May has arrived. The 101st Indianapolis 500 is edging ever closer and the eyes of not just America, but the world will be on the Brickyard as everybody asks: can Fernando Alonso win the biggest oval race in IndyCar at the very first attempt?
There is so much more to May than just Alonso though, but this is the biggest story of the year so far in motor racing and seeing his progress throughout the month will be fascinating. The two-time Formula 1 champion and two-time Monaco Grand Prix winner, who tested an IndyCar for the first time on May 3rd.
But before we see Alonso, and 32 others, take to the famous superspeedway, there is also a race on the road course to consider. Penske will have a fifth driver on the grid at the road course, with two-time 500 victor Juan Pablo Montoya returning to the series ahead of his run at the big race. The current road course layout is somewhat different to the one F1 ran between 2000 and 2007, and is also different to the one MotoGP ran until a few years ago. Characteristics from both, as well as a few new sections are included however.
The road course event will take place two weeks before the main event, but some useful championship points will be up for grabs. Arguably this track is the one track which resembles a modern-day F1 circuit, so expect the likes of Alexander Rossi, Max Chilton and Sebastien Bourdais to be strong there, in addition to two-time winner Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe and 2015 winner Will Power.
A week after the grand prix, we will have qualifying for the 500. Hinchcliffe took an emotional pole position last year, a year on from his horrific injury which ended his season prematurely. The Honda package appears strong, so the popular Canadian will enter the month amongst the favourites.
We are yet to know exactly who will make up the field of 33, with a couple of spots still left unconfirmed even at this stage. However, here is what we do know about those who will definitely run at Indianapolis this month:
Team Penske (Chevrolet)
Simon Pagenaud (championship leader)
Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009 winner)
Will Power (2015 runner-up)
Juan Pablo Montoya (2000, 2015 winner)
Much of Chevrolet’s hopes will be pinned on the quintet of Penske drivers, who are amongst the strongest drivers in IndyCar at the moment. Montoya will be rusty, having not raced at all this year so far, but the Colombian can never be ruled out in a 500-mile race. Pagenaud is the championship leader at the moment, and won last time out at Phoenix, but his oval record otherwise isn’t stellar. Castroneves always goes well here, but he has not won a race anywhere in almost three years. Power is always improving his pace on the ovals, and could be one to watch this year. However, the man to beat might be Josef Newgarden, who ran at the front all day last year, and won at Barber. Expect all five Penskes to be in the mix this year if the Chevrolet package is up to the challenge.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises (Chevrolet)
Carlos Munoz (2013, 2016 runner-up)
Zach Veach (Rookie, 500 only)
Colombian Munoz will be looking to achieve his first Indy 500 win, having come close on two occasions in his career to date. Munoz is an Indianapolis specialist, and is likely to be in the mix. Meanwhile for Daly, he will simply be looking for a bit of luck. He has only finished the 500 once so far. Veach will make his second IndyCar start, and his first on an oval.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda)
James Hinchcliffe (2016 polesitter)
Jay Howard (500 only)
Hinchcliffe was in the mix for much of the race back in 2016, and usually qualifies pretty well. He dropped back a little bit in the race last year, but should be towards the front once again. Aleshin is still somewhat erratic in IndyCar, but the Russian has shown much improvement over his time in the United States. If he can keep it out of the barriers, he could well charge through to a good result. Howard will be looking to make what will be only his second start at the speedway. He raced for this team back in 2011.
Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda)
Scott Dixon (2008 winner)
Tony Kanaan (2013 winner)
Kanaan looked very upbeat regarding the strength of the Ganassi-Honda package at the previous race at Phoenix. Ganassi is looking to try and win this race for the first time since the days of Dario Franchitti. Dixon is likely to be in the mix, as is Kanaan. Kimball has finished well in the past, whilst Chilton is another driver showing improvement. Other Honda teams are quicker and have more experience with the aerokit and engine, but a Ganassi win cannot be ruled out.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Honda)
Oriol Servia (500 only)
Veteran Servia will partner Rahal for the 500 as well as the two Detroit races. Rahal had a pretty disastrous May last year, and will be looking to Servia’s experience should similar issues arise this year.
Dale Coyne Racing (Honda)
Ed Jones (Rookie)
Pippa Mann (500 only)
The addition of four-time champion Bourdais and rookie Jones has provided some shock results so far this year, and both are higher in the championship than perhaps expected. However, Bourdais’ record on ovals is considerably inferior to his record on the road and street courses, so it seems unlikely that Coyne will be in the mix on pace alone. However, Coyne is a master of strategy, which could play a part. They will also be running Mann again this year, after her strongest result to date last year. She is set to be the only woman to start this year.
Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet)
Ed Carpenter (2013, 2014 polesitter, 500 only)
Spencer Pigot (Grand Prix only)
JR Hildebrand (2011 runner-up)
The tools are certainly present at ECR for a strong result at Indy. Carpenter is electric over one lap and Hildebrand is always strong here, having come within one turn of winning this race as a rookie back in 2011. As always, Pigot will run the road course, and will not run the big event due to the team suffering from too many incidents last year and therefore not having a chassis available.
Dreyer and Reinbold Racing (Chevrolet)
Sage Karam (500 only)
The fast-yet-erratic Karam will run the 500 again with the team he raced for last year.
Andretti Autosport (Honda)
Marco Andretti (2006 runner-up)
Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014 winner)
Fernando Alonso (Rookie, 500 only)
Jack Harvey (Rookie, 500 only)
Alexander Rossi (2016 winner)
How fearsome is this line-up? Two of the last three race wins are in this team, as well as arguably the most highly-anticipated rookie since Nigel Mansell. Will Alonso be mentally and physically prepared and ready to take on the unknown world of ovals? It will be tough to tell. This race will be longer than any race on the F1 calendar, and remember that Indy cars do not run with power steering. All of this is in his F1 season as well, so full attention will not necessarily be on Indy all of the time.
Also making his IndyCar debut, is Harvey. Andretti is a good team to make your debut with at Indy, and Harvey has good credentials, having finished second in Indy Lights twice. Rossi was quick here last year, fuel saving or not. He, as well as Hunter-Reay, will surely be in the mix. Sato and Andretti are also quick, and both have come close to winning this race in the past. The biggest problem the team has had this season is getting to the finish. Twice in four races has no Andretti driver finished the race this season.
Harding Racing (Chevrolet)
Gabby Chaves (2015 rookie of the year, 500 only)
New team Harding Racing will be running Chaves, who was impressive in his first full year of IndyCar back in 2015. Expect this to be a learning year for the team.
Lazier Partners Racing (Chevrolet)
Buddy Lazier (1996 winner, 500 only)
Lazier is looking to run this race yet again, more than 20 years on from his only Indy victory. This is an entry which is not expected to be in the mix.
Juncos Racing (Chevrolet)
Lights team Juncos has acquired the cars from former team KVSH. However, no driver as yet has been confirmed. This will be a learning year for the team, who are set to join the series full-time for 2018. Names which have been mooted for these seats include Pigot, Sebastian Saavedra, Alex Tagliani and Ryan Briscoe.
Regardless of who will be in the last two entries, this is a very strong field. There should be about a dozen cars in the mix on raceday, which has not been uncommon in the DW12 era. It will be tough to repeat the sort of race we had in 2013, which obliterated the records for lead changes and different leaders. However, this year’s 500 could be as open as ever. The eyes of many will be on Alonso, but 32 very capable drivers will stand between him and the famous Borg-Warner trophy. Series champions, previous 500 winners, ex-F1 stars as well as rookies will form one of the strongest 11 rows of three this race has ever seen.