Photos courtesy of IMS
F1 veteran Jean Alesi on the track
Roger Penske has often said that in racing, you get your report card every day. It's a truism from the most successful race team owner in American history. Performance is everything in racing; nothing else counts.
Lotus is two days into practice for its first Indy 500 as an engine supplier, and thus far it has earned an F grade. It's not expected to get any better. It also wasn't unexpected. Of the three manufacturers in this initial season of the 2.2-liter turbocharged formula, Lotus hasn't even been in the same ballpark as Chevrolet and Honda in the first four races of season.
F1 veteran Jean Alesi on the track
These were held on street and street courses, where an excellent handling chassis in the hands of a talented driver can make up for some of the horsepower deficiency. Sebastien Bourdais brought home Dragon Racing's Lotus 9th at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama for the only Lotus top 10 finish. But at Indianapolis—2.5 miles around and with straights that disappear into the horizon—you just can't hide. Just the opposite, in fact; if you don't have the horses, it's magnified 100 times.
Four teams fled the Lotus camp before Indy: Jay Penske's two-car Dragon Racing team with Bourdais and Katherine Legge, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing with Oriol Servia, Bryan Herta Autosport with Alex Tagliani and Newman/Haas, which was supposed to field an entry for F1 veteran Jean Alesi.
Simona De Silvestro on the track
The defections left Lotus with HVM Racing and Simona De Silvestro. The manufacturer scrambled after losing Newman/Haas and recruited a Firestone Indy Lights team, Fan Force United, which is owned by former driver Tyce Carlson and two partners, to run Alesi.
Carlson has added veteran IndyCar personnel such as engineers Tim Wardrop and Mike Colliver and crew chiefs Brad Brewer and Greg Beck. Carlson also brought in 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier to help Alesi. It's a professional team. But Alesi hasn't been able to run the 210 mph laps to complete his rookie test. The retired Formula 1 driver has run a best of 209.438 mph in 64 laps and it's said he did it flat. He's 36th on the combined speed chart. The only driver beneath him is De Silvestro, who has run 202.179 in 33 laps.
F1 veteran Jean Alesi
Qualifying into the 33-car race shouldn't be a concern for the two Lotus teams, unless decides to institute a percentage-of-pole rule. But that seems unlikely, as 33 starters at Indy is a sacred figure, and the 96th running of the Indy 500 is at risk of not getting there even with the HVM and Fan Force teams. Dragon still doesn't have an engine supplier for Bourdais and Legge, and they represent the 32nd and 33rd cars.
Oriol Servia with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
"We've got some work do to on the engine side," HVM owner Keith Wiggins said. "We more or less knew where we were going to be, and the solution to the problem is not going to happen overnight. Our goal is to get through May, have the best car for the race, get to the finish and see where we're at."
Lotus isn't the first manufacturer to show up slow at Indy. In 1990, Alfa Romeo had a well-funded development program that included constructing a March chassis for its engine and had Patrick Racing. Roberto Guerrero qualified 28th at 212.652 mph, and Al Unser Sr. was 30th at 212.086. Emerson Fittipaldi was on the pole at 225.301. Alfa Romeo came back in 1991 with Danny Sullivan and he started 9th, but engine failure took him out with 27 laps remaining. Guerrero also drove a Patrick Alfa, starting 28th and went out early in a crash. Alfa withdrew from Indy car racing at the end of the year.
Checkered flag waving over IMS during practice sessions
Honda's debut at Indy in 1994 was dismal. Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff were unable to qualify for the race, switching to Ilmor-powered Penske cars to get into the 500. Rahal, by the way, drove from 28th starting position to finish 3rd.
Honda went back to the drawing board, found some new teams for 1995 and nearly won the 500 with Scott Goodyear, who was leading when he passed the pace car on a restart with 10 laps to go and was penalized. Honda has been in Indy racing ever since, winning numerous races and championships.
Update: Alexi passed his rookie test today and ran 211.516 mph, which is still the slowest among the 29 cars that were on the track.