The 2011 Indianapolis 500 features the closest field in the 100-year history of the race, with a scant 3.5 miles per hour separating the pole winner Alex Tagliani from the last qualifier, Ana Beatriz. With several part-time and one-off entries up front, and traditional contenders back in the field, the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 shapes up to be a memorable one.
With the forecast for the 500 seemingly getting warmer every day, one only has to look back to last year to get a feel for what cars will go through on race day. E.J. Viso gave a description of what last year was like on Thursday, saying,
Whenever it’s hotter, things get degraded faster. The tires go off way faster; if the track is cool and you have an understeer that is building up in a period of five laps, whenever it is hot it is going to build up in two to three laps at the most, so everything starts happening faster. Whenever the conditions are hot, you need to be even more aware and more receptive to the changes you are doing to your car.
We have tools inside the car that we can work with to make the car better – the front and rear bar, the weight jacker, we can change tire pressures in every pit stop, we can change downforce levels as well. So it’s all up to us to know how we’re gonna configure the car for the race.
Thus, we turn to see who had the right configuration in 2010. The easy answer is Dario Franchitti. All Franchitti did last year was dominate the race, leading 155 laps and hanging on late to capture his second Borg-Warner Trophy. As easy as it would be to pick Franchitti again, listening to James Hinchcliffe yesterday, he put Franchitti's win into perspective:
And watching Dario do what he did last year was awesome. It's very rarely that you have a day where everything is so hooked up that you have a day like he did, and he had it on the best Sunday all year to have it, and it was master class watching him do that race.
Asking Franchitti to repeat that performance, and to become the seventh driver with three wins in 500 history, may be asking just a bit too much.
Thus, I turn to Franchitti's teammate, Scott Dixon. Dixon has been quick all month and paced the field during Carb Day practice. Even Franchitti has recognized Dixon's effort during the month, equating it to his own performance in 2010:
Dixie looks strong. He's going to be tough. We're pretty strong, but just like the month I had last year, he (Dixon) has been on a rail all month.
With that in mind, I see Dixon seizing control of the race from the start. Taking the green flag in the middle of Row 2, with two relatively inexperienced drivers at Indianapolis, I think Dixon can take the lead into Turn 1 and pace the field in the opening stint. While Tagliani and Oriol Servia may be more conservative at the start, Row 2 will be pressing them early, as Townsend Bell, Will Power and Dan Wheldon will all be looking to get to the front and try and stay ahead of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars.
The modus operandi of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars has been to pair up during the race and run in tandem, and it will lie on Franchitti to weave his way through the field from the outside of Row 3 to partner with Dixon. It could take a stint for the defending champion to work his way up, but the Target cars are clearly the ones to beat on Sunday. Working to gain control of the race, the Target cars will finish 1-2, with the New Zealander joining the Scot as a two-time winner at Indianapolis.
The biggest issue entering Sunday may be the introduction of double-file restarts following a yellow. Drivers are adamantly opposed to them, voicing their concerns during Friday's drivers' meeting. Series officials, while sympathetic, insisted that they would continue, agreeing to several modifications to reduce speed during the start of the race and on the restarts to help keep the field in order. On Thursday, Hinchcliffe thought the restarts would go relatively smooth, until the end of the race:
I’ve never done single-file restarts here, so it’s tough for me to give too much of an opinion. You speak to the more experienced guys and they certainly have some concerns, and when you hear those concerns, they certainly have some validity. I think it’s a very difficult place to pull it off because of the nature of the race track in that it’s very much a one groove track. It’s not Texas, it’s not Kentucky, it’s not these 1.5-mile tracks where we run side-by-side, lap after lap, where it’s not an issue.
This track is very narrow at 220 mph, and you cannot run side-by-side. It felt so big at first (in Indy Lights), and it becomes very narrow at those speeds. At the end of the day, I don’t think we have a hope in Hades of getting them taken away, so I think everybody needs to accept that they’re happening and drivers need to respect the situation that we’re in and respect that it’s a very dangerous proposition and that you have to be there at the end to win. Short of a restart 10 laps from the end, if you’re going for a kamikaze pass, it’s probably not going to work out too well for you.
I think everyone understands how long this race is and patience is the theme of the event. If you ask all the experienced drivers from all the way back to Rutherford up to Dario, they all told me the same thing: “You’ve got to be patient, don’t force the issue, let the race come to you.” But I mean with 10 laps to go in the Indy 500, eventually that runs out, you run out of time.
So if there’s a late restart, it is going to be manic.
Those late restarts could prove crucial, as drivers should be able to pick up positions a little easier if the formation holds. Among the drivers who could use the double-file restart to their advantage would be Tony Kanaan, who is known for his aggressiveness on restarts. Power and Castroneves are also two of the drivers who could benefit from the field being closer, though Power is adamantly against the double-file restarts.
While Dixon and Franchitti will be able to hold the field off behind them on the restarts, I think Bell, in the one-off entry for Sam Schmidt Motorsports will continue to show why he deserves a full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series, finishing third. Power will be one of a few cars that is capable of challenging the Target machines, but without Ryan Briscoe or Helio Castroneves to help him work traffic, he will take a career-best finish at Indianapolis instead.
On the 50th anniversary of his owner's first win at Indianapolis, Vitor Meira will deliver the best finish of the decade for A.J. Foyt Racing. Behind Meira will be Castroneves, who will have to wait another year to go for his fourth Borg-Warner Trophy. The sentimental favorite at IMS, Ed Carpenter will be in seventh. Tony Kanaan, who may rank directly behind Carpenter as a fan favorite, will lead a few laps after going off sequence with a pit stop, but will finish eighth.
JR Hildebrand will capture Rookie of the Year honors, finishing just ahead of the driver who used to occupy his seat at Panther Racing, Dan Wheldon.
As for Danica Patrick, who could be making her final start in the Indianapolis 500 as a full-time member of the IZOD IndyCar Series, I just don't see her being a factor at the front of the field. While Andretti Autosport has typically outperformed their qualifying effort, starting 25th, I just see it being too much for her to overcome given the overall strength of the field.
2011 Indianapolis 500 Projected Finishing Order:
1. Scott Dixon
2. Dario Franchitti
3. Townsend Bell
4. Will Power
5. Vitor Meira
6. Helio Castroneves
7. Tony Kanaan
8. Ed Carpenter
9. JR Hildebrand
10. Dan Wheldon
11. Alex Tagliani
12. Justin Wilson
13. Graham Rahal 14. Danica Patrick
15. Paul Tracy
16. James Hinchcliffe
17. Oriol Servia
18. Simona De Silvestro
19. Charlie Kimball
20. Takuma Sato
21. Buddy Rice
22. Tomas Scheckter
23. Bertrand Baguette
24. John Andretti
25. Ryan Hunter-Reay
26. Ryan Briscoe
27. Marco Andretti
28. Alex Lloyd
29. Jay Howard
30. Pippa Mann
31. Davey Hamilton
32. Ana Beatriz
33. Pippa Mann