INDIANAPOLIS – With new engines, new cars and some new faces at the front of the grid, Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 figures to be as wide open as any in recent years.
None of the new engines – Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus – have gone 500 miles in competition. The possibility of engine failure – something not seen for the past several years – looms, adding to the unpredictability. Fuel mileage – which has been a factor at Indianapolis the past couple of years - also is an unknown, compounding the intrigue.
The new Dallara chassis is designed to be safer, with wheel fairings that hopefully will prevent cars from being launched into the catch fence, which is the type of incident that killed 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in a multi-car crash at Las Vegas at the end of last season.
Indianapolis may be on the verge of a changing of the guard, with only one former winner (Helio Castroneves) in the first four rows. Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, hardly a newcomer but also the lowest-profile driver on his team, is on the pole.
Rounding out the first row are a pair of Andretti Autosport drivers, second-year man James Hinchcliffe and veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay. Each of the drivers on the front row, plus Marco Andretti in the fourth spot, have their best starting spots ever at Indianapolis.
Given the way Roger Penske’s team has dominated at Indianapolis (record 15 wins) and this season (his team has won all four races), it’s likely Briscoe, Castroneves or series points leader Will Power will end up in Victory Lane.
“We’re very focused on this race, put a lot of emphasis on it because we all want to win here,” Power said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty crazy race.”
Here’s a closer look at the field:
The former winners
Helio Castroneves – Smooth and fast all month. A Penske car with the Chevrolet engine looks like the strongest combination.
Scott Dixon – Like the rest of the Honda drivers, hasn’t had the pace. Still, Dixon is a formidable competitor because of his smart, disciplined style who probably is the best at “making” fuel.
Dario Franchitti – Franchitti has been the biggest mystery of the season, and it carried over into qualifying. Believe it or not, he’s the slowest of the Chip Ganassi drivers and nearly was outqualified by James Jakes.
Ryan Briscoe – Equal parts promise and maddening inconsistency throughout his career, this is his best (and last?) chance to make it to the top
James Hinchcliffe – Affable Canadian is driving the car Danica Patrick had last year and what was intended for Dan Wheldon this year. Either would have been a large burden, but both? Give him high marks for concentrating on the task at hand – and doing a great job at that.
Ryan Hunter-Reay – Going from “buying” his way into the field last year to winning the pole this year would’ve been a great story. Part of the wave of young, American drivers with some personality.
Marco Andretti – He usually does well at Indianapolis and now has his best start ever. Is this the year the Andretti Curse ends?
Will Power – He’s dominated the season so far (three wins in four races) and possibly could be 4-for-4 if not for some ill-fated pit strategy at St. Petersburg. Indy career has been lackluster.
Tony Kanaan – The people’s choice. Has led a lot of laps at Indy (214, but none the last three races), but never the one that counts.
Graham Rahal – Fastest of the Ganassi bunch. Like Marco Andretti, needs to start living up to his name on a more regular basis to give the series a boost.
JR Hildebrand – He says he’s over what happened on the last lap last year when he crashed with the checkered flag nearly in sight.
Alex Tagliani – Last year’s pole winner has been pretty quiet this month, but could surprise
Josef Newgarden – Kind of bizarro world here in that he’s from NASCAR country (Tennessee) and wants to drive Indy cars. Winning for Sarah Fisher is one of those improbable, feel-good stories that happens only in NASCAR, though.
Simon Pagenaud – Has had some nice runs in the races leading up to Indianapolis.
Rubens Barrichello – Adapted nicely after a stellar career in Formula One. Along with Newgarden is one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.
James Jakes – Did a nice job to make it in the field on the first day of qualifying
Wade Cunningham – Former Indy Lights star put together a program to run for A.J. Foyt.
Katherine Legge – Was seen as sort of Champ Car’s answer to “Danica Mania.” Prior to this season hadn’t driven a top-level open-wheel car since 2007.
Bryan Clauson – One of the few drivers in this year’s field who followed the old-school path to Indy (sprints, midgets)
Jean Alesi – Lotus engine a detriment to ex-Formula One driver
Sebastien Bourdais – A shame that the program for this capable driver came together so late
Mike Conway – Back at Indy for first time since horrific crash at the end of the 2010 race
Takuma Sato – Solid month, could snag a top 10
Charlie Kimball – The other player in last year’s dramatic finish – it was his car Hildebrand tried to pass in Turn 4 – qualified better than Ganassi mates Dixon and Franchitti
Justin Wilson – Decent driver, but not on the world’s greatest team
Oriol Servia – See above
Townsend Bell – Has had some good runs at Indianapolis, but things don’t seem to be clicking this year
Ana Beatriz – Showed surprising speed throughout the month
Michel Jourdain Jr. – Drove in the infamous “split” 500 in 1996 as a 19-year-old. Hadn’t been in an open-wheel car for close to a decade until this month
E.J. Viso – Surprise entrant in the fast nine. Unpredictable
Ed Carpenter – Potential darkhorse at the start of the month, but big crash in qualifying set first-year program back
Simona De Silvestro – Lotus-powered car not a true indicator of her ability
Sebastian Saavedra – Also slated to drive in the Indy Lights race
Photo caption: Ryan Briscoe (center) captured his first Indianapolis 500 pole. Also starting on the front row are James Hinchcliffe (left) and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway