By Brendan Rourke | @B_RourkeSports
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Simon Pagenaud’s unforgettable month of May started with a victory in the Indy Grand Prix. It continued when he earned the pole position for the 103rd Indianapolis 500. And it culminated Sunday with a desperate chase in the final decisive laps of his first Indy 500 victory.
Pagenaud passed 2016 champion Alexander Rossi in the third turn of Lap 199 and held the lead with a block on the high side for the victory. The 0.2086 second margin of victory was the seventh closest in 103 races. The victory was a record 18th for car owner Roger Penske, the third in five years for the owner whose career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began 50 years ago. Penske’s drivers have won a record 206 IndyCar races.
“It’s amazing,” Pagenaud said. “It’s another dream come true, and the biggest dream of my life come true. It’s hard to fathom, really. It’s really hard to process it right now, but I’m just filled with a lot of joy.”
Pagenaud became the first winner to start from the pole position since Helio Castroneves a decade ago. Rossi was one of five former winners to finish among the top nine, with Takuma Sato (third), Will Power (fifth), Ryan Hunter-Reay (eighth) and Tony Kanaan (ninth.) Pagenaud became the second consecutive Penske driver to sweep the IndyCar Grand Prix and the 500, one year after Power was the first to do it.
The expectation of inclement weather produced multiple strategic plans for each of the 33 drivers. The most obvious was to start up front and stay there. The hidden tactic appeared to be saving fuel. Unfortunately for Pagenaud, the laws of physics and the challenge of running up front began to create a problem.
He led the first 32 laps without much of a challenge and elected to pit before everyone else. Competitors such as Rossi and Ed Carpenter, who began in the second position and finished sixth, appeared to be in prime position to challenge at the end of the race.
Leading the race, and being out in open air, forces the leader to use more fuel. Others behind Pagenaud were able to save fuel.
The 116 laps led was a personal best for Pagenaud. In seven prior Indy 500 appearances, he had led for a total of 36. However, he did have his concerns about being up front for that length of time.
“I led most of the race,” Pagenaud said. “And except when I was passing back markers (cars off the lead lap), I didn’t have a big knowledge of my car in traffic.”
Pagenaud also noted he “ran so much up front we didn’t save enough fuel.” On Lap 151 he allowed his Penske teammate, Josef Newgarden, to slide into first place. It was then that Pagenaud learned he had one of the best cars in the field.
“When I let Josef by and I ran behind Josef … the car was phenomenal,” he said. “It was really easy to follow for me.”
This information became crucial as the end of the race approached. On Lap 178, a perseverant Rossi completed a pit stop, erasing time lost during his team’s mechanical problem with the fuel hose during a frustrating previous stop that left him pounding the steering wheel. The faster pit stop helped place Rossi in prime position to pass Pagenaud for the lead.
Unfortunately for Rossi, Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais touched wheels near the back of the field, starting a series of collisions that forced five cars out of the race and led to a red flag delay of 18 minutes.
“That … really hurt us because we were doing a lot better on fuel mileage than he was,” Rossi said.
“I let him by to save fuel again just before the yellow came out, so that was a bit of a bummer,” Pagenaud said of his initial response after the incident. He clarified he “wasn’t really worried about getting back.” Rather, he thought his rhythm had been interrupted. On the final restart on Lap 187, Pagenaud passed Rossi just after the start-finish line.
On Lap 198, Rossi appeared to pass Pagenaud, perhaps for good, between Turns 1 and 2.
But Pagenaud’s car appeared better in Turns 3 and 4. And on Lap 199, Pagenaud passed Rossi in Turn 3 for the final time.
On the final lap, Rossi attempted to dive low, but Pagenaud’s teammates had warned the frontrunner that this had been his strategy. When Pagenaud blocked the maneuver, Rossi shot up high in Turn 4 for one last attempt. Pagenaud whipped his car up the track to block Rossi in the exit of Turn 4. Rossi never had the horsepower to challenge him on the backstretch.
“There was a lot of planning, a lot of brake drafting as well,” Pagenaud said of the final passes. “I think about [my teammates] Juan Montoya, I think about Helio Castroneves, I think about Josef and Will (Power), and I think about Gil de Ferran, especially Rick Mears. They’ve been teaching me so well the intricacy of driving on an oval, and I applied it today, and it worked.”
Pagenaud’s previous victory had come 22 starts earlier, at Sonoma in 2017, and his future as a member of Team Penske had inspired speculation. When asked if Pagenaud will return next year, an elated Penske gave a comical response.
“What do you think?” he asked. “Do you want to answer that question for me? Absolutely.”