IndyCar Roundtable: Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Ahead of Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, our MotorSportsTalk writers look back at the Verizon IndyCar Series season thus far and look ahead to race morning and the biggest race day of the season.

My colleagues Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1), Kyle Lavigne (@KyleMLavigne) and Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski) will all be assisting on Indy 500 race coverage on NBCSports.com.

What have you made of the season so far? 

Tony

It’s been strange to be honest because there hasn’t been a real rhythm that’s emerged. With five winners from five different races and Simon Pagenaud somehow flying under the radar as the defending champion and points leader going into Indianapolis 500 qualifying – before being usurped by Scott Dixon – it’s not felt as though a firm form book has been established. Add in the qualifying crash at Indianapolis that’s taken this year’s best dark horse, Sebastien Bourdais, out of action for the foreseeable future and an air of unpredictability about the Indianapolis 500 beyond the Fernando Alonso talking point, and I’m as perplexed as I ever have been in 20-plus years of fandom and 10-plus years of covering.

Luke

It’s been a very mixed-up season so far. Team Penske seems to be the outright team to beat on pace alone, as evidenced by its run of victories in the past three races, yet Honda has been resurgent. Sebastien Bourdais’ victory in St. Petersburg really set the tone for the year to come. It’s a real shame he’s now out injured as he could have been a surprise contender in the title race.

I think the real stand-out theme for me has been the close-knit nature of the front-running teams. Penske’s out front, sure, but Chip Ganassi Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Andretti Autosport, Ed Carpenter Racing – heck, even Dale Coyne Racing – all look like operations capable of winning races right now. It’s a fascinating prospect as we head into the thick of the season.

Kyle

The unpredictability of the Verizon IndyCar Series has not changed in the 2017 season. Through five races, the series has five different winners from three different teams. While Team Penske has won three races in a row, the season opened with wins from the smaller operations of Dale Coyne Racing (with Sebastien Bourdais) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (James Hinchcliffe). The powerhouses of Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing are currently winless, and that’s unlikely to continue. So, the number of different winners could easily hit double digits.

What’s more: Honda has clearly closed the performance to Chevrolet and road and street courses, and appears to have retained its speed advantaged on the big ovals. And then, of course, we have Fernando Alonso deciding to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IndyCar has long been recognized as one of the most unpredictable motorsports series on the planet, and that trend has gone even further in that direction in 2017.

Jerry

It’s been an interesting season thus far. One of the biggest surprises has been the performance of Josef Newgarden. Any time a new, young driver joins a major team, there’s typically a time of transition and learning. But Newgarden has fit into Team Penske in outstanding fashion. That’s why he’s third in the standings. On a more overall perspective, Team Penske has been so dominant, with all four of its drivers in the top-5, and three of them already capturing wins, including Newgarden. If Team Penske wins the Indy 500, they threaten to start making this a runaway season overall for its four drivers. On the flip side, knowing the driver potential at play, it’s disappointing the slow start that Carlos Munoz (16th) and Conor Daly (19th) have struggled in their first season with A.J. Foyt’s team – but they are learning a new package with Chevrolet. Munoz typically does well in the Indy 500, so with a strong finish Sunday, it would boost his season overall.

What is your favorite part of the Indy 500?

Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Tony

Without question, race morning. After the incessant amount of buildup and long hours in the two weeks that precede the race, you’re so ready for race day. And the buildup from the moment you get to the track at o’dark thirty, through all the pomp and circumstance that is quintessentially Indiana, to the drop of the green flag provides a rush of exhilaration you can’t get at any other race event in North America. Having covered the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that’s the only thing comparable. The race itself feels a three-hour breeze… and then you’re back to the hours of post-race work to comprehend what you’ve just digested.

Luke

I adore the show that surrounds the Indianapolis 500. F1 types may not like the idea of the ‘500 being called “the greatest spectacle in racing”, but it totally is. The spectacle is stunning. From the hype surrounding the drivers in the lead up to green to the traditional ceremonies after the race, it all makes the ‘500 what it is.

If Liberty Media wants to make F1 more entertaining, it should really look to the excitement that the ‘500 creates. F1 has said it wants 21 Super Bowls per year – why not have 21 Indy 500s a year? Why not create that same hubbub that the ‘500 does on a regular basis, all over the world?

And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle

Most recently, it has been the race itself. Since 2012 and the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis, each Indy 500 has been a slip streaming war that has featured well over 30 lead changes in each race (the all-time record was set at 68 in 2013, and the 2016 race featured 54 itself).

And it’s featured some of the most epic battles in the history of the race. Takuma Sato crashed while trying to take the lead from Dario Franchitti on the final lap in 2012. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves swapped the lead no fewer than four times in the final laps in 2014, with Hunter-Reay coming out on top. And in 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya outdueled Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Charlie Kimball in the final 15 laps.

Quite simply, the race has been a thrill ride, and this year should be more of the same.

Jerry

Obviously, the last lap. But there are so many other elements I enjoy. There’s the people watching, especially pre-race on the grid when you see so many luminaries of the sports and entertainment worlds. There’s “Back Home Again In Indiana,” which always gives me goose bumps (and I so much miss Jim Nabors’ rendition). There’s also the start of the race, the first roll into Turn 1, and just an overall day that thoroughly envelopes your senses, from sights to sounds, smells to feels, etc. Oh yes, and then there’s arguably the greatest victory lane celebration in any form of motorsports. Love the milk, love the horseshoe of flowers and then the kissing of the bricks, which is a perfect way to end the day.

Who is your pick to win the Indy 500?

Tony

From the “full-time IndyCar beat reporter” standpoint, I’ll get this out of the way first: I’m firmly in the “I want Fernando Alonso to do well, but not win,” camp. An ideal scenario for me would be where he comes close enough to win – say fourth to eighth – and gets the competitive juices flowing that he’ll want to come back.

As for the win, there’s any of about 10 or 12 drivers I could pick. But the man who’s under-appreciated as the driver that is among the greatest of his generation is Scott Dixon, who starts from the pole. Dixon’s due a ‘500 win and if his Honda engine holds together, he could run into the wind.

Tony Kanaan was my preseason pick so I feel bad reneging on that but he’s not looked as strong thus far. If it’s not a member of the Ganassi team, and it’s worth noting both Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are top dark horses, a win from either Ed Carpenter Racing driver (Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand) would be cool to witness.

Luke

Yes, I’m being that guy. Fernando Alonso. Because the narrative surrounding the ‘Alonso 500’ means it would be rather fitting.

Alonso may lack the experience of racing on ovals, and the opening stages are going to be a bit of a shock to him. But if he can keep things clean and make sure he’s there at the end, then I’d want him in my corner.

And if like 2016 this race comes down to a fuel save for victory, Alonso might just be thankful for all of the struggles his Honda F1 power unit has put him through this year…

I’ll say we get an Alonso-Dixon-RHR podium on Sunday.

Kyle

Picking winner is a toss-up. There are about 12-15 drivers for whom a victory would be no surprise, and that list includes multiple one-off entries. Complicating matters even more: the Hondas have been faster, but with multiple engine failures so far, appear more fragile.

My pick will come out of the Chevrolet camp, and it will involve a story of redemption. JR Hildebrand avenges his 2011 disappointment by drinking the milk in Victory Lane this year.

Jerry

I admit it, I’ve caught Alonsomania. But then, is it really that much of a surprise to want to pick him when we’re talking about a former two-time Formula 1 World Champion? The biggest question is how will Alonso operate in traffic, particularly in the closing laps, when normally sane drivers oftentimes do some insane-like moves in a last desperate bid to win the biggest race in the world.

If Alonso does not win, my second pick to win is James Hinchcliffe for sentimental reasons. He came back a long way from his near-tragic crash in 2015 by winning the pole for last year’s race, but he left some unfinished business. I want to see him win the 500 not only for him but also for team owner Sam Schmidt and the entire organization. But if it comes down to a drag race to the checkered flag between Alonso and Hinchcliffe, I want the mayor of Hinchtown to rule supreme.

Andretti Autosport endures tough Road America outing

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All four of the Andretti Autosport drivers encountered significant problems during the Kohler Grand Prix, and none of them were able to salvage finishes inside the top ten as a result.

Most notably, Takuma Sato endured the most difficult weekend of the four-car armada after suffering a pinched nerve in his neck on Saturday, which forced him to miss the morning warmup.

And things didn’t get any better during the race, as a lap 28 spin exiting the Kink saw him lose a lap and forced him to play catchup even more than he already was. Although Sato managed to finish the race, hardly insignificant given his neck injury, he did so in 19th after starting 20th in what proved to be his worst race since winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“It was a tough weekend and tough race,” lamented Sato. “I injured my neck during practice Saturday morning. We started in the back row, tried to make a push up, but I caught an accident. The engine was stalled and I wasn’t sure if we could continue, but the safety crew came and fired up the engine, so I came back to the pit, buckled again and I was able to keep going. In the end we made the finish, but we need a better weekend.”

His teammates did not fair much better. Alexander Rossi, who qualified a disappointing 15th, ran a four-stop pit strategy, and while he cycled into the top five at one point, an issue with the front wing saw him fall to 13th at the finish.

Alexander Rossi was fast Road America, but an issue with the front wing dropped him back in the field at the end. Photo: IndyCar

“I think we started with a good strategy, going for a four-stop race after starting 15th, but it all caught up to us on that first yellow,” Rossi explained. “Luckily, we had already gained track position and speed running on open track. We had an issue with our front wing, which ironically or not, is the same issue we finished the race with here last year, so we definitely need to figure out exactly what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, had strong pace, even leading the Sunday morning warmup and running inside the top ten late in the race. But, contact with Charlie Kimball while battling for sixth broke the front wing on the No. 28 DHL Honda, and Hunter-Reay languished in 14th at the checkered flag.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was was 14th at the checkered flag after battling inside the top ten late in the race. Photo: IndyCar

“Charlie (Kimball) made a late block and took off my front wing. I had a good race going until Charlie moved out late like that, it’s just really unfortunate,” Hunter-Reay said of the incident.

Meanwhile, Marco Andretti battled a litany of problems, ranging from throttle issues to a broken pit speed limiter, which resulted in a drive-penalty for speeding during a round of pit stops. Andretti was a lowly 18th at the finish.

Marco Andretti battled a host of problems during the Kohler Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

“We started eighth, but ran into throttle problems. We went off track on the first stint because the throttle stuck wide open. We came into the pits to try to fix it and got hit with a pit lane speed violation because my pit lane limiter wasn’t working. We still weren’t getting full throttle – I was barely hitting sixth gear,” he lamented afterward.

Sato remains in the top five in the championship, now sitting fourth, 56 points behind leader Scott Dixon. Rossi sits ninth, with Andretti and Hunter-Reay 13th and 15th respectively.

 

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Kimball, Chilton quiet but solid at Road America

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While Scott Dixon scored victory for Chip Ganassi Racing, two of the team’s other drivers enjoyed quietly solid days at the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America.

Charlie Kimball, in need of a strong finish after being stricken with bad luck so far in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, scored his best finish of the year with a fine run to sixth place. While he was never a part of the battle for victory, he was “best of the rest” for most of the day and enjoyed a solid, mistake-free run.

“Overall a really solid day for the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing team,” Kimball said afterward. Though he admitted tire management in the race’s third stint hampered his efforts, he was more than pleased with the end result.

“That third stint, I don’t think I managed the Firestone alternates as well as some of the guys around me,” Kimball revealed. “You saw that with (Will Power) with a better in and out lap. That was disappointing, because I think we could have maybe had a shot at a top five. Overall though, to fight off some competitors for that last stint after the final yellow felt good and it felt good to bring it home in sixth for the guys. Kind of a semi-trouble free weekend and pretty happy with it.”

Teammate Max Chilton, too, scored a solid ten finish, the Briton finishing ninth. However, unlike Kimball, Chilton lamented not being able to finish higher on a circuit where he feels very comfortable.

Max Chilton during qualifying for the Kohler Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not how we wanted it, especially after how quick we were (in the morning warmup),” said Chilton, who started seventh and was second fastest in the morning warmup. Like Kimball, he struggled with tire management, and an untimely caution when he was on the primary black tires put paid to his chances of a better finish.

“Something just wasn’t working for us. On a set of reds, we were struggling massively and then we went to the blacks, which would’ve been alright, but then the safety car came out and everyone else had longer life on the reds and I was struggling again.”

With the Kohler Grand Prix in the books, Chilton currently sits 11th in the championship, three points behind tenth-place Ed Jones, while Kimball remains 18th, 72 points outside the top ten.

Mahindra to give M4Electro Formula E car public debut at Goodwood

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Mahindra Racing will debut its new car for the fourth Formula E season, the M4Electro, at the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed later this week as part of a bid to beat the existing open-wheel electric record for the hillclimb.

As part of its preparations for season four of Formula E, set to start in Hong Kong at the beginning of December, Mahindra has already hit the track with the M4Electro in private testing.

Full-season drivers Felix Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld have both completed running in the car, while Indian actress Gul Panag has also taken part in a test.

Heidfeld will give the M4Electro its first public outing at Goodwood and look to become the first driver to hold two records at the hillclimb.

The German driver holds the overall hillclimb record of 41.6 seconds at Goodwood, set back in 1999 in a McLaren MP4/13 Formula 1 car.

“We’re excited to bring Nick and the M4Electro to Goodwood in a bid to set the fastest open-wheel electric record on the hillclimb,” Mahindra team boss Dilbagh Gill said.

“We are always looking to push the boundaries as a team and we couldn’t think of a better way to introduce the season four challenger to fans and automotive enthusiasts alike than at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.”

Qualcomm named title partner for New York Formula E race

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FIA Formula E has announced that technology company Qualcomm will be the title partner for the upcoming New York City ePrix as the all-electric series gears up to hit the United States in three weeks’ time.

New York City will play host to its first motorsport event in Red Hook on July 15-16, acting as the penultimate round of Formula E’s third season.

Qualcomm has been a key partner for Formula E since the series’ inception in 2014, and will now act as the New York race’s title partner after acquiring the naming rights, as announced on Monday. The event will be formally called the ‘Qualcomm New York City ePrix’.

“As one of our founding partners – and now for the first time a race title partner for one of the most anticipated races of the season – Qualcomm Technologies’ continued support and commitment to Formula E has been instrumental,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“We share many of the same values in the field of innovation and technology transfer, which we’ve already seen with unique wireless charging concepts.

“I’m looking forward to making history in New York by bringing Formula E to the Big Apple for the first time – it’s going to be an unmissable event.”

Derek Aberle, president of Qualcomm Incorporated, added: “Qualcomm inventions enable widespread innovation, just as motorsport fuels the evolution of the automotive industry.

“Formula E, including this Qualcomm ePrix race in New York City, is a great testbed for our automotive breakthroughs such as wireless electric vehicle charging.

“We look forward to continuing our collaboration with Formula E to promote the benefits of the latest vehicle technologies as cars become more connected, autonomous and electric.”