After solid performances from Indianapolis 500 newcomers A.J. Allmendinger and Carlos Munoz in 2013 and a better than expected effort from former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch in 2014, the rookie crop for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 appears to be a step up from a somewhat quiet freshmen class that took to the 2.5 mile oval a year ago. While neither Gabby Chaves nor Stefano Coletti provided much firepower in the 2015 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, there appears to be a few new shooters who could greatly improve on Chaves’ 16th place finish that netted him Rookie of the Year honors last May.
Of course, the biggest story so far from Monday following a cancelled Tuesday session was the performance of Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, who was part of a top four Honda sweep in the opening practice session of the week prior to time trials. Although the run was draft-aided, the performance certainly raises the prospects for the former Manor Formula One pilot, who currently ranks around mid-pack in the most recent OnPitRoad.com Grid-a-tology starting field projection. However, there are also four other 2016 Rookie of the Year candidates who are worth following this week. Let’s take a closer look at how each of them rate with three days of practice and two days of qualifying ahead of them prior to the drop of the green flag on May 29.
Obviously, it is worth starting with Rossi, who stole the headlines on Monday alongside his four Andretti Autosport teammates. The former Formula One prospect showed promise last Saturday in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, running as high as sixth before settling for a tenth place finish, to date his best performance in Verizon IndyCar Series competition. Rossi is certainly showing improvement with more laps now under his belt, however like his newcomer friends, the constant 200 mph plus speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are something he has yet to face in any form of racing he has tackled so far. While the 226 mile per hour lap Monday was a pleasant surprise, the jury is still out as to whether Honda has made the necessary gains in the horsepower department to challenge Chevrolet on Saturday and Sunday in qualifying mode. While a berth in the Firestone Fast Nine shootout for the pole position is an unlikely expectation, the American could very well exceed his projected Grid-a-tology spot on the starting grid after this weekend.
Coming into the month of May, the performance of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton at the Phoenix Grand Prix, the only oval track race before the Indy 500, seemed to cement the Englishman who like Rossi is an ex-driver on the Formula One circuit, as the most likely candidate to walk away on Sunday with the title as the fastest rookie qualifier for the 100th Indy 500. Although it appears Rossi on paper has called that moniker into question, keep in mind among fastest laps achieved without a draft Chilton was on relatively even terms with Rossi on Monday. Chilton also has access to what seems to be the more competent Chevrolet twin-turbo V6 engine and based on the recent efforts of CGR in qualifying (Scott Dixon of course was the pole sitter for last year’s Indy 500), the early nod has to go towards Chilton pending consistent numbers from Rossi in which he has to break the wind on his own, much as he will during his four lap qualifying attempts on both Saturday and Sunday. Also, unlike the rest of the rookie field, Chilton already has a top ten result in oval track IndyCar competition after placing a personal best seventh at the Phoenix Grand Prix.
For now, the battle for best of the rest behind the two early pacesetters appears to be a stalemate among the final three 2016 rookies. Spencer Pigot, Stefan Wilson, and Matt Brabham each were in the 222 mph bracket on Monday, a far cry from the speeds they will begin to generate when INDYCAR officials increase the boost pressure on the Chevrolet and Honda engines on Fast Friday, yet a good starting point for the trio, two of whom outpaced multiple veterans on opening day, including two former Indy 500 champions in Helio Castroneves and Buddy Lazier.
Of the final three, Pigot who is a teammate to Graham Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this month, was the busiest running 84 laps on Monday, the most of any of the 33 drivers currently signed into Gasoline Alley. The Mazda Road to Indy graduate comes into the IndyCar Series as the reigning Cooper Tires Indy Lights champion, however the 22-year old does not feature a strong resume on ovals. Pigot has only notched one oval track victory in Pro Mazda at the Milwaukee Mile in 2014. Last year in Indy Lights, Pigot’s best oval race effort was only a seventh place run, also at Milwaukee, a race he started from pole position. Despite those concerns, Pigot has shown well in his first two efforts on the senior circuit, placing 14th at St. Petersburg and 11th Saturday in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Third-generation Indy 500 driver Matt Brabham is another Mazda Road to Indy graduate, who looked solid early on in the Indy GP before fading after the first round of pit stops. The PIRTEK Team Murray driver placed 16th on Saturday, but unlike Pigot has a much more impressive oval track resume. The grandson of Sir Jack and son of Geoff, was the 2014 runner-up at the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and also placed second at the Milwaukee Mile in Indy Lights competition. Although the efforts were claimed as part of Andretti Autosport’s driver development program as opposed to Pigot’s year with Juncos Racing, the potential for a top half result at Indy on May 29th is in play.
The final member of the 2016 rookies Stefan Wilson may very well receive the most fan support at Indy over the next two weeks. Stefan is the younger brother of the late Justin Wilson, an eight-time Indy 500 participant who was fatally injured in a crash last year at the Pocono 500 in Pennsylvania. The younger Wilson has been in the running for several full time rides in the IndyCar Series over the years, yet none have come to fruition until this month’s with KV Racing, who is also supporting Brabham’s effort. Wilson has not driven an IndyCar since 2013 at Baltimore, but does have one oval track victory in the Indy Lights at Kentucky Speedway in 2011. Of the five rookies, the learning curve could the steepest for Wilson, who has very limited race mileage since being full time in Indy Lights five years ago.
While one member of the rookie class has noticeably stepped forward on Monday, expect the other four candidates for top rookie this month to each have their moments in the sun this week in the run up to qualifying for the 100th Indianapolis 500.