In the continuing struggle to reinvent the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar decided that the month should open by turning right instead of left. While we can argue all day as to whether IndyCar should have a road course race at the Speedway, if they can put on an exciting event, it’ll quickly become a new May tradition.
This weekend marked the first step in reinvigorating the month of May as the stars of the IndyCar Series drove clockwise around the Speedway. The three-wide flying start was replaced with a two-wide standing start. And the checkered flag was taken by a Frenchman for only the second time in IMS history as Simon Pagenaud took the checkered flag for his first win of 2014.
The standing start was a non-starter for a pair of drivers. Juan Montoya might have been a veteran of 95 Formula One races but the second standing start of his IndyCar career resulted in him stalling on the grid. He wasn’t the only one. Surprise polesitter Sebastian Saavedra also stalled from P1 on the grid. While most of the grid got by cleanly, Carlos Munoz clattered him when changing lanes and Mikhail Aleshin collected Saavedra in the resulting melee.
After the resulting 15-lap caution, the action was just as exciting as I would have expected from the original standing start. Cars were three and four-wide coming down the front-straight into Turn One. Cars were sliding onto the grass. Marco Andretti spent more of that first green lap off-course than on.
While Ryan Hunter-Reay led thanks to his quick start from third on the grid, he didn’t have the fastest car early in the running. That honour went to Jack Hawksworth. The rookie for Bryan Herta Autosport powered by RHR heading into Turn 1 and took Simon Pagenaud with him.
The story of the race quickly became cautions and fuel strategy. With full-course yellows coming fast and often, a fuel mileage based race quickly developed. Unfortunately for Hawksworth, despite his speed, the strategy caught him out as he lost some track position after a slow pit stop and later missed a call to pit under caution which threw him out of sync with the new leaders and out of contention.
Through all the cautions, it was Pagenaud and RHR who managed to stay near the head of the pack during the race. Despite various strategies and fuel mileage, they ended up running nose-to-tail at the end of the 200 mile race.
At first, it looked like Oriol Servia was in with a shot but he couldn’t quite save enough fuel and was forced to make a stop for fuel. Helio Castroneves was chasing the leaders down late thanks to an early splash of fuel and probably would have won the race is it was 83 laps long. Instead, the race ended one lap before Helio could complete his charge with Pagenaud taking the checkered flag in the first GP of Indy.
Pagenaud’s win is his first of the season and third of his career. It also moved him within six points of Will Power at the top of the points standings after his fourth Top Five in four starts this year. Hunter-Reay’s 2nd was his third podium of the year and moved him one point back of Power. Castroneves finished third for the second time this year.
Sebastian Bourdais crossed the line in 4th. Charlie Kimball led the Ganassi contingent in 5th with Ryan Briscoe following him home in 6th. Jack Hawksworth led for a good portion of the race but could only manage 7th. Points leader Will Power was passed late by Hawksworth as the Brit chaged by the fuel-saving Aussie relegating him to 8th. Takuma Sato was not a name we heard much of on Saturday but he still managed to finish 9th. Tony Kanaan rounded out the top ten in the 10th spot.
There was a scary moment in the final third of the race. After a restart, James Hinchcliffe hit a piece of debris on the backstretch which flew up to hit him in the helmet. Whether it knocked him briefly unconscious or just knocked him silly is up for debate. He was aware enough to avoid hitting other cars and the wall at the end of the backstraight as he pulled off and out of the race.
He was brought to hospital for observation and was diagnosed as having a concussion. To start practice for the 500, former Andretti Autosport driver EJ Viso has been called in to replace Hinch until he is cleared by IndyCar doctors. Hopefully, Hinch makes a quick recovery and sees his luck turn around for the 500.
Speaking of scary moments involving debris, the crash at the start of the race had a little of collateral damage.
Martin Plowman, who drove AJ Foyt’s #41 in the GP of Indy and will again in the 500, said that he was hit by a piece of debris from the starting grid crash when Munoz his Saavedra. He was able to carry on though his helmet showed the signs of that early wreck.
The Mayor of Indianapolis was the other unwitting victim of that opening crash. Greg Ballard was given the honour of waving an honourary green flag at the start of the race when he was hit by a piece of debris from the collision. Video on the Indianapolis Star’s website seems to show that it was the secondary collision between Saavedra and Aleshin that propelled debris toward Ballard and the pit lane.
Ballard was standing on pit road in one of the pit boxes near the start/finish line and was struck on the left arm by some crash debris. He suffered some bruises and scrapes but was fine otherwise.
The next round of the 2014 IndyCar Series is the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. Before that, though, there’s qualifying for the race. As of writing, only 33 cars are entered into the race which means that Saturday’s qualifying won’t see much bumping to set the field unless the rumoured 34th entry for Katherine Legge materializes.
If I had to pick early favourites, I would keep an eye on anything with a Chevy engine. Last year, the Chevys dominated the month of May by locking out the top ten starting spots and leading all but seven laps of the race. Of the top ten cars in the first day of running, only two were running Honda engines (RHR and Viso). While the first four races were evenly split between Honda and Chevy, I don’t think that the 500 will be.