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Jean Alesi and Fan Force United: Lotus’ Last Hope?

Photo via: Jean Alesi Facebook

Plenty has been made of 47-year-old former Formula 1 star Jean Alesi’s decision to run in this year’s Indianapolis 500. For the most part, it hasn’t been positive.

Those who were paying attention to the early stages of Lotus’ IndyCar engine development knew that the legendary British marque had been planning on running the Frenchman at Indianapolis since last September. But despite his work as Lotus’ top driving instructor for the T125, a $1 million open-wheeler reminiscent of a late Champ Car or lesser F1 racer, most questioned Alesi’s ability to get up to speed in an IndyCar – especially over a decade removed from his last Formula 1 start.

Now, with the systematic crumbling of Lotus’ modest engine program, the brand has lost four of its five full-time entries and two prospective ones from Newman/Haas Racing and Michael Shank Racing. Alesi was due to drive the Newman/Haas entry at Indianapolis, but instead will suit up for Fan Force United, an Indy Lights team with zero career IndyCar starts and no intent on running this year’s 500 until Alesi became available. As such, car and driver are being almost universally written off as a team that wouldn’t even make the race if not for the likelihood of exactly 33 cars trying to qualify.

This is a warning: don’t underestimate them.

It’s true that Alesi has never raced on an oval before. But it’s also true that Alesi has maintained a relatively active driving profile since his exit from F1, racing for Mercedes in the DTM championship from 2002 to 2006. During that time, he scored four race victories and a best finish of fifth in points. But the successes didn’t stop there; in the Speedcar Series, a Middle Eastern-based stock car championship featuring former F1 drivers, Alesi scored four more wins in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, he rejoined Ferrari, his former F1 employer, in the GT2 class in the Le Mans Series, and alongside fellow ex-F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella finished second in points. Only last year did Alesi stop competing full-time, and that was to develop the T125.

As for FFU, they are an Indianapolis-based team bent on breaking into IndyCar after years of Indy Lights competition, and many of those involved are names that die-hard fans of the sport would recognize. One of the team’s owners is Tyce Carlson, a veteran of 29 IRL starts from 1997 to 2002. Also involved is Tim Wardrop, who won the 1997 Indianapolis 500 as Arie Luyendyk’s engineer and helped Luyendyk set one- and four-lap qualifying records in 1996 that stand to this day; Mike Colliver, who served as engineer for Kelley Racing, Hemelgarn Racing, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises in the 2000s; and Greg Beck, who fielded cars at Indy for much of the 1990s and 2000s, and facilitated Billy Boat’s fourth place finish in the 2001 IRL standings.

No, this isn’t the IRL of the late 1990s, in which this team would likely have dominated. That doesn’t mean they should be written off entirely.

In the end, FFU’s success or failure at Indianapolis may prove to be either the final straw for Lotus or a step towards finally finding its footing in IndyCar. Most fans know the story so far: Lotus only scored one top 10 finish in the first four races of the season, a ninth place run by Sebastien Bourdais at Alabama, as only two of its drivers – Oriol Servia in 17th and Bourdais in 20th – managed to stay in the top 20 in points. Servia’s Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team and Alex Tagliani’s Bryan Herta Autosport squad were the first to announce a split, with BHA skipping the series’ trip to Sao Paulo entirely. Meanwhile, Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing squad, with Bourdais and Katherine Legge behind the wheel, has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and plans to transition to Chevrolets.

Newman/Haas was unsatisfied with the way their Indy program was shaping up, and Shank wouldn’t justify fielding a car with an uncompetitive engine. Besides Alesi and FFU, Lotus is left only with its flagship squad: HVM Racing and Simona de Silvestro, currently 24th in points with three DNFs.

No, it’s not an ideal situation for anybody involved. Lotus would like to have retained more of its teams, while Alesi – who reportedly turned laps of 223 miles per hour at Indianapolis in Dallara’s DW12 simulator – and FFU would probably prefer to have a faster engine. But simply making the race and not embarrassing themselves may be success in and of itself. Just finishing the race should prove to folks that Alesi’s still got the talent. And not producing a back-row dog of a car would go a long way towards helping FFU realize its goal of becoming a full-time IndyCar team someday.

In the end, success may be their only option.

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IndyCar: Lotus Regroups After Releasing Two Teams

Over the past year, Lotus has greatly expanded its motorsports commitments, from Formula 1 to sports cars to the IndyCar Series. But as US Race Report’s Chris Leone explains, the latter has been an exercise in frustration, as Bryan Herta Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have left the engine manufacturer for uncertain futures.

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 3

With today’s post, we’re halfway through our season preview for the IZOD IndyCar Series. We’ll break down stories 15-11 today; the first ten stories went up in the past two days (see part one and part two), while the top ten will be revealed in the next two days.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

15. Mike Conway will bring A.J. Foyt’s team back to relevance with a strong season.

FACT: Conway, last year’s surprise Long Beach winner, has improved every year he’s been in IndyCar. Foyt, meanwhile, landed a Honda engine contract early in engine negotiations and will be one of the brand’s top teams in 2012. With an emphasis on road and street courses, tracks where Conway excels, the Foyt team has hired the right driver to put together a competitive season, especially since they’ve never been particularly strong on those sorts of tracks.

14. Los Angeles will provide a better setting for a series finale than Las Vegas.

FACT: Last year’s tragedy aside, Los Angeles and the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana actually have a few natural advantages over Las Vegas for IndyCar. For one, IndyCar’s media headquarters are in Los Angeles, and with the announcement of a new Dreamworks film, “Turbo,” about a snail that dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500, it’s not a stretch to figure that the series will have plenty of marketing tie-ins to utilize. The sport has had ties with plenty of movie stars over the years, from the late Paul Newman’s team ownership to Mark Wahlberg’s IZOD commercial appearances in the past couple of years. Las Vegas has its attractions, including a parade on the Strip that highlighted last year’s event, but the thought of taking over Tinseltown is too good to be true.

13. With the strongest freshman class in years, the 2012 Rookie of the Year Award is anyone’s to win.

FACT: 19 years of Formula 1 experience rendered Rubens Barrichello ineligible for rookie honors in IndyCar according to new race control czar Beaux Barfield, and ovals aside, he’s probably right. That leaves the class open to two former Champ Car drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Katherine Legge, who receive rookie status again in IndyCar because of the different sanctioning body. Meanwhile, Josef Newgarden will move up from Indy Lights, while Luca Filippi shifts from the European GP2 championship starting at Indianapolis. All have plenty of talent, and with the right luck, could feasibly take the honors. Smart money goes to Pagenaud, however, as his Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports team has the most full-time experience.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

12. Helio Castroneves is revitalized enough to be a consistent performer all season.

FICTION: 11th place in last year’s points should be motivation enough for Castroneves to pick up his performance in 2012. But for all the time he’s spent in the employ of Roger Penske, the popular Brazilian has never shown late-season consistency in his hottest seasons, and never had quite enough sizzle in his more consistent years. It seems a little late in his career to finally pick up a first championship, but keep in mind that Dario Franchitti spent a decade in the sport before his first title. And even if it never happens, Castroneves will still have three Indianapolis 500 wins (at least) to hang his hat on. Don’t expect a title, but that fourth Indy win doesn’t seem out of the question.

11. Lotus will be a distant third in this year’s engine manufacturer race.

FACT: Things look bad for the British engine supplier, which prepares its products at John Judd’s base in England. They got a late start in developing their engine, and the results showed in testing. With a solid driver lineup and what appears to be a conservative plan to gradually work its way up the charts this season, don’t expect too much from Lotus in the early stages of the year. They’ll improve later in the season, but that may be too late to compete with Honda or Chevrolet over the course of the full year.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Katherine Legge

Photo credit: Paz Chouhan (CC-BY-NC-ND)

#6 TrueCar Dallara-Lotus, Dragon Racing

Born: July 12, 1980

Hometown: Guildford, Surrey, England

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After three fruitless seasons in the German DTM championship racing older model Audis, Legge returned to Indianapolis in 2011 with the goal of resuming her open-wheel career, taking a physical for IndyCar officials in January.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Despite a boon of female drivers in the series, including four in the Indianapolis 500, Legge was unable to secure sponsorship or a ride to compete in the 2011 season.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Legge hasn’t run full time in North American open-wheel racing since 2007, when she finished 15th in points driving for Dale Coyne Racing in Champ Car. But thanks to a mid-January deal with Dragon Racing, she’ll be running Lotuses alongside one of Champ Car’s all-time best drivers, Sebastien Bourdais. There’s no doubt that Legge can learn a lot from the Frenchman, part of the reason why owner Jay Penske was so keen on pairing the two drivers.

Legge may not have the equipment to run as well as Danica Patrick, whose career will inevitably be the measuring stick against which she is judged, but don’t underestimate Legge’s talent – after all, Legge took wins in Toyota Atlantic in 2005, years before Patrick’s first IndyCar triumph. She’ll also have contract stability, with two years on her deal and an option for a third, allowing her to be patient if 2012 is a trying year and retool for 2013. She won’t outrun her teammate, but she won’t be a laughingstock, either.

– Chris Leone