Record heat, new cars, one of the largest rookie classes in the past decade and plenty of pre-race drama have even the 33 drivers who will line up for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 wondering what to expect at the drop of the green flag.
“I just don’t know what it’s going to be like, and usually you do,’’ IZOD IndyCar Series points leader Will Power said this week, shaking his head.
Weather forecasts are calling for the hottest Indy 500 in history. Temperatures are expected to top out at 94 degrees — surpassing the 75-year-old record high of 92, and putting drivers in a literal hot seat as they maneuver at speeds of 220 mph for more than three hours.
And that is if the series’ new cars make the distance. Although reliability from engine makers Chevrolet and Honda has been good in the season’s first four races on road courses, they are untested on ovals and for a 500-mile race.
“On the ovals, we don’t know how the engine’s going to react, especially running in a pack,’’ said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, whose team, Team Penske, has won every race thus far this year in Chevrolets.
“We are going to push to the limit, because you are always in the high RPMs and you are basically abusing the engine. This engine is supposed to go 1,800 miles, but this is first time we’ve gone 3 1/2 hours straight pushing to the limit. And these details are important.’’
The Honda contingent heartily agreed.
“I think Honda has been very conscientious and focused on reliability,’’ said Honda driver Dario Franchitti, a two-time Indy winner who turned the fastest lap in Friday’s Carb Day final practice.
“But any time you put competition in there with manufacturers, they are going to push to the limit and failures are going to happen. We just have to make sure they don’t happen to us.’’
The third engine manufacturer, Lotus, presents an entirely different problem. It has been so far off the pace, one of its own drivers has expressed concern for his safety as well as that of his competitors. Former Formula One star Jean Alesi will start his factory-backed Lotus last in the field, with a qualifying speed of 210.094 mph. The pole-sitter, Ryan Briscoe, qualified at 226.48 mph, a significant differential of 16 mph.
“Right now, I feel very unsafe being quite slow in the middle of the track,’’ Alesi said after his qualifying session last weekend. “I’m quite concerned for my fellow drivers if we cannot get the speed we need.’’
Other drivers are very aware of the speed differential, however.
“It’s like the target keeps moving,’’ Honda driver Scott Dixon said, anticipating passing the slower Lotuses.
Few people expect Alesi’s Indianapolis 500 debut to last very long because of the engine challenges, but others in the nine-person rookie class may well surprise.
American Josef Newgarden has been quick all month in Indy and will start seventh in his first 500. Alesi’s fellow F1 alum, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, will make his oval debut from the 10th spot on the grid, and also has shown a lot of speed on the tricky 2.5-mile speedway.
Even Indy veterans, however, are unsure of how the cars will race. During practice runs, the cars ran in closely grouped packs resembling NASCAR “drafts.” They exchanged the lead upfront easily with NASCAR “slingshot” type moves.
“I don’t think anyone will lead more than two or three laps at one time because of the draft effect,’’ Power said.
“Everyone’s wide open, and if you can see the car in front of you, you’re getting help. I think it might be one train the whole race. It definitely makes it more dangerous, I think. I hope everyone uses their heads and is smart about it.
“My biggest unknown is where do you be on the last lap if you’re in the top two cars? Do you lead, or do you not? That’s my biggest question. Where do you want to be, leading or second because of the draft effect?’’
With so many variables characterizing this year’s race, many expect it to come down to driver experience and team preparation — making the favorite for this year’s Indy 500 the same group of drivers and same high-profile teams that are favored every other year: Castroneves, Power, Dixon, Franchitti or anyone from Andretti Autosport, which qualified three drivers among the top four.
“It’s all a big unknown right now,’’ Franchitti said. “How are these cars going to race? How will the cars handle in traffic? How much can you get away with running side by side in the corners? And especially, how will they race with the high temperatures? It’s going to be interesting.
“I think the tires will be fine. Firestone has worked hard, and that’s one thing we can say, we know how that will work.
“All the other stuff is up for grabs. And I think the fans are enjoying that kind of excitement and unpredictability. Nobody knows.’’