INDIANAPOLIS – As his Dallara-Honda violently vibrated and slammed the pavement at roughly 225 mph entering the fourth turn of his last qualifying lap, Oriol Servia found an unusual higher power.
“I did something that never came to my brain before,” Servia said about the lap that put him in the field of the 102nd Indianapolis 500. “ I prayed to Firestone. I promise you I went into the corner and my brain was like ‘Firestone, please, please, please, please. Hold my car to the ground. Please hold my car to the ground.’”
Whether the divine intervention of a tire supplier was the determining factor, Servia qualified 26th with an average speed at 225.699 mph – capping a nightmarish day in which the Spaniard entered the 2.5-mile track believing he had a shot to make the Fast Nine and left with a newfound appreciation for the nail-biting experience of failing to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“I was honestly a nervous wreck,” Servia said. “I honestly felt what it would feel not to make this race. Those minutes, my heart felt in such whole … I can only imagine how Hinch felt. I couldn’t even breathe in that moment. I’m out. I’m not in the race. That just tells you what a fine edge it is.”
At least there was solace for Servia knowing he wasn’t alone. One of the biggest stories entering the race was James Hichcliffe, who is ranked fifth in the points standings with SPM Racing, getting knocked out of the event after starting from the pole position two years ago.
Servia’s Scuderia Corsa entry is aligned with Rahal Letterman Racing, which also struggled with Graham Rahal. Dale Coyne Racing, a mainstay that has won in each of the past two seasons with Sebastien Bourdais, claimed the last spot with Conor Daly and had a third driver, Pippa Mann, bumped.
Meanwhile, relatively inexperienced teams such as Juncos Racing (with rookie driver Kyle Kaiser) and Harding Racing (Gabby Chaves) outqualified some of the bigger names. Alexander Rossi, the 2016 winner as a rookie with Andretti Autosport, will start from the last row in 32nd.
Why have so many good teams struggled with slow cars while also making some sloppy mistakes this month at the Indianapolis 500?
“It’s very competitive, more than ever,” Servia said. “There’s not one team that doesn’t deserve to be in the race, not one driver. It’s just so close.
“It’s a new car, so everyone is still trying to figure out the sweet spot. And it’s a fine edge. It’s just very easy to trip and get completely out of the sweet spot.”
And it actually can benefit the underfunded teams, says Team Penske’s Will Power, because of its simplicity.
“A small team can work it out pretty quickly,” Power said. “And you look at the support system that the manufacturers have, like Chevy, which a lot of those new teams had, they get a lot of good aero information from the support that Chevy gives them.”
Of course, there also was a perplexing lack of execution that contributed to the disappointment. Hinchcliffe’s team inexplicably ran out of time for its last qualifying attempt after a server tire vibration scuttled his last hope.
“It’s unbelievable that Hinch didn’t make it in, which didn’t come down to car speed, it came down to execution there,” Power said. “That was totally preventable. It was kind of surprising. I just don’t know what happened there, He could have so easily been in the field.
“It shows you can’t take all this lightly. You have serious consequences for small mistakes. They could have logistically prevented that quite easily.”
Said Servia: “It just took a couple of missteps to be completely off. They obviously mismanaged the day, because I think they did have the speed to qualify.”
Another factor was that Hinchcliffe was in a Honda, whose horsepower clearly was at a disadvantage to Chevrolet’s in qualifying.
“I think you saw two kinds of categories between the engine manufacturers, and performance too, when it came to qualifying, so that made it quite difficult,” said 2008 winner Scott Dixon, who was the second-highest qualifying Honda in ninth. “I think we were all shocked, as everybody was, with James Hinchcliffe.
“Sometimes, you can just have a bad touch. I’ve been in those scenarios at the Speedway, where you start the first session with your teammate and you’re like ‘Wow, where’s the two miles-an-hour difference?’ And you search for it constantly, and it never appears. You just don’t know why it happens. But I’ve been here, I’ve been at other tracks too in that scenario, and it’s frustrating. I really feel for Pippa and Hinch, who were bumped out. You actually forget how cruel Bump Day is, since we haven’t had it for so long.”