It wasn’t a remarkable race in terms of passes for the lead, but the last Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle was unforgettable for its race-long strategy battle between Will Power and Alexander Rossi. Of the many reasons I’ll miss Belle Isle, its ability to generate hair-raising finishes is something the new downtown venue could struggle to match.
The new layout is meant to be a hundred times more friendly for spectators, and that’s a good thing, but if you listened to the comments from IndyCar’s best drivers, nobody wants to leave Belle Isle because the bar for driving excellence and drama is something that’s truly unique to the island circuit. The somewhat uninspired layout that runs around GM’s global headquarters will have big expectations to meet and exceed a year from now.
PASSES AND STRATEGY
According to IndyCar, the farewell to Belle Isle set a new record for on-track passes with 148 for position, 59 within the top 10 and 23 in top five. If that’s impressive, the fact that the top four finishers were on four different strategies is where my interest lies.
Race winner Power went for two stops and a Firestone tire sequence of primary, primary, alternate. Second-placed Rossi went for three stops and a sequence of alternate, primary, primary and primary. Scott Dixon earned third with a two-stop plan and a sequence of primary, alternate, primary, and in fourth, polesitter Josef Newgarden opted for two stops and opened with a long stint on alternates before going to primaries in the middle and closing stints.
Only Rossi had the sheer pace to make the three-stop strategy work; of the nine other drivers to join him, Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist was next-best in 10th.
Simon Pagenaud ran out of fuel as he approached the checkered flag. A full-course caution flag was also flying due to Rinus VeeKay’s hard hit in Turn 6; the yellow was established around the same time Power crossed the finish line to seal the win.
Running seventh, Pagenaud’s No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda slowed to 45.5mph as he went under the starter’s stand, but moments before he got there, under that FCY, he was passed by Marcus Ericsson for seventh and Colton Herta for eighth.
Expecting to be credited with seventh, Pagenaud and MSR were surprised to learn IndyCar approved those passes under yellow and listed the No. 60 car in ninth in the official standings. As I had the reasoning explained to me, I’m not sure I can find the logic in the decision. IndyCar apparently viewed Pagenaud as being an ‘incident in progress’ and therefore blessed the overtaking under yellow on the approach to the checkered flag.
Pagenaud was also cited for failing to maintain pace car speeds of 80-90mph, despite having no pace car on track to gather and lead the field. As a result of failing to run at pace car speeds despite the absence of a pace car, the No. 60 was hit with Rule 18.104.22.168.9.5, “The other Car is involved in an incident/or incident in progress. Final determination of ordering Cars involved in an incident to be made by IndyCar. IndyCar’s decision is not subject to review/and or appeal.”
I realize we’re only talking about the difference between seventh and ninth, but it’s this kind of freewheeling judgement that drives me mad. VeeKay crashed, the race went FCY, which means the finishing order was set since the winner passed over the start/finish line, and since the only thing left for the remaining drivers to do was to cross the same line because racing for position had stopped, I’m not seeing the difference between rolling under the checkered flag at full speed, half speed, or 45.5mph.
The race was over and competition was halted due to the FCY. If the No. 60 had pulled off, out of fuel, before the finish line, I’d expect Pagenaud to lose a ton of positions. But since that isn’t what happened and he rolled across the line at nearly 50mph, I’m struggling to see why IndyCar was in such a rush to penalize and demote the No. 60. When you hear drivers or team owners express their frustration with officiating, it’s instances like these that undermine their faith.
Pagenaud started third for MSR and Helio Castroneves started fourth, their best output as a tandem for the team this year, but their days ended in unrewarding fashions. Pagenaud’s fall to ninth was the happiest part of the day after Castroneves’s No. 06 Honda started experiencing an electronic short while running third.
A drop to sixth on lap 10 was the start of his problems and by lap 21 he was parked on pit lane, having tried a replacement steering wheel to solve the issue. As of Monday morning, the team was still searching for the exact cause, but it’s believed a wiring issue inside the steering column is what turned the potential for a good result into a 25th. It stands as his worst finish of the year and leaves Castroneves a distant 16th in the championship. Pagenaud’s holding eighth.
Marcus Ericsson’s time atop the championship was incredibly brief. By virtue of his run on Sunday to seventh, he fell to second (252) in the standings behind Power (255), who jumped from fourth to first. Pato O’Ward (third, 243) has been a vision of consistency with a win and four top fives in the last five races, and Alex Palou (fourth, 241) is the last among the championship leaders who are within striking distance of Power.
Josef Newgarden (fifth, 208) is the first with a bit of work to do to rejoin the group, and not far behind is Scott Dixon (six, 202), who just captured his first podium of the year.
Rossi was another big mover (seventh, 181), having entered Detroit holding 11th. He’s now the leading driver in the standings for Andretti, and going in the opposite direction, Penske’s Scott McLaughlin hit Belle Isle in seventh and leaves 10th (173) with another drop. Andretti’s Colton Herta also fell another position (11th, 166), and to close, Romain Grosjean’s rough run of late with finishes of 17th, 31st and 17th have him in an unenviable position (14th, 141) as we approach the halfway point of the season.
The mighty pairing of Takuma Sato (second) and David Malukas (sixth) were the talk of qualifying at Detroit, but they also disappeared from the front of the field with haste once the green flag waved. Both tried to make the three-stop strategy work in their favor but paid the price as Sato (13th) and Malukas (11th) lost a combined 16 positions in the race. Nonetheless, it was the best road course performance for the first-year driver.
“It kind of stings when you start sixth and finish 11th – you usually want to move up, not go backwards,” Malukas said. “But being a rookie, I’m happy to finish the race and to be the highest-finishing rookie.”
WHEEL OF TORTURE
Santino Ferrucci’s outing with Juncos Hollinger Racing was going well until his hands were turned into a mess from all the force and kickback he received through the steering wheel.
“The No. 77 JHR car was really fast, but I just couldn’t hold onto the steering wheel because I was blistered up,” he said.
Considering how the car’s regular driver, Callum Ilott, had hands like raw meat after the first race of the year at St. Petersburg, I wonder if it’s just a byproduct of hard street course racing or if the team needs to consider going in a friendlier route with its steering rack and caster choices.
Honda had an excellent month of May with a win on the Indy road course by Colton Herta and a win at the big one with Marcus Ericsson. Otherwise, the season to date has been a Chevy affair as the manufacturer’s tilt sits at 5-2 in favor of the Bowtie. The same is true for poles, with Chevy at 5-2 over Honda, whose drivers started first at Long Beach (Herta) and the Indy 500 (Dixon).
Tough weekend for Grosjean who crashed in qualifying, started 12th, dropped to 17th, lost a lap and simply never factored. The Andretti driver was definitely at the race, but not in the race, which is strange.
* That’s two events in a two where Andretti Autosport rookie Devlin DeFrancesco has either run clean or showed flashes of impressive speed. His run to 18th in the race wasn’t amazing by any means, but after making a few enemies to open the season, the Italian-Canadian appears to have found a solid groove.
* A crash for Felix Rosenqvist early in the opening practice session did not affect the rest of his weekend. Seventh at the end of FP2, the AMSP driver dealt with losing his two best laps in qualifying for impeding Jimmie Johnson, started 25th and vaulted to 10th, matching Will Power with a 15-spot improvement. He’s improved to ninth in the championship, which is impressive after starting the season in 17th and falling to 19th at the next race in Texas.
* The Rookie of the Year race continues to underwhelm as the top driver holds 17th in the standings with Christian Lundgaard. Malukas is 19th, and from there, there’s not much else to report.
* On the strength of his third at the Indy 500, which has been his only race of the year, Tony Kanaan, holds 23rd in the standings with 78 points; teammate Jimmie Johnson is 22nd at 79 points after seven races and DeFrancesco — also with seven — is four points behind Kanaan in 24th.
* I’m not sure if he’s excited about being 12th in the championship, but Conor Daly has been on a good run of late and sits one position in front of his teammate VeeKay.
* We’re off to Road America in a few days, so we’ll be back with more stories, reports and videos from Elkhart Lake starting on Friday.