Takuma Sato became a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, although the prospect of his tight battle with Scott Dixon ending with a duel to the finish was lost when a late crash resulted in the race finishing under yellows.
Dixon had established himself as the driver to beat right from the green flag, and controlled the lead for the majority of the afternoon. Sato, who’d been in the top five all day, took the lead right after the final round of stops with almost 30 laps still to go, and at that point, Dixon was content to sit behind him and save fuel for a final push.
That call came with 19 laps remaining, team manager Mike Hull calculating that Dixon could lean as hard on his fuel as he needed to without having to worry about making the finish, and the New Zealander responded immediately – what had been a 1.0s+ advantage to Sato largely vaporized within a single lap. From Sato’s seat, the looming Ganassi car in his mirrors added to an existing list of concerns. His own fuel situation was less comfortable than Dixon’s, and he also had three lapped cars in front of him that were racing for position and had little incentive to make his life easy.
Sato cleared the first of them, Tony Kanaan’s Foyt entry, with six laps to go. Dixon passed the Brazilian a couple of corners later, and just moments after that the yellows came out in response to a nasty crash by Sato’s RLL teammate Spencer Pigot, who spun into the wall on the exit of Turn 4 and then rebounded across the track into a heavy broadside hit on the end of the pit road attenuator. While the safety crews tended to the shaken Pigot, the rest of the field slowly wound the final five laps down under caution.
“I think we had the best car,” Sato said. “Only we were a lap short from Dixie in terms of the fuel strategy, and it was a little tight. I couldn’t use max power to switch back and forth. And Dixon kept coming through T4 and I was just able to hold him off. This is unbelievable. Everyone did a hell of a job.”
For Dixon, who led 111 of the 200 laps, the disappointment was palpable.
“Definitely a hard one to swallow,” he admitted. “We had such a great day with fuel mileage… I don’t see how they [Sato] were going to make it. First time I’ve seen them (race control) let it run out like that (under yellows); I thought they were going to throw a red flag and it would have made an interesting last five laps. But massive congrats to Sato. Nice to gather some points, but it’s hard when it slips away light that. We had the mindset, and I think the fuel, to get to the end. But you hesitate, and that’s what happens.”
Graham Rahal rounded out a memorable day for RLL’s full-timers by shadowing Dixon across the line to claim third ahead of Dale Coyne Racing’s Santino Ferrucci. The latter delivered some of the race’s best highlight reel moments with some exuberant passes, and had climbed from his starting position of 19th up to seventh before the race was even a quarter over. His cause was helped by a raft of cars going off-strategy in the first part of the race, but once he’d found his way into the top 10, he stayed there for the rest of the afternoon.
Behind him was reigning series champion Josef Newgarden, who worked the No. 1 Team Penske car methodically through the field to cross the line as the first of the Chevrolet-powered entries, with Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward behind him. Jmes Hinchcliffe, Colton Herta, Jack Harvey and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top 10.
Earlier, the entire complexion of the race had looked very different. At the halfway mark, Dixon and Alexander Rossi held command and were working together in an effort to shake of the rest of the pack after a lap 100 restart. They weren’t having a lot of luck – O’Ward and then Sato stubbornly kept them well within range – but it became irrelevant just minutes later when Alex Palou’s accident brought out the yellows again, and pitlane suddenly became very busy.
Rossi was released from his stop straight into the path of Sato, who was already battling for space on a heavily-congested pit road with O’Ward. The Andretti car bounced off its RLL counterpart, and a short time later Rossi was sent to the back of the field before the next restart by way of punishment. That conjured memories of last May, when a bad pit stop sent the No. 27 on a red mist-fueled charge back up the order. This one started the same way – Rossi passed six cars in the two laps after the restart, including four in a single move – but then he got loose and pounded the wall at Turn 2.
“We never planned on being that far back,” Rossi said. “We just lost it. A lot of dirty air back there, although Turn 2 was tough all day. I thought we had the car to win. I don’t even want to talk about the penalty right now, I have to have a long conversation with someone about that. There are two sides to every story.”
Rossi’s misery was the most painful sting in a generally frustrating day across the Andretti Autosport camp, which went home with little to show for the pace that it had demonstrated over the previous two weeks, and in stages during the race itself. Marco Andretti was passed off the start by Dixon and drifted back into the pack as the race went on, and neither Herta nor Hunter-Reay were able to set down roots among the top five.
From a strategy standpoint, the race broadly split itself into two camps early on when a large pack of the cars that cars that qualified in the back half of the grid took advantage of a Lap 6 caution (prompted by James Davison’s spontaneously combusting right-front wheel) to make an early stop. At times, the off-sequence cars were nearly 20 laps apart from the main group in terms of pit strategy, but the timing of the yellows over the latter part of the race gradually brought everyone back onto more or less the same schedule.
The mishaps that prompted those yellows came thick and fast: Ed Carpenter didn’t even get to complete a lap before having to return to the pits for repairs after a hip-check into the wall from Zach Veach. He rejoined the race 13 laps down.
Davison’s bizarre exit was followed by an altogether more conventional one 19 laps later when CGR’s Marcus Ericsson got loose and pancaked the wall at Turn 2. Foyt rookie Dalton Kellett found the barriers on Lap 85, and the flag was just waving for the restart after that mess was swept up when Conor Daly lost it in Turn 4, prompting Oliver Askew – who’d earlier led, albeit while out of sequence – to take evasive action and spin hard into the inside barrier as well.
Shortly after that came Palou’s turn; the Spaniard drifting up into the wall at Turn 2 and bringing a premature end to what had been an immensely impressive display from the only driver in the field with no prior experience at the Speedway. Rossi and Pigot were the only other two drivers not to make it to the finish.