until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Why the 2020 Indy 500 has a disguised but obvious favourite

by Jack Benyon
11 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Simon Pagenaud might be the obvious bet for the Indianapolis 500, having taken pole and won last year with a car on rails, but he’s qualified 25th this year and not finished a session higher than 12th. Yet he’s still the favourite to have the fastest car on race day, and now it’s a question of whether he can overcome the adversity.

As usual in Indy 500 practice, it’s difficult to look at times and point to a real favourite. A small tow and you’re going much quicker than what your laptime maybe should have been, and that can skew the order and leave quick cars failing to make an impression on the timing screens.

This year at Indy, it’s even tougher with a number of other factors contributing to a masking of performance.

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The new aeroscreen device has changed the aerodynamic profile of the car, which has created uncertainty in terms of how well cars behind will be able to follow in the race. It also meant new set-ups for most teams as the added weight at the front alters car behaviour and tyrewear. We could have collated some of the drivers’ views on the affects of the aeroscreen, but very few of them agreed on the impact it will have! The great unknown, it seems.

Additionally, running in August instead of May for the first time means temperatures are a bit wackier than normal with a wider range. We saw on Friday in practice for qualifying that the Andretti cars were dominant in extreme heat, but when it came to the cooler Fast Nine shootout with crosswinds, their advantage weakened. If race day is hot it could aid degradation and make it easier for good cars to move forward. All of these things affect pace, cloud the clarity of where we rank the favourites ahead of Sunday’s race – and make predicting a winner nigh on impossible!

That being said, you can usually get a read from the teams and their personnel of who is being marked out as the person to beat, and amazingly – given his starting position – that’s still Pagenaud. Not since 1974 – when Johnny Rutherford won for McLaren – has the 500 been won from 25th. Only four times in 104 events has it been done from 25th or worse.

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Still, Pagenaud’s ability to zoom in and overtake in practice while running in turbulent air has been very impressive, and it looks like last year’s epic handling has been recreated by the Penske squad in its factory, which Pagenaud calls “the speed lab”.

Qualifying low down is not a new thing for Pagenaud – after placing third on the grid at Texas at the start of this season, the rest of his qualifying performances read: 20th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd and 23rd. However, he’s turned those into a win and four top-fives in six races to sit second in the championship standings. If anyone has proven qualifying isn’t the be-all and end all of IndyCar racing, it’s Pagenaud.

Addressing Pagenaud before qualifying, The Race asked – citing how good his car looked – how he felt his race pace ranked after failing to post a blockbuster time.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “A lot of people obviously have been drafting and put big numbers on the board.

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“I’ve been extremely focused on just running in the pack, putting myself in a race situation, not really going after laptime. So it does look bad on the chart. For sure 27th [on Thursday] is not where we want to be!

“It’s such a condensed schedule that I didn’t want to spend any time being distracted from my racecar and how the race is going to play out. I was pretty pleased with the racecar last night. It’s comfortable. It’s close to where it was last year. We’ve made big progress yesterday.

“But we had to be very studious. We had to go through the motion of making the changes we learnt in the wind tunnel and so forth, understand it on the track. We took our time to do that in the last two days.

“Overall very happy. I think we’re in very good shape.”

If Pagenaud says he thinks he is “close to last year”, then he’d be tough to beat if he started 125th, never mind 25th.

No doubt the starting position and the question mark over how tricky overtaking will be provide difficult questions for the #22 team. But his confidence is ominous.

The whole team didn’t qualify well, but there are signs of life for Pagenaud’s team-mates, too.

Reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden – the only one in the squad yet to win the 500 – qualified best in 13th and appears to have a strong race car and that extra motivation to take victory. Will Power may start 22nd but he has one of the best recorded 30-lap stints in practice, while three-time winner Helio Castroneves appeared incredibly comfortable on Wednesday and Thursday, and made another step forwards in Sunday practice despite the fact he’ll start 28th.

Despite their starting positions, 2013 winner and 19-time starter Tony Kanaan has been impressed with Penske, and made a bold prediction.


“You talk to the Penske guys, they’re all back there with me, but I’ve seen their cars in traffic,” Kanaan said. “They’re going to be [up] there at the end.”

There’s no doubt at least Pagenaud will be moving forwards in the race, and the man behind him – Fernando Alonso – will be desperate to follow him through the field at the same time.

The Race broke down Alonso’s position in a feature on Saturday after he failed to make the pole shootout, but since then he had a good run in practice on Sunday and still has Carb Day to perfect his car. Alonso’s rookie team-mate Oliver Askew reckons “we can follow just as close as anybody can” and the team ran up front last year. There are signs of positivity in that camp as well.

Fundamentally, Alonso, Pagenaud, and the like hadn’t anticipated Honda’s amazing qualifying performance – allowing its teams to keep a good level of downforce, while the Chevrolet-powered cars had to trim to match Honda’s speed advantage. That meant only one Chevrolet-powered machine made the nine-car pole shootout and it has put the advantage in the frontrunning Honda-powered cars’ hands.

Out of those Honda cars, it looks like it will be a battle for supremacy between the giants Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Perhaps the best package of the lot is Scott Dixon’s, whose only foot wrong has been to spin coming off Turn 4 in practice on Sunday. Even then, at 218mph, he managed to limit the damage to the front and rear wing with epic car control at that speed, and he returned later in the session to set the fastest time up until that point.

Scott Dixon Indianapolis 500 2020

His race pace has been good too, perhaps not at the level of Pagenaud, but very close, and given his starting position of second in a race which could well be decided by how difficult it is to pass, he’s in a good position. He’s desperate for a second 500 win, having taken three poles in his career that includes five IndyCar titles and could well yield another one by the end of 2020 after he won the first three races.

His team-mate and ex-Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson had one of the best 30-lap averages of the week so far and comes to his second 500 off the back of a brilliant performance with Schmidt Peterson last year that was only ruined by locking up on the brakes entering the pits.

Ericsson has finished outside of the top 10 once all year and that was when a fuel hose broke and wouldn’t summon any juice for him, so his consistency has been brilliant and he and Dixon will be a fixture. The third car of Felix Rosenqvist starred in the Texas opener, but has failed to deliver a tangible sign that he will be a victory contender here so far, fighting balance trouble. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Felix Rosenqvist, it’s that you can never rule him out.

For Andretti, perhaps James Hinchcliffe has the best package all around to challenge. He’s at the end of a three-race deal – bailed out by the team following his unharmonious exit from Schmidt Peterson – and team boss Michael Andretti has confirmed the outfit is working on having him back full-time next year. Hinch has been quick in every category this year, and starts sixth with the knowledge that a first Indy win following a 2016 pole could seal the deal for a return next year.

Marco Andretti scored the pole position and will be hoping to end the Andretti curse. The last significant Andretti event at Indy was Mario’s 1987 pole, which grandson Marco repeated on Sunday 33 years (and quite a few days thanks to an August 500) later. Mario retired while leading that ’87 event, and the curse usually involves some sort of incident ending the family’s chances. Marco was robbed on the line in the 2006 by Sam Hornish Jr, becoming the latest in the family tree to suffer from the so-called curse.

The question mark is really how good is Marco’s race pace. Most of his blockbuster times this week have come with a tow, and all of the Andretti drivers have acknowledged they have a bit of work to do for Sunday. That being said, Alonso marked them out as favourites on Saturday, saying the squad has been ahead since the word go on Wednesday.

Marco picked out the temperature as being one of the key things to watch in the race.

He said: “The temps have slowly crept up. I’m checking it every day for race day. It started like 78°F, 79°F. Now it’s up to 83°F, 84°F. The hotter you get, the cars will be sliding around more. More of an emphasis to get it right. Makes it easier to get it wrong.

“Yeah, I think that might cause more passing, for sure.”

Marco Andretti Indianapolis 500 2020

There’s six Andretti cars for the opposition to worry about in the 500. The 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay has looked assured throughout and is another to have delivered both one-lap and race pace throughout traffic, looking every bit as strong as Hinchcliffe.

Colton Herta and Zack Veach were the only two full Andretti entries to not make the pole shootout, with Veach seemingly lacking at the moment. Herta didn’t have the one-lap pace of his rivals but starting in 10th, he’ll be a factor in the race and will be hoping he doesn’t retire as he did in the first few laps of his rookie attempt last year.

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The real uncertainty in the Andretti camp shrouds Alexander Rossi. The 2016 winner fought Pagenaud to the end last year, but when asked if he was confident in his race pace he said: “I’m not at all yet. But we’ll get there.

“We’ve struggled to get into the window we need to. We’ve got about three and a half hours, four hours left to get it done. I’m more than confident among the six cars that we have here at Andretti Autosport, we’ll be able to piece it together.”

It’s hardly the kind of confidence we’ve heard from Pagenaud, in what has been a tough season so far for Rossi. Carb Day (final practice on Friday) will be vital for him.

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Perhaps the only outlier to that Honda battle of the giants is the smallest of minnows, but one of the most impressive drivers at Indy so far this year. Alex Palou hadn’t raced an oval before 2020, but has slowly but surely adapted to the uniqueness and would have been in with a shout of pole had a weight-jacker not broken.

His Dale Coyne team-mate Santino Ferrucci was the rookie of the 500 last year, and Palou has offered the Spanish press a glimmer of hope while Alonso’s bid has gone imperfectly. Palou starts seventh, and perhaps a pre-event chat with famous rookie winner Juan Pablo Montoya inspired what we’ve seen so far.

Palou’s fellow rookie Rinus VeeKay was one of the stars of the show in qualifying and was only bumped off the front row by Marco Andretti’s final effort. He was the only Chevrolet in the top nine shootout with his three-time pole winning team owner Ed Carpenter in 16th, and his other team-mate Conor Daly in 18th.

Perhaps Palou has the better chance in the race, as Ed Carpenter Racing hasn’t managed to make the ultimate step to victory despite its qualifying prowess.

Carpenter and Daly look strong in race trim as does VeeKay, but there are a lot of strong cars in the field and a top 10 would be more than laudable from VeeKay, who has taken to Indianapolis – his new home for 2020 – like a duck to water.

Fernando Alonso Indianapolis 500 2020

We’ve discussed the ex-Formula 1 racers Marcus Ericsson and Fernando Alonso, but the third is also in with a big chance of victory. Takuma Sato, the 2017 winner, appears to have become a perennial frontrunner, and he starts this year’s event where he finished the last – third.

His team-mates Graham Rahal (starting eighth) and Spencer Pigot (starting 12th) haven’t looked as assured as Sato, quiet but consistent, but at one former winner of the event told The Race they’ll be a factor come Sunday.

All in all, the temperature, tyre deg, turbulent air and strategy are all going to be key. What we can be sure of is there’s a tonne of good cars out of position at the back of the pack for the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Many of them have the potential to provide an upset.

Do you agree with Jack Benyon’s ranking of the drivers at Indy so far? Leave a comment below and let us know.

2020 Indycar Indianapolis 500

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