America's Cathedral of Speed:
It is said the Indy 500 is the most recognized race title in the World. Owing primarily to its lengthy history, it manages to capture at least a small amount of interest from even the most passing of race fans. The home of the Indy 500 is, of course, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), whose history goes back slightly further than the 500 mile race that has made it so famous. It is a national treasure, planted at the Eastern edge of what Americans call "The Heartland"; the great, mostly flat, middle of the country where farming and large scale industrial manufacturing have been the norm for decades. Indianapolis is the capitol city of the State of Indiana; a place not typically given over to the glitz and excess of the more fashionable racing cities of the World. It is a place where work ethic and national pride are quite obvious, even to other Americans.
- when using just this one word, there is no doubt which track is being identified - during much of its history, was primarily viewed as the best opportunity for spectators to see attempts at unfathomable speed. A remarkably simple design of a rectangle with rounded corners, it is, essentially, two long high speed runs, set up by two shorter ones, every lap. In great contrast to the other way of pursuing terminal velocity, the Bonneville Salt Flats
, the Brickyard allows for viewing this excitement from her immense grandstands. Year after year, technology and bravery pushed back the boundaries of the impossible. The fact that sometimes cars were racing at speeds competitive with each other made it all the more appealing.
By the early 1990's, racing fans of another kind were swelling the stands of American stock car races, and it became a frequent public conversation that NASCAR should also race on the hallowed Speedway grounds. Eventually the clamor was unstoppable and, as if ceding to the demands for an arranged royal marriage, the Hulman-George family and the France family agreed to a date in 1994 for the arrival of the first non-Indy cars to race at The Brickyard.
Just a few years later, an agreement was reached with the FIA to make a road course within the Speedway and host Formula 1 in the year 2000. The inaugural F1 USGP was a stunning success and seemed to elevate the hopes of previously ignored American Formula One fans. Just a short year later, however, it became obvious that high attendance figures would not be sustainable. Due to the immensity that is IMS, an attendance of 150,000 appears to be a half-full stadium. And so, on the heels of the September 11th terrorist assault, the USGP crowd looked comparatively sparse.
In 2005, a new resurfacing of the perimeter Oval was undertaken during the off-season. Bridgestone, under the banner of Firestone, had been granted considerable access to test the new surface on the Speedway's oval in preparation for the IRL Indianapolis 500 in May. Given only a few weeks after that, during the height of the Formula One summer, no such opportunity was available for Michelin to conduct the extensive testing necessary on the new, highly abrasive surface. Knowing that their tires could not last an entire race, Michelin emphatically instructed their participants - 70% of the grid, at that point - to pull out of the event. Even though this was a foreseeable quagmire, it still was a bit of a shock to behold.
Years of Ferrari-Bridgestone dominance began to take their toll on ticket sales, and so, as the seemingly inevitable doom of the F1 USGP loomed on the 2007 horizon, Tony George developed a plan to invite the other, more reasonably priced, European prototype series into his Speedway. Shortly after the F1 circus left town came the announcement that, after a few modifications to the F1 road course, MotoGP would arrive in 2008. And, as a bonus to American fans, the racing would be in the "proper" direction of primarily left turns.
Since there is no history for this circuit, comparisons to other tracks are unavoidable. In topography, with no significant changes in elevation, there are similarities to Assen, Misano, and Losail. It has the architectural, connect-the-dots, sterility of Shanghai and Sepang, but without the ultra-long straights. Probably the closest comparisons, however, can be drawn to Valencia. Nearly identical in length, they both share a nearly flat, stadium environment and counter-clockwise circulation. They both also feature relatively long sections of minimal gear changes, and a substantial front straightaway.
The most significant difference and unique aspect will come from the drastic change in pavement as the bikes enter and depart the grooved Oval track surface. This being the highly abrasive surface that shredded NASCAR tires earlier this Summer, it encompasses the main straight and the Short Chute between Turns 4 & 5. This movement off the Oval pavement, from a slightly banked surface to a flat and smooth asphalt surface, will occur under heavy braking while banking left. Front tire feel will be critical beyond even normal racing conditions because of the abrupt change in grip. Those who have raced at similar layouts in AMA series will likely have a distinct advantage at these two points every lap.
Because of durability concerns related to the Oval surface, the tire manufacturers will have to supply options that are comparatively hard in the center and on the left sides. As a result, the left turns in the infield sections are likely to be a bit slippery for what the riders would otherwise expect from the feel of their bikes. By contrast, there are only two right turns of any consequence for the rear tires, and only one of those offers a cannon-shot opportunity at a straightaway. Keeping heat in the right sides will require a comparatively soft compound, since most of the right-handers are relatively slow speed and on the smoother infield surface.
Further complicating matters for the tire manufacturers, in the current era of a short-sightedly minimalist limit placed on them by the sanctioning body, September in Indiana is not a predictable time of year for the weather, either. The Autumnal equinox can be a time of cool and windy patterns across the great, flat open spaces of the American Midwest and evidence the real arrival of Fall. Equally likely could be a sunny, hot stretch typically and affectionately referred to as "Indian Summer". Either weather pattern can also include the presence of rain; either as an all-day event, or a quick, passing cloudburst. Wild swings across all these weather conditions are not unrealistic, and the tire situation could possibly prove to be untenable.
Defending Home Turf:
Of the four Americans seeking the extra glory of a home victory, one of them already has track time. Ben Spies will be the only man on the grid who participated in the 2-day test back in July. During the tests, he lapped his wildcard Suzuki within .1 second of the Ducati test rider who was very familiar with his own bike. Young Mr. Spies logged considerably more laps than the other riders in an attempt to gain familiarity with his steed. "Elbowz" also brings with him the very fresh experience that AMA racers get from the pavement discrepancies of racing at road courses within ovals. Figure him to be one of the last on the brakes entering Turn 1. To objective observers, it appears he has leveraged his future in MotoGP on the advantages he brings to this race. He may even be cloaking a plan to shock the world, especially if his GSV-R can deliver on the straights. Many have questioned the wisdom of his methods for seeking his next job in the 2009 season, but he may just be crazy... like a fox. As the third rider aboard Rizla Suzuki machines that have shown significant resurgence over the Summer, most Americans expect him to be highly competitive at the front of the grid... at the very least.
The next American most eager to make a statement at home, and the last American to win a new home race, is now the one closest to his actual home. Nicky Hayden grew up a little more than 200 miles from the famed Speedway in the neighboring State of Kentucky; a place where horse racing and auto racing hold equal billing. He enters the weekend hoping to have recovered from an ill-advised PR trip to Southern California and a subsequent cracked heel during the Summer, ahem... break. The former World Champion will be desperately hoping that his pneumatic-valve engine will be able to keep him near the front on the two straights and the drive out of 4. The Kentucky Kid might even consider asking his engineers to relax the throttle map enough to risk running out of fuel before the end of the race; better to run out of gas in the lead in front of the home crowd than suffer through to an ignominious fifth place.
Colin Edwards will be another Texan looking to make a statement about racing in America. He arrives aboard a Yamaha motorcycle that should be competitive at a track like this, but with the great concern whether Michelin will be able to supply a suitable tire. The very likable Texas Tornado also carries with him the mystery of a double last-in-class performance at the most recent round in Misano. Typically good in qualifying, he will be hoping to find a durable race pace as well.
John Hopkins looks the most "stretched" for his American defense. Hailing from the furthest away distance of the four, he also is riddled with physical ailments and a bike that has no explanation for the inconsistency of a near-podium one race and a last-place finish the next. Unfortunately for Hopper and Ant West, the flat, twisting design of this circuit can be easily likened to Misano, where even their Bridgestone tires were not enough help.
From Over There:
When looking at a simple description of the situation - a new circuit, a flat track, and sterility to rival Shanghai - Valentino Rossi would seem to be owning a natural advantage. In earlier days, The Doctor possessed the uncanny ability to establish a neutral setup for his bikes on a flat surface - or at a new venue - faster than anyone else. Playing additionally into Rossi's favor, his machine will be giving away the least horsepower to the Ducatis as they fire down the two straights included in each lap. Buoyed by his relatively comfortable win in front of his home town, he will be eager to complete "the cycle", as it were, and ensure that every track on the MotoGP calendar is a place of victory for him.
Riding a similar machine to nearly similar success at the last round, Jorge Lorenzo appears to have cleared the cranial cobwebs and recovered his strength from his lengthy spate of self-destructive crashes endured through much of the mid-season. As motivation, he is well within striking distance of the man he most wants to defeat in the Championship. If Michelin can supply competitive tires, look for young Porfuera to make beating Dani Pedrosa the Job 1 of every weekend the rest of the year.
Complicating the matter, this will be Dani Pedrosa's first race on Bridgestone tires and astride HRC's pneumatic valve engine. All logic would suggest that it will be extraordinarily difficult for him to be near the front of the grid while also adjusting to the new feel of the tires and learning new setups for the bike. Though he did skunk the field at the end of last year in Valencia, and showed good speed in post-race testing at Misano, it seems a bit much to expect anything like that here. If that logic is wrong, there will be an audible gasp from the rest of the paddock.
Toni Elias, fresh off two podium appearances and rumored new contract offers all over the paddock, looks to be in a very attractive position to capitalize on momentum. He rides a satellite Ducati that should possess an advantage on the circuit's two straights. It appears he has learned some keys to maximizing that advantage, and how to make the bike do what he wants under braking. Success here will probably contribute as much to his own interest in keeping his current seat as it would in making him marketable elsewhere on the grid.
Now that Loris Capirossi is setting a new record with each start, and now that he has recovered from mid-season injuries, he also appears to have come to terms with the resurgent Suzuki GSV-R. Improving along with his bike, getting along well with his team, and secure in his contract for next year, Capirex is far from going away quietly in to the night.
Nearly the opposite must be said for Marco Melandri. No doubt he would rather be encouraged by any possible likeness to Shanghai than to his unimpressive visit to Misano. After showing a few flashes of improvement in understanding his Ducati GP8, his march forward has stalled. Though he may be counting his days aboard the Red Beast, he will surely try to get some benefit from the launch down Indy's front straight. He loves to perform well in America, so he will surely try to find every reserve in his emotional tank for this event.
Andrea Dovizioso, the real shining star of the satellite riders, has only twice finished outside the top 10 so far this season - and not since Shanghai, 4 months and 10 races ago. Sometimes finishing first-in-class among Michelin riders, the young Italian excels despite the burden of riding last year's Honda with comparatively little help from the factory. Eschewing the tendencies of his fellow rookies to visit the Clinica Mobile and run up repair bills, he already shows veteran patience and wisdom.
Randy de Puniet is clearly trying to over-compensate for an under-funded satellite machine and tire package that wasn’t very competitive to start with. His single-lap, qualifying runs are often impressive, but he has rarely been able to keep a competitive, race-length consistency throughout his career. A desire and wisdom to stay out of the landscaping will need to surface very soon if he hopes to ever be offered another GP ride. Something else the Frenchman should consider: there is a very hard wall lining the perimeter of the Oval straights.
Alex de Angelis offers a bit of combination of the two aforementioned Honda satellite riders. Riding on Bridgestone tires, he manages to be the most unpredictable participant on the grid. Consistently running near the front - but rarely winning - during his 250cc years, he has two 4th-place finishes and four crashes already on his rookie year résumé in MotoGP. Having already signed on to return to his current seat next year for the Gresini team, he would do well to settle down with the security that he is not racing to simply avoid unemployment in a couple months.
James Toseland, the lone Briton on the grid, brings a positive rookie record with him back to America. For much of the season, he and his Tech 3 team mate, Colin Edwards, have shared a similar fate each weekend, so Tornado fans will also be wishing success on JT. The WSBK veteran has expected more of himself, but his early season success, and good team chemistry, brought him an early renewal of his contract to keep his seat for 2009.
Sylvain Guintoli needs to pray for rain. For the first half of the season, he seemed to be tethered to his Alice Ducati team mate near the back of the field - except in the wet. Now that Toni Elias has found speed with an identical bike, it will not be enough for him to simply challenge Marco Melandri.
From the Land of the Rising Sun:
Shinya Nakano, apparently working as a test rider for Dani Pedrosa for the last two races, has one terrific and one mundane finish to show for his efforts since being granted a new ride. An accomplished rider with a knack for picking the wrong team at the wrong time, he will now be on his own again aboard a unique works-spec bike - with the last conventional valve Honda engine - and Bridgestone tires. His name is being largely ignored in discussions of next year, and one wonders if even a strong finish here would change that.
From Down Under:
The reigning World Champion needs to break a habit. For three races running, Casey Stoner and his Ducati have stormed to the front of every practice session, started from the pole, and then taken some kind of off-track excursion while dueling with The Doctor during the subsequent race. He arrives at Indy with some concerns about a hand injury and the specter of his first two DNF's since joining the Ducati Marlboro team all looming over him. He will, no doubt, seek to re-establish an early dominance on the straights, and take comfort in the knowledge that there are no off-camber right-handers and that there will be more room to pass than at Laguna Seca.
Chris Vermeulen sits at the same place in the points where he finished last year. Yet, he has labored with the judgment over him that his year has been unsuccessful, even though the Rizla Suzuki has not often fared better in the hands of his teammate. As the GSV-R’s have improved over the mid-season, so have Vermeulen’s fortunes, and an agreement to keep his seat next year is rumored to be in place. Like his two Australian counterparts, Vermeulen excels in wet conditions, but would certainly rather continue to show his bike’s improvements in the dry.
Anthony West is already praying for rain. He rides a bike that, last year, showed flashes of tremendous straight-line speed. This year, however, the team have not been able to exploit this advantage, nor the one offered by their tire supplier. Mostly struggling to avoid finishing in last place - but at least finishing - West has leveled the same complaint as other Kawasaki riders in other series; great difficulty with the chassis in getting the power to the ground out of corners. Though he is also mostly ignored in planning for next year's grid, there are not necessarily many others willing to put their careers at risk to hop aboard Team Green’s Monster machines.
A Year in the Making:
It has been thought impossible for motorcycle racing in America to draw anywhere close to the spectator numbers necessary to make IMS look even half-full. The hope is that the racing will be exciting enough to create a long-term interest for fans eager to limit the appearance of an empty venue. Awkwardly enough, this comes at a time when the MotoGP sport itself, due to drastic rules changes in the last two years, is having significant difficulty keeping all but their most devoted fans interested in their product. Any presence of rain may be an unsurvivable blow; safety margins and attendance figures both at great risk under any threat of wet conditions.
Like most of the rest of the World, Americans would rather see competitive racing than high-speed parades, but a popular homegrown victor is even more appealing. Dorna and IMS may be afraid to admit that any future for this event will probably be linked to Nicky Hayden; his success likely to be necessary in convincing 200,000 of his nearest neighbors to make the pilgrimage to Indianapolis. As strange as it was to see empty seats so close to Rossi's home town, the risk is a completely different order of magnitude at Indy.
The participants will be hoping to keep Valentino Rossi from establishing a virtual lockout of the Championship, though it probably seems imminent. Beside hoping to enter the record books as an inaugural winner in front of the largest racing crowd in the World, they will also want to keep at least one venue from having The Doctor’s stamp on it.
Interesting video links: