On Wednesday, Aug 12th, the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series heads into the undoubted jewel in its crown, the famed Indianapolis 500, to begin practice. But, as with many cherished sporting events, the Covid-19 pandemic means this one will be very different to the 103 editions of the famous race that have run before it.
Among many of the changes, the 2020 race is being held in August as opposed to its traditional final Sunday in May, Memorial Weekend slot. What used to be a build-up known as the ‘Month of May’ has been reduced, with teams getting approximately 25 percent less running this year.
More than that, the Indy 500 is the world’s biggest single-day sporting event, with a usual race-day crowd of 300,000-plus enjoying the fanfare of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ of cars racing at speeds of 225mph around the 2.5-mile oval.
Only this year, it will be run behind closed doors.
For all the unique changes to the event for 2020, one thing has not changed, and that is the desire of the teams to win and the driver to get their face on the grand Borg Warner Trophy forever.
Spencer Pigot will be entering his fifth Indy 500 this year, but is already on the back foot. Not that that is diluting his will to win. The 26-year old American joins Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as a third car alongside regulars Graham Rahal and 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.
With zero testing outside of his two days at the Indy GP (where he looked set for a podium finish until trouble struck), Pigot has been spending his time at the Rahal race shop in Indianapolis studying data captured by Acronis from every session last year and chatting with engineers as they prepare for action in the ‘Month of August’. The track was ‘live for just under 40 hours last year. That’s a lot of data from two cars.
“I’ve been at the shop pretty much three or four days a week,” says Pigot. “It’s not just looking at data, but doing pit stops with the guys driving practice car too. My engineer is based in Colorado but we’ve been on the phone quite a bit, and I’ve been chatting with the engineers that are based here in Indy. We’re just trying to be as prepared as we can.
“At the Indy GP we showed that even with a relatively new group on the #45 car we could still be competitive and run at the front, so hopefully that will carry on to the 500 as well. It’s obviously a different ‘beast’, but we’ve shown that we’re a good group and we can definitely be fast.”
Since the end of the 2019 season, Pigot has had just two days in the IndyCar, and that was on Indy’s road course on that Independence Day weekend in July.
“Yes. It’s going to be difficult,” he agrees. “In addition there’s going to be less practice this year than there has been in the past few years. It’s definitely not an ideal situation, but I think the team is really well prepared, and obviously I’ve got some experience at Indy. It’s not as good a situation as it could be, but it’s not a bad situation at all. It could be worse for sure. I still feel confident we can have a good run and be competitive.
“The aero kits are a lot different, we’ve got the areoscreen this year, the tyres are different. The track too is now a little different, and it’s in August – who knows what the weather is going to be like?
“The only time I’ve driven with the aeroscreen was at the Indy GP this past July. Visually I don’t think there’s going to be an issue. Sure the first few laps I noticed, but after that I forgot it was even there, which was nice. The thing that you definitely feel is the temperature inside the car which is a lot higher. From what I’ve heard it’s not as bad on the ovals, because you are going at a constant high speed, so it will be a little bit more bearable than it was on the road course. I’ve done the start straight on the oval with the screen, the wrong way, but I don’t count that as experience!”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s partnership with Acronis has helped see the team’s regular drivers in contention in the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series, with Graham Rahal scoring two podium finishes already. Graham admits that it has helped the team arrive at the track with set-ups in mind, ready to go.
“It’s definitely a big help, agrees Pigot. “One thing I’ve noticed is Rahal has a lot of data. Before the Indy GP, the pre-race meetings and pre-weekend reports were very in-depth with a lot of information, which was great, and we arrived ready. It’s so difficult now in IndyCar because it’s so competitive. Everyone’s looking for those last few hundredths of a second, so having as much information as we do has been really beneficial, especially with the limited track time and now the condensed schedule that it has become that much more valuable to have as much done beforehand as you can.”
Studying data is not for all drivers, even champions, but for Pigot it’s a tool that he is keen to exploit.
“I do enjoy it. It’s very interesting. You are looking at everything so closely, and you’re measuring things in fractions of a second. Every little bit adds up and counts, and it’s very interesting to see the data from the cars and the other drivers to figure out where you can improve. You can analyse anything. It’s a very helpful tool that we continue to use throughout the season, and even over the winter to get ready for the upcoming season.”
The behind-closed-doors aspect of the 104th Indy 500 will make it a different experience day-by-day, but will the removal of all the distractions of fans and sponsors help, or will it just feel… a bit weird?
“It will be a little strange,” says Pigot. “I think sometimes in a ‘normal’ year you kind of don’t want to go to all this extra stuff. Sometimes you just want to debrief and talk with the engineers, but you have all these other commitments that you don’t always get that excited about doing.
“Having said that, I do think that it’s definitely going to be something that we will miss this year because it’s just a chance to interact with fans and sponsors and people that share your enthusiasm for the race, so it’s definitely going to be a little different. I don’t think we will enjoy it as much from that standpoint.
“Obviously we will enjoy the on-track stuff just the same, but it definitely will be unfortunate and different not to have the people I’ve seen over the course of my career, coming through the speedway every May just to say hello again, and people that you talk to that have been there every year for the past 50 years. Their streaks are going to come to an end unfortunately, but we’re just going to have to make do with what we can and hopefully be able to interact over social media and online and stuff like that, and see everyone again at the track next year.”