Will Power had the good fortune to be safely out in front by the time a messy first turn accident compromised several of his main rivals at the start this weekend’s road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That one stroke of good luck aside, the rest was all down to Power’s own racing prowess. The rest of the 82-lap event seemed like it was plain sailing to the Australian, as the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion cruised to his first win of the 2015 season seemingly without a care in the world.
A sharp but brief shower less than an hour before the scheduled green flag for the second Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis sent a shiver of trepidation down pit lane, as forecasts had been suggesting that thunderstorms might play a part in Saturday’s race. However is proved to be a false alarm, the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course quickly drying in the warm, muggy temperatures. Race control had no concerns about declaring this a dry race with everyone suitably equipped with slick tyres as they made their way around to the start line to take the green flag right on time.
Although this year’s rolling start meant there was no repeat of the high-speed carnage of the standing start for the inaugural event in 2014, it still didn’t go at all well. The field got pinched as they headed into the right hand turn 1: Power sailed through the corner in the lead but behind him second-place man Scott Dixon was clipped and sent spinning by a tap from Helio Castroneves, who had himself been under pressure from Penske team mate (and defending race champion) Simon Pagenaud.
The rest of the 25-car field attempted to scatter in an urgent attempt to avoid running into the Chip Ganassi Racing #9 which now formed a road block right across the track. Inevitably there were multiple knock-on collisions right through the pack. Josef Newgarden’s CFH Racing car sustained rear-end damage and was left in need of a refire from the safety crew to get going again, as was Jack Hawksworth in the AJ Foyt Racing #41. Although Dixon was still under power, damage to his car meant a long stop on pit road under the ensuing full course caution for new front and rear wings.
The clean-up was quick and efficient and the race was soon back underway for a more successful restart attempt on lap 5. Power had the advantage of a clear track ahead of him and quickly pulled away from Pagenaud who was closely followed by Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing), Juan Pablo Montoya (Penske), Luca Filippi (CFH Racing) and Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing). Castroneves was among the cars that had been obliged to make a stop under the caution and was now circulating down in 17th place, while Hawskworth, Dixon and Newgarden were able to rejoin the race but circulating at the rear some distance away from the main pack of cars.
Having suffered a dismal time in practice leading up to the race, Andretti Autosport continued to struggle in the race with Ryan Hunter-Reay so unhappy with the pace of the #28 car that he was the first driver to come down pit road under green on lap 10, his team mates Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz soon opting to follow his example; only new team recruit Justin Wilson didn’t get the memo and ended up staying out for longer, albeit mired in 15th place, until he finally came in on lap 16. Also seeking some help from an alternative strategy to lift his fortunes was Helio Castroneves, whose 300th US open wheel start had not exactly gone the way that he had been hoping.
There was no sign of the race leaders coming down pit lane quite this early. Ganassi’s Tony Kanaan eventually pitted from tenth position on lap 17 after coming off second best and losing a position to KV Racing Technology’s rookie recruit from GP2, Stefano Coletti. At the front, race leader Will Power was perfectly comfortable although Simon Pagenaud was refusing to be dropped and the gap between the two Penskes remained less than a second even before Power found himself pulling up on the back of Josef Newgarden who was less than keen to go a lap down.
Since he was being held up and losing time, Power decided to make an earlier than planned visit to pit lane and Pagenaud and Bourdais immediately followed suit. Montoya and Filippi also pitted, Fillipi’s stop a particularly slow one as the CFH team attended to damage sustained in the first lap incident which included fitting a new wing to the #20. Rahal was promoted to a brief lead before he too decided to make his first stop of the day that left Schmidt Peterson Motorsport pair James Jakes and James Hinchcliffe minding the store for a few laps. They were pursuing a different approach to the race that involved holding out till lap 26 before coming in, in the hope that what their Honda engines lacked in raw power could be made up for in fuel conservation.
Once the pit stops shook out, Power was inevitably back in charge by almost four seconds. Rahal had enjoyed the best stop and biggest boost to go into second ahead of Pagenaud, Bourdais, Montoya and JR Hildebrand now up to sixth. Castroneves had climbed back up to seventh place but still stuck on a very different pit stop strategy having pitted a dozen laps earlier than those around him and therefore already close to making his second stop. When he finally did so on lap 34, he was immediately relegated back down to 20th place.
The best battle on the track during this phase was between Coletti and Kanaan, the veteran racer finding it impossible to find a line to get round the wily rookie for seventh spot. All the while he was trying to make his move, Kanaan was being pushed back into the clutches of Bryan Herta Autosport’s Gabby Chaves and Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball. The battle was finally suspended in favour of a new round of pit stops, Power coming in from the lead of the race at the end of lap 40 while Rahal opted to stay out for three laps longer before making his own stop. The SPM pair of Hinchcliffe and Jakes were once again the last cars to pit, extending their middle run all the way to lap 52 before coming in, but by this time their worn tyres and fuel-saving imperative had seen them long since passed and left behind by the top six.
Power was duly restored to his dominant command of the race, although his lead had been halved because of the time it had taken to finally putting a stubborn Newgarden a lap down. However what goes around comes around, and Rahal had no better luck getting around the CFH: Power started to disappear down the road again while Rahal’s spotter pleaded with the CFH team for a little inter-team co-operation which didn’t appear to be forthcoming. Behind Rahal, an early stop had succeeded in allowing Montoya to leapfrog into third place ahead of the French pair of Bourdais and Pagenaud, with Hildebrand now running in front of Kimball and the out-of-sync Castroneves back up to eighth ahead of Coletti and Hunter-Reay.
Pagenaud’s hopes of picking up back-to-back wins in this event came to an abrupt end on lap 57 when the #22 got stuck in gear, forcing the pit crew to investigate and ultimately retire from the race with mechanical issues. Justin Wilson also ended the day early in pit lane, while ongoing problems with the wounded #41 meant that his compatriot Jack Hawksworth went 13 laps down.
While Pagenaud had been receiving attention on pit lane, his hat-trick of team mates Castroneves, Montoya and Power arrived for their final scheduled pit stops with 24 laps to go. Rahal was forced to protect his position by pitting from the lead two laps later, the absence of any further cautions since the starting lap fracas meaning that the various pit stop strategies had largely failed to bear any fruit of note. The exception to the rule was Castroneves, who had successfully wrangled his own offbeat strategy into a nice comeback to seventh place now that he was back on sync with the rest of the field.
There were no shocks or upsets in the closing laps, and Power completed his calm and complete domination of the race to cross the line having led for a race high 65 laps and managed the 1.5-second gap between himself and Rahal to perfection. It’s Power’s 25th win in the Verzion IndyCar Series, and his win this week makes it five different winners from the first five races of 2015.
Joining Power and Rahal on the podium was Montoya, although he ended up almost six seconds back from the leaders having had his own hands full warning off Bourdais. A long way behind in fifth was Kimball, the top performer from the Ganassi stable, while Castroneves received a late promotion to sixth place when James Hinchcliffe was forced into a late splash-and-dash with seven laps remaining that meant he ended up in 12th. Rounding out the top ten in his absence were Tony Kanaan, Stefano Coletti, Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon.
In the championship standings, Power’s victory this weekend means that he moves up from fifth to second place in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings. Montoya narrowly holds on to the lead by five points, while Castroneves’ effective recovery drive means he drops only one place to third behind his team mates. Scott Dixon also drops a place to fourth, level on points with Graham Rahal who climbs up three spots on the back of his determined performance at Indianapolis.
With the fifth race of the season now in the books, all eyes now turn to the biggest event on the calendar – the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, “the one race that I want to win” as Will Power was quick to dub it.
“You have four sessions during this month that you want to be P1 in,” he explained. “One is qualifying for the GP; [then] winning the GP; qualifying for the 500; and winning the 500.” He’s already managed the first two on that list, and he made no secret of eyeing up completing the sweep over the next fortnight.
“It’s possible, obviously. That’s got to be the goal this month,” he admitted. “I’m halfway there. The Indy 500 is on my mind and I’m very determined to get it done.
“My focus nowadays is so much on the 500 more than it ever was now that I’ve won a championship. But you can imagine just winning the GP and the 500 – it would be unbelievable!”
Practice for the Indy 500 gets underway on the 2.5-mile oval speedway on Monday, which will also include Rookie Orientation for Stefano Coletti and refresher courses for others. Qualifying is set for next Saturday and Sunday, and the race itself will get the green flag at midday on May 24.