Last year was all about celebrating 100 years of Indianapolis 500 history. This year everything is new: cars, engines, drivers and officials.
For the first time since 1997, drivers will be racing in all-new cars: the Dallara DW12, named in honor of the late Dan Wheldon, who did much of the initial systems testing. Disparaged because of its appearance, the much-maligned chassis has small vertical wings on the sidepods to prevent cars being launched into the air on contact and rear bodywork that partially covers the wheels in order to reduce dangerous wheel-to-wheel contact. The oval track wheel guards will be even taller and more prominent than those used on other circuits, adding to the vilified "bat mobile" look.
Drivers have had to adapt their driving style to contend with pedals that inhibit right-foot braking, while engineers have struggled to overcome handling issues stemming from the weight-heavy rear end. The car is not as light as promised, nor as powerful. While many fans are pleased to hear the return of the turbo, the 2.2-liter V-6 engine has been downsized from the 2.4-liter originally spec'ed, with a resulting dip in horsepower.
Competition between engine manufacturers returns, as Chevrolet and Lotus join Honda this year. Chevrolet-powered drivers have won the first four poles and races; however, Honda, which has produced several second-place finishes, recently received approval from IndyCar for a turbocharger modification that might give it an advantage in the turns over the twin turbos used by Chevy and Lotus.
Lotus, late to the game and lagging at the back of the grid, lost two of its five customers in April. Remaining with the marque are four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais, Katherine Legge and Simona De Silvestro.
While it's always possible to see an upset at Indianapolis — like last year's win by Dan Wheldon driving for Bryan Herta — the battle between Chevy and Honda, particularly between Penske and Ganassi, will dominate the day.
Penske Power to persevere
Team Penske driver Will Power has won three consecutive races leading up to the 500. Professing a new perspective after off-season reflection, Power is more relaxed and focused behind the wheel. In a class of his own on street and road courses, the Australian has also won on ovals. With his current momentum, he's a strong contender for the win.
Having won the season-opening race, three-time Indy 500 winner and Power's teammate Helio Castroneves has a feel for this track unlike many since Rick Mears.
Dario Franchitti, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, has struggled with the new car, but seemed to find his form in Brazil, where he ran up front all day. With the turbo fix, expect him to find speed at the Brickyard.
His teammate, Scott Dixon, has been quietly knocking on the door all season, with a handful of second-place finishes. Another former 500 winner, Dixon typically flies under the radar, cranking out solid performances.
Other likely candidates for the milk-guzzling spotlight include Chevy driver Tony Kanaan, with KV Racing Technology, who always runs up front but is often plagued by problems; Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe, the talented and amusing Go Daddy guy; Ed Carpenter, another Chevy driver who runs well at the Speedway; Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport driver; and Ryan Brisco with Team Penske.
Rookies are nothing new, and this year's crop is seasoned. Rubens Barrichello, Formula One veteran now driving for KVRT, has been adept at picking up IndyCar's nuances. Another Formula One veteran, Jean Alesi, hopes to make his Indy debut. The Frenchman's close association with Lotus led to an opportunity with Newman Haas that later fell through. The 47-year-old, who has been practicing on the Dallara simulator, picked up a ride with Fan Force United.
Simon Pagenaud, 2010 American Le Mans Series champion, is also new to ovals but not to the series. Currently driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, he has Honda power behind him.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver Josef Newgarden has oval experience, having won at IMS last year in the Firestone Indy Lights series. His teammate and another oval racer, Bryan Clauson, is a two-time USAC champion with two national midget titles.
Another rookie making his debut at Indy is President of Competition Beaux Barfield. The former ALMS race director has been shaking things up by making rule changes and applying a firm hand to transgressions on and off the track.