Since returning to the NTT IndyCar Series schedule in 2016 after a nine-year absence, Road America has served not just as a storied and beautiful venue but also as a competitive one. Comfortably better than average passing statistics across all road and street course events in 2019, recent Elkhart Lake races have demanded near-perfect race days to come out on top.
With that in mind, it’s little surprise that no team outside the “big three” has been victorious at Road America a half-decade into the track’s return. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports cracked the top five when the universal aero kit debuted in Wisconsin in 2018 but Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport have otherwise hoarded all available space at the head of the field each year.
While that would seem to void any competitiveness angle, smaller entrants, namely Dale Coyne Racing, gave the numbers a boost in two aggressively contested races on back-to-back days this year.
Dale Coyne watched his cars cross the line 12th and 19th at Road America last year. This past weekend, Alex Palou and Santino Ferrucci were third and sixth on Saturday, creating the team’s most substantial combined result since Race 1 of the 2013 Detroit doubleheader. Sixth and seventh on Sunday made Coyne the only team to have all its cars land in the top 10 in both races — even with unique challenges for both drivers.
Ferrucci looked set to battle Palou as well as Scott Dixon and Will Power for a podium position Saturday before contact with Dalton Kellett in pit lane dropped him back. Similarly, Palou soared at the beginning of Race 2 Sunday on sticker red alternate Firestone tires but fell back as he struggled on blacks from Lap 14 onward.
Problematic circumstances aside, Dale Coyne Racing made a real statement at Road America. Strong runs on both days for both young drivers flies in the face of preseason guesses that the team would struggle in 2020. The offseason loss of veteran pilot Sebastien Bourdais over financial issues pointed to one of IndyCar’s smallest teams becoming less competitive. The revolving door of uncompetitive drivers for which Coyne became known seemed to be reopening.
Bourdais mentoring Ferrucci seemed to make sense, but Ferrucci showing the slightly-older Palou the ropes during his foray into IndyCar was akin to the scrutinized move by Arrow McLaren SP to field inexperienced young guns Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew. Was Ferrucci prepared to lead a team during his sophomore season? Would Palou come to grips with the new car at new tracks? How would the team recover from the loss of engineers Craig Hampson to McLaren SP and Michael Cannon to Ganassi?
Unexpectedly, both Coyne cars appeared quick to fans trackside and those watching at home via NBCSN and NBC. Ferrucci’s monstrous opening lap Saturday and Palou’s commanding restarts after that will stick in our minds as clues of the team’s ability to be in the mix in the months and years ahead. Furthermore, a year-over-year comparison of Coyne’s performance at the high-speed circuit in Elkhart Lake via section times hints at reason for hope despite the anticipation of a year — or more — of trouble.
During last year’s Road America race, Bourdais’ average position on 19 charts ranking fastest laps, speed traps and trips through more than a dozen sections was 12.3. In this bird’s-eye view of the highlights of his first Road America race, Ferrucci was a few positions further back at 16.3.
In 2020, Ferrucci dropped this figure down to 10.3 in Race 1 and 15.4 in Race 2. Palou averaged 9.7 on these charts in the first race and came in at 7.1 for the Sunday contest. In this way, the young Spaniard’s flashy drives are backed up by numbers. Seeing Road America for his first time, Palou was Coyne’s most competitive driver since the universal aero kit era opened in 2018 (Bourdais and Zachary Claman De Melo averaged 10.3 and 13.5 on these charts that year).
While the team’s general speed was evident both on television and on paper, there are caveats. Unlike a regular Road America weekend with three practice sessions leading into knockout qualifying and a single race, this year’s Detroit-style doubleheader in Elkhart Lake offered little time for teams to dial in car setup. That’s why Ganassi’s success is one of the very few patterns to play out consistently in the four races held thus far. For better or worse, the COVID-19-affected schedule is serving to mix things up.
The lack of preparation is likely why Palou and Ferrucci turned in best section times that were slower than the team’s best from last year’s race, even while being faster than at least half the field on track this year. Additionally, Coyne may have more quickly landed on reliable setups for certain situations while its competitors dealt with question mark after question mark throughout the unique weekend. It would certainly explain why Palou was so quick at the start of Race 2 but seemed to have been strapped into a different machine once the red tires came off the car and went behind the pit wall in place of black-sidewalled primaries.
If O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow Chevrolet suddenly had the speed to capture the pole for Race 2 but wasn’t up for the challenge of holding off Felix Rosenqvist late in the race on used reds, similar variances undoubtedly helped — and hurt — the Coyne machines during their standout visit to Elkhart Lake.
More practice time may have made the Coyne cars stronger throughout stints on both tire compounds, but the same opportunity for other teams may have become a disadvantage. Would Andretti Autosport’s four main drivers be 11th, 13th, 18th and 21st in the points standings if the schedule changes didn’t demand radical weekend formats at Texas, Indianapolis and Road America? The team’s resources may have meant faster cars and more defined strategies come race day, perhaps relegating Coyne and others further back in the field.
Still, Palou and Ferrucci asserted Coyne, shockingly, as next in line to the big three with their standout weekend in Wisconsin — even with O’Ward nearly winning for the big three-aspiring McLaren team. While it’s unconfirmed whether Coyne’s speed was more up to the unique circumstances than something it can sustain, the Road America weekend may be the start of the series’ primary underdog putting McLaren, RLL & co. increasingly on alert.
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Aaron brings a developing design and editorial vision to The Apex every day and co-hosts The Braking Point podcast every week. As editor-in-chief and an avid reader, Aaron enjoys aligning his relentless care for quality with an interest in counterintuitive approaches.