Scott Dixon set the tone for the opening day of qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Saturday.
As the first driver to go out to begin his four-lap qualifying run, the driver of the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda throttled an opening circuit at 232.574mph. From there, he methodically navigated the remaining three laps to pull together a combined average of 231.828mph.
With overcast conditions to start the day, the track temperature was a favorable 94F for the five-hour, 50-minute contest.
Colton Herta, who had the 30th draw in the qualifying order, put his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda on the edge to grab a four-lap average of 231.648mph. Tony Kanaan joined his teammate Dixon on the provisional front row after pushing the third-best collective pace on the day at 231.639mph with the No. 48 entry.
Ed Carpenter was the highest representative for the Bowtie brigade as his No. 20 ECR Chevrolet paced all 2.5 miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 231.616mph to claim fourth. The remaining drivers that qualified for the Fast Nine and a shot at the pole were Rinus VeeKay, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Alex Palou, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marcus Ericsson.
All of the drivers in the Fast Nine made it on their first attempt with the exception of VeeKay, who was forced to make it on his second run in the No. 21 ECR Chevy as track temperatures began to rise to roughly 105F.
Dixon, who led a train with all four Ganassi cars in the top nine spots, is already thinking about what optimum pace he will need to try and win pole tomorrow.
“I don’t know, I think definitely some 232s,” said Dixon, who won his lone Indy 500 from pole in 2008. “I think once we look at the weather tonight, kind of figure out where it should be. We thought there might have been some bigger speeds this afternoon, especially after the line broke. Drag looked like it was going to be down several pounds. Thought there might be some big single laps, then some fall-off.
“I haven’t looked or seen too much for tomorrow. If it’s going to be similar, maybe quicker first laps, then maybe a bigger spread. It’s kind of weird, sometimes you roll out and the thing just goes. Sometimes you roll out and it doesn’t go that well. Hopefully we’re in the situation if the car goes really well.”
Palou, who already set his time, went out for a second run midway through the session, which ended with a hard crash in Turn 2. Although the damage to his No. 10 CGR Honda was heavy, keeping him out for the remainder of the day, the team reckoned the car could be repaired.
REPLAY: Frustration from @AlexPalou after his incident in Turn 2 at @IMS.
📲: INDYCAR Mobile – https://t.co/vyuISIgHnX#INDYCAR // #INDY500 // @IMS pic.twitter.com/H5melptl8N
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 22, 2021
The first driver on the outside of the Fast Nine looking in was 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi. The No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda of Rossi went out right after teammate Herta on his opening attempt, and ran a four-lap average of 231.046mph, which slotted him eighth at the time. However, Ericsson went out directly behind Rossi and bumped him down, and then VeeKay’s second run finished the job of putting Rossi 10th for next Sunday’s Indy 500.
Among the notables left outside the pole shootout were Team Penske, which was led by rookie Scott McLaughlin’s 17th-place effort at 230.557mph four-lap average. The rest of his teammates struggled with top-end pace as two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden slotted 21st and 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud 26th. Will Power was even worse off, as the 2018 Indy 500 champion’s two attempts failed to break into the top 30, which means he is on the outside looking in to make the race and is one of five drivers forced to battle it out in Sunday’s Last Chance Qualifying.
Defending polesitter Marco Andretti had an early draw, going out second just after Dixon. Unlike teammates Herta, Rossi and Hunter-Reay, Andretti struggled with pace and was forced to make three attempts, with the third staying relatively level with his second — a 229.872mph average — to grab the inside of Row 9 in 25th.
One of the more quiet but remarkable efforts came courtesy of Pietro Fittipaldi, who ran a four-lap average of 230.846mph in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda to claim the 13th position.
The drama of the day started heightened with 90 minutes to go when Colton Herta went out for a second attempt with a track temps climbed to 119F. He delivered a four-lap average at 230.229mph. Although his overall time didn’t improve, he hinted the run was to gather data because conditions could be relative to the battle for pole on Sunday.
“I really wanted to try to go out in that kind of range of what we’re going to see tomorrow,” said Herta. “I think conditions are going to be similar — at least I was told that. We’ll see how true that is. Maybe we just did the run for nothing.
“I just wanted to see what the grip was going to be like, what the bar changes were going to do to the car. Probably a little bit too heavy on downforce, but we didn’t want to do anything stupid. But, car felt good. I was happy to do that for the team.”
After Herta’s run there was a 30-minute hold of no on-track activity, but pit road was a maze as cars tried to lay claim to their place in various lanes, leaving officials playing musical chairs with the shuffling order.
Among the positive surprises was Ed Jones, who had the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan Honda tracking into the Fast Nine until the very final lap, but he did manage to improve his overall pace to jump from 19th to 11th.
As the time ticked down, the pressure was on several drivers and Simona De Silvestro in the No. 16 Paretta Autosport Chevy — who was outside the top 30 drop zone — pushed to the priority lane to make her second attempt. Her four-lap run was 228.395mph, which was enough to remain just outside the bubble.
Power followed and was tracking inside the top 30 until the final corner of his final lap, where his No. 12 Team Penske Chevy drifted slightly up the track and scrubbed speed just marginally, but at 228.395mph, was enough to remain in the drop zone.
The race to make the #Indy500 field continues for Will Power.
He'll be in the Last Row Shootout with four other drivers vying for the last three spots at @IMS. pic.twitter.com/mI7E4mJbKV
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 22, 2021
Other drivers outside of the bubble, Charlie Kimball and RC Enerson, began to make attempts to qualify but their attempts were waved off midway through. De Silvestro’s crew then pushed her up the pit lane with fresh Firestone tires to make one last attempt, with Power following to do the same.
Dalton Kellett, who was sitting 30th and the final driver in the show, withdrew his time with four minutes remaining, which moved Power to the provisional final spot. However, Kellett fought through the nerves and 112F track temperatures to run a four-lap average at 228.866mph to reclaim the 30th position.
Remarkably, though, there were still just a few seconds remaining when De Silvestro jetted off pit lane for one final shot to make the Indy 500. The gun to signal the end of the session went off as she exited, but because she was already off she was allowed to continue her run. Her third attempt would be all for naught, though, as a slight wiggle in Turn 2 on her opening lap set the tone. She set a four-lap average of 228.013mph, which left her on the outside and Kellett with the final spot of the Indy 500.
“I thought we were going to be the last car through, but Simona managed to squeak through and get a run,” said Kellett. “It might not have been my favorite afternoon, but I’m sure everyone that came out today had a great time. The Foyt guys gave me a good team Chevy here and managed to get that last run in. So, yeah, happy we made the field.”
There was some confusion at the end because Kellett’s pace was actually less than Power’s four-lap average. However, Kellett maintained his spot of 30th because, according to IndyCar rules, the Day 1 qualifying will only count the top 30 positions and any time not posted within the top 30 is immediately thrown out. So, under those guidelines, Power’s recent run didn’t count because he did not overtake Kellett’s original time.
For De Silvestro, the quick turnaround between qualifying attempts was anything but ideal.
“It’s definitely interesting,” De Silvestro said. “It’s not the position you want to be in because it’s pretty nerve wracking and you’re going out there and really just trying to throw everything at it. The team as well — they changed the car completely over the two-hour break and we just seemed to struggle today and yesterday since we went to qualifying boost and just finding the balance. It was close, but tomorrow we just try to get in the field and then see how we can get working on the race car.”
So, it will be Power, De Silvestro, Enerson, Kimball and Sage Karam fighting for the last row spots in Sunday’s Last Chance Qualifying at 1:15 p.m. ET. The Fast Nine shootout will follow at 3:00 p.m.