Tuesday practice for the 96th Indianapolis 500 on Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile oval looked almost like a race, particularly in the final, "happy" hour when cars and drivers looked to be practicing their race pace in anticipation of the May 27 200-lap bout.
With 30 combinations taking to the track on another warm, sunny and not-too-breezy afternoon, there were only two absentee teams: Lotus Fan Force Ltd with driver Jean Alesi and Dragon Racing's duo of Katherine Legge and Sebastien Bourdais.
Of the latter team, at least there was action in the paddock; their two practice areas on pit road are all set up and the TrueCar.com Dallara for Legge was in the garage.
According to the team, Bourdais' car would be back form the paint shop by Wednesday--but still, the team has no engines at its disposal.
The $4.6-million suit brought by Dragon Racing against Lotus Cars--as they try to get out of their contract--is the big hold-up. Team owner Jay Penske was on the IMS premises and spent much of the day going between his garages and the INDYCAR offices, trying to reach a solution to his engine woes.
A crewmember said the team doesn't even have information about the installation of a different engine from the Lotus they had been using, meaning a transition would be far longer than the anticipated single day.
At the top of the time sheets for the first time this May stood third generation racer Marco Andretti, hitting a monster 223.676 mph on his 54th of 55 laps. Andretti, driver of the No. 26 RC Cola Chevrolet has been quick all along but never assumed top position until he managed to get a good tow late this afternoon.
Andretti said, "We have the car to the point now that I am confident to say we would be the ones to beat if the race was today. The speed on its own, I'm a little concerned about. It's all about the challenge of developing the car. We just have to keep working like everybody else."
Andretti's late lap supplanted Helio Castroneves' Team Penske No. 3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Chevy at the top, after the three-time Indy 500 winner had been mired mid-field for much of today's practice. "We worked some more on the race set-up and towards the end we were able to get a good draft. Always good to put up a fast time and we will continue to work hard to get things where they need to be." His best was 222.025 mph, et on Castroneves' 55th of 80 total laps.
If this seems like a broken record, a third Chevy-powered Dallara was third, that of James Hinchcliffe in the No. 27 GoDaddy.com Chevy (221.864), also from Andretti Autosport. Hinchliffe thought it a "pretty reasonable day. We went out early and had some reasonable speed on our own and then focused on the race (setup) from there on out. We're running in bigger and bigger packs now and learning more about this car because it's still so unknown in a proper race condition," particularly on an oval, as this is the first such competition of the year.
Graham Rahal was first of the Honda-powered cars in his No. 38 Service Central Dallara/Firestone Indy car from Ganassi Racing. Using his second engine of the season, installed after Monday's blow-up of his initial race engine, "It was great for us, particularly coming off the last couple of days. We felt the car was good all along; we just couldn't figure out where the speed was."
The balance of the top 10 included Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 DHL/SunDrop Chevy, Charlie Kimball's No. 83 Novo Nordisk Honda, Will Power in the second Team Penske No. 12 Verizon Chevy, Takuma Sato's No. 15 RLL Honda and Scott Dixon's No. 9 Target Honda.
It's difficult to know what the programs were for each and every driver our there in practice but this "happy hour" dance was truly delightful, with slicing and dicing and still no contact in four days of practice. It was quite enjoyable to watch in person and bodes well for the balance of the week.
After four truly enjoyable races thus far in 2012 and with the circumspect nature of practice thus far in the month of May, this year's Indianapolis 500 is shaking up to be, at the very least, an interesting one.