Preview: The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500
Written by Danny Jones, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
It’s that time of the year, once again. 500 miles of racing, 200 laps, a grid of 33 drivers, with one of them looking to etch themselves into the history books, and have their image forever emblazed on the Borg-Warner Trophy. The ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ has its 107th memory to create on May 28th, as the prestigious Indianapolis 500 is round six of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series. And last week's qualifying has already given us the prelude to the greatest event on earth, with yet more tumultuous tales of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway giving us magical moments. Alex Palou took his first Indianapolis 500 pole, his first pole anywhere since Portland in 2021, to further extend his championship lead. More importantly, he will lead the field off, on the most important day of the IndyCar year. Palou didn’t have it easy though, despite setting a sensational 235.131 MPH (378.407 KMH) first lap, and achieving an average of 234.217 MPH (376.936 KMH) four-lap average. Palou would beat Dutchman Rinus VeeKay by a narrow average of 0.006 mph to claim pole position, with VeeKay yet again starring at the speedway, taking his fourth top four start in four entries at the event. Palou and VeeKay will be joined by Felix Rosenqvist on the front row, with all three drivers breaching the 234 MPH four-lap average barrier, in the fastest average qualifying the Speedway has ever seen.
But, as is always the case in Indianapolis, it was delight for some, and despair for others, as Graham Rahal’s dismal Month of May came to an abrupt end, as he was the one bumped from the Indianapolis 500, thirty years since his father Bobby was bumped from the event. This wasn’t without more drama either! Rahal’s teammate Jack Harvey, on what looked set to be his final run, missed out on Rahal’s average time, and with no time to cool the engine, looked destined to be eliminated from the Indianapolis 500. However, in a move, spirited by the prestige and desire of the Indianapolis 500, Harvey went again, and sensationally bumped his teammate by a slender 0.007 mph to make the show for next week's Indianapolis 500.
However, all hope was not lost for Rahal. The first major incident of the month occurred during Monday practice, when Katherine Legge caught the back of a slowing train. Legge slammed into the back of Stefan Wilson, with both finding the barrier. Wilson took a significant impact, and had to be escorted for checkups and surgery. Wilson’s injuries meant he wouldn’t be able to compete in Sunday’s race, with the #24 team calling up Rahal, in a surprise move, as the Honda regular switches to Chevrolet. With a second chance, a moment to redeem himself, can Rahal have a fairytale story, even by Indianapolis’ lofty standards?
But let’s look down the grid, and go through row-by-row at the starting 33 for the Indianapolis 500. Row 1 as mentioned will be Palou inside, VeeKay and Rosenqvist alongside him on the front row. Santino Ferrucci, yet again, was sensational around the Speedway, and lines up fourth. Despite Foyt’s recent troubles, Ferrucci was still disappointed, summarising how impressive he has been this May. Pato O’Ward will be hoping to go one better this year, having been agonisingly close to victory last year, and has his best 500 start in 5th. Scott Dixon completes the Fast 6, as he aims to finally collect another Indy 500 title, having missed out frustratingly over the Final three seasons, all due to factors outside his control.
Row three is one of winners, with 2016 winner Alexander Rossi, in his first race for McLaren on the inside. He has Takuma Sato, winner in 2017 and 2020, who is returning for ovals in 2023, starting alongside him. And maybe the most significant driver of the day, Tony Kanaan, 2013 Indianapolis 500 Winner, lining up on the outside. After 25 years of IndyCar racing, and 22 Indianapolis 500 appearances, the Brazilian will be hanging up his helmet after the race, to round out a glorious and memorable career, as he desires to sign off on the most emotional note.
Last year’s winner Marcus Ericsson lines up inside Row 4, as he aims to become the first driver since Helio Castroneves in 2002, to win consecutive Indianapolis 500 races. Benjamin Pedersen in the other A.J. Foyt car was the star of qualifying, as the rookie made the Fast 12 for the first time, and at the best possible place to do it. He is sandwiched between winners, as 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power completes the Fast 12.
Ed Carpenter narrowly missed out on the Fast 12, and was part of an incredible moment in qualifying, when he and Tony Kanaan set exactly the same 4-lap average. Carpenter will be hoping to finally win the race in his 20th attempt. He lines up alongside Scott McLaughlin, and the highest-placed Andretti Autosport driver, Kyle Kirkwood.
Conor Daly was frustrated at his performance on Saturday, and lines up inside Row 6, alongside an equally disappointed Josef Newgarden, as Penske couldn’t find themselves closer to the head of the field once again. Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner, returning after a year's absence, lines up outside Row 6, for the only part-time team Dreyer and Reinbold.
Romain Grosjean lines up inside Row 7, with teammate Colton Herta for company, but a victory for the man in the middle would mean history. Helio Castroneves, against all the odds and expectations, won a stunning fourth Indianapolis 500 in 2021, and will have a second opportunity to stand alone in the record books, and clear of any other driver in the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves said he struggled in the midfield last year, but for a man of Castroneves’ experience, wisdom and ability, anything is possible, particularly in the surroundings of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Castroneves’ teammate, and 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenau, lines up 22nd, alongside David Malukas, who put in a scintillating run late on Saturday to avoid having to return for bump day. On the outside will be Marco Andretti, once again appearing for Indianapolis, in a qualifying he described as ‘embarrassing’ for his father’s team.
Devlin deFrancesco qualified one position behind Andretti, with Agustin Canapino impressing once again, qualifying for the field comfortably, despite a very nervy moment which saw the Argentine rookie touch the wall on his second qualifying run. He will start the race next to teammate Callum Ilott, who starred again on Saturday, after the call to use the spare car late on Friday, the Briton having endured an awful month leading up to that morning.
R.C. Enerson qualified for his first Indianapolis 500, having failed to make the cut in 2021, comfortably making the field this time, despite this being Abel Motorsports’ first entry in IndyCar. Alongside Enerson is Katherine Legge, who became the fastest woman ever, and outqualified all three of her full-time RLL teammates, a particularly impressive feat.
Lundgaard almost forced Legge to come back on the Sunday, the Dane just unable to beat her average speed. He lines up outside Row 10, in front of Sting Ray Robb and the man of the hour, Jack Harvey. Stefan Wilson had qualified 25th for the race. However, due to IndyCar rules, Graham Rahal must line-up 33rd, and last, but still a welcome position for Rahal, considering the disappointment on Sunday evening.
From a vast field of thirty-three, whom should we watch out for? Chip Ganassi Racing and Arrow McLaren have been the standout forces in the ‘Month of May’ so far. Palou’s qualifying performance was nothing short of spectacular, and he has been in the running for victory in the last two Indy 500s. His teammate Scott Dixon has always been a force to be reckoned with at Indianapolis, but luck and misfortune has hampered the Kiwi’s attempts to pick up another Indianapolis crown. You can never discount last year’s winner Marcus Ericsson either, as well as the warrior that is Takuma Sato. With his ‘go big or go home’ style of racing, he’s always one to watch.
If we turn to McLaren, Pato O’Ward has progressively improved his Indianapolis results, with the team finishing 6th in 2020, 4th in 2021 and narrowly missing out on victory last year. O’Ward will be hoping to buck this trend in 2023, and his race day performances have tended to be stronger than his qualifying results, an encouraging sign for the Mexican. However, Felix Rosenqvist has looked the strongest McLaren so far, and was well and truly in the mix for victory last year. In addition, he was the lead McLaren qualifier on Sunday, although his oval qualifying form hasn’t matched his race pace in recent events. Alexander Rossi has always been very strong at the Indianapolis 500, winning on debut in 2016, and coming close in 2019 and 2020. He has also looked particularly quick in May. And never count out the veteran that is Tony Kanaan, who will be looking for the fairytale ending, and has a strong chance in a very fast McLaren car.
But who could be an outside shot for victory? Santino Ferrucci has shown lightning pace in May, and has finished in the Top 10 at every Indianapolis 500 he’s competed in. All those Top 10s came from the mid-pack in qualifying, and with Ferrucci lining up on the inside of Row 2, who’s to say he can’t provide a shock? Watch out for Helio Castroneves too. There’s a reason he’s won four Indianapolis 500s, and although he starts further back, Castroneves has been known to systematically work his way through the field. Conor Daly has led portions of the last two Indianapolis 500s, and in a very strong Ed Carpenter Racing team, as well as the home support, Daly could be a strong bet to find himself at the front again.
If you didn’t catch the news in the off-season, the double-points system has been removed from the Indianapolis 500, which means drivers may take more risks to take ultimate motorsport glory, which could mean an even better Indianapolis 500. Although the double points have been removed, it will still play a key role at the front of the championship. Early championship contenders Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward are both expected to be right at the front of the field, which could play a huge role in the championship, being six points apart. Marcus Ericsson is the other driver within touching distance of the young guns, but lines up 10th, and will be the most unfancied of the three.
And the most important news of the month is the milk selection. With no Juan Pablo Montoya, no driver picked chocolate, with Legge and Grosjean picking Skim, Castroneves, Sato and Pedersen picking 2%, and the rest of the pack choosing whole, as the winner will be coated in the fine milk as per Indianapolis tradition.
There it is, all the information you need building up to the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500, all you need to do is wait for the green flag to fall, and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing to commence. 500 miles, 200 laps, 33 cars, one winner. Who will have their name in the history books, and etched onto the Borg-Warner trophy to be remembered forever?