INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato’s win in Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was a surprise but popular victory. It was also a statistically significant one.
With the win, Sato is the sixth different winner in as many races to kick off the Verizon IndyCar Series season, which is something that hasn’t happened in North American top-level open-wheel racing since the year 2000.
He joins Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power as the first six race winners of the year.
In 2000, both the CART FedEx Championship Series and Indy Racing League went the first seven races into that season with as many winners, before a repeat winner happened.
And in both cases, the driver who won their second race of the year went onto win the championship.
Here’s the recaps:
2000, CART: Max Papis (Miami), Paul Tracy (Long Beach), Adrian Fernandez (Rio, Brazil), Michael Andretti (Motegi, Japan), Gil de Ferran (Nazareth), Juan Pablo Montoya (Milwaukee), Helio Castroneves (Detroit) made it seven-for-seven, with Papis and Castroneves winning their first career races (Castroneves’ win happened June 18, 2000). De Ferran won Round 8 at Portland on June 25 to become the first repeat winner. Roberto Moreno, Cristiano da Matta, Jimmy Vasser and Christian Fittipaldi also won that year to make 11 race winners. Nearly 10 drivers were in title contention down to the final two races of the year, before de Ferran edged Fernandez, Moreno and Brack for his first title.
2000, IRL: Robbie Buhl (Walt Disney World), Buddy Lazier (Phoenix), Al Unser Jr. (Las Vegas), Montoya (Indianapolis 500), Scott Sharp (Texas), Eddie Cheever Jr. (Pikes Peak), Greg Ray (Atlanta) made that seven-for-seven (Ray’s Atlanta win occurred July 15, 2000). Lazier won Round 8 at Kentucky on August 27 to become the first repeat winner. As Scott Goodyear won the season finale, it made it eight winners in nine races for the year.
In the 16 intervening years since, at least one driver has won two races within the first five or six races.
In recent years, only three times have there been five winners in five races, with the streak of first-race winners coming to an end in Round 6.
Had Dixon not beat Montoya on a tiebreak to the 2015 title, that streak of the driver being the first to win his second race also winning the title would have held true here.
2015: 5 (Montoya, James Hinchcliffe, Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power), with Montoya the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
2008: 5 (Dixon, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Power, Dan Wheldon), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
2003: 5 (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Sharp, de Ferran, Unser Jr.), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, Pikes Peak.
With 11 races to go, and with only five more winners needed to match, IndyCar can start to think about tying or eclipsing its all-time mark of 11 different winners in a season (which happened back-to-back in those 2000 and 2001 CART seasons).
Rounds 7 and 8 occur at Detroit this weekend for the 2017 IndyCar season. If one of the five drivers who will be entered (assuming Dixon will be good to go; Bourdais is out) can win his second race this season, look for that to make a big impact on the championship as the year goes on.
INDIANAPOLIS – Between winning with a team that’s quickly becoming one of the all-time greats at Indianapolis, fulfilling the hopes and dreams of a nation and writing his own personal redemption story, Takuma Sato entered into history on Sunday as one of the Indianapolis 500’s nicest, most tenacious and popular victors.
Sato tactfully, carefully flew under-the-radar all month as the perceived “fourth” of four Andretti Autosport full-season entries in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, even lower once you added in the star power of the McLaren, Honda and Andretti entry for two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the same team.
And he flew under-the-radar within Honda’s 18-car entry into the race, yet as a driver who’s been supported by them his entire career in both Formula 1 and IndyCar since 2002.
ON-TRACK SUCCESS THIS MONTH
After a month where Sato was a top-five or top-10 regular, the 40-year-old raised some eyebrows and some volume in the media center when he almost crashed twice on his Sunday qualifying run with a short track, dirt track-esque “slide job” off Turn 2. It was a sign of greater things to come.
Then in the race, the patient, calmer Sato that’s been present more often in 2017 through the first five races bided his time until it was “go time” in the final stint of the race, and the “no attack, no chance” style that has defined Sato’s career on the whole came back in the best way possible, as he beat Helio Castroneves in a straight fight for the victory.
“The entire month with my teammates saw us working extremely seamlessly well through the practice day, fantastic qualifying, and to a very strong start,” Sato said Sunday, praising his teammates. “At one stage I lost momentum, and it goes down to like P10. But I just get down in my job, believe in the car, and push in the pit stops.
“When the opportunity comes, I have to give 100 percent commitment. I knew I could do it. But just, you know, waiting for that moment. The last few laps, they were the moment.”
In tandem with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with previously at KV, Sato was determined to start higher so he wouldn’t need to fight through the field too much on race day. Sato has traditionally started 10th or worse at Indianapolis and until Sunday, hadn’t finished higher than 13th, which he did on two occasions.
Mothershead’s voice was struggling to be much above a whisper on Monday and for good reason – he’d almost lost it Sunday screaming after finally securing his own first ‘500 win after coming up short with Carlos Munoz last year.
“My voice is shot, which is the result of an urge to uncontrollably go, ‘woo!’ he laughed on Monday morning.
“Takuma knows so much more now. Back then (at KV) he was a rookie and he didn’t know the tracks or the style of racing.
“For us, winning three of four as a team is incredible and a testament to our organization and preparation. But breaking through here as a winner is special!”
From fourth on the grid, Sato delivered what was frequently a calmer drive, until he needed to unleash his inner beast.
Sato dropped to seventh from fourth on Lap 1 but stayed in the top 10 from there, entering the lead for the first time on Lap 65 passing Rossi before a caution flew for Conor Daly’s accident in Turn 3.
It took until Lap 84, a restart after the third caution of the race, for Sato to drop from the top-10 for the first time. Sato fell as low as 17th in this stint but was back to 10th by Lap 105.
On the pivotal caution that occurred when Charlie Kimball’s engine failed, Sato joined most of the field in making their final stops. He came out in fifth place overall, third among those that pitted, which set the stage for his amazing final 30 laps.
A two-in-one outside pass of Castroneves and Ed Jones into Turn 1 on Lap 179, a lap before Alonso’s engine blew, was the typical “DID YOU SEE THAT?!?” moment of brilliance we’ve come to expect from Sato over the years. The caution that followed almost meant Sato was in the catbird’s seat, sitting ahead of Castroneves and only with Max Chilton – untested in that situation – to get around.
“When he went into Turn 1, I just sort of close my eyes half the time,” his strategist, Paul “Ziggy” Harcus, joked. “I’m afraid. I keep thinking, ‘Are we going to make it?’ But it’s great driving. I think he did a great job today of keeping his head about him and racing up the front.”
Sato’s new team boss, Michael Andretti, also was left in awe as Sato completed the pass.
“There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in one, which was a very important move, because that gave him the track position of the top two guys in front of him,” Andretti said. “That was one of the moves of the race, in my opinion. When I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I think we’re going to win this thing.’ He didn’t let us down. He drove very, very well.”
Sato was briefly eclipsed by Castroneves for position, but wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. He got back by on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 195 in the ultimate winning move of the race. And with enough of a power advantage from there, Castroneves wasn’t able to come back to him.
“I know Helio is always come on charge. But he’s just such a gentleman with such a fair player. I believe him. We go side-by-side turn one… It was job done,” Sato said.
A POPULAR WIN FOR THE PADDOCK
The win stirred the soul for many in the IndyCar paddock, happy for one of the series’ most genuine and nicest guys, if one whose undoubted speed and promise in eight years and more than 100 starts has been consistently blighted by inconsistency. His only other win came with A.J. Foyt Racing at Long Beach in 2013, that in itself snapping an 11-year drought for Foyt since its last win in 2002.
Members from Sato’s old team visited him in victory lane – Foyt included – to wish him congratulations on the win.
His teammates were happy that he brought Michael Andretti his fifth win in the race, which now moves him ahead of Chip Ganassi (four) for second among active owners, trailing only Roger Penske’s seemingly unassailable 16. It didn’t fully alleviate the pain of Alonso and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engine failures, nor Alexander Rossi’s fueling issue, but it helped.
“That’s why we had six bullets in the gun, right? Luckily one came through,” Andretti said.
Honda was particularly pleased. A driver that has been in their camp nearly two decades delivered the win for both cultures, the Honda of Japan and Honda of America (via Honda Performance Development), and atoned for a day when reliability woes were set to define its story.
“The one thing is one goal for the winning. It’s the Honda DNA, and that comes from, of course, Mr. Soichiro Honda, and that’s the way Honda Japan, American Honda, it really doesn’t matter,” Sato explained.
“Honda wanted to push absolute on the limit. I can see both ways very, very similar, not only for the Honda globally, but very specifically like HPD here, it is the same philosophy. As Honda, it is just one aim: it is winning, so I can see both ways.”
In talking to senior HPD officials Monday morning, it was strongly hinted that Honda determined to run its engines at max capacity, reducing rumors they’d plan to “turn the engines down” in order to save the reliability.
The win, of course, provided the redemption tale for Sato’s famous – or infamous – 2012 near-miss. That final lap lunge attempting to pass Dario Franchitti – Franchitti having delivered a bit of gamesmanship to leave just enough of a lane to coax Sato into going for it and making a mistake – stood in mind heading into this year’s race, as this year was always going to mark Sato’s best chance to win since. He reflected on that in a piece for Motorsport.com earlier this month, and then said it’s ancient history on Sunday afternoon.
“I do feel after 2012 I really needed to correct something I left over. Today I was so happy that I made it and won in a good move. I have to thank to Michael for that,” he said.
WHAT THIS MEANT FOR JAPAN
What was the happiest of takeaways for this happy driver – who didn’t look tired despite less than three hours of sleep and more than 30 interviews in the wake of winning Sunday afternoon through to his Monday morning media availability after two hours of photo taking – was what this win meant to his country, and his countrymen.
There’s a small but dedicated contingent of Japanese reporters and photographers who cover the full IndyCar series and make frequent commutes back and forth to Japan along the way. They’re the voices and people that tell Sato’s story to that nation, one which was rocked by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake and one where Sato, via the “With You Japan” campaign, has been an active philanthropist.
Seeing their excitement as well as listening to the excitement of the Japanese TV feed was a sign of pure joy, and one Sato expanded upon in both his Sunday and Monday press conferences.
“There was a Japan program really started in 2011, immediately after the earthquake happened, and all the intention was helping the children from the devastated area,” Sato explained. “It’s a difficult life for them, lost friends and family, and lost home. As I repeat, 250,000 people still living in temporary houses today, so it’s suffering a lot. It is on the recovery, but it’s a long way.
“So I couldn’t put a big donation, but I can bring some energy through the motor racing, so always I invite 100, 150 kids from the devastated area, and we do a go-karting event in the last few years, and that’s spreading all over Japan now, and there is a few places to help, and we did some tournament system, and then end of the year last year in Suzuka, we had a great race, so it’s combined all Japan as well as devastated areas.
“It’s been — it’s great. I think it’s great support, everyone, and as long as I could do, I wanted to keep supporting the children until they become adults, and hopefully one of them becomes a professional race driver.”
Sato might be 40 years old now, but he doesn’t look the part, and now revitalized, the next step from here is taking the success he’s achieved at Indianapolis and translating in for the rest of the season. He now sits tied for second in points with the last two series champions, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, 11 back of Castroneves (245-234).
“Age is something for the athlete. Age 40 is something you have to consider how you going to perform well. I think we proved Helio still up there, me up there, T.K. (Tony Kanaan) up there. We train really hard to maintain it,” Sato said.
“There’s always just heart and the mental, the mental strength. You can keep on going. Someday I will have to retire, but now, I have a more competitive race I want to do.
“Yeah, it’s such a privilege to win here. So whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter. You winning today. It’s just superb. Just coming onto the top, nothing else.
“I’m so looking forward, particularly now, in championship standings, my standing is very high now, and certainly it is the real challenge for the championship. That’s the most exciting thing for my life right now. Let’s try and give it everything.”
A trio of new teams (Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and Michael Shank Racing, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport) debuted at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Expectations for such outfits are usually humble and rarely do outsiders, or even insiders, predict such efforts to run up front.
And yet, at the checkered flag, one of those teams emerged in ninth place, a top-10 finish in its IndyCar debut.
Harding Racing’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in the hands of Gabby Chaves, had never run a race before, let alone an IndyCar race, and let alone an Indianapolis 500. However, they survived the carnage and chaos that defined the day to finish in the top-10, dramatically exceeding expectations.
Chaves was competing in his third “500,” two years after winning rookie-of-the-year honors with a 16th place for Bryan Herta Autosport. He labeled this race as mission: accomplished.
“I think we did our job. We took the race one lap at a time. We let the track and the conditions come to us and we dialed in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet car every stop,” Chaves said. “We had a heck of a stint there. I think we were one of the only cars being able to make moves out there and got into a solid top ten for our first go as a team.”
Fellow debutante Juncos Racing, too, excelled in their own right. While their runs to 15th (Sebastian Saavedra) and 18th (Spencer Pigot) were unspectacular, the reality is that both cars made it to the finish, with Saavedra finishing on the lead lap, a noteworthy performance for a team making its first IndyCar start.
Saavedra, like Chaves, said the team accomplished everything it wanted to. “We accomplished the mission we started less than two months ago,” he asserted. “To finish this first Indy 500 with both cars intact is a victory of its own. I’m very proud of the whole organization for putting in such a professional effort. It was rough out there. We were not as competitive as we wanted, but hey, that’s something that is expected your first time out.”
Teammate Spencer Pigot endured a more difficult race in his No. 11 Chevrolet, which the team scrambled to repair ahead of qualifying after a practice crash. As Pigot described, something was still off with the car (he was nearly lapped at the end of the opening stint) and he and the team were fighting it the entire day.
“I think there’s still something I’m missing or something’s gone away with the car since the (practice) crash. It never really felt right and it was just very difficult to drive, but we fought through a tough day. We didn’t give up. The guys kept working hard and I can’t thank them enough for the recovery and for putting this all together,” Pigot detailed.
Michael Shank Racing, the third team making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut, endured the most challenging race of the three new teams. For them, it was a race that concluded a difficult month riddled with problems, which began with a foreboding and bizarre steering failure that resulted in wall contact during opening day practice for driver Jack Harvey.
Harvey and Michael Shank’s No. 50 Honda team were enjoying a solid race until Conor Daly’s lap 65 crash in Turn 3. Harvey hit debris from the accident and spun into the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. It ended a difficult month for a driver and team who truly made a herculean effort to field an entry.
“It’s a super disappointing day because we worked so hard to get here so to have the day end like this is heartbreaking,” Harvey lamented afterward. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”
Still, Harvey was enthusiastic to simply have a chance to compete. “This was still the best experience I’ve ever had,” he asserted. “The Indianapolis 500 represents so much in the state of Indiana and to the racing world, but it just didn’t go the right way for us today.”
Of those three, Harding Racing is the only one scheduled to run more IndyCar races this year. They will return for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10 and the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway on August 20.
Alexander Rossi spent much of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil battling amongst the leaders. However, for the second consecutive year, the efforts from him and Andretti-Herta Autosport team were hampered by fuel issues.
During a pit for the lap 134 engine failure of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi’s No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda team had trouble engaging the fuel nozzle, resulting in a longer pit stop that dropped him to the middle of the field.
While he and the team used strategy to rebound from such an incident during last year’s race to take victory, circumstances did not play out in his favor this year. Rossi spent the rest of the race mired in traffic and was not in position to take advantage of alternate strategies.
Rossi rebounded to finish seventh, but he and the team know they missed an opportunity to contend for victory.
“Two years in a row to have fuel problems is pretty tough to swallow,” he lamented. “Obviously, it worked last year. You can’t rely on not fueling the car every year and getting results; it’s difficult. The NAPA Auto Parts Honda was awesome from the get-go. Then we didn’t have the downforce to be that far back.”
Rossi has shown an uptick in speed this year and has been a frontrunner at most events, but bad luck has kept he and the No. 98 team from contending for victory. Nonetheless, he now sits fifth in the championship following their performances at Indianapolis.
INDIANAPOLIS – It speaks volumes of the confidence and maturation of Max Chilton in his second go-around at the Indianapolis 500 that a Verizon IndyCar Series career-best fourth place, after leading a race-high 50 laps in the No. 8 Gallagher Honda or Chip Ganassi Racing, was a proper disappointment.
But indeed, Chilton’s capped off a month where he’s banked back-to-back IndyCar career-best results – first a seventh place in the INDYCAR Grand Prix and then fourth on Sunday in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil – and has leapt from 18th to 11th in the points standings as a result.
Chilton looked a realistic winner for most of the race after recovering from an ill-handling car in his first stint. He started 15th but tumbled to 27th in the first 26 laps before his first pit stop.
The gamble that paid dividends though was to go off sequence and pit during the second full-course caution period on Lap 68. Once a further full-course caution flew on Lap 81 for debris, Chilton and Will Power stayed out while the rest of the field pitted.
That netted him the lead for the first time on Lap 84 and vaulted him from 24th up the order. The track position was key and as Chilton found, his car was excellent in clean air but struggled once he got behind others. Nonetheless, his strategy and hopes would ebb and flow the rest of the race as he remained part of the top 10 runners.
It was setting up that Chilton and Power were positioning themselves to pull an Alexander Rossi-type-of strategy from there and make the race on one fewer pit stop, but that idea ended when Chilton bailed out and pitted on Lap 124 with five others, including eventual third place finisher Ed Jones. It kept them off-sequence but meant they’d still need to do two more stops before taking the checkered flag.
Chilton returned to the lead on Lap 139 as others pitted and after a quick exchange with Ganassi teammate Charlie Kimball, led from Laps 148 through to 165, before another caution flew as Kimball’s Honda engine expired.
The Kimball caution took everyone’s possible strategic elements out of play and positioned the field for a final sprint to the finish.
It was there Chilton showcased his race craft, with excellent defense against Jones, Helio Castroneves, and eventual winner Takuma Sato.
Chilton had to watch in the rear view mirror as Sato completed his move of the race, a three-wide around the outside double pick-off of Castroneves and Jones, prior to Fernando Alonso’s retirement.
Chilton defended on the final five laps from Sato, then Castroneves, before Castroneves got around him for the lead on Lap 194. Sato followed him through for second on the same lap, and Jones got him for third a lap later to leave the Reigate, England native in an unrepresentative fourth place.
“The Gallagher Honda was struggling a lot early in the race and we even went a lap down,” Chilton said post-race. “But we kept our heads down, kept going and got a break. I don’t think anyone has ever won this race without a little bit of luck.
“When we did end up getting out front, the car was really quick, and you can see why this place is so special and so electric in that moment.
“I held (Takuma) Sato off with everything I had, but when the cars gang up behind you, they get a massive run and you can only do so much as the leader. As soon as they got past, I wasn’t as confident in the dirty air.
“To come from a lap down to lead and have a chance to win here at Indy is a massive accomplishment for the whole team.”
The race for Chilton played out almost exactly as he predicted on Thursday, when we spoke to him during Indianapolis 500 media day.
“Temperature wise I don’t think there’s much in it. I think Honda has the best package overall for racing, power, and fuel economy,” Chilton told NBC Sports then. “Ed (Carpenter) looked strong in qualifying but whether they’re strong over a stint is a different matter. I know the Penskes are struggling, which is a sign Chevrolet is, because they’re the ‘works’ team.
“I feel good in what Scott’s got; he was quickest in qualifying and I was strongest in ‘race day running,’ if you want to call it that. But I feel we’ve got a good package. Maybe 22 others can win though! You’ve got to do the best job you can though and if it’s your day, it’s your day.”
Chilton was bullish even on Thursday that he knew he had a car that could win, and wouldn’t be happy unless he did. He so very nearly backed that up with a performance worthy of a victory.
“I want to win it! To be honest top-fives are pointless here. Charlie, my teammate, has been finished top five a few times here, and he said, ‘I was third here once – I won an interview – and that was it.’
“There’s no such thing as a podium here; if you’re second you’re first loser, and it’s a face that doesn’t particularly look like yours that’s on the Borg-Warner Trophy!”
Indeed Chilton’s face is not Sato’s, but after an effort like Chilton, in tandem with engineer Brandon Fry and strategist Julian Robertson put together on Sunday, that day when his face appears on the trophy could come soon enough.