INDIANAPOLIS – The first time IndyCars ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course began with the polesitter stalled, a spectacular crash and three cars not making it to the first turn.
It ended with winner Simon Pagenaud barely able to make it past the start-finish line.
In road racing, the drama is often not in the white-knuckle wheel-to-wheel 230mph excitement, but in the subtle moves, the pit strategy calls and the unpredictability that envelops the event.
Saturday’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis had all of that. It was a classic road race, with numerous pit and fuel strategies taking place, and the top two drivers trying to hang on while third-place Helio Castroneves charged forward, erasing nearly all of a nine-second deficit in the final five laps with a full load of fuel.
It was different event than is often seen in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – but the running on the oval at 230mph began less than 24 hours after Mario Andretti handed Pagenaud the trophy.
That wasn’t lost on Pagenaud, who becomes the first native of France to win an open-wheel race at Indy since Jules Goux won the 1913 Indianapolis 500.
“Mario Andretti is someone I’ve looked up to,” Pagenaud said. “I’m proud to be the second Frenchman to win at Indy. It’s incredible to be in front of the pagoda. I can’t imagine what it would be like at the Indy 500.”
Indianapolis becomes the only track in sports where teams and drivers are treated to the same cars running an oval and a road course on the same track in the same month. The Indianapolis 500 will be held May 24.
The Month of May becomes three successive weekends of points-paying IndyCar events, adding to the centerpiece of the open-wheel racing season.
The event drew rave reviews.
“It’s a beautiful track,” Pagenaud said. “It’s very smooth, very flowing. The track changes a lot. You have to adjust your driving lap after lap, which I enjoy.”
“The race was very intense,” Castroneves said. “We have two long straightaways. People were trying to pass on both.”
The race wasn’t without its warts – the start was marred when polesitter Sebastian Saavedra’s car wouldn’t fire on a standing start. Most of the field got through, but rookie Mikhail Aleshin did not, causing a spectacular crash that took eight laps to clean up.
Midway through the race, Scott Dixon ended up in the gravel trap between Turns 2 and 3 while racing with Will Power and eventual runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay for position. That brought out a full-course yellow – which bred two more on successive restarts. James Hinchcliffe also pulled off the course on one of those restarts after being hit with debris on the backstretch. He was taken to the infield hospital on a stretcher.
The yellows did make for strategy. The top two were among a group of drivers who pitted at the end of the last yellow on Lap 54. Oriol Servia eventually came to the lead, but had to pit with four laps left, handing the lead to Pagenaud. He and Hunter-Reay had also pitted at the same time, but were able to save enough fuel.
Castroneves, who had planned to make three pit stops the entire race, pitted later and came out flying, and was 1.82 seconds back at the finish.
“It was a strange race,” second-place finisher Hunter-Reay said. “The rhythm was off, and you really didn’t know who you were racing because guys were on different strategies – some on three stops, some on two stops.”
Other drivers corroborated that, but it added to the late-lap drama.
“It was a bit stressful,” Pagenaud said. “The last 15 laps, they were telling me to meet an unseen fuel number. I didn’t know who was going to be my competition. I was very worried about Castroneves.”
Castroneves charged, but Pagenaud won, capping off an interesting, and dramatic, first IndyCar road race at Indianapolis. Now, the cars turn to the traditional oval.
“Tomorrow, we get back to work,” Pagenaud said. “Tomorrow, I could go right to the back of the field. That’s what keeps me going – I don’t want to be at the back of the field.”