Indianapolis 500 preview

Indycar

The month of May has arrived which means it’s Indy 500 time. Practice gets underway this week with qualifying next weekend.

IndyCar has run five races so far, all on road or street courses. We’re a quarter of the way into the season and, much as many of us predicted, it’s a Penske vs Ganassi battle with Penske’s cars running 1-2-3 in the championship. Going into the 99th Indy 500, Juan Pablo Montoya leads the championship from Will Power and Hélio Castroneves, with Ganassi’s team leader Scott Dixon fourth in points.

As an overview, the new season started badly for IndyCar with two shaky races at St Petersburg and New Orleans. Both of them were total disasters. At St Pete everyone ran over each other and there were wings and pieces flying all over the place. Then New Orleans in the rain was almost a repeat. It was a complete mess, leaving a lot of egg on the drivers’ faces and on the series too.

But at Long Beach and Barber they turned things around and had two races in a row that were great to watch. Long Beach drew a big crowd and they put on a great race with Dixon scoring a classy win. At Barber Josef Newgarden drove a smart, fast race to score his first win in IndyCar.

Then we had last weekend’s race on the road course at Indianapolis. Will Power drove a great race to win from the pole but there were some messy moves behind him. There was a controversial crash at the first turn which eliminated Dixon’s hopes of winning and some other moves went on which infuriated Dixon and Tony Kanaan who vented on social media demanding some penalties as well as more consistent officiating from IndyCar’s race director Brian Barnhart.

For whatever reason Castroneves made a mistake at the first turn and got into the back of Dixon which caused a bunch of other cars to run wide. Dixon believed Castroneves should have been penalised and Kanaan claims he was robbed of a handful of places by the cars that left the track and then re-entered ahead of him.

It’s a recurring theme in IndyCar, but Barnhart has once again got himself in the drivers’ crosshairs. It looks like the heat is on after last weekend and it will be interesting to see if any fines or penalties are handed out this week. Certainly, the drivers are asking for some kind of action.

I don’t really know where I stand on this. Looking back on my own career I spent far too long standing on a soapbox arguing for the chief steward to officiate consistently and clearly. I guess all that soapbox work was a waste of time.

All I can say is, it is what it is. Chief stewards are like referees. Sometimes there’s going to be a goal that’s not a goal or a foul call when a foul hasn’t been made. Mistakes are made. At the end of the day, nobody wants Barnhart’s job. Nobody will take on that job. He’s the only guy willing to do the job. So you can bitch and complain and call for a different guy, but nobody else is stepping up.

So you play by the rules they set. Sometimes there are going to be good calls and sometimes there are going to be bad calls. And sometimes I guess there’s going to be no call. That’s the way it is in IndyCar.


Brian Barnhart

Meanwhile, it’s no surprise to anyone that Penske is leading the way. Everyone expected them to be strong this year with the new Chevrolet aero kits and engines. But Ganassi also has Chevy behind his team and Dixon has gotten off to a good, if not great start. He had a shot to win last weekend but got taken out at the first corner, although he came back to finish 10th and take some important points. Scott’s fourth right now, close behind the Penske boys, and it looks like the championship battle is going to be between those four.

The surprise of the season so far is Graham Rahal, who drove two great races to finish second at Barber and Indianapolis last weekend. Going into the off-season last winter things did not look good for Graham. The Rahal team had lost the biggest sponsor in the paddock in the National Guard and its budget had been slashed to a third of what it was. There were also some sweeping changes throughout the team with many of the key crew members. And Graham also has a high profile girlfriend in Courtney Force who’s a superstar in her own right in NHRA drag racing.

When you add all that up on paper it spells disaster, but Graham has responded in the best possible way. He’s buckled down and he’s driving to the potential that we’ve all seen in him for some years. He also requested that his dad come down from calling the shots on the pitbox which I’m sure was a hard thing to discuss and for Bobby to agree to. But he’s done that and it seems to have been a good move. I can speak from my own experiences in listening to my dad. I did too much of that for many years and I had to break away from him and work on my own. It was tough but it was the right thing to do.

I think Bobby’s driving style was very different from the way Graham drives. Bobby won a lot of races, including the Indy 500, and also won three championships. He was very reserved and calm. He was smooth and calculating and didn’t make many mistakes.

I think Bobby tried to instil his methods into Graham, but he drives in a different way. He’s much more aggressive and has a different personality – his dad’s way just wasn’t working with him.

So hats off to Graham. He’s really stepped it up. I’ve said to Graham a little homily that Tony Cicale taught me. Tony used to say: “When the green flag drops all the bullshit stops. You’ve got what you’ve got. We’re not going to be able to make it any better today and you’ve got to get on with it and figure out how best to get around the track and get the best result you can.”

I think Graham has really taken that to heart this year. He’s driving the wheels off the car. The big rumbling in the paddock this year is that the Honda package is not as competitive as the Chevy package, but Graham has been defying whatever that deficiency may be. So far this year he’s been Honda’s leading guy which is good to see.

We know the Chevy package is strong. The big question now is, can Honda come back with its current aero package and win the biggest race of the year? If it’s able to do that it will save the season. A win at Indianapolis can make up for a bad year elsewhere. If they can rebound and finish well in the 500 there will be light at the end of the tunnel. But if it’s uncompetitive and the first seven places are swept by Chevrolet, this year will be a wash for Honda.

I always liked Scott Dixon at Indianapolis, he’s always quick on the big speedway. He’s a guy you can never count out and Kanaan is always very good at Indianapolis. Both of them have won the 500 and are capable of doing it again.

Team Penske has got to be the favourite this year because they’ve been so strong in the opening races. Roger’s team has won 15 Indy 500s but hasn’t won the race since 2009 with Castroneves. The team has won just two times over the last decade, which is pretty spotty for Roger. It’s not that they’re not quick. Castroneves was in the thick of the battle last year but they just haven’t been making all the right moves needed to win the 500.

This year with four cars there’s a lot of information being worked on at Team Penske and that should help their cause. And Montoya is enjoying a good year. He’s leading the championship and he’s always very competitive at Indianapolis. Juan should be strong in this year’s 500 but there are plenty of competitive cars and drivers and it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen.

 

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