Jean Alesi thinks his slow car is a safety hazard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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Seven months after Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash at Las Vegas, the former Formula One driver acknowledged Wednesday he is uncomfortable going so much slower – more than 15 mph off the pace Wednesday – than just about everyone else practicing for the Indianapolis 500.
”Right now, I feel very unsafe, being quite slow in the middle of the track,” Alesi said. ”So, I am quite concerned for my fellow drivers if we are not able to get the speed that we need. I am flat out and I have reached 205 mph as the maximum that I can see. So, it is not a comfortable position right now.”
Alesi isn’t the only one worried about safety.
The only other Lotus driver trying to make the 33-car starting grid, Simona de Silvestro, said she’s looking in the rearview mirror frequently and is trying to stay out of the way of faster cars.
And it’s not just the Lotus drivers who are concerned.
”I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes for sure,” said Venezuelan E.J. Viso, who drives for KV Racing Technology. ”It’s clear they’re under power. To make the car faster, you have to trim it a lot, and when you trim it a lot, that makes it tougher to drive. And he’s a rookie and this is his first time on ovals and this is probably the toughest oval we go through all year.”
The combination could make for a challenging situation on race day.
Hours after Alesi made his comments, IndyCar officials acknowledged they are aware of the problem and are continuing to put a premium on safety.
”IndyCar is monitoring the situation closely and continues to be in ongoing discussions with the manufacturers regarding it,” IndyCar vice president of technology Will Phillips said in a statement.
Regardless of what happens between now and the May 27 race, it’s yet another blow to Lotus’ tattered image.
The engine manufacturer has not won a race this season and has consistently been slower than Honda and Chevrolet.
Over the past several weeks, the problems have become even worse.
In April, the company released Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport from their contracts, allowing the teams to use other engines.
Two weeks ago, Jay Penske filed a $4.6 million lawsuit against Lotus, claiming the company damaged his team’s reputation by spreading ”especially outrageous” falsehoods while failing to deliver two chassis and hurting its ability to be competitive. He has since dropped the suit and will use Chevrolet engines at Indianapolis.
As expected, things have not gone smoothly for Lotus on the 2.5-mile oval, either.
Alesi and de Silvestro have consistently been the two slowest cars on the track and Alesi, the French star who made 201 career starts in Formula One, needed an extra horsepower boost from series officials Monday just to pass the third and final phase of his rookie test by sustaining speeds over 210 mph.
Without the boost, Alesi’s fast lap Wednesday was 205.389. De Silvestro’s best lap in the fifth practice session was 205.009. American rookie Josef Newgarden had the top speed of the day at 222.785.
Even team officials acknowledge there’s a problem.
”I can sympathize with the situation,” IndyCar engine project manager John Judd said. ”I can only comment on what I know about the engine, and we do have some work to do, for sure. I think we would all benefit from more testing.”
But that is not likely to happen before qualifying opens Saturday.
Practice is scheduled to resume Thursday and then all cars will get the horsepower boost Friday.
Series and race officials have set aside additional rookie orientation time for Thursday morning if England’s Katherine Legge can get her car on the track for the first time.
Legge and Sebastien Bourdais, another Frenchmen, have not been able to drive because of the pending lawsuit. Both announced Thursday they would have engines.
But how long can the Lotus cars stay on the track if they’re going 15 mph slower than everyone else?
”I wouldn’t say it’s unsafe, but you’re definitely in the way of 30 other cars that are quicker than you,” de Silvestro said. ”You just have to be calm about it and get out of the way.”