As the dust — and heart rates — began to settle around Mid-Ohio, it was Simon Pagenaud who best described Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series race.
“I don’t know what to say,” mused the Frenchman, who finished 10th. “It was pretty eventful. I was roughed around quite a bit, and I roughed around a lot of people.”
On a day when virtually every driver in the field left the track with a story to tell, it was Scott McLaughlin who kept Team Penske’s strong run of form going by holding off Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou to claim the win.
McLaughlin and the No. 3 team executed their race flawlessly, but they also caught a massive break when a caution was needed to retrieve Kyle Kirkwood’s car right in the middle of a pit window and race control opted to wait until the three cars that had yet to stop — McLaughlin, Marcus Ericsson and Colton Herta — had a chance to get back around to pit entry. The yellows finally waved just as McLaughlin exited the pits in the lead, and eliminated any vulnerability on his out lap. The call caused some grief among some of the others in the top 10.
“The race control yellow happens, but now they’re waiting — that’s kind of new,” said Scott Dixon, who finished fifth. “Had the caution happened when it should have, I think we’d have come out in front. Today we looked like an IMSA race. And I’m fine with that, but we need to be consistent. I think race control needs to work out where they want to be.”
McLaughlin, for his part, was just happy to get the job done after his handling started to fade over the closing lapse.
“It was tough,” said McLaughlin of spending the rest of the afternoon trying to keep the No.10 Ganassi car in his mirrors. “You’re thinking about fuel, but I had the fuel mileage and driveability off the restarts to be able to keep a gap on Palou.”
That gap in the end was just 0.5s, and Palou was satisfied with second after being edged out of the Fast 6 in qualifying on Saturday.
“It was so close,” he said. “Our car was fast, we just missed it by this much. Amazing strategy, amazing pit stops — super-happy.”
But the standout drive of the day belonged to the driver of the car just behind him in third. Will Power began the race with a lot of work to do after qualifying a disastrous 21st due to an impediment penalty, and then dug himself into an even deeper hole on the first green-flag lap when he passed Christian Lundgaard, tried to make it a double by going for a half-gap inside Takuma Sato, and instead caught the curb, went into a half-spin and fell to the back of the field.
Like several of the faster drivers who’d qualified relatively poorly, Power had gone into the race with an aggressive strategy, but with the help of some well-time cautions he was able to get into synch with the leaders during his second stop. He’d already been on a charge prior to that point, but his drive over the remainder of the race was something to behold. Armed with a new set of Firestone’s alternate tires, he went into the final stint with a realistic shot of challenging for the lead, and while his rubber faded towards the end, third still represented a phenomenal recovery.
“Amazing day,” he said. “I said in a strategy meeting — which I have a few times this year after we’ve qualified badly — a top 10 would be great. Some good restarts, good exchanges, good pit stops, good strategy and a great job by the team. Starting from the back is certainly more entertaining than leading from the front! Stoked.”
All of the drivers running up front towards the end had their lives made a little easier by the fact that the day was an absolute catastrophe for Arrow McLaren SP.
Felix Rosenqvist had gotten himself up to third early on when smoke began pouring from the back of the car, putting him out of the race after just eight lapses.
“I came out of Turn 2 and it felt like I was on the pit limiter, then it got going again after I pulled the clutch ,and then on the straight it just died. I think we had a mega weekend going; we were off-strategy on the black tires, I’d moved up from fourth to third… it’s a big loss for us today. I felt like we were sailing out there. We showed that we were up there and fighting for it – we just have to come back and do it again.”
Worse was to come. Polesitter Pato O’Ward spent the opening part of the race controlling his advantage out in front, but right at the end of the first stint he began sending increasingly panicked messages to the pitwall about problems with his car. The situation snowballed, sending him plunging down the field during his second stint before the car called it quits in pitlane after his next stop.
“Apparently it was something fuel-delivery wise,” he said. “It kept getting worse and worse and worse and then it failed. It’s a bummer, man. Its frustrating. We’ve thrown away an easy podium. We had a lot of pace — the car was really well put together.”
While there’ll be plenty of soul-searching at AMSP in the coming days, the vibe in the Andretti camp might be even worse after a day plagued with friendly fire incidents and other setbacks: Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean came together twice in two lapses ; the second one being amplified by Rossi’s steering wheel being knocked out of his hands mid-corner, sending him wide and punting Grosjean into the dirt. The Frenchman was left a lap down.
“It was a racing incident,” said Rossi. “He was on the softer tire and was probably going to get around me, and he likes to do it fast and early. Had some understeer there, and it’s unfortunate to have contact with a teammate.”
Later, Rossi had a coming-together with Devlin DeFrancesco that sent the rookie bouncing into the dust. Colton Herta avoided all that, but instead had his race ruined when a yellow flew right before he was scheduled to make a stop, forcing him to pit during the caution and dumping him from first to near-last.
Elsewhere, Rinus VeeKay got the mid-season reset he’d been looking for after taking the No. 21 ECR Chevy across the line in fourth; his only complaint afterwards being about what he thought was some overly boisterous driving from Power. Ericsson and Josef Newgarden, meanwhile, both salvaged a decent points haul after disappointing qualifying performances and finished sixth and seventh respectively.