Under-Powered Lotus In Over Its Head At Indy?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 21 2012

Simona de Silvestro will be suffering a power shortage in the Indianapolis 500 (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The Lotus-powered Dallaras qualified by Simona de Silvestro and Jean Alesi in Row 11 for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 are re-defining the concept of “field-fillers” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

On a Bump Day when a lack of new Dallara DW12 chassis and available 2.2-liter, turbocharged V-6 engines from corporate rivals Chevrolet and Honda threatened the traditional 33-car starting lineup, the Lotus camp saved an immediate public relations embarrassment for the IZOD IndyCar Series when de Silvestro and Alesi qualified 32nd and 33rd, respectively.

However, the put-up/shut-up moment for the Lotus program figures to unfold Sunday, when de Silvestro and Alesi will be completely – and arguably quite dangerously – overmatched. De Silvestro’s four-lap/10-mile qualifying effort around the 2.5-mile IMS oval of 214.393 mph is 12.091 mph slower than Ryan Briscoe’s pole-winning run of 226.484 mph in the No. 2 IZOD Dallara/Chevrolet fielded by Team Penske.

Alesi’s four-lap/10-mile average of 210.094 mph is a massive 16.390 mph slower than Briscoe’s tour de Bowtie. And those Lotus speeds were attained with the extra turbocharger boost sanctioning body INDYCAR allowed for the two days of qualifications – but will take away for Race Day.

In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that Indy 500 rookie Bryan Clauson, who crashed during

Jean Alesi one of two Lotus drivers in Sunday's race. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

practice Saturday and was forced to sit-out Pole Day, qualified his repaired-with-a-Band-Aid No. 39 Sarah Fisher Hartman/Curb Agajanian Dallara/Honda 31st at 214.455 mph.

De Silvestro, 23, smiled and said all the correct things during her post-qualifying presser. “We just have to focus on our program with the Lotus engine,” said de Silvestro, driver of the No. 78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy entry fielded by HVM Racing. “We don’t have the speed we want but we’ve been creeping up to the other manufacturers, so that’s a really positive sign. The car was really good, really comfortable to drive. I think those were the most consistent laps I’ve done here at the Speedway.

“We’re pretty down on horsepower now with our engine, but we’ve made improvements. At the beginning of the season, we knew it was going to be difficult. But we’ve been improving, so that is the positive thing. We know, even for the race, it’s going to be difficult so we just have to focus on what we have to do and learn as much as we can. Hopefully, toward the end of the season we’re going to be really competitive.”

Lotus’ history at IMS dates to 1963, when Englishman Colin Chapman fielded a pair of rear-engine, Ford-powered Lotus chassis for Formula One star Jim Clark of Scotland and Californian Dan Gurney. Clark, who finished second to Parnelli Jones in ‘63, was named Rookie of the Year en route to the first of his two F1 World Driving Championships. Clark’s Indy 500 victory in 1965 driving the famed No. 82 Lotus Powered by Ford was the first by a rear-engine car at IMS, effectively marking the end of the front-engine Roadster Era.

Lotus’ current IndyCar Series engine program was announced in November 2010. De Silvestro put the Lotus twin-turbo through its initial shakedown run in January. But plagued by a late-start in comparison to General Motors/Ilmor and Honda Performance Development and a lack of parts in its pipeline, Lotus dropped Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Team Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosport and Dragon Racing from its roster leading into the Month of May at IMS.

Simona de Silvestro will be in a Lotus this weekend.

DeSilvestro started 23rd and finished 31st last May 29, completing only 44 laps with an ill-handling car. Recall that Simona suffered second-degree burns to her right hand and superficial burns to the left hand in a brutal crash in Turn 3 during practice on the Thursday before Pole Day. Cleared to drive by INDYCAR’s medical team the following day, she qualified at 224.392 mph in a backup Dallara/Honda fielded by HVM Racing.

Asked about her Race Day strategy, the Swiss native said: “I’ll try to be as much out of the way as possible because I know when you have a fast car it’s annoying when somebody is that much slower. We all respect each other, and I just have to do my job to be quick and not try to be in the way, too. That’s kind of our goal for the race. The Indy 500 is the greatest spectacle on Earth, and everybody knows about it. It’s just so special to see all of the people here and all of the history behind it. And I can say that I have raced in the Indy 500. It’s really a special feeling.”

Like Rubens Barrichello, Alesi will be making his first oval-track start after a long Formula One career. But Alesi will do so not only as the slowest driver on the grid but also as the oldest rookie in Indy 500 history. Alesi will be 47 years, 348 days old on Sunday. USAC standout Jack Hewitt was 46 years, 320 days old when he started the 1998 Indy 500.

“It’s a big relief for me to finally get into this race,” said Alesi, driver of the No. 64 Lotus-FP Journe-Fan Force United Lotus. “I’m glad, but I really was expecting more speed from the car. That was all we could get, and we took it. We will just have to work for the best result from the race.”

The Frenchman added that his brief stay at IMS has been “an amazing experience” in comparison to his 13-year F1 career. “I’m 47-years-old,” Alesi reminded, “and I have learned more in one week here than I did in my entire Formula One career.”

Specifically, Alesi has learned that a competitive engine at IMS would be a good thing.

Meanwhile, front-row starter James Hinchcliffe suggested the learning curve will accelerate at warp speed for both Alesi and Barrichello the first time they barrel into Turn 1 Sunday. Barrichello, a 19-year veteran of F1, qualified 10th at 224.264 mph Saturday in the No. 8 BMC/Embrase/KV Racing Technology Dallara/Chevrolet.

“The race is going to be a baptism of fire,” Hinchcliffe said during an interview Monday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, site of the Firestone 550k night race on Saturday, June 9. “I mean, your first-ever oval race to be in an Indy-car at the Speedway…it’s going to be the experience of a lifetime. But it’s going to be a long afternoon for him (Barrichello) just getting a feel for it, how these things work. I can’t imagine having my first oval race in an Indy-car.”

Barrichello’s car, Hinchcliffe noted, definitely is competitive. Assessing Alesi’s situation, Hinchcliffe diplomatically said: “Yeah, that whole deal’s a different deal.

”I certainly feel for them (Alesi and de Silvestro),” said Hinchcliffe, who is in his first season as Danica Patrick’s replacement at Andretti Autosport. “I mean, you never want to see a driver in the position where the disadvantage is just so great. It’s a very unfortunate situation. But hey, that’s manufacturer racing, guys. You look back through the years it’s not the first time a car or engine was off the pace. This is a tough game, and more than anything it shows how good a job Chevy is doing.

“People are putting a lot of emphasis on this but I feel like this was common ‘back in the day’ _ cars struggling to get up to pace – because it’s not easy to build a competitive engine that lasts as long as we need them to last.

“I know Simona and she’s a great driver and a great person. You never wish somebody to show up for a race weekend knowing they have very little chance. It’s tough to motivate yourself, I imagine, in that position.”

Hinchcliffe, who qualified the No. 27 Team GoDaddy.com Dallara/Chevrolet in the middle of the three-car front row at 226.481 mph, added he was not overly concerned about the back row serving as moving chicanes.

“Just driving around in these drafting sessions we’ve created for ourselves at the Speedway,” Hinchcliffe said of practice, ”there were a lot of guys doing a lot slower than 210 mph trying to fall into the back of the pack and creating much more dangerous situations. If anything, there should have been penalties issued in practice for the way some of guys were driving.

“I’m actually not worried about how these guys are going to be doing when they’re driving flat-out. I know for them flat-out is not as fast as us. But they’re just doing their job and doing their best, and we’ll find a way to make it work.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 21 2012
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