IndyCar preview: Grand Prix of Indianapolis

IndyCar preview: Grand Prix of Indianapolis

IndyCar

IndyCar preview: Grand Prix of Indianapolis

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Like most of you, I’m a big fan of onboard cameras – particularly RACER‘s Marshall Pruett/Simon Pagenaud visor-cams, of course – but one of the coolest things I ever saw while riding shotgun via TV came courtesy of Juan Pablo Montoya in the Formula 1 Williams-BMW at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

During the U.S. Grand Prix one year, hurtling down the front straight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and chasing Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, Montoya caught the scarlet car just as they got into the brake zone for the first turn, but wasn’t close enough to make it stick; the Williams driver was still scrubbing off speed as Schuey was getting back on the gas. Through the twisty section, Monty lost a little ground but was still going to be close enough to get a tow, and the BMW power was considerable… He could still get him. Next time by, as he swept through oval Turn 1, the final turn on the road course at that time, we were riding with Montoya as he reached up and tightened each of his shoulder straps! Sure enough, that Ferrari rear wing grew closer and closer and this time Juan was able to brake impossibly late, yet didn’t even lock a tire. He was past Schuey and away.

As Graham Rahal tells us in his Insight story, it is still possible to brake very late for that 90-degree right hander. And it’s impossible to block in a subtle manner because the track’s so wide. And you can get a major tow effect down the main straight. This could be a thrilling scrap. 

VICTORY CONTENDERS

Judging by last week’s test, Juan Montoya (ABOVE) has still got that special something around IMS road course – he was just a tenth and a half slower than his Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Of course, testing is one thing, qualifying another but JPM was only 0.3sec from Power in Q2 at Barber… There’s enough evidence to suggest he could be in the thick of the lead fight here, along with his teammates.

A couple of Honda drivers have hinted that they think their HPD engines are a tad stronger than the Ilmor-built Chevrolets at the top end this season, but it’s been hard to confirm that thus far. The long pit straight at Indy will provide more evidence, although bear in mind much will depend on gearing and wing levels. But Andretti Autosport only need things to be even between the manufacturers to go out and win. The Ryan Hunter-Reay (BELOW) / Marco Andretti 1-2 at Barber may have owed quite a lot to the drivers’ dexterity in the wet-then-drying conditions, but all four Andretti cars looked very fast at various points over the weekend. There’s no reason to expect any different here, especially with Franck Montagny (RIGHT) adding a fifth stream of data to the team’s effort, as he pilots the entry tabbed for Kurt Busch in the “500.”

The fastest man in the test, however, was Scott Dixon and he was ably backed by Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe who has taken a while to show his true colors in his new berth but when everything is right, he’s well able to be top of the CGR foursome. Interestingly, he was second fastest when the track was “green” in the morning, and kept pace with the conditions in the afternoon, which indicates a driver (a) taking full advantage of the facilities offered by a top team and (b) clicking well with his engineer. Don’t be surprised to see RB on pole on Friday nor standing on the center step of the podium come Saturday afternoon. But say the same for reigning champion Dixon, who is looking for his first win of 2014.

Simon Pagenaud as the winner of the inaugural GP of Indianapolis is definitely a strong possibility. If his qualifying run at Barber was a disappointment, it’s possibly the only session of the season where he’s been genuinely bewildered about where the speed went. Pagenaud’s technical understanding of the cars is phenomenal, and this scientific and thoughtful approach to a race weekend can pay particular dividends when he and engineer Ben Bretzman encounter new tracks.

KV Racing seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough (as ever) with Sebastien Bourdais being fearsomely fast (as ever) but making the odd slip here and there. Super Seb had the pace to get podiums at both Long Beach and Barber, but errors crippled his chances. However, he has the natural pace to carry his car, and in what could be a wild slipstreaming race, he has the intelligence and instinct to pull the trigger at the suitable time.


 

 PODIUM POSSIBLES

Josef Newgarden has to be in this collection. After three rounds of showing a lot of pace and not much luck, it’s time for the Tennessee Terror to get his dues. In fact, the only reason I haven’t put him into the victory contenders roster is that the test looked discouraging in terms of pace, over a second slower than P1 in both morning and afternoon. However, it’s important to remember that there are depths to the Sarah Fisher Hartman team now, the ability to learn and come back with a great setup. And Josef has the kind of feistiness and judgment you want your driver to have in a wheel-to-wheel fight.  

It would be nice to think Pagenaud’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate Mikhail Aleshin (ABOVE) can finally show America what the Europeans already know – that he’s a potential race winner. So far we’ve seen he’s a strong scrapper come race day, but he’s got to find a couple more tenths in qualifying. Or rather, he would do…but on the IMS road course, qualifying is almost as irrelevant as it is on the oval. If you’ve got the race pace, you’re going to find a way to the front.

This May, incidentally, is the 60th anniversary of the second and final Indy 500 win for Bill Vukovich, the “Mad Russian” (who was actually Serbian before becoming an American.) Maybe this is a good portent for Aleshin, a true Russian. Or maybe I was just looking for an excuse to mention the greatest master of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Dale Coyne Racing has had a solid if unspectacular start to the 2014 season, but Justin Wilson, who raced here as a Formula 1 driver (obviously in its pre-facelift layout) is someone we never count out. He looked strong in the test and definitely has podium potential.

The rest, frankly, look like long shots for top-three finishes. While the theory is that new venues equalize the field and give inexperienced drivers or low-budget teams a better chance, the day-long test last Wednesday has neutralized much of that potential for surprise, and the cream has risen to the top. The shakeups will only come if there’s an awkwardly timed caution flag.

Also look for…

Jack Hawksworth who ran top 10 for Bryan Herta Autosport in both test sessions here. He was ebullient about his passes (with good reason) at Barber and he’s never short of confidence.

…steady improvements from Martin Plowman (RIGHT) who is racing a second car for AJ Foyt Racing. If he gets within a second of teammate Takuma Sato in qualifying, Plowey will deserve a lot of credit. He has only three IndyCar races under his belt in his career so far, and those were back in 2011. Come the race, he shouldn’t have a problem keeping pace. His championship-winning performances for OAK Racing in the World Endurance Championship last year show that a tough guy hides behind the cheery smile.

…Some wild action in the support races. As at Barber, the full Mazda Road To Indy is in town, with two races each for Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000. In particular, keep your eye on son-of-Bryan Colton Herta. In his USF2000 debut at Barber, the karting ace was immediately on the pace; in the IMS test on Wednesday, he was setting it.

(Follow RACER’s coverage of the GP of Indianapolis and the Indy 500 all month on Twitter @RACERmag and @MarshallPruett, and on Facebook.)

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