JR Hildebrand doesn’t dwell on what might have been in last year’s Indianapolis 500. There’s no time for that, anyway.
Yes, he was leading on the final lap and headed to almost certain victory in the biggest race of his life. But as he came upon the slowed car of Charlie Kimball, he went too high and smacked the wall in the final turn. Dan Wheldon sailed by him for the win, and Hildebrand, a rookie last year, skidded to a second-place finish.
“It’s not super difficult to kind of compartmentalize the whole situation, because it’s not something I deal with in practice,” Hildebrand said. “When you play baseball, you hit ground balls a million times a day. If you flub one in the game, it’s like, well, you know, you screwed up. You screwed up doing something that you should know how to do.
“With this, it’s kind of like you don’t have (a slower car) kind of situation come up in practice. You don’t have that kind of thing happen besides when it maybe ends up happening during the race. I don’t beat myself up because it’s just not something that you really deal with.”
And it’s not something Hildebrand can carry into this year’s race. When Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens Saturday for the first day of practice, every team and every driver must be focused on what is expected to be the most wide-open Indy 500 in years.
As if a new car and competing engine manufacturers weren’t enough, a flurry of recent off-track activity has added layers of intrigue to the May 27 race.
There’s been handwringing among fans over potentially disappointing speeds, and concerns that IndyCar won’t have a full 33-car field. While both are steeped in tradition, fans seem more upset about speed and car counts than the drivers.
“We will have a 33, but, honestly, if we didn’t, I think we need to focus on the quality, not on the quantity,” said Tony Kanaan. “I believe that with the economy right now, it’s been remarkable how many cars we’ve already got, and it’s just a number. You start 33 cars, I know it’s tradition this and that, but in the first lap you have a five-car accident, you’re already down to 27 cars, so what’s the deal? I’m not concerned, I understand that the haters might criticize us for that, but I think we’ll be OK.”
And Hildebrand, who seemed disappointed by the speeds following an April test at Indy, now seems resigned to how difficult it is for everything to be perfect in the first year of a new car. Following Wheldon’s death last October, IndyCar has been conservative — especially going into the first oval race of the season.
“I don’t foresee the speeds being super high this year,” he said. “That’s just kind of what we’re up against in terms of having a new formula and having a different kind of outlook on the safety side of the car. I think this year could end up being a little bit of an outlier from that perspective. It’s all just a work in progress.”
There’s an apparent shortage of engines, with Chevrolet at capacity in its first season back in the series in six years. Honda, the lone supplier the last six seasons in IndyCar, also says it is full.
And nobody wants a Lotus, it seems.
Dragon Racing has sued Lotus for $4.6 million and has yet to announce where it will get engines for drivers Sebastian Bourdais and Katherine Legge. Same goes for Alex Tagliani, as Bryan Herta Racing is expected to get a Honda engine for last year’s pole sitter but has made no formal announcement since splitting from Lotus last month.
Dreyer & Reinbold walked away from Lotus at the same time, but shored up its program when the team aligned with Panther Racing. That gives Hildebrand a teammate in veteran Oriol Servia, and he heads to Indianapolis feeling like he can compete on an even playing field for the first time this season.
Servia, who started on the front row last year and finished sixth in the 500, has been plagued by issues in the first four races because of DRR’s partnership with Lotus.
“When you go through tough times, it either breaks a team or makes it stronger, and I think it’s made us a lot stronger,” Servia said. “We had to grow together through the first four races and go through pain together. It’s not what you want to have, but I think it’s putting us in a great position coming into the 500, where we’re very hungry, and now we know we’re going to have the right tools to be fighting for the win and not just be dreaming about it.”
All the wrangling has left Lotus in sad shape.
DRR and Herta are gone and Simona de Silvestro with HVM Racing is currently the only full-time Lotus team. But the British engine manufacturer on Tuesday announced a deal to back 47-year-old former Formula One driver Jean Alesi for the 500. He’ll try to make the race driving for Fan Force United, an Indy Lights team co-owned by former driver Tyce Carlson, and will be making his IndyCar and oval debuts.
For Rubens Barrichello, another former F1 driver, it will be his first time around the oval at Indy. Barrichello raced at Indy in its F1 configuration, and he’s racing the full IndyCar season with KV Racing. But his test session Sunday night and Monday at Texas Motor Speedway was his first time on an oval.
Away from the track, the Chevy and Honda teams will be anxiously awaiting a ruling that could dramatically affect the competition. Honda received permission from IndyCar to make an alternation to its single turbocharger.
After four wins and four poles in four races for Chevrolet — Penske Racing is so far perfect on the season — Honda believes the new compressor cover on its turbocharger will reduce the power disadvantage it has to the twin turbochargers from Lotus and Chevy.
Chevy has vehemently opposed the change, and on Wednesday presented its final appeal in Indianapolis to retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice Theodore R. Boehm. His ruling will be binding, whenever it comes.
Honda teams were able to use the new compressor cover in the last outing, in Brazil, and even though Penske driver Will Power won his third consecutive race, Chevy teams believed Honda was much quicker with the change.
“It looks like Chevrolet had a great start, but Honda seems to come back very strong,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who won this year’s season-opening race.
So it’s wide-open, even though it seems like nobody has had anything for Penske this year. That’s especially true for Power, who has been dominant in winning three straight and taking over the points lead.
But oval tracks are his weakness, so he’s not declaring himself the favorite. In fact, Power has no idea who would be the top pick.
“I think for the fans, going into it, you could not pick. I mean, who can you pick?” he asked. “I think it’s going to be exciting because there’s no clear favorite.”