Last year’s Saturday qualifying drama for the Indy 500 was delivered savagely via Sebastien Bourdais’ pelvis-pounding crash at the exit of turn 2. Bourdais’ Dallara was trimmed to the max and he was doing what all the best race drivers do—hanging the car out on the edge—until that edge was found and exceeded. Check this link for that day’s coverage.
This year’s drama was painful only in the emotional sense. For the first time since 2011, there were more cars entered than there are spots in the field for raceday—35 vs 33. So the “month” of May would end after one week for two driver/car combinations.
Throw in two long rain delays, a not-fully-understood-by-all new car, and very limited aerodynamic options and you have a recipe for heartbreak casserole—served promptly at 5:50pm Eastern Time. Two drivers—IndyCar Series regular James Hinchcliffe and Indy-only pilot Pippa Mann—did not earn a spot in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 this year, scheduled for May 27.
One of these has a major sponsor (Arrow), runs the series for points, and drives for a multi-car team with Indy 500-only teammates. That would be Hinchcliffe, and within minutes, oddsmakers were speculating on the over-under on James starting on raceday, with either Jay Howard seeming the likely candidate to get bought out of his ride. “It would have to be enough for me to buy a new house,” said one wag in the garage. “And a guaranteed ride for next year.”
“I’d say double whatever Stefan Wilson agreed to give Alonso his seat last year,” I added. If we were cutting imaginary deals, you can rest assured real ones were happening as well. It would be a sleepless night for lawyers.
“I believe there’s some options being investigated,” said Hinchcliffe. “I work for Sam (Schmidt) and Ric (Peterson). Whatever Sam and Ric tell me to do, I’ll do. At this point I don’t know any more than you do. I’m here to race at the end of the day.”
There will be no such options for Mann, who was totally distraught in her press conference. She’d been bumped earlier by a Conor Daly attempt and wasn’t able to muster enough speed on her final try to dislodge James Davison from the field. “It’s the worst feeling in the world,” said Mann, who would have loved more options for speed in this new aero kit. “When we got back in line for the last run, we took every single trim we could possibly could to the race car, we did everything. Obviously it wasn’t enough.”
Hinchcliffe had to wait to make a qualifying attempt until after the initial weather delay. The first driver on the oval when qualifications resumed, Hinchcliffe posted a disappointing run of 224.784 mph in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda that was bumped from the field by friend and former roommate Daly with less than 20 minutes left.
Hinchcliffe went out to make another attempt, but sensed a vibration in the car from what was later discovered to be a tire pressure sensor failure and didn’t take the green flag. After quick repairs by his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew, the car was rushed back into the qualifying line, but time ran out with Mann on track and Hinchcliffe—the 2016 Indy 500 pole sitter—sitting in line next to go.
“This track has done a lot worse to me in the past and we came back swinging,” said Hinch, who survived a near-fatal testing accident in 2015. “We’ll be OK.
“Nobody failed us, the system didn’t fail us. We failed us. At the end of the day, everybody got a run, which is the rule. Our run wasn’t good enough, so blame the weather, blame other cars in line, you can blame whatever you want, but it just didn’t happen today. You’ve got to take your lumps here sometimes.”
Mann and Hinchcliffe both drive Honda powered Dallaras, and it was clearly a Chevrolet day. “We had the performance advantage last year, they have it this year,” Honda rep Dan Layton told me this morning. He then hoped those tables would turn again over the course of 500 miles next weekend.
Seven of the nine cars shooting for the pole position today are Chevies. That would be all four Penske drivers—Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden—and all three Ed Carpenter Racing drivers—Carpenter, Spencer Pigot, and Danica Patrick.
The two lonely Hondas in the Fast Nine belong to Bourdais—fittingly—and last year’s raceday highlight video star Scott Dixon.
Helio Castroneves was the fastest qualifier of the day with a four-lap run on the 2.5-mile oval at 228.919 mph in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet under overcast conditions before the first of two rain delays that totaled 2 hours, 41 minutes. “Obviously, my run (being) earlier, the weather was much more consistent,” Castroneves said. “When you have that kind of scenario, it helps a lot. We all work together (at Team Penske) to obviously find the limits. We did. We have to do it again tomorrow, in the fast nine, and let’s see what happens.”
Making the final start of her crossover career in IndyCar and NASCAR, Patrick set another standard by becoming the first woman to qualify for the Fast Nine Shootout that debuted in 2010. Patrick was the first woman to lead the Indy 500, as a rookie in 2005, and remains the best finisher in race history when she placed third in 2009. “I have high expectations for doing well here,” Patrick said. “That’s why I was fortunate enough to be able to drive for Ed. They always have great cars, especially here at Indy, they’re always very strong. I am very happy with this car.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Davison recovered from a crash in Friday’s practice to qualify the No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s 502 East Chevrolet in the 33rd and final position. The 31-year-old Australian nervously waited out the end of qualifying to retain his spot in the field. “It was an incredible 24 hours, something that I think all of us on the team didn’t expect that we were going to face,” Davison said of his Foyt with Byrd/Hollinger/Belardi crew. “It’s a life experience, making it into the Indy 500, actually earning it. The three times I’ve done this race, there were 33 cars….This time, we had to earn it in there.”
In between was Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan driver Oriol Servia. Servia bottomed out on his first attempt, felt like something was broke and waved off. But his second attempt in the “repaired” car was just as slow. The car was put right back in line and, unexpectedly, picked up the necessary speed to make the field in 31st. “What was the magic fix?” I asked Servia as he walked back through the garages at the end of the day.
“I don’t know,” said Servia. “We have to find out.”
“But you must have changed something to get it in the show.”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Oriol’s what got that car in the show,” observed someone nearby.
“It was just the hardest I’ve driven – the hardest 12 laps I’ve driven ever,” said Servia. “When the car is off, it’s not right, at a speedway like this, there’s not much you can do apart from trying not to crash, which is what I did. It was really difficult. At that point (on the last run), you’re committed. Like (James Hinchcliffe), if you come in, you might not have a chance to go out again. I knew I had to try to stick it in.
“It’s been probably the biggest roller-coaster of my life, just today. We started today in free practice, 8 a.m. in the morning, the track was green and it’s usually a little tricky in those hours. The car was the best it’s been the whole month. It was perfect.
“And then we went out in qualifying, and I almost crashed on Lap 1. Thankfully, we saved it, came in. We made some changes. We thought we were going to be pretty solid in the show. We didn’t take any risks, we put some downforce back in the car, we just wanted to make the show. I went out and it was as awful as the other attempt. We didn’t know what was going on.
“We are going to spend a lot of time looking at the car. It’s one of those days – it’s Indy drama. I was talking yesterday about how sad it would be that we have 35 great entries this year and two will go home. That’s the drama we were all waiting for – Bump Day. Then, here I am, and I think it’s going to be me because that’s how the day went. We were 31st; the car just wasn’t right. I don’t know why.
“We had a great team. We had all the right ingredients to not only be in the race, but to be challenging for the pole, and we almost didn’t make it. That shows how challenging this race is. I’m happy for the effort, and we’ll see what we’ve got tomorrow.”
Bourdais, of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan, will have another banzai opportunity for pole after solidly getting in the Fast Nine. “It was a solid run for the SealMaster Honda No. 18,” said Bourdais. “Very conservative, obviously. I kind of owed it to myself, my wife, everybody on the team. A lot of things went through my head, particularly yesterday. We were back in qualifying trim and it was not an easy day, but the guys did a great job and the car was pretty strong.
“We almost did a repeat of yesterday during the qualifying run today. It was a tough set of circumstances. The conditions were a little tricky. Just before we were supposed to go out, it rains. Then it got hot. You go from 80 degrees of track temp to 105, six to eight degrees more of ambient. It was tough to hit the setup right with the conditions that changed so fast, but we had the right amount of downforce. The car was pretty solid, so very happy with the run.”
Conor Daly was at the center of much of the day’s drama before landing 32nd. “It was tough,” said Daly. Yesterday we were confidently running high 226s so we didn’t really expect to worry. Then we went out on our first run and we had a massive imbalance. We found the problem on the scale pad but once you’re already out, you’re in big trouble so we trimmed out, we made some mechanical changes that we didn’t know if they would work, and we just had to go out and hold it flat. I’ve never pushed harder on that pedal and I just tried to make sure that it didn’t crash and we made it. It’s a relief just for this whole program with the U. S. Air Force, for my career. I’m just happy to be here.”
Hinchcliffe’s teammate (and fellow Canadian) Robert Wickens did not expect to be talking to the press about his own chances in the 500 while his teammate (for the moment anyway) had none. He echoed a familiar in a paddock that must have had gremlins working in the dark. “I think we lost some speed overnight, which is always frustrating,” said Wickens. “On Fast Friday, we were right in the mid-227s or low-227s and now we can’t even make it there, so we have some work to do.
“I don’t think that rain delay could have come at a worse time. We got the Lucas Oil car all hot and ready, did one timed lap and had to stop [for moisture on track]. It rained but it’s not cold outside, so everything is hot and the engine’s not making great power because it’s just hot. We did what we could, but I feel like I didn’t get a fair chance. I know there’s more speed. It’s frustrating because I honestly think we had a shot at the Fast Nine today.”
The tension starts anew on the second day of qualifications. The drivers who qualified 10th through 33rd on Saturday will each make one four-lap run in qualifying starting at 2:45 p.m. Sunday—in reverse order of their qualifying speeds Saturday—to determine grid positions 10 through 33 for those cars.
They’ll be followed by the Fast Nine Shootout at 5 pm—also run in reverse order from Saturday’s speeds—to set the first three rows. Castroneves is a four-time Indy 500 pole winner. Only retired Team Penske driver and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears has started at the head of the field more times in race history (six).
Second-day qualifying will stream live on WatchESPN from 2:30-4 p.m. Sunday, with ABC picking up the national TV broadcast from 4-6 p.m.
Results of first-day qualifying Saturday for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race presented by PennGrade Motor Oil Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with rank, car number in parentheses, driver, engine, time and speed in parentheses.
1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 2:37.2607 (228.919 mph)
2. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 2:37.4167 (228.692)
3. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 2:37.6845 (228.304)
4. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 2:37.7604 (228.194)
5. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 2:37.8322 (228.090)
6. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 2:37.8588 (228.052)
7. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 2:37.8608 (228.049)
8. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 2:38.0457 (227.782)
9. (13) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 2:38.1654 (227.610)
10. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 2:38.1996 (227.561)
11. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 2:38.2363 (227.508)
12. (4) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 2:38.2826 (227.441)
13. (10) Ed Jones, Honda, 2:38.5941 (226.995)
14. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 2:38.6238 (226.952)
15. (29) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 2:38.8702 (226.600)
16. (66) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 2:38.9409 (226.499)
17. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 2:39.1837 (226.154)
18. (7) Jay Howard, Honda, 2:39.2233 (226.098)
19. (24) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, 2:39.2459 (226.065)
20. (6) Robert Wickens, Honda, 2:39.3241 (225.955)
21. (32) Kyle Kaiser, Chevrolet, 2:39.3388 (225.934)
22. (25) Stefan Wilson, Honda, 2:39.3561 (225.909)
23. (88) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, 2:39.4273 (225.808)
24. (26) Zach Veach, Honda, 2:39.4298 (225.805)
25. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 2:39.4673 (225.752)
26. (19) Zachary Claman De Melo, Honda, 2:39.4881 (225.722)
27. (60) Jack Harvey, Honda, 2:39.4894 (225.720)
28. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 2:39.5275 (225.666)
29. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, 2:39.6362 (225.513)
30. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 2:39.7114 (225.407)
31. (64) Oriol Servia, Honda, 2:39.9953 (225.007)
32. (17) Conor Daly, Honda, 2:40.0897 (224.874)
33. (33) James Davison, Chevrolet, 2:40.1439 (224.798)
Did Not Qualify:
34. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 2:40.1547 (224.784)
35. (63) Pippa Mann, Honda, 2:40.4565 (224.360)
story and photos by Tim Hailey, with help from IndyCar, Honda, Chevrolet and team reports