While Fernando Alonso’s quest for a fairytale finish at the 2019 Indy 500 failed before it started – thanks to a catalogue of blunders by his McLaren team – plenty of drivers are still on track for the win of their life.
Ahead of the 103rd Indianapolis 500, Andy Webb runs the rule over the drivers aiming for a Hollywood ending to the month of May and considers who stands the best chance of crossing the yard of bricks first.
Can Helio secure his place amongst the legends of Indy?
Helio Castroneves has become synonymous with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 3-time Indy 500 winner created the ‘spider-man’ celebration and his infectious enthusiasm for the 500 has endeared him to many.
Since his last win in 2009, the Brazilian has been on the cusp of joining the elite of the elite but the stars have refused to align one last time.
Only three drivers – Foyt, Unser Jr and Mears – have taken four wins in the 107 year history of the Indy 500. Mears – the last to complete the feat – won his fourth and final 500 in 1991. In the intervening 28 years, Castroneves alongside Dario Franchitti has come the closest to joining that unique club.
Each of the current trio of four-time champions represents an important era in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It would therefore be fitting if Castroneves could clinch his fourth win and become the most decorated Indy 500 racer of the post-Mears era.
The talent and the tools but now too old?
Once more Castroneves has all the tools at his disposal to win. His may be a one-off entry but Team Penske – alongside Ed Carpenter Racing – were the pacesetters during qualifying and a Penske car has either won or finished runner-up in the 500 nine times since 2001.
On paper his chances are as good as they were when he triumphed in 2001, 2002 and 2009. But time is marching on for the exuberant Brazilian.
Despite his eternally youthful good looks and abundant charm, at 44 he is rapidly approaching the end of his racing career. Time is perhaps starting to take its toll on the Brazilian racer.
Last weekend, Castroneves was the only Penske driver to not make the Firestone Fast Nine, qualifying a rather muted 12th. All of his Indy wins came with the previous generation IndyCar chassis and his first experience of the universal IndyCar aero kit in 2018 was an unhappy one, crashing out on lap 145. Meanwhile Will Power took his maiden win and teammates Newgarden and Pagenaud finished in the top 10.
Verdict: indifferent qualifying form has not stopped Castroneves from winning (or coming close) at the Brickyard. His first and second Indy 500 wins came from qualifying spots outside the top-10. His most recent runner-up finish in 2017 came after qualifying 19th.
Everything Helio needs to win his fourth Indy 500 is in place, it just depends on whether the Speedway plans to bestow upon him truly legendary status.
Will Marco finally end the ‘Andretti curse’ at Indy?
When Marco Andretti exploded onto the IndyCar scene at the 2006 Indianapolis 500, victory at the Brickyard seemed to be a case of when, not if. What has transpired since Sam Hornish Jr beat him to the line by a miniscule 0.0635 seconds is a story of growing frustration. One that has embellished the legend of the so-called ‘Andretti curse’ that prevented his father Michael – and now Marco – from drinking milk in victory lane.
Marco always runs well at the Speedway; since his rookie season he’s recorded a further four top-5 and three top-10 finishes . Yet the fates have continually conspired to prevent him from winning the one race he and his family crave most.
An ill-timed full course caution, a bad strategy call or simply lacking pace on the final run to the flag, Andretti has continually been close enough to touch the Borg-Warner trophy but never to take it home.
Andretti and Herta: a winning combination?
On the 50th anniversary of Mario’s sole Indianpolis 500 victory, fans would unite to celebrate another Andretti in victory lane. For Marco it would be the crowning moment in his long IndyCar racing career.
Though his team is a satellite Andretti Autosport outfit, Marco cannot be discounted as a potential winner. Especially as he retains the services of two-time Indy 500-winning team owner Bryan Herta as his race strategist.
Verdict: Indy remains Andretti’s best shot at another victory in the midst of a 7-year winless streak. He just needs everything – race set-up, pitstops, the timing of cautions – to go his way.
But with the Mario tribute paint job, the 50th anniversary hype and a catalogue of near-misses, this is either going to be the story of the decade or another ‘win’ for the Andretti curse.
Conor Daly gets the chance he’s been waiting for
Conor Daly’s IndyCar career is littered with near-misses and hard luck stories. So much so that the 27-year-old has been the inspiration for countless memes. Daly himself has taken the locker room banter with good humour and embraced his role as the butt of many jokes. But he could, finally, have the last laugh.
One-off entries have rarely won at the Speedway in the modern era. Dan Wheldon’s unexpected second win in 2011 aside, victory has been the domain of the established, multi-car teams for decades.
Yet if the current field of drivers were given a choice of one-off ride for the greatest spectacle in racing, it would be with either Andretti Autosport or Team Penske.
The best one-off entry in the 2019 Indy 500 field? Probably
For the first time in his stop-start IndyCar career, Daly found himself at the top of the speed charts during build up to this weekend’s 500. Qualifying was something of a disappointment but Daly was not alone as all of the Andretti cars – and Honda runners in general – struggled to match the ultimate pace of the Chevys of Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing.
Nevertheless, speed when full-trimmed out does not guarantee victory on Sunday.
Short of being a full-time entrant in one of Andretti’s primary cars, this is Daly’s best shot at scoring not only his first IndyCar win but the biggest of his career. There are, of course, downsides to his one-off status.
Daly will not be relying on the leading engineers and mechanics that run the cars of Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Neither can he call upon the tactical brain of two-time race-wining owner Bryan Herta, who heads up Marco Andretti’s effort. When it comes to pitstops – so often absolutely critical to securing victory at Indy – Daly’s will not be the experienced crew that has seen action in the opening five races of the 2019 season.
And then there is the pressure.
Can Daly handle the pressure?
Every driver on Sunday will feel the pressure that comes with a shot at racing immortality. Daly, however, will be under even more pressure and much of it is self-generated.
This is his big shot and he has been open and frank about how much of an opportunity it is. The question is whether that will prove too much for him.
Verdict: this is Daly’s big shot. He could claim the biggest race win in world motorsport this Sunday and has as good a chance as any of the leading drivers on the grid. Even if he does not win, a strong performance could offer the consolation prize of putting himself back into contention for a full-time ride with a leading team.
Will he be able to handle the pressure? We will find out on Sunday.