Now that the preliminary festivities are out of the way, the focus of our attention finally turns to the 100th anniversary edition of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. There are as many intriguing storylines this year as there have ever been, but here are five that I’ll be watching unfold on Sunday.
Can the KV Racing Technology – Lotus cars keep their noses clean all day? There is no doubt that the KV cars will be quick on Sunday, and Tony Kanaan proved last year that he can be a contender in this event no matter where he starts. The biggest issue for KV will be ensuring that their cars make it to the end of the race. EJ Viso and Takuma Sato are both known to be quick but have trouble finishing races. It's been a quiet month so far for the entire team, but a trio of first-day qualifying positions means that KV may be one to surprise a lot of people on race day.
Can the small teams knock out the big teams? For the first time in many years, it seems victory is less than a given for the mega teams of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. With the sensational performance of Sam Schmidt Motorsports in placing two drivers in the top four positions (and three in the top six if we include Dan Wheldon of Bryan Herta Autosport, with whom SSM has a technical alliance), along with the great runs of Panther Racing’s Buddy Rice and Sarah Fisher Racing’s Ed Carpenter, the smaller teams have punched above their weight class and are looking to give the big teams a run for the money this weekend. But remember: qualifying is one thing, but racing is quite another. For the entries of Townsend Bell, Buddy Rice, and Ed Carpenter, the Indianapolis 500 will be the first race of the season, which means the first pit stops of the season for their crews. To win this race, these teams are going to have to execute six to eight perfect pit stops. The drivers can’t afford to lose time on entry or exit, and the crews can’t afford to lose time during the stop. Perfect pit stops won’t ensure victory for any of these teams, but poor stops can certainly make an already difficult task nearly impossible.
How will double-file restarts impact the race? It’s the proverbial elephant in the room. The drivers do not want to use double-file restarts in this race. They’ve made their opinions known. Thus far, INDYCAR has held its ground, and it appears that we will see side-by-side restarts for the first time in the history of the event. How will it affect the outcome? It’s going to be huge. For a driver like Tony Kanaan, who eats cars on restarts like most people eat Cheerios, the restarts will give him an opportunity to make up a lot of ground very quickly. Obviously, the tricky part will be getting cars safely through the first couple of turns. As the race progresses and the groove in turn one becomes more and more narrow, INDYCAR will need to ensure that the outside line is clear of marbles before sending half the field onto it. Look for at least one driver to make a final, last-gasp move on a late-race restart that will have a major impact on how the race plays out. And how with the slower pace on restarts affect the race? It’s hard to predict, but the restarts in general are sure to be a major topic of discussion post-race.
Can Oriol Servia finally lead Newman/Haas Racing to Victory Lane? The team has been competing at Indianapolis since 1983, has employed some of the greatest drivers ever to sit in a racecar, and still has an empty space in the trophy case. The 2011 race will mark the 19th for the team with a total of 30 entries having taken the green flag. Having suffered two of most heartbreaking losses in race history in 1987 and 1992, Oriol Servia gives this former powerhouse team its best chance to win since returning to the race in 2008. Speaking shortly after their remarkable qualifying run, a team representative admitted that the front row start came as a small surprise as they had spent the vast majority of practice working on a good race day setup. The crew should be well-prepared, the car should be fast, and Oriol is somehow still one of the most underrated drivers in the field. If this combination can find its way to victory lane, it will be the team’s first 500-mile race win since Cristiano da Matta was victorious at California Speedway in 2001 and will be a hugely popular win for long-time owner Carl Haas, who has given so much to this sport over the last 28 years, and for the late Paul Newman.
Who doesn't make the costly mistake? The smallest mistake in the Indianapolis 500 can ruin any chance of victory. Over the past couple of years, the rivalry between the Penskes and the Ganassis has been so great that both sides have seen crucial mistakes end promising runs. Problems in pit lane like dropping a wheel nut, pulling away with the fuel hose attached, failing to fully secure the wheel, and not getting an air gun thrown back to the pit wall will cost valuable track position and, with the tight nature of the race, can lead to an insurmountable deficit on track. Of course, the drivers have to be just as perfect on track as well. An impatient driver trying to force a pass that does work or being outside the groove by only inches can end a day in the blink of an eye. Six perfect pit stops and 800 perfect left hand turns only get a driver a chance of winning. A fast car, good strategy, and a lot of luck are still needed to find Victory Lane.
Paul Dalbey is co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com, your source online for blogs, podcasts, photos, and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Find Paul on twitter (@Fieldof33) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.