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.

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