IndyCar’s first race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course started badly with a multi-car shunt and turned into a murky fuel conservation run won by Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman spent much of the race in second place behind an impressive Jack Hawksworth before emerging from a yellow flag-filled race with a narrow win over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Hélio Castoneves.
Pagenaud drives for Sam Schmidt’s team and he won two races last year in Detroit and Baltimore, finishing third in IndyCar’s championship. This year, he has qualified and run among the top six in every race so far and is beginning to look like a serious championship contender. On Indy’s road course last Saturday he drove damn near a perfect race as he struggled to make the finish through the closing laps.
“It became very important in the last stint to save a lot of fuel,” Pagenuad said. “The last 15 laps were really stressful because the team was telling me to achieve an unseen fuel number and I didn’t think I could hold on.”
GP of Indy top 10
1. Simon Pagenaud, SPH
2. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti
3. Hélio Castroneves, Penske
4. Sébastien Bourdais, KV
5. Charlie Kimball, Ganassi
6. Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi
7. Jack Hawksworth, Herta
8. Will Power, Penske
9. Takuma Sato, Foyt
10. Tony Kanaan, Ganassi
Hunter-Reay was able to close on Pagenaud in the final laps but he too was struggling to make the required fuel numbers. Both came under threat from Castroneves who had made his last stop much later and was able to attack without any fuel restrictions.
“I didn’t know exactly what the other strategies were,” Pagenaud remarked. “So I didn’t know who was going to be my competition. I knew Hunter-Reay was on the same fuel-conserving mode. But I was worried about Hélio.”
Hunter-Reay pulled to within a second of Pagenaud on the final lap with Castroneves right there in third but neither was close enough to make a move. “It was definitely a strange race today.” Hunter-Reay said. “The team did a great job. We picked the right strategy, but it was just very strange. There were times when you thought you were racing this guy, and then you’re racing another guy.
“The whole time we were racing Pagenaud, and we were racing pretty hard there at the beginning. He kind of knocked us off the track a little. I wasn’t too happy about that, but I congratulated him as a racer. He did a very good job.”
Championship leader Will Power qualified fifth and finished eighth after a pit penalty for driving over an air hose. The Australian continues to lead the championship by just one point from Hunter-Reay with Pagenaud another five points behind in third.
IndyCar decided to experiment once again with a standing start for this race but it turned into a near-disaster when poleman Sebastien Saavedra stalled because of an electronic failure. “I dropped the clutch and just went from 11,000rpm to zero,” said a disgusted Saavedra.
As the young Colombian sat there, helpless, he was clipped from behind by Carlos Muñoz and then clouted squarely by Mikhail Aleshin coming through from the back row. Mike Conway was also involved and thankfully, everyone scrambled out from the wreckages without injury.
It took quite some time to clean up the mess and get the race underway with a single-file rolling restart. Right away Jack Hawksworth attacked and passed Hunter-Reay and the young Englishman then drove away on his own, dominating the race until he missed stopping under a mid-race yellow, eventually finishing seventh.
Hawksworth, 23, has raced in America that last two years, winning the Star Mazda championship two years ago and scoring a trio of Indy Lights wins last year. He was hired by Bryan Herta this season and has looked good in every race to date.
“Several people I really respect called me and said this kid is worth having a look,” Herta said. “I had a very open mind, not knowing what to expect, and he got in the car and did the business right away. I was really impressed, not just with his pace, but he stepped up right away to accepting a lot more data, a lot more information. None of that put him off and we were very impressed. We talked about it and decided to take a chance on a rookie and see what he can do.”
Meanwhile, practice for this year’s 98th Indianapolis 500 started last Sunday and continues with six hours of practice every day this week. Qualifying takes place next weekend with four-lap qualifying runs on both Saturday and Sunday. A new system has been adopted this year with three sessions on Sunday, the first to determine the 11th and last row, the second dedicated to filling the midfield, and the final ‘Fast Nine’ session to settle the front three rows for the 500 on May 25.