By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
In the last article, we reviewed this author’s choices for moments 10-6 of the top 10 moments in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Let’s look ahead to the top five moments.
5. The Success and Struggles of Dale Coyne Racing
Dale Coyne Racing had a fantastic start to 2017. Sebastien Bourdais won at St. Petersburg and finished second at Long Beach while rookie teammate Ed Jones finished 10th and sixth at the same two races, respectively.
Then the cartoon anvils just kept falling on the Illinois-based team. Bourdais was wiped out in a first lap incident at Phoenix and then retired from the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with a mechanical failure.
That was the kindest that the Speedway would be to Bourdais in May. While on his second qualifying lap on Saturday during qualifying for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the Frenchman lost control of his car coming through Turn 2 and although he corrected the car, it hooked and took him straight to the outside wall, causing injuries to his pelvis that would require him to miss the next handful of races.
Meanwhile, James Davison was tapped to replace Bourdais and would start last. Davison was towards the front before being swept up in a five car crash late in the race. Jones, on the other hand, would finish third in a heroic drive that should have netted him Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors.
A few weeks later in Texas, the anvils came raining down harder on DCR. Tristan Vautier continued the driver rotation in Bourdais’ seat and put in a spirited drive that saw him fight for the lead early on, but both cars were swept up in the massive accident in Turn 3 on Lap 151.
The team rallied and despite one tub being written off and another tub needing repairs in Indianapolis, they were present for a test at Road America soon after Texas.
The last bit of truly bad luck to hit the team was when Esteban Gutierrez slapped the wall at Pocono, but the team remained relatively clean after that. Bourdais made his return at Gateway and in the final three races of the season earned two top 10 finishes.
4. Texas Motor Speedway
If ever there was a race where the famous Charlie Day “Wild Card!” scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia applied, it was during the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Charlie Kimball got the pole, his first ever in IndyCar competition and the finishing order was filled with names that would’ve gotten some people betting a lot of money on the race.
How it all happened is another story.
It began with an incident involving Alexander Rossi being squeezed between the Ganassi pair of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. It continued with James Hinchcliffe getting sideways on pit road, causing a collision between Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato.
A single car incident involving Castroneves caused the next caution and on the restart Ed Carpenter spun as the field approached Turn 1, but the next accident threw the script out the window.
Kanaan and Hinchcliffe collided on the backstretch on Lap 151 setting off an incident that involved eight cars but the collisions weren’t done yet.
Josef Newgarden would hit the wall late after running in the high groove on Lap 201 but then Sato brought out the final yellow after hitting Dixon and also involving Max Chilton and Conor Daly.
But the results? Will Power won, Kanaan somehow got back to second despite being down a lap from a penalty, Simon Pagenaud was third, Graham Rahal was fourth, Gabby Chaves was fifth and Daly was seventh among the unexpected results.
3. Alonsomania at the Indianapolis 500
The U.S. motorsports world woke up (or in this writers’ case was getting ready to go to sleep after staying up way too late) when the news broke from McLaren that they were returning to the Indianapolis 500 to run a car with Andretti Autosport and have two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso drive the No. 29 car.
After checking the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day, various parts of the motorsports world began to speculate about this. How would Alonso react to racing on an oval? Will it be safe for him? Who will replace him at Monaco? How will he do in the race? How much testing will he get?
Alonso had a test day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 3rd and INDYCAR pulled off a major PR win by streaming the entire day live and Kevin Lee did an equally masterful job commentating during the day, helped out by Robin Miller and Indianapolis 500 winners Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti.
The stream across Facebook Live and YouTube garnered around 2,000,000 views. Many no doubt were probably amazed at the access IndyCar offered compared to the comatose F1 atmosphere regarding testing.
Alonso raced at the Spanish Grand Prix before heading back to the U.S. to prepare for his maiden 500 voyage. The Spaniard quickly got up to speed and qualified fifth in the field of 33.
His media day appearance had all the attention due, with reporters surrounding him throughout his hour in the room, but all that was left was Carb Day and the race itself.
Alonso fell back at the start of the race to ninth but worked his way to the lead. He led 27 laps and was running in the top 10 when his engine failed, relegating him to a 24th place finish.
Through the whole month, Alonso showed respect for the facility and the race, including its traditions, its quirks (a cannon blast signals that the gates are opening up, come on) and its history. Many hope he comes back. This writer among them.
2. Josef Newgarden wins the championship
Newgarden had a point to prove this season. He had to drive with a sort of chip on his shoulder to prove to people why Roger Penske hired him to drive.
Barber Motorsports Park showed everyone why, as Newgarden made a diving move on Dixon coming through the last section of corners before the start/finish line late in the race, and holding off the ‘Iceman’ is no easy feat.
Later in the season, Newgarden would pull off an amazing statistic of finishing in the top two in seven of the final 10 races of the season. The only blemishes to that record were at Texas when he had the late crash, Iowa where he finished sixth and Watkins Glen after a miscue exiting the pits.
Diving moves seemed to be Newgarden’s specialty as he picked up a win at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with a move against Will Power and another win at Gateway Motorsports Park with a move against Pagenaud.
Newgarden proved to everybody that he was worthy of the drive he earned and the chance to sport the No. 1 on his car in 2018.
1. Takuma Sato wins the Indianapolis 500
When Sato signed with Andretti Autosport, he signed with a team that had won two of the past three 500s and had three cars in the front two rows last year. Sato nearly won the 500 in 2012 for Bobby Rahal’s team and from there his mantra of “No attack, no chance” became his signature.
Sato qualified fourth behind Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter and teammate Alexander Rossi and ahead of fellow teammate Alonso. He was overshadowed during the day as other drivers led more laps and spent more time up front while the Japanese driver had to climb his way through the field.
However, a late three-wide passing move put him on notice as a car to watch right before teammate Alonso’s engine failed. The final restart after the five car incident was critical.
Chilton led ahead of Sato, Jones and Castroneves. Castroneves would get third shortly after the restart and would take second after a daring move around the outside of Sato on Lap 192. Castroneves would get around Chilton for the lead but Sato would pick up the lead on Lap 195.
From then on, it was Sato vs Castroneves. Sato had the lessons of 2012 fresh in his mind but with the roles reversed while Castroneves had flashbacks of his 2014 duel with Ryan Hunter-Reay come across him.
Castroneves came close, nearly overtaking Sato on the penultimate lap as the pair headed into Turn 1, but Sato’s Honda engine was just that much more powerful as he became the first Japanese driver to win at Indianapolis in a drive that redeemed him of his failed attempt in 2012.
Sato was a popular winner. He showed enormous enthusiasm after taking the checkered flag, as heard by his screams over the radio on the cool down lap. He went on a media tour of Japan during a break in the IndyCar schedule and recently his face was unveiled for the Borg Warner Trophy.
Job done, Takuma. Job done.
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