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Indy Bump Day Produces Heartbreak Of A Different Variety

Photo via IndyCar Media

Bump Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the highest-attrition, most exciting days in motorsports. As cars attempt to fill the 33-slot field for the Indianapolis 500, only the fastest survive, sending slower cars and drivers home with only the thoughts of what could have been.

But this year’s field of 33 won’t feature any of that, thanks to a new engine formula and mid-season brand switches that have overextended the engine departments at both Honda and Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Lotus, left with only two remaining entries, has failed to show any sort of reasonable speed all month, leading Jean Alesi to call the car “unsafe.”

As such, a handful of teams pondered the idea of putting together extra entries, which would likely have had no issues in bumping the Lotus racers from this year’s field. At one point, Roger Penske reportedly said that he had the capability to field five cars, while A.J. Foyt and Sam Schmidt, this year running two cars apiece, have both entered more in the past. In response, the hungry drivers started patrolling the garages; both Jay Howard and Pippa Mann, graduates of the Firestone Indy Lights Series who have struggled to make the full-time jump to the IZOD IndyCar Series, tried to put together deals all month, while former IndyCar competitor Vitor Meira was also seen visiting the Honda camp during the week of practice. Howard, in fact, had a deal with Michael Shank Racing that was abandoned when the team couldn’t acquire a competitive engine, and Shank refused to accept a Lotus.

Sadly, Howard and Mann won’t make qualifying attempts in “Sunday specials” today, due to engine manufacturers pulling out.

Photo via IndyCar Media

Though Mann abandoned her pursuit of a ride before qualifying yesterday, saying that she had a sponsor, car, and engine available until that morning, yesterday’s three qualifying crashes could have affected the pursuit. Chevrolet owner-driver Ed Carpenter, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Oriol Servia (in his first race with Chevrolet power), and Honda’s Bryan Clauson all had various incidents, with at least Clauson’s requiring a new motor for the already stretched thin Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Howard put out a press release saying that his engine manufacturer didn’t abandon plans for a last-minute ride until after Pole Day.

Another part of the reason, likely, is so that Honda and Chevrolet don’t force Lotus out of the series entirely. All three manufacturers are obligated to power as much as 40% of the field in a three-brand setup, and up to 60% if a brand drops out, but neither Chevrolet nor Honda is looking forward to the latter possibility when they’ve already waived the former.

Of course, Bump Day has brought stranger surprises before. In 2005, Felipe Giaffone was pulled out of a mall to qualify a third entry for Foyt and help fill the field. If the Lotuses qualify early in the day, and show speed far off yesterday’s low qualifying pace (Sebastian Saavedra’s four-lap qualifying average of 222.811 miles per hour ranked 24th, making him the final driver to set his time on Saturday), the series will be stuck in a strange position, with a lot of questions to answer.

Is 33 cars “just a number,” as Tony Kanaan said before qualifying, and does that justify starting only 31? Would race director Beaux Barfield allow the Lotuses to start, and then park them if they can’t reach 105% of the race leader’s speed? (Were that rule to apply to qualifying, both Alesi and Simona de Silvestro would have to hit 215 miles per hour, which neither have done all month.) Could Barfield justify leaving the qualifying horsepower boost on the Lotuses for the sake of safety, knowing that neither could contend despite the unfair advantage?

Photo via IndyCar Media

Or, ultimately, would the possibility of starting two cars that run between 10 and 20 miles per hour off the pace be sufficiently worrisome enough to Chevrolet and Honda to make extra engines available? After all, roadblocks cause accidents, and if one of the Lotuses were to cause a melee that eliminated either manufacturer’s top contender from the event, they might be livid.

Starting and parking, like a lower-budget NASCAR team, isn’t an option. The issue isn’t a lack of funding – both Howard and Mann, your presumptive 32nd and 33rd starters, would have had enough money to run the race – but a lack of motor. And neither manufacturer would likely consider pulling in their last-minute entries, lest they alienate the traditionalists at Indianapolis to an incredible extent. (Indianapolis fans don’t take too kindly to failure to provide acceptable parts. Just ask Michelin.)

To the chagrin of many, this Bump Day will likely go without any of the bumping that makes it so entertaining. Instead, race fans will likely have to wait until next year, when a greater surplus of entries will be available. Maybe then, having a sponsor and car at the ready will be enough to make a qualifying attempt at The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. It usually is.

– Chris Leone

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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.

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 2

Photo credit: Ned Leone

Today, we count down stories 20-16 at the beginning of this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series season. This is the second part of a five-part series previewing this year’s IndyCar season; the first post went up yesterday, while the next three will go up in the coming days.

20. The Milwaukee Mile will flourish with Michael Andretti at the helm as promoter.

FACT: Unlike last year’s promoters, Andretti is doing everything he possibly can to make Milwaukee an attractive race for all sorts of fans. Four tickets for the race go for under $100, which goes a long way towards keeping the event affordable for families. Beyond that, there will be plenty of entertainment to entice fans to make the Milwaukee IndyFest an annual event on their calendar. Andretti must have learned something about good business from his stint on Celebrity Apprentice, because everything he’s done with the event so far suggests that the track’s promoter troubles are through for good.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

19. Oriol Servia will be Lotus’ top driver this year.

FACT: Last year’s fourth-place points finisher is working with Lotus’ most experienced entrant, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. That being said, this team doesn’t seem to have an obvious fatal flaw compared to its fellow Lotus competitors. Sebastien Bourdais may be the brand’s most talented driver, but Dragon Racing has been one of the most tumultuous teams in the sport in the past few years. Alex Tagliani and Bryan Herta Autosport are making the jump to full-time competition for the first time together, a transition that will likely lead to some growing pains. As for Simona de Silvestro and HVM Racing, they’ve never been particularly lucky in IndyCar. If only by process of elimination, Servia is Lotus’ best entry.

18. IndyCar’s street race in China will not only avoid the problems that Champ Car had staging a similar race, but it will also lead to a lengthy association with the sport and the country.

FACT: First things first: IndyCar’s management structure right now is far more stable than Champ Car’s ever was. But one of the issues with the Champ Car China round was an inability to secure a decent promoter. The series took the original promoter to court, while their replacement wanted to switch the inaugural Chinese Champ Car Grand Prix from May to October. The FIA rejected the new date, and so the race was shot down. IndyCar doesn’t foresee the same problems with the Qingdao Indy Grand Prix or its August race date, claiming the full support of the local government, and so any bad premonitions may be a non-issue.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

17. Tony Kanaan can match his top five finish in points from last season.

FICTION: There’s just too much talent in the sport to make this a sure bet. If you want to be bland and predictable, the top Ganassi and Penske cars total five on their own. But Andretti Autosport will hope to put at least one of their cars in the top five, while even friend, teammate, and IndyCar rookie Rubens Barrichello could steal a top five position if he adapts to ovals well enough.

16. Either Chip Ganassi Racing or Penske Racing, depending on whose engine is better, will see its lead drivers slip down the standings in 2012.

FICTION: Not based on Sebring testing, they won’t. Penske Chevrolets were the class of the field in their test session, while Ganassi Hondas made everybody else look slow in theirs. Different weather conditions on different days make the two sets of data difficult to compare to one another, but the point is that they’re both going to be strong this year as usual.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Oriol Servia

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#22 Lotus Cars Dallara-Lotus, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

Born: July 13, 1974

Hometown: Pals, Catalonia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Despite two years out of a full-time ride, Servia was the best driver not to be employed by either Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske in 2011. Driving for Newman/Haas Racing, Servia finished fourth in points after a hot start and strong finish to the season.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: For a team with so-so expectations heading into the year, there weren’t many disappointments, but a win would have been nice. Loudon presented the best chance, when Servia made what would have been the winning pass during the botched restart, but it was called back and the team’s appeal was denied. Any chance to amend that in 2012 was dashed when Newman/Haas folded at the end of the season.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Most drivers don’t get bounced from their teams after a top-five points season, but such has always been Servia’s luck. He was let go when Newman/Haas closed up shop, then passed over for well-funded rides with Andretti Autosport and A.J. Foyt Enterprises before finally working out a deal with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. DRR will be one of the top teams running Lotus engines, partially because many of the brand’s customers will be start-up teams in 2012.

That being said, there’s almost no way that Servia will match his fourth-place mark from 2011. Don’t just blame it on the Lotus power, though – remember how much Justin Wilson, a fellow ex-Champ Car star, struggled with the team last season. DRR, as one of IndyCar’s oldest teams (dating back to the IRL days), has always been more of a threat at the ovals, and with those races minimized on this year’s schedule, may be in for an annus horribilis in 2012.

– Chris Leone

Public Perception Versus Lotus’ IndyCar Reality

Photo credit: Ned Leone

There are instances in all sports, including motor racing, when inaccurate perception drives a story more than the actual facts do. The public formulates an opinion based on a limited set of data, everybody jumps on it, and suddenly the story is as good as absolute fact.

The jury is still out on whether Lotus’ IndyCar program will be one of those stories.

Everything about the British marque’s entry into the series as an engine manufacturer, rather than simply a sponsor, appears to be comprised of hasty last-minute decisions. Ever since they made their initial announcement – even then, at the 11th hour, just as the sanctioning body was about to freeze new entries – the thought has always been that Lotus would be far behind Honda and Chevrolet.

After all, Honda has been the only engine provider in the series since 2005, and General Motors (mostly through Chevrolet, but also through Oldsmobile in the early days of the Indy Racing League and through John Menard’s Buick V6s) has had a strong open-wheel presence for the past 30 years as well. Lotus, meanwhile, attempted a factory IndyCar project in 1984 (the 96T) that was effectively quashed by CART’s uneasiness about having a “works” team. While elements of that car helped Lotus’ 97T win three Formula 1 races in 1985, the brand dropped out of that sport as a factory entry in the mid-1990s and is only just returning.

In fact, a lot of Lotus’ newest racing projects have only popped up within the past few years. Credit Dany Bahar, Lotus’ CEO since September 2009, with wanting to revitalize both Lotus’ road division (announcing many new models) and its racing division. If anybody has the managerial experience to do it, it’s Bahar; from 2003 to 2007, he was the chief operating officer at Red Bull, and before taking the Lotus job, he held a major position at Ferrari.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

But Bahar inherited, simply put, what became a disaster of a brand. The Team Lotus trademark battle between the brand and trademark holder Tony Fernandes has been well-documented, and that level of bad press affects perception greatly. Instead of the brand working towards a renaissance, it appears to be destined for overexpansion. Instead of reclaiming its racing heritage, it’s only frustrating people.

Perhaps that external perception of managerial incompetence, most of which has nothing to do with Bahar, has influenced the perception of the brand’s foray into IndyCar. Yes, Lotus has taken its program slowly thus far. Its test car did not debut with Honda’s or Chevrolet’s, waiting a couple of months before making its first laps. It waited longer than other brands to announce most of its teams, leaving slim pickings and forcing marriages with reluctant team owners.

Things haven’t improved much since the cars have begun spring training. Right now, the brand can’t field more than five cars, due to a lack of engines. There have been rumors of bounced checks along the whole process, from Lotus struggling to pay Judd to build its engines to Dragon Racing not having an engine to take part in Monday and Tuesday’s tests. Only one Lotus tested in that session, and it brought up the rear, more than a second off the pace of the fastest cars.

But Lotus does have one advantage on its side: per capita, perhaps the most driving talent in the garage. Sebastien Bourdais, four-time Champ Car champion, will run the full season (save Milwaukee, when he will race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans instead), and the greater ratio of road and street courses to ovals should give him ample opportunity to showcase his talent. Oriol Servia was one of the series’ top drivers last season in his return to full-time competition. Alex Tagliani won the pole for the Indianapolis 500. Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge have strong pedigrees in junior formulas and are no pushovers.

That alone may allow Lotus to be stronger than people think they’ll be this season.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

In fact, while Lotus has had to scramble to an extent to get their program together, it really appears that the forces at play have simply established a timeline that runs on the brand’s own terms. They appear to be on pace with where Honda and Chevrolet were two months prior in terms of speed and reliability. Add one of the smartest groups of drivers in the paddock to the mix, and you have a program that shouldn’t be underestimated, no matter the timeline.

Remember that road and street course races aren’t necessarily just about being fast. They’re about being patient. Lotus may very well be taking that thought process to heart here, as Honda and Chevrolet push each other to the limit. With the rev limiters of the spec era gone, and a major engine rivalry about the resume, chances are that plenty of turbo V6s are going to blow this season. When they do, Lotus could be in the perfect position to capitalize, simply by keeping its drivers on track and out of trouble.

It may be inevitable that Lotus will be the third-best manufacturer in IndyCar in 2012. If people’s perceptions of their equipment and the quality of their teams are accurate, it may stay that way for the next few seasons. But they’ve assembled a decent driver lineup, gotten their cars to the grid, and will learn quickly over the course of the season. And in that case, suggestions of Lotus’ so-called inevitable flop may, in fact, be greatly premature.

– Chris Leone