After Looking Into the Past, the Indy 500 Looks to the Future [Indianapolis 500 Preview]
The DW12: Its Biggest Test Yet
The new car, christened the DW12 in memory of Dan Wheldon, has so far performed very well in its debut season. While the look of the car may take some getting used to, it has been very racy these first four races of the season. Now though it faces its biggest test. Practice, however, indicates that it will pass that test. There’s been a lot of slicing and dicing in the practice sessions, and while more defending can certainly be expected on Sunday, it’s a good sign that the race will be exciting. The car has also performed well on impact with the wall. There were four wrecks on qualifying weekend, and some of the hits were quite hard. Despite that, all four drivers walked away uninjured. So far so good on that front.
The Return of Engine Competition: Honda vs. Chevrolet
After six years of Honda being the sole engine supplier of IndyCar, this year Chevrolet and Lotus have joined the fray. After four races, Chevy has the clear edge, having won all four of them. After a flap about turbochargers (it’s a long story, don’t ask), the engines looked even during Indy practice, with Honda possibly having a slight edge. However, IndyCar added boost to the engines for qualifying, and with that, Chevy dominated, taking 9 of the top 10 spots on the grid. Luckily for Honda, that boost will not be available for the race. The Honda teams are hoping that eliminates Chevy’s advantage, but the qualifying shellacking Honda took means their teams are going to all be starting mid pack or worse. That includes their biggest team, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, whose main drivers will start 15th (Scott Dixon) and 16th (Dario Franchitti).
The new equipment also introduces reliability as a variable again, something that hasn’t been a factor in years. In the past, it wasn’t just about being fast, it was about the equipment making it through the 500 miles. There are plenty of examples, from the Novi engines of the 1940s and 1950s to the turbines of the late 60s to the Buick V-6 engines of the 90s, of cars and engines that were fast enough to win, but just weren’t reliable enough to get the job done.
As for Lotus? It’s been an embarrassment, plain and simple. Most of their original teams have fled their camp, leaving them with two cars. Those two cars have been anywhere from 10 to 15 mph slower than the rest of the field all month, and not surprisingly, they qualified 32nd and 33rd, only making the field because only 33 cars attempted to qualify (sparking another firestorm of rumors as to why that was the case). It isn’t the fault of the teams, Fan Force United and HVM, and it’s not the fault of the two drivers, ex-F1 driver Jean Alesi and promising young driver Simona de Silvestro. It’s the lump of an engine keeping them uncompetitive and potentially unsafe. IndyCar has made it clear than if the Lotuses can’t make a minimum speed during the race (105% of the leaders pace), they will be parked. All indicators are this will happen quickly. The Lotus debacle is easily the biggest black mark on the race, and hopefully it will be resolved soon for the safety of all involved.
Helio’s Drive for Four
The Pantheon at Indianapolis is the Four-Time Winners Club, which currently consists of three names: AJ Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears. This Sunday, Helio Castroneves will make his third attempt at joining this group. Helio has seen a resurgence this season, winning the opening race and sitting 2nd in the points. Of course, Helio still drives for Roger Penske and his 16 Indy 500 wins. He starts sixth, and there’s no little doubt that he’ll be right in the thick of it.
The Andretti Autosport Renaissance
Last year, Indy was a disaster for the Andretti Autosport team. Two of their drivers barely made the field, while their other two didn’t. This year though it’s been a complete 180 for the team at the Speedway. James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified on the front row, with Marco Andretti right behind them in the 4th starting position. Their two part-time drivers, Ana Beatriz and Sebastian Saavedra, also qualified well. While many teams have spent time at the top this month, Andretti has been the most consistent team.
They are joined by Team Penske at the front of the field. Both teams combine for the entire first two runs, led by Ryan Briscoe on the pole. For Briscoe, this week is his time to shine after many years of being the forgotten man at Team Penske. He can definitely win this race, as could his teammate Will Power, who has dominated the road and street courses recently, but hasn’t seen that kind of oval success.
Add Dixon and Franchitti to these six and you’ve got your primary contenders to win.
An Intriguing Rookie Class
There are seven rookies this year, most with impressive credentials. However, three stand out. The first, Josef Newgarden, I profiled last week, and he has continued to impress. He was the only Honda to qualify in the top nine, and he’ll start 7th. While we all know how difficult it is for a rookie to win this race (see: 2006 and 2011), Newgarden has to be considered at least a second-tier contender, and to see a young American win for a popular American owner (Sarah Fisher) would be huge for the race and the sport.
Going into the season, the rookie that commanded all the attention was 19 year Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello. It’s been a transition period for Barrichello at the start of his IndyCar career, including at Indy practice, where he was near the bottom of the speed charts. However, Rubens rebounded in qualifying and will start 10th. Barrichello has never run an oval race before, and has never run a race this long. Still, he’s as professional as they come, and while winning is probably too much to ask, don’t be surprised if Rubens is a factor late.
The other major rookie starter is Bryan Clauson, the two time USAC National Champion. In the old days, there was a very rich pipeline from sprint car racing to the Indy 500. Recently though, that pipeline has dried up, and any sprint cars racers wanting to graduate to bigger cars have gone to NASCAR. IndyCar is trying to buck that trend, and Clauson is the first one up, driving the 500 for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing as a teammate of Newgarden. Clauson has impressed most of the month, but made his first mistake on Pole Day, when he crashed on his qualifying run. The mistake meant he had to qualify Sunday, an intentionally conservative run that leaves him starting in the last row. Of course, for a guy coming from sprint cars, a solid, finishing run is what he’ll be looking good. It could be the start of a renewal of a long dormant relationship.
The Missing Drivers
While it’s a deep field this year, it must be noted the two high profile drivers that are not in Indianapolis, Danica Patrick, of course, left for NASCAR’s cash. In the short term, that will certain hurt the buzz of the 500, but long term, the race and the series needed to get out of Danica’s shadow. It’s still a loss though, don’t let anyone tell you different. The bigger and more tragic loss though is of Dan Wheldon. IndyCar is still reeling from the death of Wheldon last October. He is the first Indy 500 champion in 66 years who could not defend their title due to being killed in a racing accident. Dan will be honored during the race, as a champion like him deserves, but the hole in the heart of IndyCar is not filled and will not for a long time, if ever.
So, Who’s Going to Win?
This is a deep field, and while the usual suspects at Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti are the primary factors, there are another six to eight drivers that could conceivably win. The rest of the field, meanwhile, are not slouches and can easily end up with a good finish (well, if they don’t drive a Lotus that is). The tightness of the field and the raciness of the new cars should mean that Sunday’s race will be live up to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Who am I picking to win? Turn in tomorrow, when I rank the whole field from 33 to 1.