A Beginner's Guide To The Indy 500's Unusual Qualifying System

A Beginner's Guide To The Indy 500's Unusual Qualifying System

The way qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 works can be confusing, so we've written a handy guide

The Indianapolis 500 is structured very differently from any other race in the IndyCar season, and indeed is very different from many other championships.

For starters, it doesn’t take place the day before the race, oh no. In fact qualifying has two whole days devoted to it on the weekend preceding the Indy 500, making it something of an event in itself, and in 2017 will consist of three sessions.

At this point it’s probably worth explaining what a qualifying ‘run’ at the Indy 500 consists of. To make it as fair as possible only one car heads out on track at a time. Each car gets two warm up laps before launching into four consecutive flying laps, with the average speed of those four laps registering as the official qualifying time. Got that? Good.

Teams and drivers have a lot to think about during Saturday qualifying
Teams and drivers have a lot to think about during Saturday qualifying

The first session takes place on the Saturday, and lasts for most of the day. All cars take part, and they may make as many attempts as they like to set a fast time throughout the day.

The order of the first qualifying runs is decided by a random draw. Once everyone has completed their initial run they can elect to go out again if they so wish - but there’s a twist. When a driver wants to go out on the track they can join one of two different ‘lanes’: either the normal lane, or the fast track lane.

Cars joining the normal lane can go out as many times as they like to try and improve their qualifying time, just like you’d expect from a normal qualifying session in Formula 1. If they can’t beat their original time it doesn’t matter, because the time they set earlier will still stand.

Depending on when it happens, a crash in qualifying isn't necessarily the end of the world
Depending on when it happens, a crash in qualifying isn't necessarily the end of the world

Alternatively cars can join the fast lane. Anyone is this lane is given priority to go out on the track ahead of cars in the other lane, and is primarily for those that have yet to set a qualifying time. However, a driver who has already set a time can choose to join the fast lane, but in doing so they give up any times they’ve already set.

That means drivers can effectively gamble their existing time in the name of getting out on track quicker, which can be beneficial as the session draws to a close, or if conditions suddenly hit a sweet spot. The pay-off is stealing a march on their rivals and getting a faster time, the penalty is that if they screw it up; they lose all their other times. Pretty neat, right?!

At the end of Saturday qualifying all the times are wiped clean, but that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant as the nine fastest drivers on Saturday will go straight through to Sunday’s ‘Fast Nine’ session, where they’ll compete for pole position.

Alexander Rossi just missed out on the Fast Nine in 2016
Alexander Rossi just missed out on the Fast Nine in 2016

Sunday sees the grid for the race being set. The 24 cars that finished from positions 10-33 on Saturday head out in reverse order and they only have one run in which to post a time - although the race director can allow them another run if there are extreme circumstances (Juan Pablo Montoya was allowed another go in 2016 after his car hit a plastic bag which significantly affected his aero). No matter what average speed the fastest driver in the session sets, they highest they can start is 10th.

James Hinchcliffe took pole in 2016 with a four-lap average speed of 230.760mph

After that comes the Fast Nine shootout for pole position, which works in much the same way. The ninth-fastest from Saturday’s session goes out first, with the fastest car going last. Whoever has the highest average speed after all nine runs are complete gets pole for the Indy 500 in a week’s time.

Simple! Right?