Did the fastest guy win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016?
Yes. Alexander Rossi won the 100th running of the Indy 500, and he was the fastest driver in the race.
That he was also the fastest driver might surprise some people, because Rossi was barely running freeway speeds when he took the checkered flag. Rossi’s final lap average of barely 179 m.p.h. was more than 50 m.p.h. slower than the speed James Hinchcliffe averaged in winning the No. 1 starting position for the race.
But the tortoise did not beat 32 other “hares” in the race.
During the race itself, no one was faster than Rossi. In fact, he logged the race’s fastest lap – averaging 225.228 m.p.h. – on lap 106 of the 200-lap event. (Laps in the race are usually a bit slower than laps turned with special setups during qualifying.)
The interesting thing about Rossi’s fast lap: He was running in last place, when he turned it!
That’s when Rossi’s team owner Bryan Herta had decided to put Rossi, who had been running competitively in the first half of the race but well down in the order, on a different strategy: He would pit later, strive to save fuel, and run as long as possible between fuel stops. The hope was that Rossi could make fewer stops than the other guys the rest of the way. The idea worked.
In fact, here is how it worked: After Rossi topped off with fuel on lap 101, he dropped to last. But he was able to work his way to the front within 28 laps, as every other driver pitted before he did. He went into the race lead from lap 129 to 137; that’s when he finally had to stop for fuel.
But – this is important – that stint of 36 laps on one tank of fuel proved to Herta and Rossi something vital: They could go that far on a tankful of ethanol, if they had to. So the die was cast.
The pit stop on lap 138 dropped Rossi to last again among the cars still running on the lead lap. But once again, he was again able to work his way back up through the field, especially as drivers who were “fuelish” – not as obsessed about saving fuel as Rossi – began having to pit again (and again).
Another value in Rossi’s strategy of pitting out of sequence: The pits were usually not so crowded when he did have to come in for service. His rivals tended to pit all at once; Indy’s pit lane is narrow – and often overcrowded. And several of his rivals either lost time getting blocked, hitting other cars, or getting penalized for reckless driving during the pit melees.
Rossi did pit with a fairly large group of leaders when he stopped on lap 164, for what would turn out to be his final service; but Rossi’s crew was more concerned with filling his car with every last drop of fuel than rushing to finish the service stop. (He came in running in eighth place, and left in tenth.) At that point, his strategy was to run to the finish – or run out, trying.
The unanswered question was: Could he again squeeze 36 laps out of his tank?
Rossi also needed the unwitting help of every other driver still running to make his strategy work; there could be no caution periods (yellow flags for on-track incidents) for the remainder of the race. (That incident-free scenario seldom has been the way the final 36 laps of the previous 99 Indy 500s have played out.)
Rossi also needed to do his part to conserve fuel: Keep a steady accelerator pedal, back off when he could coast and not lose positions, and to not race people he knew would have to stop for fuel.
“Not many drivers could have done what I was asking him to do,” Herta said, in complimenting not only Rossi’s speed, and error-free driving, but also the rookie’s ability to maintain discipline under a tricky fuel-saving strategy that he had never before been asked to try.
With 10 laps to go, Rossi had worked his way back up to sixth. That’s when drivers ahead of him, who had been getting worse fuel mileage than Rossi, started peeling off to the pits for a final splash of ethanol: Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Josef Newgarden, Hinchcliffe, and finally Carlos Muñoz.
That is when, with four laps to go, Rossi finally inherited the race lead. Close behind Rossi, challengers Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves and Sebastian Bourdais also began to run out; and they had to pit. Rossi became the last driver to dare to stretch his fuel to the finish.
After their quick final stops, Muñoz and Newgarden were closing fast on Rossi – another lap might have been enough for them to overtake him – but the checkered flag waved on Rossi’s sputtering .
The fastest man in the Indy 500 had won the race – on his slowest lap.
“I have no idea how we pulled that off,” Rossi said, incredulous, in Victory Circle. Then he poured cold milk over his head.
May 31, 2016