INSIGHT: Key Indy 500 subplots to follow

Image by Chris Jones/IndyCar

INSIGHT: Key Indy 500 subplots to follow

IndyCar

INSIGHT: Key Indy 500 subplots to follow

MAYORAL RACE

According to a team representative attached to James Hinchcliffe for IndyCar’s Tuesday media tour in New York, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is “still exploring possibilities” for the Mayor of Hinchtown to participate in Sunday’s Indy 500.

If the Arrow Electronics-sponsored driver does land a seat, it will be a fascinating story to unpack. Even Conor Daly’s ride with Thom Burns Racing/Dale Coyne Racing, which looked like it could be flipped in Hinchcliffe’s favor, is said to be even more secure than it was over the weekend.

While SPM has yet to make an official announcement on whether the IndyCar star is officially in or out of the race, it’s believed Arrow has taken a position of not wanting to buy its way into the 500, which speaks volumes about its sporting sensibilities and sense of fair play.

For a variety of unfortunate and well-documented reasons, Hinchcliffe did not earn his way into the field, and provided Arrow sees it that way, exploration of possibilities to get him in a car might not be required.

Talk of a plan to expand Arrow’s branding on the two SPM-owned entries and the affiliated Meyer Shank Racing car has also made the rounds.

A definitive answer can’t be far away. Will he be driving a car he didn’t qualify for a team that isn’t his own? Or will the Mayor be charming a huge assembly of Arrow guests in its Turn 1 compound on race day and then venture over to the ABC booth to lend his talents on the microphone? If the paddock chatter is accurate, he’ll be a welcome addition to the broadcast.

Hinchcliffe faces the media (Image by Marshall Pruett)

Whether you’re a Hinchcliffe fan or not, finding a more upstanding and classy member of the IndyCar community would be a fruitless search. From speaking to the assembled media after Bump Day to spending Sunday supporting a blood donation initiative to taking part in the media tour, Hinchcliffe could have spent the last couple of days staring into an empty bottle of bourbon, and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he’s out, spreading IndyCar’s gospel, and for that, the series should be thankful for the gift they have in the Canadian.

BAKED IN PONIES

The dies were cast months ago on Indy 500 engine development. New crankshafts can take more than three months to produce, and other major componentry found in the twin-turbo V6 motors from Chevy and Honda have lead times involving weeks, if not months.

Every team in the field will install fresh motors this week and break them in on Carb Day, but all of the goodness contained within those 2.2-liter jewels were dreamt up back in February or March.

It means that when one brand turns up at Indy with a clear advantage, there simply isn’t enough time for the other brand to react with sizable horsepower gains for the race.

Helio Castroneves leads a pack during final practice. (Image by Scott LePage/LAT)

Chevy had some monsters to unleash in qualifying with high boost forced through their motors, and while the benefit wasn’t quite as obvious on Monday with standard boost as big packs of cars towed each other around the oval, it’s still a safe bet to put your money on the Bowtie brigade as the manufacturer to beat on Sunday.

A HINT OF HORSEPOWER?

There was one exception to the race engine installation timeline last week when, at the team’s request, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was given permission to pull the motor from Graham Rahal’s car and replace it with his race day powerplant.

With Rahal’s No. 15 entry lacking speed around the 2.5-mile oval in practice, RLL changed everything possible — the chassis, gearbox, uprights, and so on — in search of an answer. The last piece of the puzzle was the engine. Was it the reason for Graham’s struggles?

Graham Rahal (Phillip Abbott/LAT)

Honda Performance Development granted the team’s and delivered the race day engine to use throughout qualifying weekend. With his frustrated run to 30th in the field of 33, we can assume a lack of horsepower with the old engine wasn’t the problem. And we can also infer that with a first glimpse at what the newest motor produced, Rahal didn’t leap forward to more competitive speeds.

After all the practice and qualifying laps have been turned at Indy since the new turbo formula landed in 2012, we’ve been left with one question to ask ahead of the race: Will Chevy or Honda unleash something more powerful for the race when its latest and greatest engines bolt into their cars?

We’ve only seen one data point with Rahal’s Honda, and don’t know what Chevy’s race motor situation is like, but I wouldn’t expect any major changes in the Bowtie’s fortunes.

BUT NOT SO BAD IN RACE TRIM

For those who aren’t interest in the Chevy vs. Honda angle, the good news is Monday’s long practice session showed that both brands appear to be in the same zip code in race trim. Sage Karam’s Dryer & Reinbold Racing Chevy got a monster tow — he admitted as such — to lead the field with a 226.461mph lap, and that was well beyond the 225.123mph lap Tony Kanaan turned in his AJ Foyt Racing Chevy at the end of the session.

Tony Kanaan during final practice (Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT)

If we ignore Karam’s outlier lap, Kanaan’s 225.123mph lap wasn’t too far ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay in third with his Andretti Autosport Honda at 224.820mph. The top 10 was an equal split of five and five for the engine manufacturers and covered the gamut from rookie teams (Carlin Racing’s Charlie Kimball in fourth with his Chevy) to rookie drivers (Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo in ninth with his Honda).

DRR, Foyt, Andretti, Carlin, Coyne, plus Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing were represented. We’ll see what Carb Day tells us when everyone is on fresh race motors, but at first glance, it’s looks like a lot of teams will have a chance to do something memorable this year.

BIG DEALS FOR THE LITTLE GUYS

If you’re looking for new teams and drivers to root for, the 2018 Indy 500 has been serving them up on a daily basis.

The aforementioned Carlin Racing team is performing well beyond its experience level. Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser has been fast and sharp as a rookie. James Davison and his tight-knit satellite A.J. Foyt with Byrd/Hollinger/Belardi Racing is looking like a spoiler. SPM’s Jay Howard has been impressive throughout the month. Coyne’s Claman De Melo was the second-fastest rookie and has the look of a veteran. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot is as all-American as they come, was produced by Mazda’s Road to Indy, and will roll off on the second row.

Jay Howard leads Zachary Claman De Melo (Image by Scott LePage/LAT)

And Foyt’s Brazilian terror, rookie Matheus Leist, will start next to his countryman, teammate, and 2013 Indy winner Tony Kanaan on the fourth row. The kid doesn’t know how to be boring, so keep his No. 4 Chevy on your radar.

There are others who’ve already gained a solid following — Daly, Karam and so on — but some of Indy’s less familiar names are in prime positions to move forward.

A FEW PARTING SHOTS

• If it’s hot on Sunday at the Speedway, more than a few drivers have expressed concerns about the reduced downforce and high turbulence creating a steady stream of wrecks. If IndyCar were to go back in time and rethink its 2018 Indy aero specifications, allowing more downforce and more aero tuning options to create greater stability might be the call.

• Scott Dixon holds fifth in points entering the 500, sat on pole last year, and will roll from the grid in ninth place. Amazingly, the four-time champion has yet to lead a lap in 2018. With Dixie in ninth and teammate Ed Jones in 29th, will Chip Ganassi Racing have a chance to look like its normal self — fighting at the front — or will Indy be another race where that same little bit of something is missing?

• Andretti’s Carlos Munoz has experienced a rather quiet return to IndyCar. His fast reflexes and penchant for passing should factor as he looks to improve from 21st on the grid.

Graham Rahal (Image by Marshall Pruett)

• JR Hildebrand in 27th with his DRR Chevy and Graham Rahal in 30th with his RLL Honda fall in a similar camp of skilled Indy 500 racers whose starting positions aren’t representative of where they normally qualify. Rahal, the best passer in IndyCar, wearing an Evel Knievel-inspired race suit (pictured above), will be electric if the speed gods bless his ride.

• So, the inevitable closing question: Who will win the race? Considering the crazy variables at play with the new aero kits, it’s almost meaningless to make predictions at this point, but I’ll go way out on a limb and pick the French Fry to my Hamburger, Sebastien Bourdais. Sunday will be as much of a chassis tuning battle as it will be a wheel-to-wheel race, and when you take Seb’s refined feel for what the car needs, engineer Craig Hampson’s supreme ability to adjust a car throughout a race, and Bourdais’ heightened sensitivity to taking unnecessary risks, that sounds like the perfect combination this year, with all the aforementioned issues to deal with. But can he get it done without a Chevy?

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