You’ve seen the billboards if you live in the area: “This is Opening Weekend. This is May.” Or, if like me, you are just in town for the annual month-long pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Speed, you smiled when you saw it on your way to the track this weekend. I know I did yesterday morning, driving down 16th St. It’s finally here. The Month of May is upon us.
For the fifth year in a row, the Verizon IndyCar Series will kick off the month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the IndyCar Grand Prix. The 2.439 mile permanent road course has yielded 2 winners over the past four seasons, in Simon Pagenaud (2014, 2016) and Will Power (2015, 2017). This every-other-year pattern would make it Pagenaud’s turn for a win, but given the field of talent this year, there are 22 other drivers working hard to end that back-and-forth pattern and add another name to the winner’s list for the IndyCar Grand Prix.
Friday’s two practice sessions ran without significant issue. A few trips through the grass around the track (entirely purposeful if you ask James Hinchcliffe), but nothing that warranted any cautions. The most impressive thing about the sessions came in the afternoon when the Firestone reds went on and the lap times went down.
The top 5 were separated by less than two-tenths of a second. At one point in the practice, the top 22 cars in the 24 car field were all within eight-tenths of a second. The quickest of both sessions were Team Penske’s Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon Chevy with a 1:09.8759, followed by rookie Jordan King for Ed Carpenter Racing (No. 20 Chevy), 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi (No. 27 Honda, Andretti Autosport), rookie driver of the No. 6 Honda for SPM, Robert Wickens, and coming in 5th overall for the day’s practices, Simon Pagenaud in his day-glo yellow No. 22 Menard’s Chevy for Team Penske.
The ridiculously close lap times continued into the early evening as qualifying commenced. The times were not the only surprising element, with normally strong qualifiers being eliminated early on in the process. Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda, RLL Racing) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda, Andretti Autosport) went out in the first group, but found themselves out of the running after just the first round. Mind you, both were within half of second of the cut off. Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Honda, Ganassi Racing) was in the second group but also missed out on advancing to Round 2.
The Fast 12 eliminated 2-time winner and 1-time polesitter of the IndyCar Grand Prix, Simon Pagenaud. The Team Penske driver will start from P7 for the second year in a row. Last year he pulled out a P4 finish but given his rough start to this season and desire to rack up additional Championship points, I expect to see some aggression in traffic in hopes of at least a podium today.
That goal will not be easily attained, and his full-time teammates could be the ones to give him the hardest battle on track. Josef Newgarden (No. 1 Verizon Chevy, Team Penske) and Power both made it to the Firestone Fast 6 and will start from P6 and pole, respectively. This is Power’s third pole position earned at the IndyCar Grand Prix in four years and 51st career P1 Award.
Power’s previous starts from P1 at this course, ended with a race result of the same position so outside an issue with his car or a pit strategy gone wrong, Power could have this in the bag. He just needs to stay up front in clean air and create a decent gap from the field so he doesn’t get caught up in any traffic incidents. That could be easier said than done, however.
The first lap of this race has historically been problematic. The inaugural event in 2014 saw the polesitter, Sebastian Saavedra stall on the standing start and then get hit by both Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin. In 2015, Dixon, Newgarden, and Jack Hawksworth made contact in Turn 1 on Lap 1, causing a two-lap caution. Another first lap incident in 2016 involving Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais turned the first three laps to yellow, taking Kanaan out entirely and seeing Bourdais retire after 20 laps due to a mechanical issue. Last year, it seemed that the field had worked out the kinks, running caution-free for all 85 laps.
Will today follow suit with last season? Or are we in for a wild start to our time here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this season? Anything is possible. After all, this is May.
Photo credit: Shay Hazen, Live Full Throttle