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Analysis
IndyCar Indy 500

Which of the nine Indy 500 winners can conquer the Speedway again?

There are nine former Indianapolis 500 winners entered in this year’s 107th running of the race, and between them they have amassed 13 wins. David Malsher-Lopez assesses the chances of any of them earning a return visit to Victory Lane

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda takes the yellow and checkered flags

The 1992 Indianapolis 500 saw 10 former winners start the race – but none of them won it. The highest-placed former winner that day was four-time Indy victor Al Unser Sr of Team Menard, who managed to coax the notoriously fast-but-fickle Buick engine past the chequered flag. He was 10 seconds behind the winner, his son Al Unser Jr, who won for Team Galles by holding off Scott Goodyear’s Walker Racing entry by just 0.043 seconds – the race’s closest ever finish.

Recent news that Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will unite for this year’s 500 brings the tally of former winners entered for the Memorial Day Weekend classic to nine. And perhaps more so than in 1992, all previous victors participating in 2023 have the potential to star. But of those who have already sipped, slurped and splashed the milk at the Speedway, who is most likely to repeat on 28 May this year? Let's take them in reverse order.

Ryan Hunter-Reay

Team: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Engine: Chevrolet
2014 winner

2021 was Ryan Hunter-Reay's 12th and final season with Andretti Autosport. Now he's making his IndyCar return.

2021 was Ryan Hunter-Reay's 12th and final season with Andretti Autosport. Now he's making his IndyCar return.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

It’s almost a self-generated cliché by this writer to describe Dennis Reinbold’s team as the best of the Indy 500 one-off squads, and it’s become increasingly meaningless as so many have dropped away over the past few years. But DRR also regularly outperforms the 'Indy-only' entrants run by full-time IndyCar teams… and even the full-time drivers in the full-time teams!

For example, in 2021, Sage Karam struggled for speed in his DRR car during qualifying, yet rose from the back row to finish the race in seventh after a flawless performance from team and driver. Last year, Santino Ferrucci qualified 15th and finished 10th, meaning he started ahead of the entire Andretti Autosport team, both Meyer Shank cars, and a Penske. He then finished ahead of all the Penske cars and all but one of the Andretti cars.

Over the last few years, the thought has occurred to many – maybe to Reinbold himself – that DRR is only a proven winner away from scoring a top three. And that driver might well be Hunter-Reay.

“I was incredibly attracted to the fact that DRR is a streamlined program that puts all of its energy into the month of May,” said Hunter-Reay, putting a positive spin on the fact that the team will always face an uphill battle against those who are in the IndyCar Series race in, race out. But his logic isn’t flawed, and nor is Reinbold’s in hiring the 2014 500 winner. If the car is good enough, a couple of acclimatisation runs should see him back on pace, and it would be no surprise to see the #23 DRR machine qualify in the first four rows. Thereafter? Both team and driver have proven over time that they can make strong progress on race day.

Simon Pagenaud

Team: Meyer Shank Racing
Engine: Honda
2019 winner

The Pagenaud-Meyer Shank face a tall order to fight for Indy 500 glory this year

The Pagenaud-Meyer Shank face a tall order to fight for Indy 500 glory this year

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Simon Pagenaud has become renowned for making the most of what he’s got at the Speedway, and while there must be times when he misses the nurturing of former race engineer Ben Bretzman at Team Penske, Pagenaud can feel confident in Garrett Mothersead, another engineer who has conquered the 500.

Pagenaud is meticulous in practice. He knows exactly how his car should feel for it to work in dirty air or running on its own, on a variety of lines, and in different weather and track conditions. That’s what allowed him to climb through the pack from 26th to third in 2021, and had the race been the Indy 505 on that occasion, he might well have claimed his second Indy win in three years.

Opportunities to pull off those back-to-front performances are rare these days, so it’s become increasingly important for a driver to qualify well – and Pagenaud has proven he can do that, too, when the car is right: aside from his pole in 2019, he has qualified in the first three rows on four other occasions.

The question marks over his ability to win in 2023 surround whether the Meyer Shank crew can beat the likes of Ganassi, Penske and Arrow McLaren under the duress of a yellow-flag pitstop, and whether the MSR team and its technical partner Andretti Autosport have caught up with Ganassi in terms of generic set-up.

Helio Castroneves

Team: Meyer Shank Racing
Engine: Honda
2001, ’02, ’09, ’21 winner

Castroneves proved it is capable to take down the big names in IndyCar in 2021

Castroneves proved it is capable to take down the big names in IndyCar in 2021

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Helio Castroneves’ bubbly and fluorescent personality outside the cockpit belies the cool and rational man who analyses his way around the Speedway each May, taking the high line he learned from former mentor Rick Mears and using it routinely during practice, qualifying and the race. Indeed, Castroneves spends so much time crossing from high line to low line and back again, across the wake of the cars in front, it’s little wonder that by race time, he is fully aware of how his car will react with clean air on the right side, clean air on the left side, or zero clean air on either side. He made his climb from 27th to seventh last year look relatively easy.

Famously, Castroneves has won the race four times – and finished a close runner-up on three other occasions. But less appreciated is the fact that in 22 attempts at the 500, he has crashed out of just two. If you want your car to complete 200 laps, he’s a damn good bet.

Reservations over his ultimate potential this year are similar to those surrounding his team-mate Pagenaud. But then, Castroneves was by no means favourite to score his fourth win a dozen years after his third. Yet when it mattered, there he was, able to out-drive and out-think an immensely talented driver, Alex Palou, in a superior car.

Will Power

Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
2018 winner

Penske made great gains last year, but can it do the same to reach the frontrunners?

Penske made great gains last year, but can it do the same to reach the frontrunners?

Photo by: IndyCar Series

In his first 11 Indianapolis 500s for Penske, between 2009 and 2019, Will Power never started outside the first three rows and had a qualifying average of 5.1. Since then, things have taken a tumble: in qualifying trim, the Penske cars were mediocre in 2020, dreadful in ’21 and nothing special last year. So his qualifying average over those three years has been 21.7.

Despite his record-setting tally of 68 pole positions, Power has yet to add an Indy 500 P1 to his resume. But if he were to finally achieve it this year, the majority of the excitement he felt would be founded in his relief that Penske – and Chevrolet – were back on the pace at Roger Penske’s holy ground. Then he and the team would feel the pressure of needing to maximise the opportunity.

That has been the #12 team’s speciality over the past year or so, with strategist Ron Ruzewski, race engineer Dave Faustino and Power himself all proving to be very shrewd operators across the whole IndyCar season. But at the Speedway specifically, is this 18-time winning team back at a level where it can beat all-comers for outright pace? Impossible to tell at this stage. Penske made greater gains in speed at Indy between 2021 and 2022 than any other team, but the obvious caveat is that it was coming from a place it should never have inhabited – its most woeful nadir since the team failed to qualify for the 1995 edition.

Penske’s drivers have acknowledged the team’s primary focus over the winter was on reaching the front of the pack for Indy, but unless Chevrolet has a truly superior product to Honda at Speedway speeds, it’s hard to imagine Penske making up its deficit to Ganassi over the past three years.

Tony Kanaan

Team: Arrow McLaren
Engine: Chevrolet
2013 winner

This year's Indy 500 will be Kanaan's final race in US single-seaters

This year's Indy 500 will be Kanaan's final race in US single-seaters

Photo by: IndyCar Series

There will be many pretending to have something in their eye when Tony Kanaan is introduced to a deafening bellow from the crowd on 28 May. For the Brazilian veteran has decided that this is the end of the road for him in US open-wheel racing.

It’s appropriate it should come at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In one of those quirks of fate that we have come to associate with the track, a driver who became famous for misfortune while in a front-running (Andretti Green Racing /Andretti Autosport) car finally captured the race of his dreams in a KV Racing entry in 2013, after a manic race. Over the years, that result has come to be regarded as less of an oddity – Kanaan is one of those drivers who can rise to the occasion at Indy, made evident by his third-place finish last year for Ganassi.

Now he is getting the opportunity to sign off in another one of the most desirable seats out there, the extra entry from Arrow McLaren. And if he is a tad rusty from no longer taking part in other IndyCar races … well, it didn’t show last year and is unlikely to show this year. Kanaan’s sheer determination and the quality of the Arrow McLaren team should make the #66 entry one of the most formidable. If Chevy has regained the ground it has lost over the past three years on the only true superspeedway left on the IndyCar schedule, and providing he makes it to the closing stages, expect TK to be in the shootout in the final stint.

Marcus Ericsson

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
2022 winner

The defending Indy 500 winner faces a big challenge from within Ganassi to keep his crown

The defending Indy 500 winner faces a big challenge from within Ganassi to keep his crown

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Marcus Ericsson’s zapping of compatriot Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward in the final stint of last year’s Indianapolis 500 displayed the talent of a man utterly in tune with his car, who had been saving his best for last. When he then also kept his composure during the red flag period and knew exactly where to place his car to fend off O’Ward in the final shootout, we saw a man in tune with the race, and possessing the self-confidence to follow through. The astuteness that makes Ericsson a strong racer on road and street courses was put to full use at the greatest race of them all.

His race engineer Brad Goldberg believes that the knowledge he can get the job done on racing’s biggest stage will make Ericsson still more confident in ’23, and it’s hard to dispute that line of thinking. Goldberg also says that Ericsson is a strong contributor to the team debriefs, his analytical mind loving the fact that the amount of practice time for the 500 allows him to delve into the really fine details, weigh up options, and compare and contrast set-ups with his team-mates.

Winning the opening race of this IndyCar season will have bolstered the ex-Formula 1 driver’s self-belief still further, regardless of the fact that it came on a street course. With four wins for Chip Ganassi, including one at Indy, Ericsson has earned his place with one of the greatest IndyCar teams of all time. The only reason he’s placed fourth on this ranking is a question mark over how aggressive he would be if the 500 came down to a three- or four-way scrap with his team-mates in the closing stages of the race. It’s one thing to make incisive and hard passes against drivers from a rival team, quite another to take those same risks if duelling with Scott Dixon, Palou or Takuma Sato. And given Ganassi’s superiority at the Brickyard over the past three years, an all-CGR scrap for honours in the final stint is not an outlandish concept.

Alexander Rossi

Team: Arrow McLaren
Engine: Chevrolet
2016 winner

Rossi, Indy 500 winner as a rookie, will make his first start at the race without Andretti

Rossi, Indy 500 winner as a rookie, will make his first start at the race without Andretti

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Alexander Rossi has at least twice delivered more convincing Indy 500 performances than the one that netted him victory, as a rookie, in 2016. That said, his shock first win in IndyCar was a great example of a driver accepting he didn’t know it all and didn’t have all the facts to hand, and therefore listening to his strategist, Bryan Herta. Rossi saved fuel like he was an old hand at oval racing, eliminating the need for a splash-and-dash in the closing moments. He came home the victor, rolling across the yard of bricks at 137mph on his 200th and final lap.

However, when you think of Rossi at the 500, remember also the brave restarts on cold tyres in 2018 when he scorched his way from the back row (due to a slow puncture on his qualifying run) to finish fourth. Or the resolve to drive anywhere and everywhere on the track to make up for his Honda’s deficit to the Chevy of leader Pagenaud in 2019. And his clinical drive to fifth in 2022, outclassing all his Andretti Autosport team-mates.

This will be Rossi’s first 500 outside of the Andretti 'family', and while he will miss certain elements of being with a proven Indy-winning team he called home for seven years, having a race engineer like Craig Hampson and the ever-improving Arrow McLaren outfit in his corner more than compensates. Sure, much of Rossi’s competitiveness will depend on the Ilmor-developed Chevrolet engines being the ones to beat in terms of horsepower and fuel consumption. If that is the case, then while we expect Ed Carpenter Racing to be the strongest of the Chevrolet teams in qualifying, Arrow McLaren is likely to be leading the Bowtie brigade come race day. And yes, that even includes Penske. That’s how good this team has become, and that’s why Rossi’s move there will be justified in due course.

Takuma Sato

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
2017 and ’20 winner

2020 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato is presented with the Baby Borg-Warner Trophy

2020 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato is presented with the Baby Borg-Warner Trophy

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

He is adept at making wise moves, but Chip Ganassi may have pulled off a masterstroke by hiring Takuma Sato for 2023. The 46-year-old Japanese is reaching the end of his open-wheel racing career but he has still got what it takes to triumph at the Speedway. He has won the race with two different teams – Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan. And also two very different car configurations – manufacturer aerokit, and universal aerokit with aeroscreen. In between those two victories, he also tore through the field after a bad pitstop to clock a third-place finish. Whether it’s starting at the front and staying there, or clicking off passes from a midfield position, Sato can deliver.

His experience and feel for ovals will be useful to Ganassi at April’s open test at the Speedway and during practice in May, while the drivers are trying the increased range of set-ups allowed by IndyCar’s expanded range of aero adjustments for 2023. Sato will be as methodical as the team in honing the fastest car possible. Put that kind of driver in the quickest team at IMS in recent times, and give him access to the data that helps make those Ganassi cars so 'comfortable' in traffic and adaptable to fluctuations of wind and temperature, and you have a potent combination.

Then throw in the vast experience of race engineer Eric Cowdin: he’s someone known for fine-tuning his cars according to driver feedback rather than taking a chance on an edgy nightmare of a car in pursuit of the final ten-thousandth of a second. With Sato proving remarkably open and flexible (by veteran standards) to trying new ideas, it’s hard to imagine this pair won’t come up with an absolute weapon of a car. At which point there may be only one driver who can stop Taku from earning a third visage on the Borg-Warner Trophy...

Scott Dixon

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
2008 winner

Dixon has suffered cruel luck at the Indy 500 since his 2008 triumph

Dixon has suffered cruel luck at the Indy 500 since his 2008 triumph

Photo by: IndyCar Series

It might be harder to remember now that he’s a six-time champion, but Scott Dixon, along with Power, used to be Fate’s fall guy in the IndyCar Series championship, his dreams often squashed by a metaphorical boot descending from out of nowhere, as in the opening credits to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It could be mechanical issues, fumbled pitstops, strategies gone wrong according to when the cautions fell, wipe-outs by overambitious rivals – whatever it was, it would happen to Dixon, leaving him on the back foot in the title race. In the last decade, he’s made up for that, it’s fair to say, which is why he is only one title away from matching AJ Foyt’s record.

But when it comes to the month of May, the gods have remained resolute in their disregard for Ganassi #9 since its dominant performance 15 years ago. Take just the last three years as an example. We will never know if Sato on a 'full lean' engine setting to make the requisite fuel mileage could have held off Dixon in 2020, had not the full-course caution flown for a late shunt that saw the race end under yellow. Nor do we know if Dixon would have won in ’21, had not a crash on pitlane and subsequent yellow prevented him from making his first stop on schedule. His Honda became starved of fuel and proved reluctant to re-fire even once topped up, costing the Kiwi a lap. And then last year, he was 1mph too fast on pitlane and had to serve a drive-through penalty, on a day when Ganassi’s five cars amassed 163 laps at the front of the field, of which 95 were led by Dixon.

But on the basis of ‘keep on knocking on the door of opportunity and eventually it will open’, the time has surely come for Dixon to gain that second Indy 500 winner’s ring. He’s taken five Indy pole positions, including the last two, and there’s no reason to expect the Ganassi team to be anything less than devastatingly fast again this May.

They say the Speedway owes nothing to anyone, but Dixon, like Parnelli Jones in the ’60s, surely deserves one more sip of milk.

Who will come out on top this May?

Who will come out on top this May?

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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