Under blue skies at the Circuit Paul Ricard, the Silver Arrows were back at the front as they achieved a record-breaking 63rd front row lockout with Lewis Hamilton taking his 86th career pole position, his 60th for Mercedes.
For anyone who ever thought that guaranteed entries to the Indianapolis 500 for full-timers in the IndyCar Series might be the way to go, the drama of this weekend’s qualifying for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 should have been enough to make them realise that the current system isn’t broken, therefore it needs no fixing.
I can’t remember a more wholly engrossing two days of four-lap runs around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Missed any of the action? Here’s the main talking points from the most important qualifying session of the year:
Simon Pagenaud wins the pole
A hundred years since the last Frenchman to win pole – Rene Thomas – at the Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud in his bright yellow Menards-liveried Team Penske Chevrolet stormed to the top of the time sheets to continue the rich vein of form that he’s been in.
A week ago, he won the road course race at Indianapolis, this week he’s on pole for the 500… and next week has a chance to really solidify his position at Team Penske, which is rumoured to be on shaky ground at the moment. Nothing like an Indianapolis 500 title to shore up your job with Mr Penske.
Pagenaud qualified fastest with a four-lap average of229.992mph (370.136km/h), narrowly edging Ed Carpenter (who was born in Paris – Paris, Illinois, that is) whose average speed was 229.889mph, 369.970km/h) and will lead the field of eleven rows of three to the green on Sunday. You can bet that Carpenter, a sentimental favourite here year in, year out, will be right on his rear wing as they enter turn one for the first time.
Australia’s defending Indianapolis 500 champion Will Power will start sixth, and fellow Australian James Davison – who I thought was a chance at missing the show – qualified solidly in fifteenth. Queensland-born Kiwi Scott Dixon was shockingly way down in eighteenth.
Chevrolet teams swept the top-four positions, with Harding-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta the best of the Honda runners in fifth.
Roger Penske, unbelievably, has a record-setting eighteenth pole at Indianapolis.
Ominously for the field, Pagenaud was again the fastest driver during Monday’s 2-hour practice session, ahead of Penske teammate Josef Newgarden and SPM Honda driver James Hinchcliffe.
Fernando Alonso did not make the field
This is the most shocking qualifying development, I think, since Penske’s cars all went home in 1995. The two-time Formula One world champion had about as bad a week as you can have at Indianapolis, crashing once, and being well off the speed of the front runners from the outset. Even their test day was plagued with issues.
Bottom line, McLaren never really got a handle on the bright orange Chevrolet, which left Alonso taking his chances in the Last Row Shootout – a four-lap qualifying run for the six slowest cars – that whittled down the thirty-six entrants to the traditional thirty-three starters.
Alonso was the thirty-fourth fastest, sensationally bested by American Kyle Kaiser on the last run of the day, a mere two-thousandths of a second faster than Alonso.
So what went wrong? Chiefly, that McLaren’s entry was a one-off. They didn’t run any other IndyCar races this season, and I thought from the outset that it was a risky move.
Experience is key, and McLaren, as smart a racing organisation as they are, doesn’t have the same know-how of another one-off, Indy 500-only team like, say, Dreyer and Reinbold, who had Sage Karam qualify out of the Last Row Shootout. An early season-race might have made all the difference.
Also, the fact that McLaren went it alone, with minor technical support from Carlin Racing, was a huge factor. Two years ago, Alonso and McLaren teamed up with Andretti Autosport, who are wizards at Indianapolis, and had a dream month.
The difference between 2017 and 2019 is stark, and I can only imagine that Zak Brown and the other power brokers at McLaren are wishing they’d aligned with a more powerful squad than Carlin. The lingering Formula One-related issues that saw Alonso in a Chevrolet rather than a Honda couldn’t have helped much, either.
Alonso did what he could – but ultimately, it wasn’t enough. The car McLaren gave him clearly wasn’t ever right. He joins an interesting list of Formula One world champions who’ve failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500: Graham Hill, Denny Hulme, Juan Manuel Fangio, Emerson Fittipaldi, Giuseppe Farina and Nelson Piquet.
Maybe now, too, we’ll have less of the “oh, IndyCar is so easy, turning left all the time is simple” narrative that exists in some corners of the Formula One world. See, actually, oval racing is a horrendously difficult thing to get right. Ask McLaren…
Juncos Racing somehow gets in
Without a doubt, the David versus Goliath story of the 2019 Indianapolis 500. Single-car Juncos Racing loses their sponsor last week. Earlier this week, Kyle Kaiser crashed heavily, necessitating a 36-hour rebuild.
Kaiser than comes out on Sunday and drives the four laps of his life to knock two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso out of the field of thirty-three. It was Hollywood stuff, except Hollywood wouldn’t write anything so improbable.
The outpouring of emotion from Kaiser, team owner Ricardo Juncos, and the crew was fantastic. It felt like I was watching a team celebrating winning the race. Instead, it was a celebration of defying the odds and claiming a huge scalp.
I hope Kaiser gives the Juncos car one heck of a ride on Sunday, and I would be extremely surprised if they don’t pick up a sponsor or three between now and then.
On Wednesday, Indianapolis time, Juncos Racing announced that they have struck a deal for local email technology company 250ok to sponsor the #32 Chevrolet that Kyle Kaiser will drive to the green flag from the thirty-third and final starting position.
Those who didn’t make it in
Whilst Kaiser, affable Canadian James Hinchcliffe (who missed out on the show last year was slowed by a heavy crash during the week, hence his appearance in Last Row Shootout) and Sage Karam coaxed enough speed from their cars to qualify, spare a thought for those who didn’t. Max Chilton and rookie Patricio O’Ward, both of Carlin Racing, alongside, obviously, Fernando Alonso.
It was an interesting weekend for Carlin, whose third driver, Charlie Kimball, qualified mid-pack. Of note, Carlin is the team with whom McLaren struck a technical partnership.
Things never really clicked for either team. I wonder if the work and personnel stretching involved in running four cars in total was too much in the end? When the deal with McLaren was originally struck, Carlin were only running two cars, but added O’Ward late in the season.
The IndyCar field has a 90-minute final practice session this Friday on Carb Day, their final chance to work on the car ahead of Sunday’s 200 lap/500 mile classic.