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Author: Mark W. Theisen
May 13th 2012 -      INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA MAY 13, 2012:    A decision for Honda; the Lotus shortcomings; rookie orientation; the debut of Formula One standouts Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi at Indy and the first weekend dominance by rookies all make up what has been an exciting “opening” for the “Month of May” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

     Since my last report things have gone from bad to worse for Lotus Engineering and that had put the coveted 33 car count for the 500 in jeopardy of being filled despite the 34 entries that had been officially “filed” for the 500.

     Lotus informed their teams shortly after the Brazil race on the 29th that there Indianapolis engine program had ran into further  problems and that placed the probability of not having enough engines available for the 500 front and center.

     This sent the teams scurrying for help.  Dreyer & Reinbold Racing was the first to step away from Lotus on a positive note aligning themselves with Panther Racing and a Chevrolet engine program.  Panther had two engine leases with Chevrolet but only one car so the addition of D & B with driver Oriol Servia was the easiest of the pending switches.

     Bryan Herta Motorsports was able to unite with Honda for their driver Alex Tagliani getting the defending pole winner a competitive engine program to go along with their team being the defending 500 race winner.

     Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing has not been so lucky in moving forward.  It seems that, now down to four cars, the two of Dragon and HVM racing with Simona de Silvesto and the new, since I last wrote, team of Fan Force United with Alesi as its driver in a last ditch effort to get the 33rd car into the mix after both Newman – Haas (sponsorship) and Michael Shank Racing (no-sponsorship) left the picture, that Lotus could indeed handle the four engines.  Newman-Haas was not a Lotus team but could not put any type of deal together to get their car in the race.

     Dragon did not like what was happening at Lotus and bolted to Chevrolet but because of contracts has not been able to be at the track opening weekend.  Seems Lotus wants to hold Dragon to its signature and back-room dealings are under way not to mention possible legal action.

   The team’s drivers are the ones hurting.  Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge have lost considerable track time due to the squabble not to mention that Legge’s rookie test and Bourdais refresher course have been postponed from last Thursday to “sometime” this week when the matters is finally handled.  In the meantime all they could do was sit and watch as the rest of the field dialed their cars in this weekend and the other 7 rookies all passed their orientation program.

    The seven “rookies” took to the track on Thursday the 10th to officially open the track for 2012 activities.  Simon Pagenaud was the first car on the track for the month to gain that distinction for his Schmidt Hamilton Racing Team.

     As the rookie program passed through the day drivers were subject to three controlled speed sessions and were observed by veteran drivers at the Speedway to help coach them through the various nuances of Indy.

     At the conclusion of the day Thursday, James Jakes posted the top lap of the day of 218.268 although the drivers were not “graded” on speed but on overall consistency on the track and in and out of the pits.

     Bryan Clauson, Josef Newgarden, Barrichello, Pagenaud, Michel Jourdain Jr., and Wade Cunningham easily completed the three stop program with only Alesi needing to return on Saturday to complete his program, which he did.

     For Barrichello it was just a continuance of his adapting to the Indy Racing League and now to a closed race course.  Barrichello tested at Texas Motor Speedway last week for his first “stint” on an oval track and he was pleased but you could not wipe the smile off his face once he got his first laps at Indy.

    Under the guide and supervision of friend and now teammate, Tony Kanaan, Barrichello knew pretty much what to expect at Indy even before he stepped into the car but the first hand experience, none-the-less, was a “thrill” for him.  “I need to continue the learning curve,” said Barrichello, “the track must have your attention each and every lap and the g-forces are something that my neck and back need to get accustomed to but it something I can handle and look forward to gaining speed with each passing day.”

     Prior to the Brazil race Honda Motor Car Company petitioned the Indy Racing League for a change to their turbocharger compressor cover to be instituted for the Brazil race and then forward.  Chevrolet cried foul and said that any equipment modification had to come after the mid-June date as stated in the Indy Racing League rule book.  Honda teams were allowed the change at Brazil and the results were still the same, Will Power and his Penske Chevrolet won the race to keep Chevy’s prefect 2012 win record in tact.

     Chevrolet appealed the ruling but lost the decision not once but twice and the modification to the cover was in place as the cars debuted at Indy this week.  Veteran 500 observers say the modification will be a benefit to Honda on the oval courses and not the road or street venues that populate the season IRL schedule.

     Youth was served as the track opened on Saturday for all cars and at the end of the day it was rookie Josef Newgarden driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in a Honda powered Dallara quickest with a top lap of 220.250, the only car to post a lap in the 220s on a bright clear Indiana day.  JR Hildebrand was second, followed by the second Fisher Hartman team car driven by Bryan Clauson and then Jakes.  Kanaan was the first “Veteran” at the top of the speed chart in 5th with another youngster, Charlie Kimball in 6th.  Kimball is making only his second attempt at making the 500 being a rookie last year.

     It was clear most of the veteran drivers and their teams were using Saturday and Sunday to establish baselines for the new Dallara chassis and what-ever engine package they may have.

     Three time 500 winner Helio Castroneves, two-time champ Dario Franchitti and his teammates and also a 500 winner Scott Dixon all were content to get used to what they now have on an oval track versus the package that they used last year, which was in place for nine seasons before.

     “This is all new for us and this is really our first test of the new combination on an oval,” said Franchitti, the defending series champion, who has struggled with the new combinations thus far in 2012. “Speed is the farthest thing from my mind now; I need to know what the car will do and how we can make it better.  The speed will come with the handling.”

     Chevrolet was atop the speed chart as Sunday drew to a close but it wasn’t a Penske Chevrolet it was an Andretti Chevrolet as Sebastian Saavedra was quickest at 221.526 as speeds starting “inching” up.  Clauson proved that yesterday was no “fluke” as was second with 1 221.173 and his teammate, Newgarden as third at 221.158.  Dixon got to 220.829 for fourth while Justin Wilson rounded out the top five at 220.615.

     Barrichello put in a whopping 74 laps today, with a best of 215.042, as he continues his “learning” of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    The Lotus’ of Alesi and de Silvestro continued to be the slowest of the cars on the track not reaching the 210 miles-per-hour bracket as yet.  Alesi logged 64 laps as he is also trying to come to grips with Indy.

     Practice continues all week long leading to Saturday’s pole day qualifying where the top 11 starting positions will be battled for all day long.  The field will fill on Sunday as the final 22 spots are up for grabs.

     It will be an interesting week to watch as the veterans will most absurdly climb the speed charts but will the rookies continue and what will happen to the Dragon team and will there bee 33 cars in the field come race day?

Stayed tuned!!!!