The Saturday qualifications for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 were fantastic, fabulous, superb, scintillating, tense, and whatever other words can be found in a thesaurus. It’s just too bad they didn’t count. Let’s just pretend they didn’t happen and do it all over for television. What did Sunday bring? The wind made it edgy for spots 10-33, but the drama of making the race was missing, as were all of those great adjectives. Sunday qualification was perfunctory with a little bit of mystery. They had to take a risk for no other reason than TV. James Hinchcliffe, coming back from life-threatening injuries here last year, edged Josef Newgarden for the pole in the feel good story of the month, but the day could have been even better.
ABC wanted a show that fit neatly into its Sunday afternoon time slot and got what it wanted: nice images of cars going fast without the drama of making the race. Real risk without only one real reward.
For a while on Saturday, it seemed that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had its mojo back. Cars were on the edge and drivers were hanging it out. Teams had to make the risky choice to get in the “Fast Lane” to qualify and withdraw their times or sit tight with their times. Real drama in real time was finally happening again at Indy in May. But other than for the Fast Nine, it was meaningless.
IMS has spent the last decade tinkering with the qualification format, confusing fans, media, and teams in the process. The current format would be so much more dramatic if there were more than 33 cars available to qualify. Truthfully, IndyCar fans should be thankful that 33 cars even entered the race. When the series struggles to have 21 or 22 cars at every other venue, it is unrealistic to expect teams, cars, and engines to magically appear in May. How much better would the day one show have been with the bottom of the grid trying to make the show while the top of the grid was trying to make the Fast Nine?
If there were more cars than spots, it would be like the English Premier League soccer table. The teams at the top try to qualify for the Champions League while the ones at the bottom try to avoid being relegated to a lower league. The concept works because of the drama at both ends of the table. With only 33 cars, the only drama is at the top. Other than the top 15 or so cars, there is no incentive to have another go at it if you are at the bottom. The pathos is the heartbreak of missing the race, not missing the top nine. Somehow, it is difficult to feel too sorry for a Marco Andretti or an Alexander Rossi missing out on the Fast Nine Shootout. Exciting, yes. Entertaining, yes. Heartbreaking, no.
All props should go to Honda, though. With five of the first six spots, Honda teams can smile and not worry about strakes and domed skids. The sandbagger sobriquet for Chevy can be forgotten. Honda is back.
So on Sunday, cars moved up or down on the grid, motors expired, gearboxes proved recalcitrant, trash bags blew out of cars, and Alex Tagliani found the end of the pit wall. And for what? To move up a couple of spots after surviving the four toughest laps in motor sports the day before. The Fast Nine went by quickly, with SPM’s James Hinchcliffe holding off ECR’s Josef Newgarden for pole position for the 2016 Indianapolis 500. Getting the pole is a big deal. It is emotional. The Fast Nine was exciting, no doubt about that. The cars were on the edge, and the drivers were hanging it out…again. But let us see everybody hang it out with the clock ticking down to 6:00 PM, not just counting down the cars left to go. Let decisions be made and hearts be broken. Saturday should have been Sunday.