Pagenaud wins chaotic Indy road race

Pagenaud wins chaotic Indy road race

11 May 2014 – Heading into the final few laps of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a handful of drivers were in position to win, it just depended on whether or not their fuel would hold out. After seeing no fewer than four race leaders have to pit for fuel with the checkered flag in sight, Simon Pagenaud emerged victorious, proving he had just enough left in the tank – both mentally and literally.

The Frenchman's car died a short distance past the yard of bricks on the cool-down lap, but the victory was already his, holding off Ryan Hunter-Reay and a charging Helio Castroneves (who was on newer tyres and had confidence in his fuel load). It was Pagenaud's third career win but undoubtedly one of his most memorable given that he's the first victor of an IndyCar road course race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The 0.8906s triumph came after a carnage-filled 82 laps, the final 28 of which were spent by Sam Schmidt Motorsports wondering if their driver would make it to the end. The fuel calculations proved to be accurate, as did the choice to put on black tyres in the final pit stop – something none of the other top six runners did.

For as intense as the race's last laps turned out to be, it will also be remembered for the violent crash during the sport's second standing start of the year. Pole-sitter Sebastian Saavedra stalled his car as the lights went out, leaving him helplessly stranded as the field began to shoot around him. Carlos Munoz caught sight of the Colombian's car too late, clipping the stationary left rear tyre. Saavedra was sent right into the path of Russian Mikhail Aleshin who, after starting at the back of the pack, had gathered a head of speed before the impact.

Debris flew in every direction, including toward the mayor of Indianapolis who sustained a minor soft tissue injury as a result. Thankfully his was the only injury in the incident as all drivers were able to walk away unharmed.

That meant the first 11 laps of the race would be run under caution, though, routing the cars through the pit lane during cleanup. This allowed Juan Pablo Montoya, who stalled in an unrelated incident at the start, to get re-fired and catch up with the field, now being led by Ryan Hunter-Reay.

On the ensuing restart, a charging Jack Hawksworth, who had shared the front row with Saavedra, slid his way into P2 and then the lead around turn 4. Pagenaud also got around Hunter-Reay, who was then having to fend off Scott Dixon and Will Power. The rookie at the front of the field, though, was not concerned with the battles behind him, soon growing a 2.7s lead over the next 15 laps.

Castroneves pitted on Lap 20, slightly out of sequence to get a jump on the field – something he would embrace later in the race. It would be another eight laps before the leaders began to pit under green, most of whom switched to the black tyres. Hawksworth, who first pitted on Lap 28, chose the reds, allowing him to build another gap on his second stint.

Caution next came out on Lap 42 after a wheel-to-wheel battle between Dixon and Power led to the defending series champion locking tyres and striking the sidepod of Power. Dixon would be beached for a while, but he would be able to resume the race.

Caught again in a moment of good timing, Castroneves, who turned 39 today, was in the pit lane when the caution came out. When a few cars ahead of him pitted under caution, he made up a handful of positions to better his chances at claiming a birthday victory.

The leaders pitted again with Hawksworth going to blacks and Pagenaud to reds, setting up an important restart, but they would have to work their way through several cars who didn't pit, including new race leader Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Castroneves (who had just pitted) and Oriol Servia. Those strategies would all prove helpful, giving almost all of those men a chance to lead the race late.

An unusually clean restart saw the cars spread five abreast on the massive IMS fronstraight, but on the nearly-as-long backstretch, Martin Plowman spun under braking, hitting a kerb tail-first. He was subsequently launched into the air, landing on and destroying the back of Franck Montagny's Andretti Autosport machine. The former Super Aguri Formula 1 driver was uninjured, but his race – and perhaps that of the car Kurt Busch was to use in Indy 500 qualifying next week – was run.

More chaos ensued on the next restart with an accordion effect of cars causing Graham Rahal to be punted into retirement by Montoya.

Another round of pit stops saw the out-of-sequence Castroneves inherit the race lead with just 28 laps to go.  Trailing the Brazilian was Charlie Kimball, the man who started P23, and Hawksworth.

The race restarted again on Lap 56, calmly led to the flag by Castroneves, who slowed up the field in the penultimate turn instead of on the frontstretch. This allowed the birthday boy to get a few lengths' lead on Kimball and Hawksworth, but the shakeup was about to begin.

In a puzzling turn of events, Hinchcliffe came to a sudden stop on the runoff at the end of the backstretch. He would later be seen on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance bound for the infield care center and eventually to nearby Methodist Hospital.  Replays appear to show the Canadian's helmet coming into contact with flying debris from Wilson's car up ahead, but he was released this evening from the hospital with a concussion. IndyCar noted that he will be evaluated again before he's allowed to drive; if he's not cleared, EJ Viso will be the stand-in driver.

The track stayed green in the meantime, but for many, their chances of winning the Grand Prix of Indianapolis began to disappear like their fuel. Hawksworth was the first to show his hand, pitting on lap 61 for a splash of petrol. He would go on to finish P7.

A few laps later, Castroneves followed suit, then new leader Bourdais, then new leader Briscoe. One by one, all who inherited the race lead fell victim to a thirsty engine, except for Oriol Servia. He had pitted ten laps more recently than everyone ahead of him, but talk in the pit lane soon revealed that he, too, would be a couple of laps short. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay were on nearly identical strategies running in P2 and P3, but behind them, the field had cycled Castroneves back to P4.

With several miles separating Servia from victory, he regrettably came down pit lane for fuel, settling for P12 and giving the Frenchman the lead. As the corners ticked down, Castroneves' fresh tyres and ability to run on full-rich allowed the Brazilian a perfect view of his rivals, now fewer than two seconds behind them on the road.

Hunter-Reay was being coached from the pit wall on the fuel mixture and engine settings he would need to follow in order to make it to the end, but this didn't end up being a problem for him. All three men would have enough fuel to cross the finish line in that order, allowing everyone at Sam Schmidt Motorsports to exhale.  It also allowed fans and drivers alike to reflect on this first Indianapolis road course race.

The idea of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was not only to showcase the Verizon IndyCar Series' dexterity, racing both on ovals and road courses, but to center the racing world on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the entire month of May. The focus transitions now from the twisty road course to the blistering speed of the legendary oval, as teams will have one week to prepare for the first rounds of a newly-modified qualifying format ahead of the Indianapolis 500-mile race in a fortnight.

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