Into the Crystal Ball… 500 Miles To Go Edition

crystal ballA 500 mile race in indycar racing, and especially the Indy 500, is an endurance test packaged as a sprint race. There is literally no time to think during this race, only time to allow ones instincts to make the correct decision. Those kinds of expectations make The 500 the most stressful three hours of the season. The grandeur of our series crown jewel only adds to the pressure placed on everyone involved in the event. If there is one thing the paddock can agree on it that the Indy 500 is the must win event of the season. And it’s not for championship reasons; we all know why teams want to taste the milk. A good result could save your team, or set it up for a much more lucrative second half of the season. There is everything to win and even more to lose at The Brickyard.

What to Watch

The Draft – There is no mistake that the DW12 produces some of the best drafting conditions racing has ever seen and if practice was any indication, we could break the pass record yet again. Anecdotally, it has always been said that if you can see another car at the end of a straight, you’re getting some help in the draft. We have seen that “some help” may be the understatement of the year. If a driver is close coming out of T4, the pass can be completed before the bricks. And if you are not close, you can still get the pass done before T1 if you exit T4 well. People talk about Daytona and Talladega as the premier drafting facilities, but the DW12 and Indianapolis create something entirely different: racing, drafting and distance in a perfect mix to cultivate non-stop action all day.

500 miles – Since The 500 has morphed into a long distance sprint event, any mistake on or off track is magnified a 1000 times over. A nearly flawless day is needed to achieve victory over some of the most prepared teams for a specific event in the world. We may not have the huge miles of in-season testing seen in prototype racing or the pure cubic dollars of Formula One, but no single event motivates its participants to execute a flawless afternoon more than the Indianapolis 500. Race strategy has been in the works since the checkers fell last year and drivers have been chomping at the bit for a chance to succeed for even longer. 500 miles are clicked off very fast, but it is still a long race in terms of mileage; the chances of disaster are increased with every yard completed.

Pit Stops – Teams will be expected to make between eight and twelve pit stops over the course of the race. This means that not only will a driver be expected to make zero mistakes; the pressure is on the teams as well as much as it is on the pilot. Dario Franchitti proved in 2012 that you can have a pit road problem and still come back for the win after EJ Viso spun him out in the pits on the 15th lap. That was early enough for the team to come back from, but a self-inflicted mistake could cause a cascading disaster throughout the team ending all hope of a properly good finish.

Fuel Mileage – 2012 saw the Chevy contingent have the power advantage all month long which parlayed itself into more downforce and more stable cars than the Hondas all around. Chevy decimated the Japanese manufacturer during practice and really caught them by surprise during qualifying. 2013 has been even more pronounced in the imbalance of the Honda and Chevy engines. However, once the race was on and 33 cars were in the draft, all that extra Chevy power did was decrease fuel mileage a noticeable amount. The Hondas may not have been fast, but they sipped on fuel all afternoon long. Given the even larger speed disparity between the manufacturers this year I expect more of the same. But will Chevy have learnt a lesson and Turn that glorious power down in search of more efficiency? It wouldn’t be the worst or most surprising outcome of the weekend.

Momentum – With that said, keeping your line clean and speed high through the corner will be paramount to not losing too much time to the leaders. With only 550 or so horses on tap, the 2.2 liter turbo engines just don’t have the grunt to pull the chassis out of the corner and down the straight if any part of the driver’s line is compromised. This is especially apparent when you consider how sensitive these chassis seem to be in terms of setup, heat and wind direction. Making it through the corners quickly and cleanly will be important to staying near the front. Andretti Autosport practiced more on race setup, drafting and clean position swaps all week long and could have an advantage using all five cars to pull away as a pack.

Andretti Autosport – Speaking of the four car super team, AA may very well play a protect strategy on Sunday afternoon. I cannot shake the feeling that the five car operation will run a bicycle racing tactic: using the pack to insulate themselves from outside attack, gain speed by running as a unit and basically locking out the top of the standings all afternoon. A single car could probably make its way through the pack, but a two car attack may be met with extreme resistance if the teams can keep all five cars within the setup window throughout the entirety of the race. There is not a better prepared team this month and the results of practice and qualifying more than prove this. The Andretti name may yet find its way into victory lane again.

Predictions

Winner – Tony Kanaan – I can’t pick another driver for the Indy win until he get at least one under his belt. I don’t care how slow or how difficult a month he is having, TK will find a way.

Best Rookie Finisher – AJ Allmendinger – I’ve already laid my expectations of AJ out many times before; he has no excuses and it’s time to perform.

Epic Performance – Simona de Silvestro – Simply put, anything will be better than her 2012. She will not get black flagged before the race reaches double digit laps and she will have enough power to race and have some fun. Enjoy it SdS, you’ve earned it.

Biggest Loser – DRR – An IRL and IMS stalwart poised to shutter the doors once the checkers fall. Nothing short of a win will save them and they just don’t have the prowess to best Andretti, Penske, Ganassi or ECR from the initial look of it.

The 2013 field is the most competitive field we have seen in many years. The multiple winners may not stack up to previous years, but there is not really anyone who is just out to lunch. The teams are quick, sharp and prepared and the drivers’ possess quantified skill from P1 to P33. The weather looks like it will be perfect for 500 miles of speed and danger on Sunday and nothing is standing in the way for us to have yet another epic edition of the Memorial Day Classic. Thousands of pages of analysis have been published, every scenario has been dissected and every possibility has been considered; let’s just race this thing already. 500 Miles to go…

Eric Hall

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