Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hinchcliffe, Tagliani and Villeneuve Ready for 2014 Indianapolis 500 Race Day

Photo credit: Chris Jones

Winning on the 105-year old Indianapolis Motor Speedway circuit is a honour anyone who can handle a steering wheel would want. Of the select few who have joined the ranks of professional open wheel drivers, just 33 drivers a year compete for the Indianapolis 500. Bestowed with the chance at claiming the BorgWarner Trophy, the triumphant is the one who completes 500 miles around the 2.5-mile oval first.

With a rich national auto racing history, the Indianapolis 500 is understandable desirable to Canadians. Canada's History at the historic track known as "The Brickyard" runs deep. Pete Henderson was the first documented Canadian to run in the Indy 500 back in 1916. Since then, names such as Billy Foster, Ludwig Heimrath, John Jones, Scott Goodyear and Paul Tracy have competed for victory on the Indiana oval.

For the 2014 edition of the Indianapolis 500, three veteran drivers (James Hinchcliffe, Alex Tagliani and Jacques Villeneuve) have a 1 in 33 chance of winning the Memorial Day classic in motor racing.

James Hinchcliffe

Photo Credit: John Cote

Team: Andretti Autosport
Car: #27 United Fiber & Data Dallara-Honda
Sporting Spot: 2nd

The only Canadian driver running full-time on the 2014 Verizon INDYCAR Series tour, James Hinchcliffe is a 27-year old entered in his fourth Indianapolis 500.

Taking part in his first Indy 500 in 2011 with Newman/Haas Racing, Hitchcliffe's initial showing at Indy was strong but resulted with a DNF just ahead of the halfway distance in the race. Signing with Andretti Autosport the following year, his 2012 showing was his career best so far finishing sixth after starting second. The 2013 Indianapolis 500 had James Hinchcliffe arrive as an INDYCAR race winner of two races in the season. Unfortunately, he fell late in the race to finish 21st in his #27 Dallara-Chevrolet.

With the Andretti Autosport team switching from Chevrolet to Honda in 2014, Hinchcliffe enters this year's Indy 500 with a seventh place at Barber Motorsports Park being his best result of the season. Making problems worse, James Hinchcliffe suffered an concussion during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis race early this month resulting with him having to sit out the first four days of practice on the oval. EJ Viso subbed for Hinchcliffe until the Canadian received the go-ahead to step back in the #27 car. Fortunes might be turning around for James Hinchcliffe following a stellar performance last weekend in qualifying. Fourth fastest on Saturday, Hinchcliffe and the #27 Dallara-Honda was locked into the top nine positions of the 2014 Indy 500. After a Fast 9 Shootout on Sunday, James Hinchcliffe posted the second-fastest time behind pole winner Ed Carpenter. Hinchcliffe's four-lap average of 230.839 miles per hour was roughly 0.15 seconds off the pole-winning time.

Alex Tagliani

Photo Credit: Walter Kuhn

Team: Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
Car: #68 Dallara-Honda
Starting Spot: 24th

Despite running professionally in open wheel racing since the 1990s, French-Canadian driver Alex Tagliani was unable to run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 2009 due to the IRL/CART split. Arriving with Conquest Racing, Tagliani finished 11th and became the second Canadian to be recognized as an Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. Alex Tagliani returned to the 2.5-mile track in 2010 with FAZZT Race Team. The 2010 effort consisted of a fifth place qualifying spot and a tenth final result. The following year, the FAZZT Race Team was sold to Sam Schmidt Racing and retained Tagliani for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. In a Fast 9 qualifying shootout for the race, Alex Tagliani and the #77 car won the pole with a 227.472-mile per hour average four-lap time.  Leading 20 laps on race day, Tagliani's race turned south and was ultimately cut short when the #77 crashed. For 2012 and 2013, Alex Tagliani participated with a Bryan Herta Autosport-owned race car. In both years, the team qualified 11th and finished 12th in 2012 and 24th in 2013.

For 2014, Alex Tagliani has been picked up by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for the Indianapolis 500 event. A one-off appearance in the 2014 Verizon INDYCAR Series, Alex Tagliani will be starting in the 24th starting spot on Sunday. In final practice, Alex Tagliani posted an eighth fastest time with the #68 car in race trim.

Jacques Villeneuve

Photo Credit: Walter Kuhn

Team: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
CarL #5 Dollar General Dallara-Honda
Starting Spot: 27th

Every Canadian race fan is familiar with Jacques Villeneuve's success at Indy. Prior to being the 1997 Formula 1 World Driving Champion, the son of Gilles Villeneuve drove a Players sponsored race car at the Indianapolis 500 twice. In his rookie year, Villeneuve started fourth in a Ford-powered Reynard chassis and finished second. Jacques Villeneuve and winner Al Unser Jr were the only drivers to complete all 200 laps in the 1994 race. His performance earned him the 1994 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honours becoming the first Canadian to do so. The 1995 Indy 500 was another fine moment for Canadian racing. Nine laps remaining in the event, a restart had Jacques Villeneuve behind fellow Canadian Scott Goodyear. Goodyear mistimed his acceleration overshooting the pace car that was entering pit road. With Scott Goodyear being penalized, Jacques Villeneuve (who had overcame a two-lap penalty himself for what the sanctioning body ruled as passing the pace car) won the 1995 Indianapolis 500. The second race would be has last Indy 500 ahead of his move to Formula 1 the following year. In 2014, Villeneuve returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a 19-year absence.

Driving the #5 car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he qualified his Dollar General sponsored in 27th starting spot for Sunday's race. Timing into the race with a four-lap average speed of 228.949 miles per hour, Villeneuve mentioned he had trouble accelerating in his Honda-powered Dallara during qualifying. During Friday's Carb Day practice, the #5 car was still struggling to find speed posting a 30th fastest time. However, Jacques Villeneuve has expressed confidence in his car and team in quote on his website saying, "I saw some guys out there taking big risks. We didn't do that, and the car is handling better than it has been all week. We're happy right now, which is a good place to be heading into the race on Sunday."

Back in 2009, I was fortunate enough to get some words from Jacques Villeneuve ahead of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Montreal. Among questions I asked was the potential of returning to INDYCAR racing. Villeneuve response went as follows: "IndyCar is still damaged and not what it used to be. The healing process hopefully has started as it was a great series that opened doors to F1 to a few drivers." A lot has changed in five years and we're happy to see Villeneuve back at Indy as he risks his average finish of 1.5 in his third race on the 2.5-mile track.

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