INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 will have a completely new look when the field of 33 rolls off the starting line shortly after noon Sunday.
But part of that completely new look will be very familiar to worldwide motorsports fans — this year’s rookie class includes the driver with the most Formula One starts in history, and one who already has a history with the yard of bricks.
The other part will be completely new — the Dallara DW12 chassis will see its maiden voyage on an oval this weekend. The cars have a significantly different look than previous generations of IndyCars, and with turbocharged motors, huge sidepods and small rear wings, drive significantly differently than their normally-aspirated predecessors that had been used for the previous nine years.
So, every driver has a learning curve, from the most grizzled veteran to the greenest rookie. One of the drivers in the field is both. Rubens Barrichello started 322 Formula One races and won 11 of them over a 19-year career and drove for the world’s most-decorated team, Scuderia Ferrari, during his tenure. This year, he signed with KV Racing Technology and became the most-decorated Formula One driver to move to IndyCar racing since reigning world champion Nigel Mansell did so in 1993.
Yet, he’ll have the (R) next to his name on the entry list, signifying he’s an IndyCar rookie. But that suits Barrichello just fine. Of his 322 starts and his four in an IndyCar, none came on an oval. So not only is he learning a new car — as is the rest of the field — he’s also learning a new driving style.
“One thing for sure is that I learned to the very last moment in Formula One,” Barrichello said after qualifying 10th for the race. “You imagine what it is like here. It’s so new. There’s not a single corner on the car that I’ve had the same amount of springs and suspension or anything. It’s amazing what I’ve gone through this month.”
The new cars and the sheer size of Indianapolis makes the rectangular oval its own challenge.
“There’s not a single corner that’s alike,” he said. “You think 1 and 3 are similar and 2 and 4 are similar, but because the wind blows in different directions, it changes all the time. I think the most challenging one is Turn 1, so that’s where the heartbeat goes a little higher.”
His observations were echoed by the veterans.
“Rubens said it so well yesterday: this is the hardest four corners you’ve ever done in your life. You cannot describe to anybody what we go through with this place, this great racetrack, unless you’ve done it,” two-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti said. “That’s why the drivers and the fans love this place so much. It’s so bloody difficult but it looks so simple.”
The new Dallara cars even out the playing field for everyone, as the entire field is starting from scratch and figuring things out.
“The car seems to be fairly predictable as long as you don’t go crazy and take big chances out there,” said Sebastien Bourdais, a veteran of Champ Car, Formula One and IndyCar, who called the car “a nice car to drive.
“What you have to do is do what we haven’t been able to yet, and that is put it in traffic and see how it is when you stick it somebody’s gearbox. Judging by the lack of grip we have in the heat, that will be a challenge for sure,” Bourdais added.
Barrichello is no stranger to IMS, starting all eight United States Grands Prix hosted on the facility’s road course from 2000-07. He finished second in 2000 and 2004 and won the race in a controversial finish in 2002, when Michael Schumacher slowed on the last lap in what he claimed was an attempt to forge a side-by-side finish. It was ostensibly to make up for “team orders” that forced Barrichello to pull over and yield a victory to Schumacher earlier in the year. Barrichello won by .011 seconds, which remains the closest finish in a race at Indy and the closest in Formula One.
But that race used only one of the four corners at Indianapolis — a clockwise trip through Turn 1, as the Indianapolis road course twisted its way through the infield and avoided the oval’s other three corners.
Driving an oval itself, with straightway speeds topping 230mph and lap speeds topping 220mph, and doing so in traffic, is a different world.
“This is just like a wet race,” Barrichello said, comparing it to running in the rain in a Formula One car. “It’s physically not as tough, but mentally very tough.”
His perception of oval racing — and of racing at Indianapolis — has changed since the 40-year-old has tried his hand at it, rather than watching on television — often after running at the Monaco Grand Prix, which is often held the same day. He compared the feeling of watching versus running Indianapolis to be similar to watching a basketball player miss a shot at the end of a game and going “I think I can do that,” until you realize it.
“In the heat of the moment, you have to try for yourself. In the past, I see these four corners and say ‘I can do this. It’s got to be easier.’ When I first drove up, the car wanted to go straight into the wall to the left and I had to hang on to the right. In Europe, they have no idea about that,” Barrichello said, noting that the race is extremely popular in his native Brazil — which has given the series several drivers, including his good friend and KV Racing Technology teammate Tony Kanaan — but not on the radar screen as much in Europe.
“In Europe, I’m proposing they know more of the situation, because I know how much fun it is, and it’s more difficult than what we think,” he added. “I’ve enjoyed it since Day 1. It’s a lot of adrenaline. It’s not an easy place. It changes a lot. I’ve been to a lot of racetracks where they change winds and conditions a lot, but this is a completely unique place.”
96th running, 101st anniversary of the race (not held 1917-18, 1942-45 due to world wars).
Polesitter: Ryan Briscoe, Team Penske (226.484 mph), 1st career Indy pole. Qualifying margin .003mph faster than second-place starter James Hinchcliffe.
Defending champion: Dan Wheldon. This is the first time since 1947 that the defending champion has not been able to race due to fatality. Wheldon died in an accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 season finale. 1946 winner George Robson was killed in a four-car accident at Lakewood Speedway in Georgia on Sept. 2, 1946.
Chassis: 33 Dallara DW12 chassis in their first year of use.
Engines: 16 Chevrolet, 15 Honda, 2 Lotus.
Former winners in field: Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009), Dario Franchitti (2007, 2010), Scott Dixon (2008) (note: Rubens Barrichello won the Formula One US Grand Prix in 2002 at Indianapolis. Josef Newgarden, Ed Carpenter and Wade Cunningham have won Freedom 100 Indy Lights race, Marco Andretti has won an Indy Lights race on the road course).
Rookies in the field: 8. Josef Newgarden, Rubens Barrichello, James Jakes, Simon Pagenaud, Wade Cunningham, Katherine Legge, Bryan Clauson, Jean Alesi.
Women in the field: 3. Ana Beatriz, Simona de Silvestro, Katherine Legge.
Indy-winning teams in the field: Team Penske (15: Helio Castroneves 2001, 2002, 2009; Sam Hornish Jr. 2006; Gil de Ferran 2003; Al Unser Jr. 1994; Emerson Fittipaldi 1993; Rick Mears 1979, 1984, 1988, 1991; Al Unser 1987; Danny Sullivan 1985; Bobby Unser 1981; Mark Donohue 1972); Chip Ganassi Racing (3: Dario Franchitti 2010; Scott Dixon 2008; Juan Pablo Montoya 2000; also won in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi, 1982 & 1973 with Gordon Johncock as Patrick Racing). Andretti Autosport (3: Dario Franchitti 2007, Dan Wheldon 2005 as Andretti Green Racing; Jacques Villeneuve 1995 win as Team Green). Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1: Buddy Rice 2004). A.J. Foyt Racing (1: Kenny Brack 1999). Bryan Herta Autosport (1: Dan Wheldon 2011).
Nationality of drivers: USA 9, UK 5, Brazil 4, France 3, Canada 3, Australia 2, New Zealand 2, Venezuela 1, Belgium 1, Japan 1, Mexico 1, Switzerland 1.
Indiana natives: 1 (Bryan Clauson, Noblesville).