One of the biggest races in the world: previewing the Indy 500
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Oval track specialist and hometown favourite Ed Carpenter will lead the 33-car field to the green flag at the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 early on Monday morning (NZ time).
In the latest version of Indy’s convoluted two-day qualifying procedure — that finds 33 starters for the 500-mile oval track classic — Carpenter was second fastest on Saturday to comfortably lock in one of the positions for the ‘‘Fast Nine’’ shootout on Sunday.
The shootout was a chance for drivers to determine the start positions on the first three rows of three-wide starting grid — plus add some bonus points to their Verizon IndyCar series scorecard.
Danica Patrick during the opening day of practice for the Indy 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this month. Picture/AP
Carpenter showed a clear performance edge on his four-lap time-trial run with a first lap above 230mph and he clocked a 229.618mph four-lap average to achieve his third Indianapolis 500 pole position.
Qualifying showed Chevrolet’s V6 Indy engine has a performance advantage — at least in qualifying spec — over rival Honda. The Chevrolet-powered Team Penske entries of Simon Pagenaud (France), Will Power (Australia) and Josef Newgarden (USA) filled the next four spots.
The fastest Honda driver was Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais who will start fifth (the middle of the second row) for Dale Coyne Racing while New Zealander Scott Dixon is ninth and the only other Honda driver to make the ‘‘Fast Nine.’’
Carpenter’s team also fields the entries of Spencer Pigot (USA) and the returning Danica Patrick (USA) who both performed strongly to be sixth and seventh respectively. Three-time winner Helio Castroneves (Brazil) will start his Team Penske entry between Patrick and Dixon on the centre of the third row.
The rest of the 24 qualifiers from Saturday re-qualified to determine start positions 10-thru-33.
A.J. Foyt Racing’s Brazilian duo of Tony Kanaan — the 2013 winner — and rookie Matheus Leist topped the session to start 10th and 11th respectively while the best of the Andretti Autosport qualifiers was Marco Andretti (USA) in 12th to complete the fourth row starters.
Defending champion Takuma Sato (Japan) had struggled on Saturday but improved on Sunday and will start from 16th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Andretti Autosport’s two former winners — Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA) and Alexander Rossi (USA) — will line-up 14th and 32nd respectively.
The biggest qualifying shock came on Saturday when 2016 pole-winner James Hinchcliffe (Canada) failed to make the field.
Hinchcliffe had a slow first attempt as the first runner after a rain delay and then aborted his second run when a loose pressure sensor inside a tyre created a vibration. The team then ran out of time to get the car back into the qualifying line before the 5.50pm cut-off and Hinchcliffe missed the race.
There were 35 drivers chasing the 33 starting positions which created a tense Saturday afternoon ‘‘bumping’’ contest. British racer Pippa Mann also missed a place in the starting line-up.
Carpenter’s pole effort, Chevrolet’s qualifying advantage and Hinchcliffe’s exit where the big headlines from qualifying. Many more storylines loom ahead of the race which starts at 4am on Monday May 28 (NZ time).
The easiest pre-race prediction is for the Chevrolet teams — in particular Team Penske — to be the strongest. If a Team Penske driver wins it means either a record-equalling fourth victory for Castroneves or a first win for Power, Pagenaud or Newgarden.
Ed Carpenter Racing also carry Chevrolet power. Carpenter would be a hugely popular winner and a throwback to the days when the route to racing at
Indianapolis was via midget car and sprint car racing.
The other storyline attached to Ed Carpenter racing is the return of Danica Patrick. A polarising personality in motorsport which a huge fan following and equally as many detractors, Patrick was a very good record at Indianapolis. With Ed Carpenter Racing she has emerged as a contender again after seven years away from open wheel racing.
There’s a third Chevy team in the mix with a return to form by A.J. Foyt Racing. If it’s a race where tightly-bunched packs, bold passing moves and restarts play a role then
Tony Kanaan is a driver very likely to figure.
Honda’s hopes are led by Bourdais and a victory would be fairytale comeback after the Frenchman crashed heavily in qualifying last year and missed much of the 2017 season with a cracked pelvis.
Kiwi hope Dixon also plays a lead role in Honda’s chances looking for a second 500 victory with Chip Ganassi Racing while Andretti Autosport had a subdued qualifying performance but are the team that has won three of the last four 500s.
But it’s a race which is very difficult to predict or settle on a short-odds favourite. Five-hundred miles and somewhere between eight and 11 pit stops create opportunity and the variables include a new ‘‘universal’’ low-drag aero kit that replaces the specific Honda and Chevrolet kits used in recent years.
Teams remain unsure about how the new kit will behave in a multi-car draft or how weather conditions will influence its performance.
At Indianapolis there’s almost always a driver that charges from deep in the field to a top placing. Last year Castroneves raced from 19th to finish second behind Takuma Sato. Alexander Rossi won from grid 11 in 2016, Juan-Pablo Montoya won 15th in 2015 and Ryan Hunter-Reay climbed from 19th to win in 2014.
A glance deeper into this year’s starting line-up reveals a few to watch. Colombian Carlos Munoz has a very strong Indy 500 record and starts 21st. Australian James Davison is a potential charger from 19th and very deep in the pack there’s J.R. Hildebrand starting 27th, Graham Rahal 30th and Rossi in 32nd.
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