He started from pole, he led for most of the afternoon, he nailed the restarts, and after a final pass on later-race rival Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud crossed the bricks to win the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s hard to believe right now,” he said. “It’s been such an intense race. The car was just on rails, the yellows came out perfectly… it a dream come true. I’ve spent my life trying to achieve this… I’m speechless. I never expected to be in this position, but I was trying as hard as I could. We executed perfectly today. No mistakes. And here were are: victory! We did it.”
Pagenaud held command for the majority of the race, even if he was routinely falling six-to-10 laps short of some of the Hondas on fuel mileage. But any disadvantages in that department were offset by horsepower, which proved decisive when he zipped past Rossi on the back stretch for what would be the final time on Lap 199.
He and Rossi had been trading places from the moment the green flag waved for a restart 13 laps from the end. For Rossi, the battle was a continuation of a charge he’d been on since encountering a fuel filler problem in the pits on Lap 137. He’d just fought his way up to the lead at that point, and the 20s delay dumped him four positions back down the order, behind a string of drivers that he’d spent the past half-hour overtaking,
His efforts to claw those spots back provided most of the mid-race entertainment in the form of a succession of heart-in-mouth runs to the inside of assorted rivals, along with some animated gesticulating after what he considered to be some unreasonably robust defending from the lapped Oriol Servia). When Rossi told his team over the radio prior to the last restart that he was ready to go because “I’m angrier than everybody else,” he wasn’t kidding.
But all that passing had also clued other teams into where the No.27 was strongest, and when Pagenaud found himself needing to cover Rossi over the final laps, he knew exactly where to position himself. Rossi probably had the best car on the track for most of the day, but in those final laps Pagenaud never let him take advantage of it. His 0.2s margin of victory was the seventh-closest in Indy 500 history, and extended Team Penske’s record tally of Indy wins to 18.
“Horsepower,” said a despondent Rossi when asked what made the difference between he and Pagenaud at the finish. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. They did a great job — he was on pole and led the most laps. I think we had the best car, but they did a great job and just didn’t have quite enough for them at the end. Nothing matters here except winning, and this one will be hard to get over. It’s good for points, but this one us going to suck for a while.”
Rossi acknowledged his frustration with “A lot of lapped cars that had no respect for what we were doing I don’t think it had any effect on the outcome, but when you have 50 laps to go and there’s blocking, it’s disrespectful. But we’ll deal with that on another day.”
Third was Takuma Sato, which was as much of a surprise to Sato as it was to everybody else given that he’d been a lap down at the start after a wheel problem forced him to make an extra stop. A late pass on Josef Newgarden briefly put him into the mix for the lead battle, but he didn’t have quite enough to run with them to the finish.
“The last seven laps the car was all over the place; just sliding,” he said. “But what a comeback. Huge congratulations to the team, that was amazing.”
Sato’s last scalp was Josef Newgarden, who’d been making significant adjustments to the front wing all afternoon in pursuit of the balance he was looking for.
“Just fell short,” he shrugged. “It hurts a lot, to be honest. I fell out of position when Sato got by. We were close — we were here, we fell short. Can’t be too mad. It’s a Team Penske victory, so congrats to Simon. But it hurts a bit when you fall short. We were lacking something at the beginning and were trying to compensate for it and the car got better, but we were just a touch off. I think if we had a touch more, we could have pushed a little harder.”
That last restart that set up the final run to the finish was triggered by an ill-fated attempt by Graham Rahal to go underneath Sebastien Bourdais at Turn 3 on Lap 178. He wasn’t left a lot of room, prompting a sequence events that went something like: 1) the pair touch wheels; 2) all hell breaks loose. Both cars spun, with Bourdais absorbing the worst of it, first with a heavy hit in the outside wall, and then with an earful from a furious Rahal once their cars had finally come to rest.
The smoke and debris triggered chaos behind them too, which ended the race for Felix Rosenqvist, Charlie Kimball and Zach Veach, and very nearly accounted for James Hinchcliffe, who somehow managed to pick a line between the spinning Rosenqvist and Kimball to continue unscathed. Bourdais was cited for avoidable contact, but given that both ends were torn from his car, there wasn’t much the stewards could do by way of punishment.
“Obviously disappointed,” said Rahal. “There was nowhere I could go. It was disappointing. You could see the car was just heating up, and it seemed like Alex and I were the only two that could really pass. I respect Seb a lot. I don’t respect that move, but I do respect him as a driver immensely. At those speeds, that how you kill somebody.”
Bourdais said that he wasn’t aware that Rahal had dived so far up alongside him.
“I didn’t think he had as much of the car inside as he did,” he said. “It’s always a dynamic thing. He got a run and then kind of stalled there for a little while. We made contact before we even get there, which is what sets up the whole thing because it makes the car wiggly before turn-in, and at that point I’m trying to turn in. I guess its easy to say I should have given up before the corner, but… I didn’t feel like side by side was an option; there are starting to be marbles. I thought he was going to back off and we were going to be OK, but it’s that stage of the race when nobody wants to give up.”
That incident also ended most of Scott Dixon’s interest in the afternoon. He’d earlier enjoyed a couple of stints in the lead, in part through wringing extraordinarily long stints from a full tank, but his progress was derailed when he caught the wrong end of a yellow, and then stalled completely when he broke his front wing on the spinning Kimball.
It was a day of what might have been for defending winner Will Power, who had a slow pit stop when he overshot his pit box, and was then sent to the back of the pack for the next restart when it transpired that he’d also brushed his refueler with the rear corner of his car. He climbed from last back to fifth after a late pass on Ed Carpenter, who spent most of the day in the lead group but faded right at the end.
Santino Ferrucci was best of the rookies in seventh, and delivered one of the race’s highlight moments when he took to the grass to avoid the melee following the Rahal/Bourdais crash, kept his foot planted, and made up about eight positions. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Conor Daly rounded out the top 10.
Elsewhere, Veach is yet to be cleared to drive in Detroit next weekend after suffering a minor injury to his knee when he crashed, while RLL crew member Chris Minot, who was the front-left tire changer on Jordan King’s car, was taken to IU Health Methodist for treatment to a leg injury after King misjudged his entry to his pitbox and skittled Minot with the fresh tire.
There had also been pitlane drama for James Davison, who was knocked into a spin by Helio Castroneves. The latter was issued a drive-through penalty, but Davison, who’d run in the top 10 early on, was relegated to the midfield for the rest of the afternoon.
Juncos’s 2019 Indy 500 fairytale ended when Kyle Kaiser found the wall just after the halfway point, while a similarly stong start by Marcus Ericsson came to an end when he spun and tagged the wall in pitlane. The day also ended early for Colton Herta and Ben Hanley, both of whom dropped out with mechanical problems.