From Jebel Ali to Indianapolis: Ed Jones at home on North America’s Oval tracks

Rich Biebrich speaks to Ed Jones about his budding Indy Lights career as he continues to get accustomed to North American circuits.

After a tough start to the season, Ed Jones has hit form with two wins and two runner-up finishes in his last five races.  Courtesy Chris Owens / IMS Photo
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INDIANAPOLIS: Wednesday’s sneaky sun, where a cool breeze hid how bright and hot it really was, had given way to overcast and humidity on Thursday.

While rain had washed away qualifying for Friday’s Indy Lights Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nothing could wipe away the smile from Ed Jones’s face.

Fresh off his fifth pole of the season, awarded thanks to his lofty position at the top of the Indy Lights standings, Jones seemed impervious to anything raining on his parade.

Even the rain.

“It’s a shame that it came down to the cancelling of the qualifying, because we had eight cars already run and we were the fastest,” Jones said, standing in the Carlin transporter as an occasional crew member moved around him to put this away or get that part.

“So, we were almost there to winning it the normal way. It’s frustrating to win it this way, but of course we’ll take it.”

Dubai-born Jones, 21, has learnt to take things as they come after last season, when he jumped out quickly with three straight wins then stumbled a bit and finished third in the standings.

“Obviously you always want to win and be at the front, and to win the first three races was a dream start,” he said. “But it kind of set all our expectations a bit too high, you know? We struggled the rest of the season, but I learnt so much, especially the ovals as it was my first time on them.

“We have a lot more experience now. The team, we’ve grown together.”

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This year has been the reverse — after a rough start to the 2016 season at St Petersburg, Jones and the Carlin team have been on fire with two wins and a pair of second-place finishes over five races. And the one race he didn’t finish on the podium he ran fourth.

“We’ve got some good momentum going,” Jones said. “Ever since Phoenix [where he won] and Barber [in Alabama, where he won both poles, added another win and finished second in the other race] we’ve been really good. Consistent. We’ve been right up there, especially in qualifying, where we’ve been able to find that little bit extra.”

Oval-track racing is what makes the North American open-wheel series different from the other open-wheel series, and Jones conceded his first go-around on them was difficult.

“It took me quite a while to get comfortable on them,” he said. “Some people find them a lot easier than others. I took my time.

“To go on an oval was a big jump and mentally hard.

“It’s so fast. There’s no room for error. You really have to trust the car.”

Judging from Phoenix, where he qualified second and finished second to jump-start his season, Jones has found his oval comfort zone.

“I’m confident on them,” he said. “If anything, the ovals are my favourite, especially the qualifying. It’s more of a mental challenge than anything else. It’s so fun.

“In the race you never feel scared, but in the qualifying on the ovals, it’s a bit sketchy. Every time going into an oval weekend, I really look forward to the qualifying.

“You trim the aero[dynamics], taking grip out of the car. You have low fuel. There’s no practice, so you literally go straight out and you are flat out. It’s a bit of blind faith.

“It’s the greatest feeling when it goes right, but it can bite you really hard.

“That’s the thrill of it.”

And this 2.5-mile oval at this place they call “the Brickyard” is the one that’s different from all the rest.

“It’s really weird,” Jones said. “It’s an oval, but very different to the others because it really is like four separate corners. At Phoenix or Iowa, those are continuous corners. The feeling of the car at Indy is very different to those. It’s looser in general, as you are running much smaller wings. Again, another challenge. It’s difficult.”

The rain had stopped now, and the air was a bit sticky as the sun finally started to chase the clouds away.

Once again the track started buzzing as people emerged from wherever they were waiting out the wet weather. Crew members moved parts and tires from transporters to garages and fans milled about hoping to catch a glimpse and perhaps an autograph of a driver.

“I started go-karting at age 5 at Jebel Ali Circuit,” Jones said. “I used to watch the Indy 500 on TV, and it was so exciting, so different from all the other racing you see.

“People who have raced only in Europe, on the road and street courses, from the outside it can look maybe not so challenging. But once you do it, you realise how difficult it really is and how much respect you have for the drivers.

“It’s going to be special, this Freedom 100. And to be here this weekend for the 100th running of the Indy 500, to be a part of this weekend, it can’t get much better than that.

“It’s just a special event. It’s not just the track, which is fun to drive and are, but it’s the crowds. The history.

“And you have to enjoy everything about it.”

Right now, starting on pole Friday, Jones has put all his troubles behind him. He aims to be fast enough to keep them there.

Ed Jones describes a lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“You have this long straightaway down into Turn 1, and for me Turn 1 is the most difficult corner as there is a bit of a dip just as you turn in and it can catch you off a bit. Sometimes you can lose the rear. It’s easy to do. It’s also more blind than the other corners for some reason. Whenever the car is a bit uncomfortable, that’s always the corner where you feel it the most and are most nervous.

After the short chute you are into Turn 2. It’s a lot more settled, as you’ve scrubbed off quite a bit of speed from Turn 1. So you turn in late and get as good as an exit as you can to the back straightaway.

Then Turn 3 — again you are approaching at a very high speed but at this corner the vision is a lot better for some reason compared to Turn 1. It’s a lot easier to hit your marks every time.

Then through the short chute to Turn 4 and again, similar to Turn 2, you want to prepare for the exit to get the best run down the front straight.”

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