Whatever your opinion of IndyCar these days, you can’t deny that the series is capable of producing surprise winners. It’s a form of racing where the ‘little guy’ has a chance and in Detroit last weekend we saw it happen twice, with Mike Conway winning for Dale Coyne on Saturday and Simon Pagenaud scoring his first IndyCar victory for Sam Schmidt’s team on Sunday.
IndyCar has added three double-headers to its calendar this year, with separate, points-paying races on Saturday and Sunday. This move pushes the number of races from 16 to 19, thus meeting IndyCar’s contract with series sponsor Izod. These fresh initiatives all take place on street circuits – Belle Isle in Detroit, Toronto in July and Houston in October.
Mike Conway dominated Saturday’s race on the bumpy Belle Isle circuit. The Englishman has raced Indycars for a variety of teams over the past four and half years. He was seriously injured at Indianapolis in 2010 but bounced back to win at Long Beach in 2011, driving for Michael Andretti’s team. Conway drove for AJ Foyt last year, but decided at the end of the season that he no longer wanted to race on ovals.
Given that decision, the 29-year old is without a full-time ride this year. He drove for Bobby Rahal’s team at Long Beach and was at home in the UK, watching the Indy 500 on TV, when Dale Coyne called to offer him a ride in one of his Dallara-Hondas at Detroit.
Driving impeccably, Conway dominated Saturday’s opening race, leading most of the way and winning easily. This was Conway’s second IndyCar victory and Coyne’s third following Justin Wilson’s wins at Watkins Glen in 2009 and Texas last year.
Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second to Conway and was the only other man to lead the race, while Wilson drove another great race in Coyne’s regular entry to finish third. This was the first time Coyne has had two cars on the podium. Although he couldn’t match Conway or Hunter-Reay, Wilson drove superbly, holding off a fierce late challenge from Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti.
Sunday’s race was scrambled by a crush of accidents and full-course yellows. Conway again looked a likely winner, but Pagenaud and James Jakes used the yellows and sharp pit strategy to get to the front.
Pagenaud was inch perfect to the chequered flag, winning by 5.6 seconds from Jakes, another unheralded but talented Brit who did a fine job to hold off a charging Conway in the closing laps. Jakes is running the full season this year beside Graham Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Ganassi team-mates Dixon and Franchitti enjoyed entirely respectable races to take fourth and fifth with Honda-powered cars sweeping the top five.
Pagenaud, 29, was IndyCar’s rookie of the year in 2012, finishing fifth in the championship. A former ALMS champion and Peugeot sports car racer, the Frenchman has been a somewhat frustrated this year. His best result prior to last weekend was sixth at Barber Motorsports Park in April, but he was in great form last weekend and scored his first IndyCar win in impressive style.
Conway and Pagenaud were the fifth and sixth drivers to win IndyCar races this year and the championship is wide-open, with Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti tied at the top of the points table ahead of defending champion Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Pagenaud.
With 12 races to go Dario Franchitti and Will Power look unlikely championship contenders. Neither has made the podium so far and both are languishing outside the top 10 in the points table. Power has been particularly unlucky. In Detroit on Sunday he lost 13 laps in the pits after he was an innocent victim of a mid-race, multi-car shunt. Wilson was eliminated in the same incident.
Castroneves and Andretti lead the points through consistency, neither having won a race to this point in the season. Hunter-Reay is the only driver with three podium finishes to his name, but he lost ground by crashing in Detroit on Sunday. Again, at this stage it’s anybody’s championship.