By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The Month of May 2017 has now come and gone. Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato will see his image added to the Borg-Warner Trophy after coming home victorious in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Let’s take a look back at some of the highlights.
1 ) A Popular Win
Sometimes you hear the saying, “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” and that holds true in this case. Sato is certainly one of the nicest guys in the paddock, despite that his all-or-nothing approach has drawn the ire of his fellow competitors on a few occasions in the past. In those circumstances, he has faced the music and accepted responsibility when warranted, and never backed away from his approach.
For those reasons, many of his fellow competitors were happy for him, and were quick to offer their congratulations. Tony Kanaan, a former teammate of Sato’s at KV Racing, was one of the first to come over to victory lane and give him a giant hug. Dario Franchitti, who bested Sato for the 2012 win, was not far behind to offer congratulations. At the banquet last night, the room was all smiles as Sato graciously accepted the winner’s check.
There are many ways to win the 500. A fortuitous caution flag, crafty fuel strategy, rain coming at the right moment, or even the leader dropping out have contributed to Indy wins in the past. Sato’s win was earned the old fashioned way, hard driving all day long and a green-flag, high-speed battle to the checkers holding off a three-time winner. Sato drove his butt off for this one, that fact is undeniable.
Media and fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive as well. Other that a few isolated incidents coming from narrow-minded folks holding onto World War II era anti-Japan sentiment, congratulations have poured in from around the world.
2 ) But…this I disagree with
There is no doubt that Fernando Alonso coming over from Formula One to run the 500 with Andretti Autosport was the biggest story of the month. And, Alonso delivered qualifying well and leading 27 laps before dropping out with engine problems. For his efforts, he was awarded the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award.
The criteria for the Rookie of the Year is very subjective. It comes down the the opinion of the voters, and nothing else. Generally speaking, the highest fishing rookie is given the prize. This is not always the case, as there have been numerous notable exceptions over the years.
This year, the highest finishing rookie was Ed Jones, of the Dale Coyne Racing Team. In my mind, at least, Jones was more deserving of the Rookie of the Year award (and its accompanying $50,000 bonus) than Alonso and I’ll tell you why.
Ed Jones is a true rookie in the spirit of the word. The 22-year old is a recent graduate of the Indy Lights Series who earned this ride through the MRTI scholarship program. Alonso, despite being one of the most accomplished active drivers on the planet, is considered a rookie, having never raced at the 500 before. This holds true to tradition, as drivers like Graham Hill, Nigel Mansell, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kurt Busch were considered rookies despite having won championships in other top-tier series’.
Rookie definition aside, let’s examine the efforts. Alonso came into the 500 as part of a massive six-car Andretti Autosport juggernaut with vast resources and a very deep engineering department. The team also had four prior Indy 500 wins heading into the race. Alonso, with his years of experience, certainly made it look easy before the mechanical misfortune, but, then again, any job is easier when done with the proper tools.
Dale Coyne Racing, while the team has seen vast improvements in recent years, is still one of the smallest teams on the grid. Jones did a fine job to qualify 11th, but he ran over debris during the incident between Jay Howard and Scott Dixon. Jones needed an additional three pit stops to repair the damage, relegating him to the back of the field.
He fought hard all day, and a fortuitous yellow after his pit stop cycled him closer to the front on lap 166. Unfortunately, he damaged the front wing driving through the debris field after a five car crash on lap 184 and had to fight with an ill-handling car for the remainder of the race. Running fourth on lap 196, he was able to squeeze out one more pass, nipping Max Chilton for third.
If that doesn’t read like a David vs. Goliath story, I don’t know what does. And let’s not forget that Jones finished 21 positions of Alonso. Sorry Fernando, I enjoyed every moment of you being at Indy this month, but I think that award belongs to Ed.
3 ) Also-Rans
Certainly there can only be one winner, but with a field this deep there were several cars that were ultra-competitive. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Fernando Alonso and Helio Castroneves all had cars capable of winning. Max Chilton was an unexpected surprise, leading 50 laps on the day, as well as the aforementioned Ed Jones. Tony Kanaan was also quite racy on Sunday before running over debris.
What’s more surprising is some of the expected contenders that turned out to be non-factors in the race. Sure, Castroneves battled for the win after coming back from a drive-through penalty for jumping a restart, but all four of his Team Penske teammates seemed to make themselves scarce. Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya led a few laps during pit stop exchanges, but were never serious threats to the front runners. Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, two of the hottest drivers this season, had close to zero impact.
Similarly, ECR Racing’s Ed Carpenter and J.R. Hildebrand, both of whom qualified well, faded quickly in the race. Perhaps the Chevrolet cars took too conservative of an approach, hoping to capitalize as the Honda runners struggled with questionable reliability.
Either way, we should expect Team Penske and Chevrolet to be tough to beat when the Series returns to street racing in Detroit this weekend.
4 ) Catching Roger
Last year during our season-ending podcast of Drafting the Circuits Radio each of us were asked to make one bold prediction for 2017. I answered the question by stating that “If Takuma Sato signs with Andretti Autosport, he will win the 101st Indianapolis 500.”
That was certainly a bold prediction, but it held true. The reason I say this is not to gloat or declare myself a prophet, but to share the logic behind my thinking. I have always admired Sato’s raw speed and talent, and I have long felt that in the proper team environment, he would thrive.
Sato has run for KV Racing, Rahal/Letterman, and A.J. Foyt Racing in the past with mixed results. While good teams, none of those offer the unique environment of teamwork that is present at Andretti Autosport. From day one, when Michael Andretti purchased a majority share of Team Green, he has operated under the philosophy of strength in numbers. When two-car operations were the norm, Andretti-Green showed up at the 2003 season opener with three cars, and planned on entering five for the 500. (one of them failed to qualify). He expanded the operation to four full-time cars in 2004, and has found that number to be the sweet spot, while continuing to expand the team during the month of May. Andretti can often be heard referring to this business model as “having plenty of bullets in the gun.”
Team size aside, the atmosphere of sharing information across all of the teams has proved to be beneficial as evidenced by five Indianapolis 500 wins and four season championships to their credit. Andretti’s success has caused rival team owners to re-think their strategies, and begin to expand to larger teams.
With Sato’s win on Sunday, Michael Andretti surpasses Chip Ganassi, and equals Lou Moore on the list of wins by team owner. Only Roger Penske ranks higher, with a seemingly insurmountable 16 wins to his credit.
Records, as they say, are made to be broken. Is it possible that Andretti Autosport may one day surpass Team Penske? Consider this: Team Penske has 16 wins in 49 starts while Andretti Autosport has 5 in 15. This translates to a very similar winning percentage at roughly 33%. Considering the 34 year head-start that Roger has on Michael, it would seem possible. Problem is, Penske is still one of the strongest teams on the grid and are likely to add to their win total.
5 ) Grade A for Safety
This is an oft-discussed topic, but it bears repeating. The strength of the Dallara survival cell is unparalleled. Combined with safety innovations like the SAFER barrier and the Hans device, today’s cars are safer than ever.
The crash involving Scott Dixon and Jay Howard was a heart-stopping moment. As Dixon took flight and landed on the retaining wall, it looked awful. However, as the sidepods, wings parts, tires, engine and suspension components were strewn about the track, the tub remained intact and uncompromised.
To see Dixon climb out under his own power and calmly state that it was “a bit of a wild ride” was not only surreal, but a testament to the driver’s confidence in the safety features. Earlier in the month, there was another scary moment when Sebastien Bourdais went nose-first into the wall at full speed.
Many likened the crash itself to the incident that took the life of Gordon Smiley in 1982. With a solid concrete wall, and a fragile chassis in comparison to the current cars, Smiley never had a chance. Bourdais was injured, but never lost consciousness, and is expected to make a full recovery.
While risks will always be inherent in racing, it is truly amazing how far we have come over the years.
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action this weekend for the double-header Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.