Photo credit: Tim Holle/Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi staged a thrilling duel in the closing
laps of last Sunday's 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Wrapping up the 103rd Indianapolis 500 …
Qualifying Worked … For the Most Part
If the intent was to jam as much action as possible into the two qualifying days as possible, then job well done. If the intent was to establish the fastest 33 cars, then a bit of a tweak of the format is needed. To recap, this year the first 30 spots and the Fast Nine were locked in after the first day, with the pole, the order of the Fast Nine and the last row decided on the second day.
As it turned out, one car posted a speed on Sunday that was among the fastest 33. One way to avoid this is to fill all 33 spots the first day, then have bumping (and the Fast Nine) the next day.
I like the idea of one attempt for the Fast Nine contestants – no need to drag that out. The bumping part of the show can be a bit longer – maybe an hour or two.
Except for the practice periods on Saturday, which just about no one used, the track was active pretty much the whole day. It was so busy, I didn’t even have time to go grab a tenderloin, much to my chagrin.
Fernando Alonso of McLaren Racing was indeed one of the 33 fastest qualifiers. His failing was not posting that speed on the right day. Still, the two-time World Champion had SIX attempts overall to make the field, which seems more than ample opportunity.
The whys and wherefores of the McLaren debacle already have been debated endlessly, and likely will continue to be a hot topic the rest of the year and into next year, if McLaren decides to enter the NTT IndyCar Series full time.
If McLaren is intent on fielding a team on its own and without a substantial technical partner, as it did with Andretti in 2017, it needs to take a page from Penske Racing (who else?) in terms of being better prepared next time.
During the infamous split, Roger Penske took a measured approach in his return to Indianapolis. In his last appearance in 1995, both his cars, driven by Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, failed to qualify. Penske couldn’t afford a similar embarrassment, especially against what was considered lesser or inferior competition in the Indy Racing League.
His first step was to be involved with Jason Leffler’s entry in 2000. This car technically came out of the Treadway Racing stable, but Penske provided sponsorship in the form of his United Auto Group entity. He also sent his top lieutenant, Tim Cindric, to oversee the program. This afforded Penske the opportunity to get the lay of the land and begin building a base of institutional knowledge as it pertained to operations, the equipment and so forth.
The next year, Penske entered cars for Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran for the Indianapolis 500, and they dominated with a 1-2 finish. What’s forgotten, however, is that Castroneves and de Ferran competed in the IRL’s season-opening race at Phoenix that year. The results for each were poor – Castroneves finished 18th and de Ferran was 24th. But the knowledge gained from this race was invaluable to Penske’s team, as the crewmembers gained familiarity with the cars, how to work on them, procedures and so forth as the chassis and engines in the IRL were quite different from those in CART. All in all, those lessons flattened the learning curve considerably.
Once May rolled around, Castroneves and de Ferran took advantage of as much track time as possible, even flying in after the CART race at Nazareth, Pa., to participate in the first day of practice.
It should be noted that in 2001 there were nearly two full weeks of practice and four days of qualifying as opposed to four days of practice and two days of qualifying this year. This reduced track time, condensed further after Alonso’s crash, put McLaren in a bind quickly.
Like Penske, McLaren can rebound from this embarrassment, but the preparations need to begin soon. Enter a couple of races this year, select your team members and get to work.
Alonso can run up front, as proved in 2017, and potentially winning. As Penske might say, Effort Equals Results. But you need the right effort to get the desired results.
One thing I didn’t understand was how some were almost giddy over this failure. I understand the David vs. Goliath aspect of Kyle Kaiser and the tiny Juncos team knocking out Alonso and McLaren made for a great story, and full credit to Kaiser and Juncos. Hopefully this becomes a springboard for success for them.
The Indianapolis 500, though, is enriched by participation of marques like McLaren, returning to Indianapolis as an entrant for the first time since 1979. In some ways, you can trace the design of today’s Indy car to the 1971 McLaren, which was the first to sprout large front and rear wings.
That year, Mark Donohue was unofficially breaking the track record nearly every day in practice with Penske’s Sunoco McLaren before Peter Revson surprisingly topped Donohue in qualifying with his works McLaren. Part of the reason Revson was able to snatch the pole is because Penske insisted on complete transparency with McLaren. He valued the relationship so much that Donohue, who had qualified earlier, (unwittingly?) shared information with Teddy Mayer, then leading McLaren’s efforts, who applied the knowledge to Revson’s car.
During the final day of qualifying this year, with McLaren frantically trying to wring more speed out of Alonso’s car, I wondered if Penske would again provide the magic formula to McLaren.
I hope McLaren returns next year - with a fully Papaya Orange car and results befitting its heritage.
Pagenaud Dominates 103rd Indianapolis 500
Simon Pagenaud, who went from being potentially on the hot seat to being fitted for a king’s throne over the course of May, dominated Sunday’s 500. The affable Frenchman led 116 laps – the most since Dario Franchitti’s 155 in his 2010 victory – in becoming the first pole sitter to win since Helio Castroneves in 2009.
Pagenaud held off a determined charge by Alexander Rossi in the closing laps, edging the 2016 winner by 0.2086 of a second. It was the seventh-closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.
"It's amazing. It's another dream come true, and the biggest dream of my life come true," said Pagenaud, a 35-year-old native of Montmorillon, France. "It's hard to fathom, really. It's really hard to process it right now, but I'm just filled with a lot of joy."
Pagenaud and Rossi swapped the lead five times in the closing laps, the last when Pagenaud roared his yellow No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet outside of and past Rossi's No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda heading into Turn 3 on the 199th lap.
The victory was the 18th in the Indianapolis 500 for Penske. It's a total 13 more than the next nearest owner.
"Simon wasn't going to be beat today," said Penske, who naturally confirmed Pagenaud’s return for 2020. "He raced clean, and that's what I have to say about Rossi also. The two of them for the laps that they ran side by side was as good of racing as you've ever seen here."
Like last year, Rossi’s ability to charge through the pack had the fans buzzing.
The Andretti Autosport driver was in first place on the final race restart on Lap 187, following an incident involving six cars that included an 18-minute red-flag stoppage, but Pagenaud bolted ahead by the time they'd reached the iconic yard of bricks at the start/finish line to complete the lap.
The duo exchanged the lead twice on Lap 189 before Rossi swept back in front on Lap 198 heading into Turn 1. On the ensuing lap, Pagenaud made a similar outside pass, this time going into Turn 3, to take the lead for good. Rossi attempted several overtakes over the last one-plus laps but was thwarted each time. Still, his second-place finish marked the Californian's fourth top-seven Indy 500 result in as many tries.
"We were flat in that final lap coming to the flag - we just didn't have enough," Rossi said. "You can't take anything away from the (No.) 22 guys. They were on pole, they led a lot of laps, did a good job and had a fast race car.”