make his attempt during the hottest part of the day. He didn't seem concerned, though, because he was able to turn consistent laps during the later part of Friday practice.

“In the middle of the day, the heat of the day, we put together a really solid four laps,” Andretti said. “That is the heat of the day, right? That’s the positive to take, that if it is going to be hot, we already did that.”

The Chevrolet teams showed very little in terms of speed but insist the cars handle well in traffic and should be find for the Aug. 23 race. Team Penske struggled with speed throughout the day and it was Conor Daly of Ed Carpenter Racing with the fastest lap of the brand.

Daly was second on the day behind Andretti, the only Chevrolet to crack the top 10, and it wasn't until the very end of the session that Roger Penske's cars began to see improvement.

“Look, we're just not fast. Simply," 2018 winner Will Power said at one point. ”We're just not going to be able to challenge Honda."

Power later jumped to 11th on the speed chart, but more important, he drew the 10th spot for qualifying.

“If you drew in the first top 10, you’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “Especially for us who are just trying to crack into the top nine, an early draw, getting 10th, I was really happy about that.”

The fastest nine on Saturday advance to a shootout on Sunday that sets the first three rows for the Aug. 23 race.

The four-car Penske operation was one of the last teams to pit lane when the track opened Friday and nearly two hours passed before their drivers tested the added horsepower.

It took just handful of laps for Team Penske to determine it had a problem. Reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden went back to the garage and his teammates followed. The contingent of Power, Newgarden, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and defending race winner Simon Pagenaud all needed adjustments to handle their cars at increased speeds.

Pagenaud felt the high track surface temperature of 130 degrees and clear, sunny day did not suit the qualifying setup on the Penske cars.

“It is very difficult at these speeds to control the race car,” Pagenaud said.

Team Penske is owned by Roger Penske, who this January purchased the speedway, the series and the Indy 500. He has removed himself from competition aspects of the organization. His drivers have won the Indy 500 a record 18 times, and that number designates his prime infield parking spot in the shadow of the Pagoda.

Andretti was the only driver to top 233 mph, but teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and Zach Veach all topped 231.

“It is crazy jumping in with that boost,” said Hinchcliffe. “Going 231 around Indianapolis? Man, this is fun.”

The speed record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway belongs to Arie Luyendyk, who went 239.260 miles per hour (385.05 kilometres per hour) for an unofficial mark during practice on May 10, 1996. Two days later, he turned a lap at 237.498 mph in qualifying.

Five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon was among the fastest Honda drivers even after his team lost almost 90 minutes trying to diagnose an electrical issue. The problem? “A key stroke in a piece of data that was incorrect,” Dixon said.

Dixon heard the chatter that Honda is far superior in qualifying trim to Chevrolet but wasn't sure how much can be taken from Friday's practice.

“It seems a little strange so far,” said Dixon, noting the manufacturers typically follow plans and adjust their programs each day. “It's hard to tell what Chevy is up to.”

Even Andretti underplayed the importance of his fast lap. He recorded it as soon as the track opened then switched his focus to stringing together four consistent laps. Qualifying is not based on single lap speed, rather the four-lap average a driver turns.

“The first thing you need is speed and then you need to put the four laps together," Andretti said. "The luxury is we have the speed. We don’t need to find speed, we need to find four laps.”

Daly, meanwhile, logged a 232.337 as he prepares to qualify with engineer Cole Pearn, the championship-winning NASCAR crew chief who moved to Canada and quit racing at the end of last season. Pearn has signed on as engineer for Daly for this one race.

Daly said the handling is difficult in part because the added weight of the cockpit-protecting aeroscreen is causing the tires to wear quickly during the four-lap stints.

“The drivers are earning their paychecks,” Daly said.

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