- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis 500 is all about history and tradition. Change doesn't come quickly or often.
But this year, the 500 has the equivalent of a new coat of paint. Not the event itself, which will carry on with the same regimented pomp and circumstance it has trademarked for a century, culminating in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing on May 27 (Broadcast starts at 11:00 a.m. ET on ABC).
Nor will the actual race change this year. It's still 200 laps of a low-banked, rectangle-shaped, 2.5-mile oval. But the cars racing on that familiar old track are brand-new and considerably different than the ones used over the past 15 years.
That means the racing is going to be different. This is the first oval race for the Dallara DW12 chassis and the turbocharged V-6 engines from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus. Over the next two weeks, we'll learn which engine produces the most power and speed, and which engine is the most economical, allowing its teams extra flexibility in determining their strategy as the marathon-like race unfolds.
"It'll be all new to everybody," observed 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan. "It's a new aero kit and a new engine, and there's so many things that can happen that are unknown.
"And this place -- Indianapolis -- makes it hard just being this place. I don't know if I can describe how hard it's going to be because there's no easy time here at the Speedway, even with a 10-year-old car that you've run for 10 years in a row."
Many times when a racing series makes a wholesale equipment change, the established pecking order is upset. But that hasn't been the case in 2012, as perennial powerhouse Penske Racing has claimed victory in all four of the IZOD IndyCar Series races contested this year.
Of course, Roger Penske is the most successful team owner in the history of the Indianapolis 500, with 15 race wins. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Penske's first Indy win, with driver Mark Donohue in 1972, and Penske will be honored on IMS Legends Day on May 26.
By then, the field will be set for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500, and the two weeks leading up to that point are bound to feature some interesting storylines. Here are five guaranteed to generate headlines:
1. Chevrolet versus Honda: Corporate sponsorship and manufacturer support are keys to the economic foundation of auto racing. The return of multiple engine manufacturers competing in the IndyCar Series after six years of exclusive Honda supply has spiced things up on and off the track.
Everyone knew it was going to be a battle when Team Penske aligned itself with Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi Racing signed with Honda. While Penske has been the dominant Chevrolet team (matched at times by Andretti Autosport), Ganassi hasn't always been Honda's top performer.
The Honda runners were also hindered by a slight disadvantage in turbocharger efficiency. Honda's engine utilizes a single turbocharger, as opposed to the Chevrolet and Lotus designs, which feature a turbocharger on each bank of cylinders. Although its engines have won all four races this year, Chevy is fighting the introduction of a larger turbo inlet for the Hondas, an alteration endorsed by turbo manufacturer Borg-Warner in an effort to equalize the engines. Honda decided on a single turbo layout, believing it offered a performance advantage at Indianapolis and high-speed ovals, and it will be interesting to see if the benefits they were seeking play out on the track.
At the other end of the spectrum, the saga of the Lotus brand's return to Indy car racing gets sadder every day. Team Lotus won many Formula One races and championships, plus the 1965 Indianapolis 500. But the 2012 Lotus Indy car engine has been problematic from the start and Chevrolet and Honda were forced to supply more engines than they intended to make up for Lotus' deficiencies and insure that there are at least 33 entries in the 500.
Lotus was not expected to compete at the level of industry giants Honda and GM, but it was expected to supply 20 percent of the field, and in that regard it has fallen far short. And that doesn't even take into account the performance deficiency of the Lotus power plant. With teams bailing left and right and some even suing Lotus (Dragon Racing is seeking $4.6 million for breach of contract), the legendary but embattled manufacturer's engine program has been an embarrassment to its contracted teams and the series.
2. How fast? How safe?: Even before the accident that killed Dan Wheldon, the new Dallara Indy car that was ultimately named after the late two-time Indianapolis 500 champion was intended to be a step forward in terms of safety. That aspect of the new car took on even greater importance in the wake of Wheldon's death, which resulted when his car was launched into the air in a multicar crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October.
In an effort to prevent cars from interlocking wheels, the Dallara DW12 has bodywork that extends to the outer edge of the rear tires. It also has "bumpers" behind the rear wheels that at Indianapolis double as rear wing endplates in a break from the look of most Indy cars from the past 40 years.
A lot of aerodynamic research has gone into preventing the DW12 from taking flight; some less diplomatic commentators suggest that perhaps more work should have gone into finding speed when the car is on the ground. The DW12 has been disappointingly slow in speedway trim since Wheldon turned some development laps at IMS in the prototype last September. Testing of the car with the Indy-specific aero package has been barely limited, but the top speed recorded was a draft-assisted 218 mph lap by Marco Andretti. It could result in the slowest pole speed since the late 1990s, and it's possible that we won't even see a 220 mph lap during the month of May.
3. Penske is nearly perfect; Can Power be?: Roger Penske remembers the days when Penske Racing had six team members and he helped drive the transporter from the team's base near Philadelphia out to Indianapolis. In fact, that's pretty much all Penske Racing was in 1972, when the man called "The Captain" scored the first of his 15 Indianapolis 500 wins.
Three of those wins have come courtesy of Helio Castroneves, who hopes to become just the fourth four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. But Penske's strongest threat to win is probably Will Power, who has won three of four races in 2012 to sprint out to a 45-point lead in the championship over teammate Castroneves. More importantly, Power is already 100 points clear of Ganassi's Dario Franchitti, the man who has beaten the Aussie to the title at the wire the past two years.
Power scored his first oval race win at Texas Motor Speedway last June and appears to be in position to dominate the rest of the 2012 season. A victory at Indianapolis would be a big step in that direction. Ryan Briscoe, the third Penske driver, hasn't had the best luck at Indianapolis but is also capable of winning.
4. Is 33 really just a number?: The Indianapolis 500 starting field has consisted of 11 rows of three since 1934, except for rare and extenuating circumstances. There has not been a year in the postwar era in which there were not enough entries to fill a 33-car field, but this year could prove the exception. Thirty-four entries were filed before the list was released on April 19, with 30 nominated drivers. Since then, Townsend Bell, Wade Cunningham and Jean Alesi have been confirmed as drivers, with Fan Force United Racing added as a last-minute entry.
The ragtag FFU effort, which is being powered and funded by Lotus for Alesi, has prompted some observers to wonder if the IndyCar Series should focus on quality of entry instead of quantity in a desperate effort to insure a 33-car grid. Alesi, 47, was a decent F1 driver in his day (he won the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix), but the combination of an out-of-practice driver with zero oval track experience and a low-budget team with zero knowledge of the current generation of Indy cars has the potential for serious disaster. Like when Nelson Piquet, a three-time F1 World Champion, made a similar, late-career attempt to run Indy in 1992 and badly broke his legs in a practice crash.
5. Worlds collide: Alesi isn't the only F1 veteran who will attempt to make his Indianapolis 500 debut this month. Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced F1 driver of all time, with more than 300 starts (and 11 race wins), has attracted a world of attention to the IndyCar Series despite not finishing higher than eighth in any of the season's first four races.
Barrichello has long shown an interest in Indy car racing; he attended the Indianapolis 500 several times as a spectator and has visited other Indy car venues, including the Milwaukee Mile. But it was widely publicized that he promised his wife he would never try oval racing, which is viewed as a dangerous anomaly to road racing in most parts of the world.
When he made the decision to go IndyCar Series racing this year, Barrichello knew he had to go all-in. And although he raced several times at IMS on the road course in the United States Grand Prix, including a win in 2002, the 39-year-old Brazilian had a deep-set desire to compete in what he calls the proper race.
"I've been there and I've raced there, but the proper Indy is going to happen now," Barrichello said. "I'm thrilled. I felt good when I took the decision for myself, obviously, with the consent of everyone. I always say that it was three against one at home because it was the kids and myself against mom. It wasn't an easy battle!"
If successful in making the field, Barrichello and Alesi would be the 39th and 40th drivers with Formula One experience to start the Indianapolis 500 since 1950. The most successful was Jim Clark, who triumphed at Indianapolis in 1965 -- which was also the year he won his second F1 title.
Graham Hill, Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi are the only other F1 World Champions to have won at Indianapolis.