While I still believe Formula One is the premiere racing series in the world, it is hard to ignore the gaudiness, history, deadliness, insanity and even unpredictability of the annual Indianapolis 500.
F1 has also become predictable over the past few years, with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull dominating the field. On the other hand, surprises can happen in Indy 500 with the past two stagings proving that.
In 2016, rookie Alexander Rossi of the US won the race as he ran out of fuel. And just over the weekend, Takuma Sato became the first Japanese and Asian to win the 101st staging of the race. Entering this year’s Indianapolis 500, Sato was third in the IndyCar standings after six races, which is his best start after forgettable seasons in the same series and F1.
Last weekend’s race was quite hard to predict because there were others who could have won the race if it were not for misfortunes, one of them being two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso of Spain, who was Sato’s team-mate. Unfortunately, Alonso retired with only 21 laps left from engine failure although he lead for 27 laps.
Then there’s 2008 Indianapolis 500 champion Scott Dixon of New Zealand, who crashed out, and three-time winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil.
The last laps of the race saw Sato fending off the challenge of Castroneves, who was aiming to join the elite club of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners. Sato started 4th at the grid while Alonso was 5th, but Castroneves was at 19th showing how things can change dramatically as the race progressed.
Sato won by a mere 0.2011 second over Castroneves. Sato passed Castroneves with just five laps to go into the 200-lap, 500-mile (805-kilometer) race. Whew! I never saw that happening.
Looking at the race machines taking part in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 (in a simplified way), there seems to be a very limited variety considering there is only one chassis provider in Dallara of Italy, that explains why all the cars look structurally the same. And there are only two engine suppliers: Chevrolet and Honda.
Compare that to F1 where each team can develop or let another party supply or develop the chassis. There are also more engine suppliers in F1: Mercedez Benz; Ferrari; Honda; Benetton; and Renault. Mercedes Benz and Ferrari also have their own teams, among others.
Having only two engine suppliers and only one chassis provider somehow levels the playing field in the Indianapolis 500 (and the IndyCar series as well), and prevents “checkbook racing.”
Of course, there are engine tuners who could squeeze more power from a Honda or Chevrolet engine, or do some tweaking on a car’s set-up to make it go faster in IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.
So with little variety among the cars (compared to F1), the Indianapolis 500 can make driver skill a big factor in taking the chequered flag, the bottle of milk and the Borg Warner trophy. Strategies for pitting, pacing a car, among others, also come into play in winning the race.
Perhaps what really makes the Indianapolis 500 exciting to watch is it is held in an oval that allows cars to run at insanely high speeds, with this year’s edition seeing cars averaging 220 mph to over 230 mph (352 kph to 368 kph) during qualifying.
And since there is no run-off area at the right side of the track (with the cars running clockwise), a mistake would get you into the wall that fortunately now have impact-absorbing barriers.
So the Indianapolis 500 can also be called one of the most dangerous motor sports events. Numerous drivers have been killed there during practice and the actual race. No one has been killed in recent years but horrifying crashes, like what happened to Dixon in this year’s edition, will perhaps be a regular feature of the race.
The organizers of the Indianapolis 500 will never call the race an insane or dangerous one with its own idiosyncracies. But almost everyone who watches or follows the race religiously know those are among its selling points, including not knowing who would end up drinking the bottle of milk. And for sure, many are now anticipating next year’s staging of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”