By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – Alexander Rossi was a man on a mission in Sunday’s 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, but even a passionate drive wasn’t enough to overcome the odds and score a second victory in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The 27-year old has shown grit and determination at Indianapolis in the past, take last year’s thrilling run for example, but this time around a little bit of anger looked to be the fuel that would propel him back to Victory Lane at Indianapolis.
Ultimately, all the will in the world couldn’t provide an extra boost in performance for his No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Andretti Autosport Honda and he had to settle for second-place ahead of Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud.
“There’s not much to say,” Rossi said. “I think you all saw it. We just didn’t have the straight-line speed. There’s not much we can do about that from my side inside the car. Obviously the 22 guys fully deserve it. They were on pole. He led probably 70 percent of the laps. Yeah, I mean, he was a deserving winner for sure.”
Rossi started ninth, quickly showing that he was among the best in the field and would be a threat down the stretch. Though Pagenaud had the outright speed, Rossi’s Honda was better in the fuel mileage game and it seemed he could just bide his time and let the race come to him.
However, when the caution flag flew on lap 178, that strategy was out the window and it was down to a dogfight between Rossi, Pagenaud and the other front runners.
Despite being out front when the final restart came, the horsepower disadvantage between Rossi’s Honda and Pagenaud’s Chevrolet was too much as the Frenchman reassumed the lead and looked to have the win in hand with 14 laps remaining.
Rossi made one final push to try and take over the lead for good, moving to the top of the board with two laps to go, but a lap later, Pagenaud powered right back past him and went on to score his first win at Indianapolis.
“It was pretty inevitable,” he added. “I mean, I think you saw on the last restart, like he just drove by us. There was the opportunity there to get the lead. I had been working on it for 12, 13 laps, and it finally came, and I didn’t have a choice.
“I just had to hope that maybe he would lose so much behind me and that Takuma (Sato) or Josef (Newgarden) or whatever would get him, and I would be able to have enough of a cushion for the final two laps. But I passed him in 1 and he was straight back by me into Turn 1, so there was nothing I could do.”
While Rossi was strong throughout the day, his fourth start at Indianapolis wasn’t incident-free by any stretch of the imagination as pit road issues and run-ins with lapped traffic only added to the anger that he felt behind the wheel.
The first incident came midway through the race when a mechanical problem with the fueling probe led to a lengthy pit stop, costing him valuable track position at that point in the 200-lap event. Rossi was visible aggravated while waiting on his crew to resolve the issue and get him back out on track, as he could be seen throwing his hands up in frustration.
“When you come here four times and three of the times you can’t get fuel in the car, I think you can understand why I was upset,” Rossi said. “It can’t happen. I mean, it wasn’t a human error, it was a mechanical problem, but still, it’s not something that we can have here. It’s the biggest race in the world, and 75 percent of the time we can’t get fuel in the race car.
“We need to address that for sure, but I think the whole 27 NAPA Andretti Honda boys did a great job of recovering. Rob Edwards, as always, is exceptional at being the kind of steady voice and very, very helpful for me in terms of kind of getting back to center and just focusing on getting back to where we needed to be.
“Ultimately it didn’t affect the end result. I think we’re lucky that it didn’t, but yeah, at the end of the day, they recovered nicely. Our last pit stop was mega, got us back into the lead before that final yellow came out, which, as I said before, was probably the thing that ultimately cost us the race.”
While trying to overcome the pit road malfunction, Rossi was slicing his way through the field before lapped traffic, Oriol Servia, in particular, served as a rolling road block, forcing Rossi to have to duck and dive to try to work his way around him.
Hurtling down the frontstretch, Rossi attempted to pass Servia on the low side, but instead came dangerously close to getting forced into the inside wall and ending his chances at battling for the win. When Rossi was finally able to power past him on the outside, he shook his fist in anger at Servia before setting his sights on getting back to the leaders.
“I think it was one of the most disrespectful things I’ve ever seen in a race car, to be honest,” Rossi said of the incident. “He’s a lap down and defending, putting me to the wall at 230 miles an hour. It’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for him, and it’s unacceptable that INDYCAR allowed it to happen as long as they did.
“Ultimately, I don’t think it really made a difference with the end result, but with 50 laps to go and cars are two and five laps down and blocking, it’s just disrespectful.”