IndyCar — Predictions and prognostications for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race

The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is less than 24 hours away! The big surprise so far has been the resurgence of the Honda-powered teams. Two-thirds of the first four rows of tomorrow’s starting grid, including the pole position, are occupied by Honda-powered cars. After the dreadful start the manufacturer has had so far this season, this has to be a welcome turn of events, and a healthy boost to the ROI for their involvement. So what’s driving the big improvement? In my opinion, it’s the choice of aerodynamic solutions. At the beginning of the season, we saw the Honda road course aero kit come into closer alignment with the Chevrolet kit, although they still fell short on performance. The speedway aero packages are significantly different.

It’s All About the Aero

The two big areas of differentiation between the Honda and Chevrolet speedway aero kits are the front wing end plates and the mounting structure for the rear wing. In both cases, it’s a matter of complexity versus simplicity. Honda chose a simple solution for the front wing, and a more complex solution for the rear wing.

Front wing end plate
The front wing of an open-wheel car has two main functions: provide downforce for the front of the car, and divert air around and away from the front wheels. Aerodynamically, open wheels on a race car are a nightmare, and designers will do everything in their power to minimize the large negative impact these high-speed egg-beaters have on the laminar flow of air around the chassis. This is why both in IndyCar and in Formula 1 you see a lot of attention paid to the end plates of the front wings.

On a road course, where you need as much downforce as possible and handling demands often exceed those for maximum top speed, one sees quite complicated and intricate end plate designs. [singlepic id=1190 w=300 h=200 float=right] That philosophy appears to have influenced the Chevrolet design which includes aero channels and inserts within the front wing end plate. While potentially effective at generating more downforce, it’s also prone to generating more turbulence. At a superspeedway like Indianapolis, drag-inducing turbulence is your worst enemy, and ever aero device on the car will produce drag. Finding the balance between downforce and drag is often difference between starting on the front row versus starting in the middle of the grid or worse.

[singlepic id=1191 w=300 h=200 float=left]The Honda solution is significantly more simple. Rather than the extra weight, complexity, and drag from an elaborate end plate design, Honda chose a simple curved blade to direct the air outward away from the hub of the front wheels. While this element provides no additional downforce for the front wing, it does help to remove drag from around the front wheels. The lack of additional downforce also means a lack of additional drag from the end plates. Drag is proportional to downforce, and at Indianapolis, much like Formula 1 at Monza, less downforce, if it means less drag and great top speed, is the key to success.

Rear wing mounting struts
[singlepic id=1196 w=300 h=200 float=right]The rear wing has the singular primary function of providing downforce to the rear of the car. Like with the front element, the more downforce the rear wing produces, the more drag it produces. Chevrolet chose a traditional, and very simple, design for mounting the rear wing to the car, a simple pair of thin struts mounted to the underside of the wing. It is effective at holding the rear element in place and transmitting the downforce produced by the element to the chassis, but with the mountings on the underneath side of the wing, it reduces the effective wing area.

[singlepic id=1193 w=300 h=200 float=left]Wings on race cars have often been likened to airplane wings turned upside down, and to a certain degree, that’s true. What fails to translate for many people is that with this inversion, it is the underneath side of the wing that does the majority of the aerodynamic work on a race car. Honda chose to go a direction that’s recently been embraced by the sports car community and that’s to use a gooseneck mounting design. Rather than having the struts attach to the underneath side of the wing, they curve around the back side of the wing and attach to the top of the element, leaving the full area of the underneath side to develop downforce with a minimum of drag. The additional vertical surface provided by the gooseneck design also adds to the yaw stability of the chassis.

Rookie of the Year Predictions

There are five rookies in this year’s Indianapolis 500: Stefan Wilson (P30), Spencer Pigot (P29), Matthew Brabham (P27), Max Chilton (P22), and Alexander Rossi (P11). It’s hard to call any of these talented drivers rookies. They all have a proven track record of success. Chilton and Rossi both have experience in Formula 1, and Chilton, Pigot, and Brabham have all raced at the Speedway in Indy Lights. Rossi definitely has the best starting position, but he also has the least experience in an IndyCar and at oval racing. So who’s going to take home ROY honors at Monday’s banquet? Here are Doug’s and Tom’s prognostications.

Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 98, Honda) has certainly taken a liking to the 2.5-mile oval of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Starting tomorrow’s race from the middle of Row 4 places him well ahead of his fellow Indianapolis 500 rookies. Max Chilton in his No. 8 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet is the next best rookie qualifier starting on the inside of Row 8. The other rookies, Matthew Brabham, Spencer Pigot, and Stefan Wilson, all start near the back of the grid. Starting near the back is no promise of a poor race result, however. Sage Karam in his rookie year started on the back row and finished in ninth! It was a heck of a drive and was very deserving of the Rookie of the Year honors that went instead to Kurt Busch.

Rossi may have the strong pace in practice and qualifying, but racing at Indianapolis is so very different than putting together a couple good laps by yourself on the track. Tomorrow’s winner of the Rookie of the Year award won’t be determined by pace, but by race craft. This is where I think Chilton will have a distinct advantage. Chilton has been here before, albeit in an Indy Lights car, and he knows what it’s like to race these the DW12 on an oval thanks to his experience at Phoenix. If he can keep his Chevrolet off the wall, I believe he will have a stronger drive than Rossi. I’m not sure that will be enough to earn him RoY honors, since the award always seems to go simply to the highest placed rookie rather than the best drive by a rookie. I’m looking forward to watching both former Formula 1 drivers in tomorrow’s race, but I believe the better race performance may come from Chilton.

My Rookie of the year prediction is Alexander Rossi.  The former F1 driver has proved quick all May with his Andretti Autosport/BHA Honda entrant and relatively consistent.

He hasn’t however got the experience as Doug alluded to but then nor have the others in actual ‘Indycar’ equipment, more in the MRTI races at Indianapolis. In terms of actual equipment at his disposal and the resources of Andretti joining Bryan Herta’s entrant, his entrant is a clear leader of the equipment available to rookies so far this Month of May, with the possible exception of Max Chilton dependent on how you view the additional entrant at Ganassi in the pecking order.

If Alex can keep it on the track for the full 500 miles and learn from the experience and set up of his more experienced Andretti teammates, he’s a good pick for Rookie of the Year in my view.

Who Will Drink the Milk?

Winning the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is an important part of doing well, but it is no gauruntee of a victory or even a quality finish. Memories of Scott Sharp spinning in Turn 1 on Lap 1 after starting from pole come to mind, as does Kevin Cogan (that damn Coogan!) taking out both AJ Foyt (pole sitter) and Mario Andretti after starting in the middle of Row 1. For James Hinchcliffe, Pole Day was certainly a storybook day, one that could not have better if scripted by Steven Speilberg. He and his No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport Honda-powered Dallara still have 500 miles to go before he can enjoy a tasty bottle of milk.

Hinchcliffe has been strong all month, as has Ed Cartpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden, but one can never discount Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi at Indianapolis. Will Power is the highest qualifying Penske driver, starting on the outside of Row 2, and he was fourth quickest during the final practice session on Carb Day morning, but he was outpace, along with everyone else, by Chip Ganassi’s two legendary drivers Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon. Both have won the 500 Mile Race, Dixon having won three times, so they certainly have not just the pace, but the race craft to win tomorrow’s historic race. The big question is whether the two can overcome their mid-field starting positions, Dixon on the inside of Row 5 and Kanaan on the outside of Row 6. It’s not their ability to make their way through the field, Kanaan has demonstrated his proficiency at this repeatedly, but starting mid-field places a driver in a far more chaotic environment where becoming involved in someone else’s mayhem is far more likely.

It would be a fantastic feel-good story for James Hinchcliffe to win from pole tomorrow, but with a host of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti drivers hot on his heels, it will be tough to maintain that top position. If the two Ganassi hot shoes can survive the first stint, I think they, especially Kanaan, will be the significant threats to win the 100th running. My money will be on Tony Kanaan winning his second Indianapolis 500 and securing his legacy as an IndyCar legend.

I’m going to go with Penske’s Helio Castroneves, he’s starting 9th overall. I fully anticipate Penske to push its cars to the front of the field early on and make up for a very disappointing qualifying for both Powerhouse teams of Penske and Ganassi, compared to what is usually expected.

Add in the fact it is not only the 100th running but a chance for Castroneves to claim his fourth win at Indianapolis placing him on the same level as Foyt, Mears and Al Unser Sr in terms of number of wins in that special year. I expect them to try and hold the front of the pack for as many laps as is possible with the proliferation of overtaking in this modern era at Indianapolis as is possible and claim that victory for Helio.

Who will lead the most laps

This is always a tough choice, and its nit always the person who ends up drinking the milk. The early part of the race will be dominated by the Hondas, and someone like Hinchcliffe or Hunter-Raey could easily lead most of the race. It all depends upon the pit crew. This, I believe, is what will win or lose the race tomorrow. Ganassi’s and Penske’s pit crews are outstanding, and everyone else plays second fiddle to them. My pick for most laps led is Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Raey. I think Kanaan will take the lead from him later in the race, but RHR will lead the most laps.

I’m going to go a little left field and pick Townsend Bell, who has looked very strong with Andretti Autosport throughout practice in terms of speed and I expect to run up front for most of the race. I wonder however whether we will see any runaway drivers in terms of dominance over the number of laps led with in the recent era at Indianapolis, staying up front proving very difficult, although the aero kits in the second year could have an effect on that ability to overtake.

Who will make up the most positions during the race?

Starting back in 18th position and having gone the fastest in race trim during the final practice on Carb Day morning, I have to pick Tony Kanaan. He has proven to be masterful at slicing his way through a crowded field. The real question is, “How many positions will Tony gain in the first five laps?” I’m setting the over/under line at six. …and the over might still be the better bet.

Yes it’s an obvious choice but with both Penske and Ganassi starting further back than usual and no one expecting them to stay there, it’s easy to go with more obvious choices on this prediction. Therefore I’m going to go with Juan Pablo Montoya, he’s starting 17th, and everyone knows the attitude of the Columbian in getting overtakes complete and therefore he seems he safe bet for this prediction!

Honda vs Chevrolet (Best manufacturer per average results)

Given Chevrolet’s dominance in the early part of the season, it’s tempting to select them as the choice for most successful manufacturer at this year’s 500 Mile Race. Even though I believe that a Chevrolet-powered machine will be in victory lane, the Hondas, as a platform, have just proven to be quicker than Chevrolet all month long. I mentioned my thoughts on this above in the “All About the Aero” section, but it really boils down to the old racing adage (or perhaps not so old), “Simplify and add lightness.” This is what Honda has done and why they, on the whole, will have a more successful day.

This should be simple in theory as on paper the stronger of the manufacturers in terms of the average across all of its entrants should be Chevrolet. After all, they have Ganassi and Penske making up eight of the entrants in the race between them but Honda seem to have found something this May as evident in qualifying.

The only reason I haven’t picked Honda is that the few mechanical failures we have seen this May thus far are from Honda, and whilst I do like underdogs. I can’t help but think the powerhouse teams are still going to prevail and that’ll tip the scales so I’ll go with Chevrolet.

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