The one hundredth and first running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race is in the books, and to call it a strange day probably doesn’t do justice to the events that unfolded on the racetrack at the corner of 16th Georgetown in Speedway, Indiana.
From start to finish, this was a dramatic race, and here are my Indy 500 talking points.
Takuma Sato wins
‘No attack, no chance’. It’s been Sato’s motto for a long time. We saw him make an attack in 2012 and punted the wall, handing the win to Dario Franchitti.
This Sunday, in a similar situation, Sato made the pass stick – around the outside, no less, up in a part of the racetrack most drivers fear to tread – of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves, something that isn’t easily done.
Yet, Sato showed considerable moxie, and with that ballsy move comes a slice of racing immortality. Forever, Takuma Sato will be known as a champion of the Indianapolis 500.
Sato has often been fast, and his checkers-or-wreckers style has made him both popular and extremely frustrating to watch. Yet, there is no doubting Taku’s spirit and warmth and persona. He speaks almost as quickly as he drives, and his pure, unadulterated elation in victory lane was quite something to behold.
There’s no doubt of one thing, folks: Sato will be a worthy and wonderful champion. He understands this race, the speedway, and the history of both.
Will this be the beginning of something big for Sato? Likely, we’ll see him bob up and be fast at times, and be maddeningly frustrating at other times. However, none of us who witnessed the 101st Indianapolis 500 will ever forget his race-winning pass, nor the race’s closing laps – laps that ticked off at about forty seconds a pop.
They must’ve felt like forty minutes or forty hours each in the cockpit of that Andretti Autosport Honda – where he held off the hard-charging Helio Castroneves, who is unquestionably as good a driver as has ever taken to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Congratulations, Taku. That was one hell of a drive! As he likes to say, job done.
The Spaniard led twenty-seven laps in his IndyCar Series debut, and might well have contended for victory were it not for the blown engine that put an end to his day with just twenty circuits of the Brickyard remaining. It was a sensational moment for global motorsport, capping quite a month for the two-time Formula One world champion, perhaps the most credentialled rookie the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has ever seen.
The desire to win the Triple Crown of motorsport – the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans – appears to remain for Alonso, so I expect we’ll see him back in future years.
We knew the Honda engines would be fast, but it seemed that when they weren’t dazzling us with outright speed, they were blowing up. The Honda engineers must’ve been biting their nails late on Sunday afternoon when their ultra-fast engines started expiring. First it was Ryan Hunter-Reay, then Charlie Kimball and, most notably, Fernando Alonso.
That Takuma Sato managed to bring his engine home and go to victory lane would have been the mother of all reliefs for Honda Performance Development. To dominate practice and qualifying all month, lead 99% of the race and see a Chevrolet-powered car win would have been an incredibly tough pill to swallow.
Hard luck for Dixon and Hunter-Reay
Coming into the race, two people on everyone’s lips as far as potential winners went were Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Despite the assorted cast around them, it was generally agreed that those two would probably fight among themselves for the win.
Instead, on lap 53, Dixon was collected by a sliding, crashing Jay Howard and endured a frightening upside ride that included a trip through the catch fencing before landing upside outside of turn two. It was one of the most incredible crashes we’ve seen at Indianapolis, and, thankfully, Dixon walked away with only a sore ankle. He should be fine to race this weekend in Detroit.
So, maybe it would be Hunter-Reay’s day? The Floridian certainly was right among the fight at the front before his engine expired with 60-four laps remaining, one of a few Honda runners – Charlie Kimball and the afore-mentioned Fernando Alonso among them – who suffered engine failures during the race.
Indianapolis can be a cruel place. Dixon and Hunter-Reay found out first-hand on Sunday afternoon.
One of the great drives of the day was that of Australia’s Davison, who took his car from the back of the grid up into the lead late in the race, becoming only the fourth driver in history to achieve that feat.
Coming from that far back under any circumstances at Indy is impressive, but considering Davison stepped into an under-prepared car after Sebastien Bourdais destroyed the primary machine last weekend in qualifying, without much on-track time, it was a particularly brilliant drive that’ll surely make waves in and around the IndyCar paddock.
While the end result was not what Davison wanted – nor Will Power and James Hinchcliffe and others caught up in the accident – the fact that he was at the front and contending will give him enormous confidence. Who would’ve believed me this time yesterday if I’d told you Davison rather than Power would be the Aussie to really contend in the race?
In just his sixth IndyCar Series race, the other Dale Coyne Racing Honda driver backed up a great, if surprising qualifying effort with a run to third place. It emerged after the race that Jones’ car sustained some minor bodywork damage that saw him struggle late to complete a pass after he got a run on them, so you can only wonder what might’ve happened if the car had performed to the best of it’s ability.
Regardless, it was a wildly impressive drive from the young Englishman that should either be awarded the Rookie of the Year award, or at least a share with it (alongside Alonso, who also obviously had a very strong showing) and a wonderful end to what, at times, was a difficult month for Coyne’s under-funded squad.
If Ed Jones was the feel-good driving surprise, then Gabby Chaves wasn’t far behind. The Colombian-American, who won the Indy Lights championship in 2014, drove the Harding Racing #88 Chevrolet to ninth place, a run that sort of flew under the radar. To finish inside the top ten in your debut run at the Indianapolis 500 is no mean feat. We’ll see the Harding group back at Pocono and Texas this year, ahead of a possible full-season run in 2018.
The five-car operation helmed by Roger Penske was strangely off the pace all month, but Carburation Day on Friday saw three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Castroneves top the time sheets, and we all expected that Castroneves and his teammates, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden, would be all in contention on race day.
Instead, aside from Castroneves who flew the Penske flag at or near the front all day, it was more of a whimper than a bang from Roger Penske’s squad, and that was perhaps the most surprising thing, considering the squad has a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner (Montoya), the defending IndyCar Series champion (Pagenaud), a proven and prolific IndyCar Series race winner (Power) and the next big thing in the sport (Newgarden) on it’s roster.
The overall lack of competitive was nearly completely masked by a Castroneves win, and Montoya finished sixth, but, really, didn’t challenge throughout. On a very strange day, the lack of speed and pace from the Team Penkse drivers was perhaps the strangest occurrence of all.
At times derided as a ride-buyer, Chilton showed that he belonged on Sunday, leading late and holding off the charges of Castroneves and Sato for a while before eventually being overwhelmed. It was an impressive performance from the Englishman who crossed over from Formula One in time for the 2016 season, and who is now being mentored by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti. For arguably the first time, Chilton looked like he belonged in an IndyCar.
The Andretti Curse is alive and well for another year. Michael Andretti’s cars can seemingly win the Indianapolis 500 at will, but a driver with surname ‘Andretti’ can’t crack into victory lane at the Brickyard. We all hoped – and some likely prayed – that Marco might break through in 2017, but despite an eighth place finish, the third-generation racer never really threatened.
On to Detroit
The Month of May and the 101st Indianapolis 500 is now in the rear-view mirror but the IndyCar Series championship chase is on in earnest. We head straight for the street course in Detroit for a double-header, with races on both Sunday and Monday morning (Australian time) as the North American summer beckons.