Story by Ben Sanders
The Indianapolis 500, the most storied auto race in the world, enters a new century in 2017 and significant hype and circumstance has surrounded the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. There are so many storylines heading in this year’s race that Indycar has garnered more attention worldwide as a sport.
The first storyline is two-time Formula World Champion and current McLaren F1 driver Fernando Alonso vacating the Monaco Grand Prix to vie for a victory at the Brickyard. This is one of Alonso’s big three with Monaco and Le Mans 24 Hours.
Over two million people, including myself, watched an online stream of his open test. Alonso has been fast the entire time in Indianapolis, qualifying seventh for the six-car Andretti Autosport Honda team. The entire motorsports community is eagerly awaiting to see what the charming and talented Spaniard can do. The last driver to come over from another motorsport mid-season was Kurt Busch in 2014, who finished sixth, and then competed for his NASCAR team in the Coca-Cola 600 the same evening.
Another ex-F1 driver who has been blisteringly fast during the month of May is four-time Champ Car and current Dale Coyne Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais. The Frenchman and his underdog team has shown great speed in practice and was a full mile per hour ahead of the field in Pole Day qualifying until a vicious crash sent him into the turn two wall, catching fire and sliding on the roll-hoop resulting in multiple fractures to his pelvis and right hip. Bourdais was released from hospital, under his own power, earlier this week and is already completing rehab.
For the first time since the V6-turbo era began in 2012, Honda has the upper-hand over Chevrolet, securing six of the top-nine positions in qualifying. Allocations of sandbagging-deliberately running at less than the cars full potential- has been rampant throughout the paddock.
2008 Indianapolis 500 champion Scoot Dixon in his Chip Ganassi Honda won the pole with the fastest four-lap average in twenty-one years clocking in at 232.595 mph. It was a weird day for Dixon who was robbed later that evening at a Taco Bell, with friend and former race winner Dario Franchitti, near the circuit.
There is also rumors around the paddock of more manufacturer interest, filling the void left by Lotus’ ill-fated attempt in 2012, which would allow teams to expand to more cars and convince part-time operations and Indy Lights teams to make the jump to full-time Indycar entries.
The incredible racing this engine and Dallara DW12 chassis combination has provided over the past five seasons is a welcome change. In the last five years, epic battles with other competitors and with the fuel gauge, has created an atmosphere of excitement, tension and close-calls on track. Large tows- the disturbance of air off the car in front- cause divebomb moves at the end of the 5/8 mile straightaways and intense battles. Over the past five years the race has averaged 45.4 lead changes a race including 68 in 2013.
In the 100th edition of the race in 2016, former Manor F1 driver Alexander Rossi stunned the racing community by winning the race as a rookie for Andretti-Herta Autosport, on fuel mileage, etching his name and likeness on the Borg Warner Trophy and drinking the milk in victory lane.
Twelve months on, Rossi is back to defend his race victory and prove it wasn’t a fluke. Notable drivers yet to win an Indianapolis 500 are Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Ed Carpenter and Marco Andretti. The latter seems to have inherited the dreaded “Andretti Curse” at the track.
History and redemption are also on the agenda for certain drivers. Helio Castroneves is looking to become only the fourth four-time winner of the event with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears. Meanwhile J.R. Hildebrand is out for redemption after crashing out while leading on the final corner in 2011.
Memorial Day is the greatest day in racing and if this doesn’t get your engine running, I don’t know what will. Hopefully this year’s edition will live up to the expectations and lead a new century at the Speedway on the right track.
Featured image for this post courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway