Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
INDIANAPOLIS- There is a saying in sports that nobody remembers who finished second. There may be an exception for the 2019 Indianapolis 500.
France native Simon Pagenaud authored a brilliant month of May at Indianapolis by winning the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the Indy 500 pole position, and claimed his first Indianapolis 500 win after a thrilling back-and-forth battle with Alexander Rossi.
“This is incredible,” Pagenaud said. “I can’t take all of the credit. I think we showed that we had the best car out there. What a day. Incredible.”
Pagenaud took off from the pole and led most of the 500’s first half. However, his pit stops were revealing a potential Achilles Heel in the Team Penske entry- fuel mileage.
Pagenaud continually was the first of the leaders on pit road while challenging teams were able to run several laps further. Forecasting the race through 500 miles put Pagenaud in trouble to make it to the end without one extra fuel stop than his competition.
“We ran so much up front, we didn’t save enough fuel,” said Pagenaud.
His competition turned to be Rossi who chased down and began challenging the dominant Pagenaud in the race’s second half.
The circumstance to set up the exciting ending unfolded with a slow Rossi pit stop with around 150 miles remaining in the race.
The stop was over 20 seconds when the team’s fueling rig would not engage with the car. A problem with a component inside the fueling nozzle delayed filling the tank and dropped Rossi from the lead to 13th. Damage control came in the assist of Marcus Ericcson’s spin and contact entering pit road as Rossi was leaving the pits and the yellow flag waved.
“When you come here four times and three of the times you can’t get fuel in the car, I think you can understand why I was upset,” said Rossi.
Pagenaud led on the restart with Rossi in sixth and when the green flag waved the battle was on. Rossi began navigating around the lapped car of Oriol Servia which was difficult. Servia blocked Rossi and made the driver who was already angry from the fueling mishap, even angrier.
Rossi finally passed Servia on lap 155 while shaking his first at the Spaniard at full speed.
“I think it was one of the most disrespectful things I’ve ever seen in a race car. He’s a lap down… defending, putting me to the wall at 230 mph. it’s unacceptable for him and it’s unacceptable that IndyCar let it happen,” Rossi said.
Pagenaud and Rossi pitted for their final fuel stops in succession on lap 168 and 169. Rossi passed Pagenaud for the lead outright after the pit stops cycled through the field.
Said Pagenaud, “I let him (Rossi) by to save fuel again just before the yellow came out, so that was a bit of a bummer.”
The race was stopped with 180 laps complete for a five-car pileup that began on the entry to turn three with Sebastian Bourdais and Graham Rahal making contact.
Rahal was moving underneath Bourdais when the pair hit and sent Bourdais spinning and hard into the wall in the North chute. Rahal also slid into the wall and back into Bourdais. Rookie Felix Rosenqvist, Zack Veach, and Charlie Kimball crashed in the accordion effect as the trailing cars slowed and tried to steer clear through the traffic and debris.
Race officials waved the red flag and brought the remaining cars to pit road with 50 miles to go while the track was cleared of the wreckage.
With the stoppage, Pagenaud was now good on fuel to the finish and a classic battle was about to take place.
“It was such a big crash; they needed to clean the track. So if they didn’t go red flag, we would have had an eight-lap shootout, so I had plenty of fuel for that, no problem,” Pagenaud said. “I was planning on saving fuel to attack him at the end.”
Rossi was driving angry and going up against Pagenaud who had been the fastest car all day.
Pagenaud passed Rossi on the restart with 13 laps left. The chase and drafting left the 300,000 in attendance on their feet cheering. Rossi retook the lead with two laps to go. Pagenaud repassed Rossi on the backstretch to lead the battle to the white flag.
Pagenaud snaked back and forth on the final trip down the backstretch to take track position and drafting away from Rossi. The Frenchman led the charge to the double checkered flags by only two-tenths of a second, claiming his first Indy 500, and 18th for team owner Roger Penske.
Takuma Sato, 2017 winner, was third. Josef Newgarden whose crew fought an understeer condition most of the race with aggressive front wing adjustments finished fourth, and Will Power who was forced to restart last after a lap-79 pit lane penalty for running over an air hose and hitting his fueler was fifth.
Local fan favorite Ed Carpenter was sixth, rookie Santino Ferrucci was seventh, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay eighth, 2013 winner Tony Kanaan ninth, and Conner Daly completed the top-ten.
Rossi said, “I was flat the last 15 laps. There’s not much more that you can do.”
“It was pretty inevitable. I think you saw on the last restart that he just drove by us,” said Rossi. “There was an opportunity there to get the lead. I’d been working on him for 12-13 laps and it finally came and I didn’t have a choice, I just had to hope that maybe he would lose so much behind me and Takuma or Josef or whoever would get him and I would be able to have enough of a cushion for the final two laps.”
Pagenaud entered the speedway’s media center with a yell and euphoric whoop and talked about his big win. Rossi talked about his big loss and exited the media center with a door slam.
Rossi was asked if he took any solace in knowing that he gave it 100%.
“Maybe in time…”
The last French winner was Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Pagenaud had a Chevrolet engine and Rossi admitted his Honda lacked horsepower against the Chevys.
Jordan King misjudged a pit stop during the second round and hit his new right front tire as it sat on the pit box. The tire and wheel assembly ricocheted into the left leg of his tire changer, Chris Minot, who was keeling and awaiting the car to come to a stop for service. Minot rolled onto his side, gripping his left leg as the crew managed the pit stop service. He was evaluated and transferred to Indiana University Methodist hospital.
Kyle Kaiser crashed with 73 laps complete for the upstart Juncos team. Juncos bumped the Powerhouse McLaren entry and Fernando Alonso out of the field on qualifying day and were an underdog crowd favorite.
The first caution flag flew early when Colton Herta suffered a gearbox failure after completing three laps. His car coasted to a stop in turn four and he needed a tow back to the pit area.
Rookie Ben Hanley dropped out with a broken halfshaft.
James Davison was spun around on pit road by Helio Castroneves with a surprising misjudged move by the veteran three-time 500 winner.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report live on Facebook Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT and uploaded on http://speedwayreport.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.