Indy 500: Bleak Pole Day for Andretti Autosport

There were glum faces at Andretti Autosports after none of their four regular drivers made it into the top 24. They head the list of those who had a bad Pole Day at Indy.

Everyone could see that Andretti Autosport were struggling to find their mojo in the practice sessions at Indianapolis over the last week, but most assumed they would come good in the end. But Pole Day arrived, and sure enough Andretti Autosport was the biggest misfire on pit lane.

The look on the faces of John Andretti and Mike Conway said it all, even though John was the only driver in the extended team to make it into the top 24 by the session end. The former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver was in a car being run in collaboration with Richard Petty Motorsports, making it even more amazing that he should get onto the Indy 500 grid while the team’s main drivers – Conway, Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, along with their associate driver Raphael Matos with AFS – did not.

Most striking of all was the language and tone of the drivers when they spoke with reporters: they were looking into the abyss and not seeing anyway out.

“We haven’t made any improvements. We were slow when we rolled off the truck, and we’re still slow in qualifying,” said Marco. “It’s beyond me. I don’t have an answer, and that’s why I’m super-frustrated right now. I’m really nervous about qualifying … This is going to be the longest weekend of my life, that’s for sure. I just don’t have any answers right now.”

“We’re struggling. We tried every bit of the setup, from one side of the spectrum to the other, and it just didn’t have any speed with it. I’m not really sure what the problem is, but we’ll just keep chipping away at it,” said Hunter-Reay. “We just need to get in the race. We’ve struggled with the car all week, but we just need to get it in the race and go from there.”

“Basically every lap I was just hanging on and trying to save the car,” pitched in Matos. “I had a very, very bad vibration in the front of the car, as well. Maybe the tires were out of balance.”

Danica – who had looked the strongest of the four – was bemused by the sudden collapse in the pace of the #7. “I felt that we had a fast car not only today, but all month, and thought we would hit a 226,” she said. “I was happy. It was the best I’ve felt here in a long time. I felt really comfortable with the car, and it felt effortlessly fast and it wasn’t really slow … until this morning. All I can think of is something we missed or something happened with the track, maybe, and everyone is putting a new set of rubber on and it changed. We just have to buckle down at this point. I guess we are going to have to risk it a little more come tomorrow.”

But Mike Conway’s bid to return to the race that saw that dreadful final lap accident in 2010 that sidelined him for the rest of he season and nearly ended his racing career seemed doomed. He’s been consistently off the pace and near the bottom of the timesheets all week, and has no idea how to climb out of the hole in which he finds himself.

“It’s been quite elusive these last few days to try and find it,” he said. “I know we’re trying a few things, and we just have to go back to the drawing board and see where we can find it. We just need to try and figure it out. It’s not nice to be out of the loop already. We just have to keep battling.”

Conway’s lack of form is particular surprising seeing how strongly he ran here last year, and how well his 2011 season has gone since his move to Andretti Autosports, including his maiden IndyCar win in Long Beach lat month. Those seem like very distant days right now for the young Englishman.

“I feel good,” he insists, before adding somewhat forlornly: “I just hope the car has some more speed … ”

His compatriot James Jakes was not surprised to be out of the top 24 after Pole Day, as he’s been bumping at the bottom of the timesheets every since arriving at Indy for the first time a week ago. “We expected to be quite a bit quicker than that. It’s the first time here,” he said. “We’ve lost three days because of the weather. We tried to stick to the program as much as we could, but the weather cost us a lot. The wind and the weather is really spinning quite quickly around here.”

His Dale Coyne Racing team mate (and fellow Brit) Alex Lloyd was closer to making the grid, but still exasperated by how the pace he had expected from the car had disappeared overnight. “To say I am frustrated is the understatement of the century. Lost a ton of speed today from yesterday. Got some work to do overnight,” he told Twitter. Addressing Hunter-Reay, he said “I’m sure your [sic] like me where it doesn’t feel too far away though right about now,” and he also sent his congratulations to Alex Tagliani “on the awesome job getting the pole today.”

Conquest Racing’s Sebastian Saavedra is another figure who looks set to miss out on the Indy 500, with a best time even slower than Jakes’. “We didn’t find the speed that we wanted,” he admitted. “We have to find something else to be able to make it to the show … We’ve got to be more aggressive and risk some more. We are too conservative, and that’s what’s happening. We aren’t happy at all.”

Saavedra’s team mate, rookie Pippa Mann, had shown some good form earlier in the week but it rather deserted her on Pole Day. “We didn’t quite have what we wanted from the car. We were running 24’s in clean air, so that was really disappointing. The track changed, and the weather changed. It just went away from us this morning,” she said. “I have already had a pole [here] with Indy Lights, but it’s a completely different ball game driving these cars. They’re so much quicker. They move around so much more, and you have to be so much more on top of your game. The cars change so much with the track conditions. It’s been a really big learning experience.”

Paul Tracy, who has switched to Dreyer & Reinbold for his Indy 500 campaign, is not too surprised to find himself out of the top 24 after Pole Day, but hopes for better on Bump Day compared with last year where a team blunder on qualifying strategy ended up with his missing the race especially as he was the fastest of those outside the top 24 at the end of Saturday.

“I think the most frustrating thing is that we went out with the exact same car as Davey, and he ran 225s, but our car just wouldn’t go,” he said. “We don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think anybody in the pit lane knows the answer to that. It’s just the mystique of this track. We’re frustrated.”

Regular Dreyer and Reinbold driver Ana Beatriz was actually very happy with her car – “It felt great. The car is good,” he asserted, before adding: “We just need to find some speed.”

Her team mate Justin Wilson is already in the top 24, having qualified a relatively safe 20th. Not that he’s taking anything for granted, however: “I think the car is pretty stuck. It’s not too much on a knife edge. You can’t relax until it’s all over at the end of Bump Day. You can’t afford to let up in qualifying.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise among the non-qualifiers – right up there alongside the Andretti Autosport collective nervous breakdown – is Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe. However, he does have a good excuse as far as these things go, having wrecked his primary car in the morning practice session before qualifying began, and having to switch to the spare T-car.

“It’s been such a rush and a thrash to get this car on the track to drive. I think we’ll be able to fine-tune it [for Bump Day]”, he said. “”After we lost the primary car, the team did everything they could to get the T car prepared in time to run a few laps before the end of practice this morning.” He also ached a lot from the smash: “My legs knocked the wheel off, actually.”

Briscoe will be among those hoping that tomorrow is another day and that things will be brighter and better in the morning than they seem right now.

Those cars who have not yet made the grid in the top 24 will be able to run qualifying sessions until the 33-place grid is filled up, after which the fun – or rather, the bumping – begins. The slowest car on the grid (regardless of whether the time is set on Saturday or Sunday) is deemed to be “on the bubble” and can be knocked out by a car making a faster run.

If a car is bumped, then the grid is “shuffled up” to cover the gap and the faster car enters in 33rd spot. The bumped car can restart its own qualifying attempts to bump its way back onto the grid, while drivers who fear that are about to be on the bubble can pre-empt the moment and delete their time in order to re=enter qualifying – the strategy mistake that cost Paul Tracy his grid position in 2010.

And by 6pm it will finally be all over, and we’ll have the grid for the centennial Indianapolis 500. All that remains after that is to run the race itself, on Sunday May 29.

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