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2011 Indianapolis 500 Preview

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This weekend the Indianapolis 500 turns 100 years old, though the traditional Memorial Day fixture will be only the 95th running . One of the racing world's most iconic races has had more than its share of incident and accident since cars first raced around the oval that, technically, lies in Speedway, Indiana.

The traditional Month of May that forms the run up to the Indy 500 itself is also custom designed to create talking points for race previews, and though the practices sessions are more condensed now than in previous year, the 100th year of racing at the track has created perhaps, more interest than normal.

Look no further than the starting grid – the 33 drivers who have made it through qualifying – the line-up is at the foot of this preview. In stark contrast to the immediate previous years in Indianapolis, and to much of the Indycar Series season, the powerhouse teams of the sport – Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport – have struggled for speed.

Will Power – recognised as a road course specialist – was the only one of the three Penske drivers to qualify in the top nine that went on to fight for pole position. Multiple winner Helio Castroneves will only start 16th, while Ryan Briscoe had to wait until Bump Day – the second day of qualifying – to secure his own place in the fastest 33.

Worse still were Andretti Autosport. Jeff Andretti – back with the team for another year at Indy – was the only one of their five drivers to qualify in top 24, leaving the quartet of full season drivers to face the lottery of Bump Day, and a rain affected Bump Day at that, to get into the field.

Danica Patrick – still the series pin-up and media darling – made the field in the best form, taking the first run after a lengthy stoppage for rain to put the no.7 car in the race. Her remaining teammates were less fortunate. Mike Conway and Ryan HunterReay both had places in the field, but were bumped out as others went fastest. Hunter-Reay held the place until the last run – by teammate Marco Andretti – when Marco pushed his way into the race.

Andretti Autosport struggled for pace throughout practice and qualifying, Mike Conway the man to miss the field

That should have been the end of qualifying, but the following day dealing meant Hunter-Reay took the place of Bruno Junqueira who had put his A.J. Foyt Enterprises car in the race on speed. A year after breaking a leg in a horrific final lap accident Mike Conway, who already has one win this season – Long Beach – and was the best placed of the Andretti Autosport drivers in the championship missed the field.

Before Hunter-Reay found his way into the field the story of May was almost certainly Simona de Silvestro.

One of the things any race loses on television is the sense of speed, and Indy is no different, with the wide circuit itself and the relatively featureless trackside offering few reference points to judge the staggering velocity. Only when something goes wrong are the forces involved, and De Silvestro's scary crash has already been a jolt of reality.

The Swiss driver crashed heavily on the penultimate day of practice, hitting the wall twice, the car rolling and bursting into fire. De Silvestro (incredibly) climbed from the car herself, before being taken to hospital for burns. After sitting out the following day of running after not being cleared by the medical team, she was back in the car for qualifying and put her HVM Racing entry 24th fastest – still with her burnt hands dressed under her race gloves.

The man to benefit from qualifying was Alex Tagliani. Driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsport the Canadian had been fast in the practice sessions and brought that pace into qualifying, topping the initial attempts, then the top-9 pole position shootout.

Alex Tagliani celebrates pole with team owner Sam Schmidt

So could Tagliani been the next man to drink (or at least empty in one way or another) the milk in victory lane?

Of course he could. However, despite their lack of single car, four lap qualifying pace, only a fool would doubt the ability of the combined Penske and Ganassi stables to win the race. All five of their drivers could be the next man to have their face added to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

But, given the underdog favouring nature of the Month to May to this point, who else could win – other than any of the 33 drivers that will take the green flag.

Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon, both second row starters have good records at Indianapolis, with top fives (and the 2005 title in Wheldon's case) to their name. Bell it must be added, is another feather in Sam Schmidt's bow (and cap) in what has been a superb build-up to the race for the team.

A row further back Ed Carpenter could take a popular win for Sarah Fisher Racing having shown good speed on practice days. Even rookie JR Hildebrand cannot be discounted, given his place in Panther Racing, a team which has taken second place for the last three years at Indy.

However, there would be few results more popular (and perhaps more overdue) than a Tony Kanaan victory. The Brazilian, now driving for KV Racing Technology, has a troubled history at Indianapolis. Second and third place finishes, have given way to the last four years ending the race outside the top ten. One of three cars that will run in the famous green and yellow of Lotus, he will start 22nd, continuing a season long habit of disappointing qualifying efforts, though most have preceded pushes through the field.

There will also be plenty of British interest, as has become the norm in the American open-wheel scene. Dario Franchitti and Wheldon may be near the front but they will lead six Brits across the yard of bricks. Justin Wilson and Alex Lloyd will both be starting their fourth Indy 500 on Sunday, Lloyd hoping to repeat the fourth place finish he gave Dale Coyne Racing last year.

Jay Howard and Pippa Mann, meanwhile will make their first Indy 500 starts – Indy Lights racer Mann becoming the first British woman to make the 33 driver starting grid.

The Indianapolis 500 is like few other races on earth. In the UK your chance to experience begins at 4:30pm on Sky Sports 4.

95th Indianapolis 500 Starting Grid

Row 1

Row 2

Row 3

Row 4

Row 5

Row 6

Row 7

Row 8

Row 9

Row 10

Row 11

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