LEXINGTON, Ohio – Esteban Gutierrez’s first season in the Verizon IndyCar Series has featured a number of stories. But in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the young Mexican driver was highlighted under the microscope in a race situation for the first time of note this year, perhaps for the wrong reasons.
On the first and only restart from a full-course caution on Lap 71, race leader Josef Newgarden had Gutierrez as a buffer between himself and second-placed Will Power, and third-placed Graham Rahal.
Gutierrez was a lap down and understandably was keen to get his lap back, although at such a late stage of the race, even if he got back on the lead lap would have likely struggled to make up enough time for a result.
Anyway, Newgarden got the jump but Gutierrez pushed him on the run to Turn 4 from the restart line. He got close enough to the race leader to make it interesting, but not close enough to overtake. He had gotten close enough to where Power and Rahal were held up in the process of pursuing Newgarden, and with fresher and softer Firestone red alternate tires versus Newgarden’s harder primary Firestone blacks, the second- and third-placed drivers’ potential tire advantage was negated.
After the race, INDYCAR officials met with Gutierrez and the Dale Coyne Racing team for further discussions about whether there was a call to go for it or how it played out.
It’s a dilemma because by the INDYCAR rulebook, Gutierrez had every right to make the attempt to pass to get back on the lead lap, and it’s also a smart play by Coyne to ensure the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda – otherwise running outside the top-15 despite Gutierrez qualifying a season-best 12th – got some quality air time on NBCSN. But by the unwritten rules of racing, there’s a gentlemen’s agreement in place to not impact the battle for the lead if you’re a lapped car.
“Well, I honestly tried!” Gutierrez told NBC Sports after the race. “It was tricky there. We were in a good position and going well with a good pace. Obviously we wanted to get on the lead lap, and we tried, but we didn’t get there.”
He’d lost the lap earlier in the race owing to a front wing issue and Gutierrez called it a “miscommunication” on the first pit stop.
Race winner Newgarden described the dilemma from his vantage point. It helped him in the long run, and he said Gutierrez didn’t do anything wrong, but added that he’d have felt aggrieved if he was in Power or Rahal’s shoes.
“The only real drama was the restart, as it felt like we were on the wrong tire again, kind of like Road America,” Newgarden said. “Fortunately, we had a bit of a buffer, even with the car in between. Even there, I thought Gutierrez was going to run into us on Turn 4 for a second, but we seemed to skate through.”
Newgarden said his race strategist, Tim Cindric, said to expect Gutierrez to try a move on the restart.
“Tim even said something. Tim was like, ‘Hey, you need to watch out. Gutierrez is on red tires. He’s probably going to try and be a hero getting his lap back here,’ which was not the thing to do, I don’t think, in that situation when you’re on the last stint. I mean, you’re not going to really be able to do much getting your lap back,” Newgarden said.
“So I was talking to the guys. I talked to Rahal and Will about it. It’s probably something we need to address again. We’ve had this discussion about lap cars before. We probably need to have a discussion about how we handle it again with just the procedure. Per the rules, he has every right to actually try and pass me. It’s not against the rules. It’s not against what we do right now in IndyCar. So there’s really nothing wrong that he did, but is that the right procedure to have? I don’t know anymore.
“It didn’t end bad. It was all fine. He’s a talented driver. He’s been in a lot of series. I think he handled it fine, and there’s nothing that bad that came out of it. Fortunately, we don’t have to talk about something like that.”
Newgarden and Gutierrez had raced each other before IndyCar in the 2010 GP3 Series season (a field that also featured fellow 2017 IndyCar drivers Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens, among other notables), but with this only Gutierrez’s sixth IndyCar start, it’s worth wondering whether he was accustomed to the unofficial IndyCar “rules of engagement.”
“That’s why I felt he would do it because he’s so new here. I thought he would do something like that, where he’s going to try to get his lap back. I tried to get as good a jump as I could and just watched him,” Newgarden said.
“I saw him locked up in my mirror, and I thought, ‘I can’t really go anywhere.’ I left a little bit of room on the inside, not a lot, but I left a little bit just to give him some space. I was just waiting. I was like, he’s either going to hit me or he’s not. And he didn’t. Once we got to the corner, it was just fine.
“But I was expecting it. I was expecting something like that. After we got through that, it actually kind of helped me a little bit going after Will. It was probably a good thing after we got to the start.”
Unsurprisingly, Rahal and Power took a different view of the passing attempt, although Power agreed with Newgarden that Gutierrez wasn’t really to blame for going for it.
“I think we need to have a talk behind closed doors with the drivers,” Rahal lamented. “I would say Gutierrez was damn close to taking out the leader. I’m sure you saw it. That’s just ridiculous, honestly. We’ll talk about it behind closed doors. I think everybody needs a little bit of a shakeup here with just the respect between drivers, but we’ll go from there.
“I mean, I always get told I’m a whiner when I talk about those sorts of things. I’ll let Will talk about it.”
Power replied, “It’s actually not Gutierrez’s fault. The rules for IndyCar are kind of ridiculous, that the team would tell him to stay and push and he’s not even in the lead. He’s not even leading. I understand if he was ahead of Newgarden because then, if it goes yellow, he gets his lap back.
“Yeah, I mean, IndyCar on one hand wants really good racing, but then you put a bunch of backmarkers, people a lap down in the mix. It ruined probably a very good battle at the end because Josef was on black tires and we were on reds.”