It was another weekend of motorsport, with a thrilling and controversial Turkish Grand Prix followed just hours later by an equally exciting Indianapolis 500. Despite Penske’s seemingly iron-clad advantage in qualifying, it was Dario Franchitti who took an emphatic victory while behind him, chaos reigned supreme. Our intrepid IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon shares his erudite thoughts on a great chapter in the motorsport calendar…
The sun was shining and everywhere you looked, the last weekend of the American spring felt more like summer. American flags were everywhere and the sense of national pride was ubiquitous. The month of May is always the longest month of the year for race-starved IndyCar fans such as myself. The time for talk, hype and promise was now over. It was time to go racing in the 94th Indianapolis 500. Honorary starter and Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson waved the green flag to get things underway. Lined up in rows of three, Helio Castroneves, the talk of the weekend with the prospect of history being written, led the field away from the green flag.
It only took 2 corners for the first incident. The oldest driver in the field, 48yr old Davey Hamilton lost control on the exit of Turn 2 and slid into the wall, making moderate contact with the inside wall. He would later launch a verbal attack on Tomas Scheckter, who Hamilton believed narrowly passed him on the outside, forcing him to over-correct which led to his accident. Just prior to the yellow flag being called, Dario Franchitti, starting 3rd, managed to squeeze past both Will Power and Castroneves to take the early lead.
Jack Nicholson must have been enjoying himself from the main flag box, as he was still there to wave the green flag a second time when the race restarted on Lap 5.
Lap 8 – Bruno Junquiera lost control when the rear of his car snapped out from under him on the exit of Turn 2, making decent contact with the outer Turn 2 wall. The likable Brazilian and former F3000 champion without a full-time IndyCar ride in 2010 was uninjured. The field bunched back up and Danica Patrick, who had slipped back to 28th position early, took an opportunity to make her first pit stop, taking on fuel only. Alex Lloyd and Graham Rahal were among those taking the same opportunity. Theirs were interesting moves so early in the race. Getting off pit sequence early in the race can be beneficial as it’s a long race and plenty of caution periods can be expected, so some drivers were showing their hand early and taking an early gamble. Time would tell whether these would pay off.
Jack Nicholson, yes he was still there, got the race underway again on Lap 13. IndyCar officials probably then had to forcibly remove the flags from his possession, or he may never come down. He was doing a very good job, it must be said.
Thankfully, this restart resulted in some extended green flag running and before too long, the top-three of Franchitti, Power and Castroneves had opened up a small gap of about 3 seconds back to Alex Tagliani, running very well in 4th place.
A little further back, and rapidly approaching was Tony Kanaan. Starting 33rd and dead-last, Kanaan, who before the race had sought out his former, and by now long retired race engineer Steve Horn, was powering through the field and by Lap 25, had gained 17 spots. Steve Horn, for those unfamiliar with him, engineered Bobby Rahal to his Indy 500 win in 1986 and was also responsible for Tony Kanaan’s IndyCar championship year in 2004. It was clear he hadn’t missed a beat in this once-off appearance for TK.
Lap 31 – Will Power takes the lead from Franchitti, but loses it again two laps later. On Lap 34, the first pit stops are made by the leaders. Franchitti and Power pit together. In the effort to beat Dario out, Team Penske released Power from his pit with part of his fuel rig still attached. Luckily, there was no fire despite a small fuel spill. Unfortunately Power still had part of his fuel filter protruding from his car and was periodically shedding pieces onto the track. Eventually a full course caution was called to allow these pieces to be safely removed. The commentators made mention of the dangers of these potential projectiles and made reference to Felipe Massa’s Formula 1 crash in Hungary 2009, which ended his season and almost his life.
Power pitted to complete the removal during the caution and for good measure received a drive through penalty for causing an avoidable yellow-flag period, dropping to 25th.
Restart Lap 43.
By Lap 60, Franchitti had opened up a 3.2 second lead to Helio Castroneves. Further back, John Andretti, driving the joint Richard Petty and Andretti Autosports entry, received a drive-through penalty for repeat blocking offences. It wouldn’t matter, as a few laps later, Andretti was in the wall, having caught the slippery rubber marbles off the racing line and joining a growing list of retirements.
The subsequent caution and clean-up forced the majority of the field into the pits. During the flurry of pit lane activity, both Raphael Matos and Scott Dixon, in separate incidents, lost a wheel upon exiting their pit stalls due to wheel nuts not being properly tightened. Dixon managed to stop near his pit crew, whereas Rafa, as he is affectionately known, who was running comfortably in 3rd place by this stage, managed to spin in the pit lane, almost taking out a rival team. Neither impeded other cars exiting their pit stops, and both were pushed back to their pit stalls. Thanks to the caution period, both managed to get repaired and sent on their way without losing a lap.
The restart came on Lap 72.
In a classic example of how quickly things can go wrong at Indy, on Lap 73, one lap following his disastrous pit stop Raphael Matos found himself in the wall. Whether any damage to his car was sustained during his pit lane misadventures is unclear, however Matos lost control on the exit of Turn 1 and made a very heavy rear impact. The look of disappointment was palpable on the faces of the Luczo de Ferran Dragon Motorsports crew in the pit lane. Nonetheless, a hugely impressive display from the 2008 Indy Lights champion. There’s always next year, Rafa.
Upon the cleanup, the restart came on Lap 79. The next lap, Rahal Letterman driver Graham Rahal received a drive-through penalty for blocking Dan Wheldon. Upon taking that penalty, he emerged just ahead of race-leader Franchitti. In a desperate effort to remain on the lead lap, Rahal managed not only to stay ahead of Franchitti, but managed to pull away.
Lap 105 – Vitor Meira slows having brushed the wall. Despite broken suspension, he makes it back to his pits and into retirement. Meira, twice a runner-up in the Indy 500, was no doubt glad he walked away from this year’s race. Last year, a huge crash resulting in back injuries ended Meira’s season.
Following the next round of pit stops, inheriting the lead was Tomas Scheckter, who was leading the pack of those who did not pit. Within 2 laps of the restart on Lap 113 though, Franchitti found his way back past to resume his charge up front.
After a trouble-free green flag period, Lap 146 saw Helio Castroneves making a routine stop. The weight of expectation perhaps caused a rare error of judgment for the 3-time Indy 500 winner, as he stalled his engine upon attempting to exit after his pit stop. Despite quickly being fired up again, this was a delay Castroneves did not need.
The race of one of Team Penske’s charges ended on Lap 150, with Ryan Briscoe crashing on the exit of Turn 4. Briscoe, who had recently made a pit stop, appeared to run wide, caught the slippery side of the track and, unable to correct it at that speed, crashed heavily, but was able to walk away unharmed.
Yet another restart occurred on Lap 156.
After a quiet, uneventful race, young Colombian rookie Sebastian Saavedra spins and crashes in Turn 2. He is uninjured and is clearly wiser for the mistake. This kid is one to watch in future years. You’ll see plenty of him in the IndyCar Series in the future.
From this, the whole field pits except Castroneves and a few others, most of whom are at least one lap down and attempting to regain one of their lost laps.
The final restart came on Lap 167.
By this stage, Tony Kanaan was running in third place behind Helio Castroneves and talk was abundant of a miraculous “worst to first” showing from TK. By this stage, fuel strategy was heavy in everyone’s minds and the calculations began on who could make it to the end without another pit stop. Running second, Helio Castroneves was the first to blink, heading for a late splash of fuel, pushing him down the running order and effectively ending his chances. Up front, Dario Franchitti was deliberately running in the slipstream of traffic in front to conserve fuel, while trying to resist the advancing Tony Kanaan. It paid off, as Kanaan couldn’t hold on, and also headed for an even later gulp of fuel on Lap 196. Next in line to chase Franchitti was Dan Wheldon, who was in no danger of running out of fuel and was rapidly closing in for the lead. With 3 laps to go, Wheldon was within 3 seconds.
Then, one lap from the end, footage is shown of a destroyed car on the exit of Turn 3. It is later revealed to be that of Mike Conway. Moving past an out-of-fuel Ryan Hunter-Reay, Conway’s right-front wheel comes into contact with the left rear of Hunter-Reay, launching the young Briton’s car into the air and into the catch fencing. The car disintegrated, showering debris all over Hunter-Reay and also causing Ana Beatriz, Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves, following close behind, to take evasive action. By this stage, Franchitti was on his final lap and was instructed to take to the safety lane to complete the race. Franchitti, by this stage was no doubt still running only on the smell of an oily rag, took the chequered flag under caution with Dan Wheldon close behind. Mike Conway was later confirmed as suffering a broken lower left leg and was airlifted to Methodist Hospital. No word yet on who will take his seat at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, or indeed when Conway will be back.
Dario Franchitti, with an elated Ashley Judd bouncing up the pit lane, powered into victory lane, drank the celebrated bottle of milk and become the first Scot to win the Indy 500 twice, following on from his win in the rain disrupted 2007 race. Chip Ganassi was on hand to celebrate his 4th Indy win as a team owner, and with a special reason to do so, as he became the first owner to win both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 in the same calendar year.
So after yet another thrilling Indianapolis 500 and after the celebrations die down, the IndyCar circus, with plenty of teams facing hectic repair jobs, moves on to Texas Motor Speedway for the first night race of the year next weekend.
Click here for the Final Standings of the race.
Click here for the current Championship Standings.
[Original images via AUTOSPORT]