Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 28, 2019

How Honda Threw Away Victory In The 2019 Indianapolis 500

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The finish of the 2019 Indy 500, from the press box (Jerry Garrett Photo)

By JERRY GARRETT

INDIANAPOLIS

Okay, so Simon Pagenaud’s Chevrolet-powered racer edged out Alexander Rossi’s Honda-driven machine in the 2019 Indianapolis 500.

But it was a case of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” for Honda.

The 15 Chevrolets in the 33-car field were paced by Pagenaud, who qualified fastest and led 112 of the 200 laps in the race; but the 18 Hondas, best represented by Rossi, seemed to get slightly better fuel mileage. Rossi even managed to lead a second-best 22 laps.

This is not a tortoise-and-the-hare tale, but there are elements in this story that remind us that the race does not always go to the swiftest – although it did in this case. And the “tortoise” in this tale committed more than enough unforced errors to screw up itself out of a happy ending.

“Horsepower,” is what Rossi said it all came down to at the finish, as Pagenaud held him off by two-tenths of a second, in the seventh closest finish in the 500’s 103-year history. Pagenaud’s Chevrolet had slightly more power than Rossi’s Honda, when it came down to who could take the point and hold it for the frantic final five miles.

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How they finished.

“It’s not that the Honda has any significant disadvantage, from a horsepower standpoint,” Rossi said. “Yes, it’s an engine whose basic design is now almost ten years old, and they keep doing clever things to keep it competitive. It’s just that when it came down to the finish, Simon had the power to pass me, and I was unable to get enough of a run to re-pass him.” A series of wild blocking moves by Pagenaud complicated Rossi’s task.

But Rossi actually had the keys to victory snatched away, multiple times – by other Honda drivers!

Rossi, who scored an upset victory here in the 2016 500 as a rookie, won that race with superior fuel mileage, and a clever strategy that was slavishly adhered to – until the final lap, when he took the lead, as driver after driver ahead of him ran out of fuel.

This time around, Rossi and the other Honda drivers – 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon, Conor Daly, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais chief among them – had an improved fuel-stretching strategy to go with a go-fast plan to stay closer to the front as much as possible the whole race.

In 2016, Rossi had been willing to drop all the way to last at the mid-point of the race, in order to stretch his fuel to the max.

In a normal Indy race, at least six pit stops for fuel are to be expected. If you can stretch your fuel, as Rossi did in 2016, and make only five fuel stops, you’ve gained a theoretical advantage of nearly an entire 2.5-mile lap, at these speeds. That’s huge.

Many of the Honda drivers this year were mindful of that five-stop strategy, while the Chevrolet crowd was just going to go for it, running flat out all day, in hopes the chips fell their way. A sort of hare-brained strategy, if you will.

What negates the fuel mileage strategy is when there are too many crashes and yellow caution flags that slow the race during clean-up periods. Then pit stops can be made during the ensuing slow-down periods, without losing much track position.

For instance, Pagenaud led the race until lap 32, when he made his first fuel stop. Rossi didn’t pit until lap 36.

Though it didn’t take Pagenaud long to race back into the lead, he had to stop again at lap 64. Rossi, who remained among the top five during this segment, didn’t stop until lap 70. So, it was becoming clear what Rossi was up to – and it was working.

On lap 99, Pagenaud came in again for fuel – once again giving up the lead, as happened each time he pitted. Rossi managed to stay out until lap 106. So the extra laps that Rossi had “in the bank”, so to speak, over Pagenaud grew again. And they could be expected to continue growing until the last 30 laps or so, when Pagenaud would have to make a final stop, while Rossi could keep going. Game over for Chevrolet, in that case.

But here is where the plan started to unravel for Rossi, and his Honda mates. That lap 106 pit stop for Rossi was botched when his fuel man could not get his balky re-fueling rig engaged and disengaged quickly enough during the stop. So, Rossi’s stop took 8.8 seconds, while Pagenaud had received service earlier in just 7.2 seconds. That translated to at least four football fields worth of distance on the race track; Rossi had to start driving like a wild man avoid losing even more time. Rossi knew if he was bogged down behind slower traffic, the leaders could pull away quickly.

In his mad dash to the front, Rossi narrowly missed colliding with Bourdais and Oriol Servia, as they failed to move over fast enough. Rossi angrily shook his fist at them – while continuing to race on at 220 mph with one hand!

What added to Rossi’s pique at these guys was they were fellow Honda racers, and they had an obligation to give a faster “teammate” plenty of room to go by.

Behind Rossi, Honda drivers Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon were on a plan to stretch their mileage even farther, and they didn’t stop until laps 109 and 112, respectively.

At this point, Hondas occupied nine of the first 11 places in the running order. And the two Chevrolets among them – Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden – were doomed, because they would have to make one extra, hope-killing fuel stop in the last 200 miles!

Honda’s strategy was working perfectly. Until it wasn’t.

The advantage was wiped out as the race neared its 350-mile mark: Top ten Honda runner Marcus Ericsson blundered too fast onto pit road, spun around and banged the wall. This pit road blockage brought out the yellow flag. As the field slowed and bunched up behind the pace car, the backmarkers all caught back up. And everyone got to make essentially a free pit stop, without jeopardizing their positions on the race track. This was great for the Chevrolet drivers, who desperately needed this, but disastrous for the Honda guys, who definitely did not it. They had all too recently stopped for service.

So Rossi’s growing 12-lap fuel cushion – and his need for one less fuel stop than the Chevrolets – was wiped out. Same with most of the other Honda runners.

Rossi’s problems were compounded when his pesky fuel hose problem resurfaced; he lost a huge amount of time – which put him back in the running order once again – while his pit crew struggled to get fuel into his car.

When the race resumed, Rossi – furious over the pit stop debacle – drove like a man unafraid of Indy’s mortal dangers, to erase the setback he had suffered. He was soon back among the top five, but his fuel advantage was zeroed out. On lap 167, Rossi, Pagenaud and Newgarden all pitted for fuel again at the same time.

But even if the race had run to its conclusion from this point without caution, there was still a chance fuel mileage maybe – just maybe – could come into play again. Here’s how: Racing at similar speeds, Pagenaud could expect to get about 29-30 laps on of a tank of fuel, while Rossi was looking at 32-33, at least. Pagenaud might have to mitigate his horsepower advantage to conserve fuel, while Rossi could race flat-out.

So off they went again, with Rossi dogging the Chevrolets of Pagenaud, Newgarden and Ed Carpenter.

Then came what proved to be the final nail in Honda’s coffin: Rahal and Bourdais were having it out. Rahal was trying to pass, Bourdais kept cutting him off. This went on for a lap or two, until Bourdais again tried to cut Rahal off going into a turn. They bumped. Bourdais turned sideways in front of Rahal, who then collected him. They spun into the wall, while Felix Rosenqvist and Zach Veach crashed behind them.

The truly stupid aspect about this totally needless crash was that it was two Honda guys crashing out two other Honda guys, and again thwarting another Honda guy – Rossi – and his relentless march to the front.

The Chevrolet guys, meanwhile, emerged more than “unscathed” – they were gifted another free pit stop as a result, and more than enough fuel to run to the finish at full warp! So thanks to the dispiriting lack of Honda camaraderie, their potentially unbeatable fuel mileage strategy was pronounced dead, once and for all.

At the end, it came down to Rossi, and another determined Honda driver Takuma Sato (recovering from an early race pit foul-up) trying every trick they knew to vanquish the Chevrolets. They bravely got past Newgarden, Power and Carpenter with nail-biting passes. But then they lacked that extra dab of horsepower needed to dispatch Pagenaud. Rossi did draft into the lead with three laps to go. But that was actually Rossi’s fatal mistake, Pagenaud believes.

“When he got me [with] three laps to go, I’m like, ‘Man, you shouldn’t have done that,'” Pagenaud told Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an interview after the race. Pagenaud employed the same slip-streaming strategy to take the lead right back for the final lap.

“The actual thing I said to myself when he goes around me in Turn 1 is, ‘Perfect. Perfect.'” Pagenaud continued. “I was so worried that he was going to wait for the last lap and do it, and if he did it on the last lap, he could have won the race.”

By making his move three laps from the end, Rossi left Pagenaud too much time, and opportunity, to use the same slipstream move to get the lead back. In theory, the two combatants could have used the slipstream to leap-frog each other indefinitely.

But the checkered flag at the end of lap 200 decided the battle, although Pagenaud had to use all his wiles to block Rossi’s desperation, last-lap bid to go in front two turns from the finish.

“By the white flag, he was so far (behind), I thought I had it,” Pagenaud recalled of the frantic few seconds left in the race. “But then on the backstretch on the last lap, then he got really close. He had a good Turn 2, and I had to pull the Dale Jr. card there…

“My last card in my game was to break the draft, find a way to break the draft. And obviously, I was able to finish the corner really low to break the draft because my car was just sensational. And then he couldn’t really do the same, so that gained me a little bit. And then when he started drafting (back to me), I just moved to the high side, and he couldn’t move as quick as me, so I did it again. And that was just enough to be inside Turn 3, and I wasn’t going to lift no matter what.”

“We had the superior car, I felt,” Rossi lamented, “for most situations. But at the end, we lacked just that tiny bit of horsepower we needed to get past Simon that last time.”

May 27, 2019

(Editor’s Note: Versions of this story appeared in the May 26, 2019 editions of The New York Times.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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