Monday, May 29, 2017

Great Month of May for IndyCar

The 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is behind, concluding such a great Month of May for INDYCAR. Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso joining Andretti Autosport with McLaren Honda brought lots of worldwide attention to the showpiece race of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the month concluded with Alonso's teammate Takuma Sato becoming the first Japanese Indy 500 winner.

Alonso's participation was a huge boost for the global interest in the Indy 500. One of Formula One's biggest stars missing F1's showpiece race at Monaco was something no F1 fan could miss. Alonso's participation surely brought new viewers for the 500.

For his own and his fans' disappointment, Alonso's race at Indy ended in such a familiar way for him in F1, a Honda engine failure. Indy 500 victory was surely Alonso's only aim in his American adventure, yet there are lots of positives from his performances at the Brickyard.

Qualifying in fifth place and being a strong contender in his first oval race showed how great a driver he is. He was warmly welcomed to the IndyCar paddock, and will surely be welcomed again if he wants to have another chance at Indy. With the skill he showed this month, it would be disappointing if he didn't return to the Brickyard in the future.

If Alonso was warmly welcomed to Indy, so was also McLaren. It is great to see McLaren's current management appreciating the brand's legacy at Indy and they are considering a continued involvement in Indy car racing, be it 500-only or the full Verizon IndyCar Series. Having an F1 team in Indy might enable more crossover between the two series, promoting Indy car racing to a wider audience like Alonso's running showed.

Alonso suffering an engine failure was probably the outcome Honda wanted to see the least, given Alonso and McLaren's poor success in F1 has very much been caused by the unreliable and underpowered Honda engines. But Honda also has a big reason for joy after this Indy 500.

The Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato has been a Honda protege throughout his career. He raced for Honda-powered teams in F1, and the Honda connection brought him into IndyCar. Honda has wanted a successful Japanese driver; now Takuma Sato became the first Japanese winner at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The was some talk about whether Alonso winning the 500 would be good for IndyCar. While Alonso's victory would've dominated the global motorsports media, the 500 winner wouldn't have been there to promote the series. Besides, people might have made ignorant assessments on the skill level of the full-time IndyCar drivers, like F1 star Lewis Hamilton did already after the Indy qualifying.

Sato's victory may not get the attention as Alonso's victory would've. But I think Sato's victory is great for IndyCar. Sato is a full-time IndyCar driver you'll see racing again next weekend at the Detroit doubleheader, though he's also familiar to the F1 crowd that watched the 500 because of Alonso.

While Sato's F1 career lacked the greatest success, F1 was a worse environment than IndyCar for him. In his F1 days, Sato showed he can be as fast as anybody but lacked the consistency. You don't get into a winning team if you can't show the consistency. But in IndyCar almost any car can be a winning car because of the limited technical competition. Sato can be as fast as anybody, in IndyCar he's got the machinery to win. He had already showed his skills at the Brickyard in 2012 when he crashed on the final lap when trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead.

Sato's Indy 500 victory will hopefully increase IndyCar's popularity in Japan. Honda-owned Twin Ring Motegi hosted Indy car races from 1998 to 2011. Maybe after Sato's 500 victory, Honda would have some desire to bring the Verizon IndyCar Series back to Japan. With rumors about a Chinese IndyCar race, it would make sense for IndyCar to visit also Japan in the Asian trip.

Alonso was the rookie who got the biggest attention at Indy and he did impress in his oval debut. But one must not forget another impressive rookie performance by Ed Jones. Last year's Indy Lights champion qualified in 11th place and achieved his young Verizon IndyCar Series career's best result by finishing in third place. Even without the engine failure, the double F1 world champion Alonso might not have beaten  Jones who was running higher when Alonso's engine failed. The Indy Light champion Jones' great results in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season showcase the talent of the Mazda Road to Indy graduates.

Jones' third place was also a nice finish for Dale Coyne Racing's dramatic month. The team lost their biggest ace as pole contender Sébastien Bourdais suffered pelvis and hip fractures in a heavy qualifying crash. James Davison did great job as a substitute driver, making his way to the front with the help of strategy before getting involved in a late-race multi-car crash. Like in Davison's case, strategy helped also Jones to get to the front in the end of the race, though Jones did solid job staying among the frontrunners on his way to the third place.

The heavy crashes of Bourdais as well as Scott Dixon and Jay Howard showed the dangers of oval racing. Oval racing is inherently dangerous and there's not much you can do to prevent crashes like those. But the crashes also showed how safe the current Indy cars are. The crash where Bourdais fractured his pelvis and hip was measured at 118 G. After crashing into Howard in the race, Dixon went airborne into the catch fence and the SAFER Barrier, yet the car protected the drivers like it's supposed to, and both drivers survived without injuries. While you can't eliminate the crashes from oval racing, INDYCAR and the chassis manufacturer Dallara have done great job to make the crashes less serious. Improving safety must continue, yet INDYCAR has showed you can do it without hurting the spectacle.

I think this was a great Month of May for INDYCAR. Alonso brought lots of global attention for the 500 and it got a globally recognized winner in Sato. It was also great to see an impressive performance from a MRTI graduate. It might take a NASCAR star for the 500 to get more attention in the USA, though this year's race must surely have attracted the biggest global attention in years.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Why could Rossi victory be greater than Alonso victory?

Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso has created lots of worldwide interest around this year's Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. While Indy has had former F1 drivers like last two years's winners Alexander Rossi and Juan Pablo Montoya, it's been ages since an active F1 driver has participated in the 500, let alone a world champion and by missing the Monaco Grand Prix.

Qualifying in fifth place showed Alonso has the pace to race even for the victory. How he'll perform in the traffic against drivers with lots of oval racing experience remains to be seen, however his impressive quaifying and practice performaces have made his running at Indy even bigger of a story.

There has been some talk on whether Alonso winning the Indy 500 would be good for INDYCAR or not. If that happened, the 500 might overshadow F1's Monaco Grand Prix, and still dominate the F1 press in the build-up to the next race. On the other hand, the winner of the biggest race wouldn't be there promoting the other Verizon IndyCar Series races. Besides, a rookie winning his first oval race might give an impression of a weak series.

Alonso winning could have a long-term impact if it motivated more F1 stars to race at the 500 or even in the full Verizon IndyCar Series. Then again, seeing an F1 star in the 500 would probably need a partner already involved in IndyCar. Honda supplying engines in IndyCar as well as for McLaren in F1 worked perfectly to enable Alonso's participation. Even if there were F1 drivers with some Indy 500 ambitions, they would need the right circumstances to participate.

I'm a bit skeptical about seeing many more F1 stars at Indy in the near future. Alonso may be the most likely also in the upcoming years as he's stated he's aiming for the Triple Crown of Monaco GP, Indy 500, and Le Mans 24 Hours victories. But if he wins at Indy, he may not come back again. He'd unlikely leave F1 again for a race he's already won. Besides, once he's won at Indy, the Le Mans victory would be his big aim outside F1.

I want to see Alonso running at Indy again in the future, and I believe the pace he's showed so far will encourage him to do it, unless he achieves his aim of the Indy 500 victory already this year. That's why I do hope somebody else wins this Sunday. Alonso winning would be a great and popular storyline, yet I can imagine also other great storylines. While the attention was on the F1 star Alonso, I found it sweet that Scott Dixon won the pole; he may be the best active driver who's never raced in F1.

One of the nicest storylines for the race I could imagine would be Alexander Rossi winning his second consecutive Indy 500. Rossi was the USA's best prospect to have a career in F1, though being unable to secure an F1 seat made him make a switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series where he won the Indy 500 as a rookie.

I wasn't a huge fan of Rossi last year. I didn't like his comments where he said he would rather have raced for (the backmarker team) Manor in F1 than in IndyCar, even though he was racing for one of IndyCar's top organizations. His 500 victory was quite underwhelming, enabled by a fuel-mileage run to the checkered flag while others had to stop for fuel. While he had shown competitive pace throughout the month, so had the entire Andretti Autosport team and Rossi hadn't been the fastest of the teammates.

While the 500 still remains his only victory, he's been improving ever since. A mechanical retirement may have cost him the victory at this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He qualified on the front row in third place for this year's Indy 500, eight places higher than last year. His comments about racing Indy cars have become more positive and the 25-year-old American may become one of the Verizon IndyCar Series' biggest stars.

The five races for the backmarker Manor didn't allow Rossi to make an impression in F1. But what a nice storyline it would be if he won his second consecutive Indy 500, beating two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso among others. He is in a great position to do it, having qualified in third place as the best of the Andretti Autosport drivers, one of which Alonso is. A young American succeeding would be great for the Verizon IndyCar Series with ageing stars.

The F1 world is following this Indy 500 closer than usually. If Rossi won his second consecutive Indy 500, maybe it might open F1 doors for him. While losing a young American would be a blow for the Verizon IndyCar Series, I would be happy to see a top IndyCar driver going to F1. Rossi is still young enough to be attractive for F1 teams. And anyway, if Rossi won, Alonso would have a reason to return to Indy, which would be great for Indy car racing.

Anyway, my favorites for the victory are Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Team Penske's Will Power. Dixon must be the favorite after his impressive pole but his teammate Kanaan is always a strong contender on ovals. Although Hunter-Reay missed the Fast 9 qualifying, I think he's the best oval racer of the Andretti team and even the entire series.

If Chevrolet has the better package, then you can't overlook Penske, despite their poor qualifying. Not only Power was the only Penske driver to make the Fast 9 but he's also become very competitive on ovals; he's the Indy 500 runner-up from two years ago and he won last year at Pocono, the track most similar to Indy. Penske of course has the three-time Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves, yet I see Power as a stronger contender than Castroneves who hasn't won a race in almost three years.

Both Alonso and Rossi can also be expected to have competitive cars prepared by Andretti Autosport. How Alonso performs in the traffic remains to be seen after the practice he's had this month. Rossi has now one year of oval experience under his belt; if he's to win the 500 again, he probably needs to do it racing wheel-to-wheel and not by strategy like last year.