FORT WORTH, Texas - Canada's Alex Tagliani led a Honda sweep in qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway, where drivers debated the rule package mandated by IndyCar as the series returns to a high-banked oval for the first time since Dan Wheldon's death.
There's been concern throughout the industry in the lead-up to Saturday night's race, particularly among drivers who are unanimously opposed to the pack-style racing that was cited as a factor in Wheldon's fatal October accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The drivers met as a group last weekend in Detroit and voted to recommend less downforce for the cars at Texas, the first 1.5-mile banked oval since last season. IndyCar accepted the recommendation, but the drivers were divided on the end result Friday.
"The intent is to make it safe, and for everyone's peace of mind, we need to leave here after what happened in Vegas with a safe race, and I think that's important in the mind of everyone," Tagliani said.
Tagliani, from Lachenaie, Que., turned a lap at 215.691 mph late in Friday's qualifying session to bump Dario Franchitti from the top starting spot, and become the first driver in seven races this season not from Penske Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing to win the pole. Tagliani drives for Bryan Herta Autosport, which sat out the race at Brazil last month while it negotiated a split with underperforming engine manufacturer Lotus.
BHA and Tagliani teamed with Honda before last month's Indianapolis 500, and the switch has shown immediate dividends. Honda also is benefiting: Franchitti went 215.646 to qualify second, Graham Rahal qualified third and Scott Dixon was fourth to give Honda the top four qualifying spots for Saturday night's race.
Spots two through four were claimed by drivers from Chip Ganassi Racing, and IndyCar series points leader Will Power of Penske Racing qualified fifth as the highest Chevrolet.
James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., qualified sixth and will start next to Power on the third row.
But who landed where was of little concern as drivers climbed from their cars following their qualifying laps split on the rules for Saturday night. The drivers came into Texas wanting IndyCar to mandate a formula that would break up pack racing, and a decrease in downforce — which makes the cars harder to drive — was decided upon.
Ed Carpenter, who won on the oval at Kentucky last year, was the first driver to attempt his lap and was visibly upset with the current setup. He qualified 20th out of 25 cars.
"Everyone is so freaked out about pack racing that we have so little downforce," Carpenter said. "I feel everyone is nervous coming to the first (1.5-mile) of the year. I understand that. I don't feel I'm reckless, but we also have to put on a good race for the fans. If we race (this) package ... this will be a follow-the-leader race and one of the most boring races we have ever had at Texas."
James Hinchcliffe, who qualified sixth, also wanted more downforce and said the setup used in qualifying leaned toward a spread-out field Saturday night.
"There's a difference from breaking up pack racing and breaking up racing," he said.
The other end of the spectrum had drivers thrilled with the setup because it made the cars difficult to drive — thus putting an emphasis on skill as opposed to being able to run wide open around Texas. A year ago, Dixon said he could go about 55 laps on one set of tires. On Friday, "I did like maybe 40 laps on one set of tires and was really holding on.
"This is really about comfort levels," he said. "I think with more downforce it's definitely easier, and so people that are complaining about it maybe want it to be easier. But I think it should be difficult."
So did Rahal, who stressed that breaking up the pack racing was the most important goal for Texas.
"This is what we asked for, all along we've said, 'Hey, we want to drive these things again,'" Rahal said. "This is probably the first time in many years that we've had to come here and everybody has had to drive the thing. For the race, it's going to be so different because you somewhat control your own destiny. People are hanging on and I think it's going to be awesome to see what happens, to make no mistakes over the whole race is going to be a hard thing to do.
"But that's the way it should be. I'd rather have that than sit in a pack of 12 cars and your destiny is controlled by them. At least here you've got to drive the thing."
The drivers met Friday morning with Will Phillips, IndyCar's vice-president of technology, and it was decided the cars could not use rear wickers this weekend. That decision was reversed after qualifying, when IndyCar issued a technical bulletin that a rear wing wicker up to a maximum of 1/8" height and full span may be used for the race.
Now, they wait to see what effect it will have on the race.
Phillips said the wicker should add 125 lbs of downforce to the car, so drivers can go flat-out on fresh tires but will have a harder time with handling after the tires wear.
"As tires go off, it's not going to be so easy, which is something they've been clamouring for, 'You've got to put it back in our hands,'" Phillips said. "Some drivers are happy, some not so happy. I see it as a good compromise in trying to balance what we think will put on the best show in the safest possible fashion."
Power, who broke his back in the Las Vegas crash and was adamant after Wheldon's death that IndyCar must eliminate pack racing, believes the series has achieved its goal.
"You've got to be on top of the car the entire time, it's good and it is definitely tougher right now," Power said. "I think people are used to being flat, running along the white line, and the car is now sliding like it's never slid before. I don't think people's setups are suited to this, but it's headed in the right direction."
But will it be a good race? Power wryly referenced April's NASCAR race at Texas, which had just two cautions for 10 laps and was the fastest NASCAR race in track history.
"NASCAR does single-file around this joint," he smiled.