Indy 500 preview: Villeneuve and Montoya return to strong field
Veni, vidi, vici. Those were the famous words used by Julius Caesar over two thousand years ago to tell the Roman senate that he had defeated Pharneces II of Pontus swiftly and decisively in a major military battle.
Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya could have used that line, translated in English to "I came, I saw, I conquered" in their post-race interviews following their past Indianapolis 500 triumphs.
Villeneuve has driven in the race twice. He finished second in 1994 and overcame a two-lap penalty to win in 1995, defeating a field that included Arie Luyendyk, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, Eddie Cheever and Danny Sullivan. Then he departed for Formula One, where he became World Champion in 1997. The first and only Canadian to win at Indy has an average finishing position of 1.5.
Montoya drank the milk in one less try at Indy than Villeneuve, and he did it by crushing the other 32 starters. The Colombian led 167 laps and finished 7.1 seconds in front of 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier. And, like Villeneuve, he departed for Formula One the next season, stayed there through 2006 and then moved to NASCAR's Sprint Cup.
It seemed very unlikely these two wayward champions of Indy's past would ever find their way back, yet, there they are, qualified for the 98th running on Sunday. It's astonishing they came back and it adds to the intrigue of this 500 that they came back in the same year. They undoubtedly would have been able to find quality IndyCar seats when they departed F1 after the 2006 season, but both passed.
Villeneuve tried to find a home in NASCAR, ran some Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide and Sprint Cup races -- including the 2010 Brickyard 400 -- and also put in some time in sports cars, Australian V8 Supercars and FIA World RallyCross.
Montoya found steady employment with Chip Ganassi's Sprint Cup team, won a couple of road races, and wasn't re-signed by the team at the end of last year. Roger Penske signed him for the full Verizon IndyCar season.
Villeneuve is doing a one-off at age 43 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and he's starting 27th. Is he too old to make a complete comeback and compete at the front of the Indy 500? Emerson Fittipaldi won his first Indy 500 in 1989 at age 42. With a driver of Villeneuve's world-class talent, he should be up to the challenge if he and the team can get his Dallara-Honda good enough to draft up to the front.
"To have the opportunity to return to Indy car racing and the Indianapolis 500 is something I never thought possible," Villeneuve said
Montoya is 38 and starting 10th. He'll be able to handle his Dallara-Chevrolet just fine in the draft and contend to make it back-to-back, 14 years apart. Driving for Penske, a team with 15 wins at Indianapolis, will provide an edge for him even if he doesn't need it.
"I'll tell you the truth, I was really surprised when I came on Sunday (for the first Indy 500 practice day)," Montoya said. "I went out and said, 'I'm going to take my time.' Full throttle, I lifted on (turns) three and four, second lap, third lap, fourth lap, I'm good. It was nice.
"One of the cool things about being with Team Penske, they do such a good job with the cars. The experience here is so good. They really know what they're doing. It makes it so easy for us, it really does."
Indy has lost three-time champion Dario Franchitti to an injury-forced retirement, but with Villeneuve and Montoya added, it's one of the toughest driver lineups in the past 20 years. Here are the best storylines to watch as the 200 laps unfold.
• Can Helio Castroneves finally win his fourth Indy and join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears at the top of the list? Certainly it's possible and Castroneves might feel a sense of urgency and take more risks this year. He's 39 years old and his last win was in 2009. Castroneves has had four shots at that fourth win and his best finish has been sixth.
• Can Tony Kanaan become the sixth driver to win back-to-back Indy 500s and first since Castroneves in 2001-02? The Brazilian has moved from smaller KV Racing Technology to the powerful Target Ganassi team. Kanaan has usually been in the hunt. He had five top-fives in 11 races before breaking through last year with a brilliant pass of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz on a restart with three laps to go. Franchitti crashed in Turn One following the same restart and the race ended under caution.
• Can Hunter-Reay or Marco Andretti become the first Americans to win Indy since Sam Hornish did it in 2006? Hunter-Reay had struggled at Indy since finishing sixth and taking Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, but he finished third a year ago with the new formula cars and engines. Andretti finished second by .0635 of a second to Hornish in 2006 and has been third twice, led 59 laps in 2012 before crashing out late in the race and was fourth last year. At age 27, he's overdue to drive into Victory Lane.
• You can put Ed Carpenter on that list of Americans capable of winning, too. He won the pole for the second straight year, but more impressive is he's won Verizon IndyCar races on ovals at Kentucky and the California Speedway in Fontana. He was a contender in an up-and-down race a year at Indy and finished 10th.
• Ganassi's Scott Dixon won the 500 in 2008, has finished second twice and had a streak of seven straight top-sixes that ended when he was 14th a year ago. There's no doubt he's got the talent and team to become a two-time Indy 500 champion.
• Roger Penske has always made winning Indy his team's priority. He also has Will Power, who is probably the best road racer in the series but hasn't been better than fifth and has four finishes in six starts outside the top-10 at Indy. You can understand why Penske brought in Montoya, it gives him a better shot at a 16th Indy win.
• This is how the Captain handicaps the race: "As far as our rivalry with Ganassi, he set the bar here. He's the guy we have to beat. But we also see other teams. Andretti (Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Carlos Munoz) has done a terrific job. Quite honestly across the field, some of the smaller teams have shown a lot of speed. We can't count anybody out."
• IndyCar's first-year technical formula created a 500 a year ago that set a record of 68 lead changes among 14 leaders with 26 cars running at the finish and a record speed of 187.433 miles per hour. With a year to work on the cars and engines, will we see the same kind of race? It's also an interesting question that will be answered Sunday.