By now we have all heard the news that Fernando Alonso is going to compete in the Indianapolis 500 this year. We know this is a big deal for American racing. But what exactly is the series he is racing in?
With five races down so far this year, IndyCar has had four different winners in Sebastian Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newmarket, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. But for many, those names might not mean anything. For a lot of people, the IndyCar series may be a complete unknown. Who drives the cars? What cars do they drive? Where do they race? If you’re unfamiliar with Indy, lets race through the basics.
The IndyCar series we know today had a messy beginning. Splits between the IRL and CART in the 1990’s left the US with two series that were embroiled in a political battle until the next decade. It almost killed the series, but it finally came back together in 2003 with many teams from CART joining the new IRL (soon to become IndyCar) and the series slowly regaining its feet. Nowadays it is the premier open wheel series in America. Ten teams feature with 21 drivers, excluding part time entries or Indy 500 only entries. The teams include such powerhouses as Andretti, Penske and Ganassi. Simon Pagenaud is the reigning champion for the Penske team, and Alexander Rossi is the reigning Indy 500 winner for Andretti Autosport. The points system is…somewhat complicated. 50 are awarded for first place and points go all the way to last place. A point is given to the driver that takes pole, a point is given to leading at least one lap, two points given for leading the most laps. So your race winner may accumulate 54 points, but it isn’t always easy to work out who has scored what unlike with Formula 1’s fixed points system for P1-10. Points are also awarded to all cars for the Indy 500 qualifying, just to make it even more confusing.
One thing that isn’t confusing is the car that the series uses. Like F2, Formula E and GP3 the series has a single chassis model. The current chassis is the Dallara DW12, the DW acronym in honour of the late Dan Wheldon who was killed in a race back in 2011. Teams run either Honda or Chevrolet V6 engines. Since 2015 the cars have been fitted with ‘aero kits’, manufacturer specific downforce kits for their respective teams. So the Honda teams will run Honda engines and aero, and Chevrolet teams will run Chevy kits and engines. The series usually has a single aero spec and this will return in 2018 with a new Dallara chassis, as the teams grew frustrated with the disparity in the competition the kits created although in 2017 the gap is much smaller. Each team and driver can set up the car to their own tastes just as in any racing series. Due to the nature of the series with its single car, qualifying can often be ridiculously close with several cars all within just a few tenths or thousandths of each other. This is one aspect that makes the series so exciting.
The last thing we will look at in this part is the tracks. IndyCar runs on ovals as we all know, but visits ‘road and street courses’. In European terms, on your more normal tracks like Imola to your street events like Monaco. The ovals vary in size, from the huge Indianapolis and Pocono speedways, to the smaller Phoenix oval or the now off the calendar Milwaukee oval. Road courses include places like Barber Motorsports park in Alabama, to Sonoma raceway and the Grand Prix track at Indianapolis. Your typical IndyCar street course is very bumpy and wild, with no room for error as in Monaco. The most famous IndyCar street course is perhaps that of Long Beach, where of course Formula 1 used to race in the 1970’s and 80’s. Each variant of race track throws up many different challenges. The street courses are bumpy and physically very demanding, ovals are frightening, fast and furious and your more conventional tracks often reward the brave and produce wonderful spectacles.
That very nicely wraps up part one of this IndyCar series guide. In part 2, we will look at the various aspects of a race and a more in depth look at the Indianapolis 500, as well as the teams and drivers that make up the series.