Justin Wilson was looking on course to match his best-ever Indianapolis 500 performance on Sunday, as he ran consistently in the top five over the course of the opening third of the race.
Wilson had last week qualified the #25 Andretti Autosport car in sixth position on the grid for the 99th running of the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, making him the highest-placed of all the drivers using Honda engines at this year's event.
The opening laps showed that his qualifying form had been no fluke, and for the first 60 laps he was the only driver to come close to breaking into the Penske/Ganassi duopoly at the front of the field. But Wilson and his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay had been among those drivers to have just made their green flag second pit stops of the day when an accident for Bryan Clauson put the race under caution, hugely benefiting those cars who hadn't yet come in and who now got to pit under yellow.
"It was a tough day for the #25 Rolling Stones Honda," sighed Wilson. "We had a vibration in one of our rear tires so we were forced to pit early because we were losing a lot of lap time.
"We had to pit a few laps early and that's when the yellow flag came out and that was it, we went a lap down and just tried to fight our way back to the front."
Wilson and the team tried to opt for an alternative pit stop strategy for the rest of the race which included staying out on track to briefly lead the race when almost everyone else pitted under a debris caution on lap 170 with 30 laps remaining on the race. Wilson was joined in this endeavour by his team mate Carlos Munoz who'd also needed to mix it up after receiving a pit lane speeding penalty, but neither driver was able to lean out their fuel use sufficiently to get them to the finish.
"We tried something with fuel mileage and strategy to get back into the front of the pack, but we were a lap short," he said. "Unfortunately since we were a lap short, we had to pit two laps from the end and not risk anything. It's frustrating, but it's just been a long tough day."
"I made a mistake and received a drive-thru penalty; I didn't hit the pit lane limiter or something," said Munoz, who was still in fifth place when he too was forced to make a very late pit stop. I don't really know what happened there.
"Since we were at the back, we just tried to change our strategy a little bit, to not stop again, but we ended up two laps short. I think we were pretty fast, even in the end when I had our fuel saving map on and with more laps on our tyres than anyone else.
"I think we had a good race," he insisted. "It's a shame I made a mistake, but it is what it is, and hopefully next year I will have another shot to do it again."
With Wilson and Munoz falling short, the highest-placed Honda at the line was the #15 Rahal letterman Lanigan car driven by Graham Rahal in fifth place.
"I'm really, really proud of these guys, all the effort they continue to put in," he said, saluting the RLL crew. "I mean, once again today, the top Honda. The Chevy was just in a league of its own unfortunately on horsepower.
"I said to my boys coming into today, no matter what, two things I wanted: that was to be the top Honda, and to keep up with the top three in points, top four. Unfortunately three of those guys finished ahead of us, but we still had a very good points day.
"I was happy we were as close to [Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon] at the end as we were," he added. "I thought there was no hope. With 15 to go, to be tenth or ninth, charge up through those guys, pretty tricky. A lot of fun. I thought the racing was really good. Again, 500 miles. We were good at times, bad at times. Lucky we ended on a high note."
Even though he ended the race down in 20th, Wilson still ended up being the top-ranked Briton in the field this year. He finished two laps ahead of Pippa Mann in the Dale Coyne Racing #63, while Jack Hawksworth was classified in 24th place after sparking the final caution on lap 175.
"There was a bit of a gap for me to the big group that was in front and they had a huge check-up in front. I guess I misjudged my closing speed a little bit and I touched the back of the #17 and he spun and then we all started crashing," Hawksworth explained. "It was disappointing, but it was the last 20-30 laps of the Indy 500 and I was going for it."
The #17 was driven by Sebastian Saavedra, and the contact sent both him and Hawksworth spinning backwards into the wall in turn 4. In Saavedra's case the car rebounded right into the pace of an unfortunate Stefano Coletti who impacted at speed with scary results as a cloud of carbon fibre debris exploded over the track.
"Unfortunately I have no idea what happened, I was a victim of a rookie, but it's something that makes you want to come back and do everything all over again," said Saavedra, who had to be carried to the ambulance after being extracted from the car but whose injuries seem limited to a contusion on his right foot.
"I'm feeling good - thankful of that I'm pretty lucky," he said. "I have an ankle sprain and some bone bruising, but I'm just happy for the whole Holmatro team that did an amazing job keeping me calm. I'm putting everything behind and trying to recover as quick as possible to see what's the next race for us. Definitely not the way we wanted to finish the race."
Coletti escaped the crash unhurt, although the KV Racing Technology driver looked a little stuff and winded as he climbed rather gingerly from the remains of the #4 car. "I was coming into Turn 4 and the two guys in front of me crashed and hit the wall and I was able to avoid the first one, but not the second. It's unfortunate because I think I could have had a top 15, but that's the way it ended. I just wanted to finish my first Indy 500 and I didn't, so hopefully I can do better next year."
Pippa Mann also had her share of drama during the race, as she was involved in a pit lane incident that caught up all three Dale Coyne cars on lap 113. After completing a routine stop under caution, Mann was ushered back out only to find that her team mate James Davison was pulling out of his own pit box at the same time. Contact sent Davison's car into the pit stall of the third Dale Coyne car, Tristan Vautier, where his mechanics were still hard at work.
"We came in for our pit stop there, and the car was working as well as it had been all race," explained Davison. "I think we just got sent right out into the path of Pippa and contact was made that slammed my car into Tristan's car - our sister car. Tristan and I sustained damage that ended our race. Obviously a crew member was hit and hurt and I'm just really hoping that he's going to be okay."
"Three cars of the team were involved in the incident and two of them are out,' added Vautier, who only found out he was in the race 72 hours before the green flag after regular driver Carlos Huertas was ruled out on medical grounds. "Nothing we could have done different on our side. We were just in our pit box and got hit. It sucks because the car was coming to us. We started off really bad and made some really good changes during the pit stops, it was really coming alive."
Reports after the race confirmed that Vautier's outside rear tyre changer Daniel Jang had required surgery on a broken ankle, which was performed on Sunday evening at IU Health Methodist Hospital. The right front tyre changer Greg Senerius was examined and quickly released from the in-field medical centre, as was a tyre changer for the Bryan Herta Autosport team working on Gabby Chaves' car who had been hurt in an earlier separate incident.
Also unhurt in on-track crashes were Clauson, Sage Karam, Ed Carpenter, Oriol Servia and Tony Kanaan. Karam's accident happened on the very first lap of the race when he pulled up the track only to find Takuma Sato trying to squeeze into the vanishing gap between Karam's Ganassi and the outside wall.
"I don't know what Sato's doing. Kind of a bonehead move," fumed Karam. "He sees me and Hunter-Reay side by side and the first lap he's trying to make it three wide. I just don't get it ... No reason to push a three-wide issue. I mean, just a very stupid move on his part.
"He had a big run, yeah, but he doesn't need to go popping outside on lap 1, turn 1. It just doesn't make sense. It ruins a lot of people's races, you know."
Of course, Sato saw the incident rather differently: "I was staying in my line outside going to turn 1 outside and exited turn 1 outside and it all looked good. The #8 car was just coming up and my front wheel was already in front of his rear wheel so I could do nothing. I was sandwiched between him and the wall. Unfortunately I had to come back to the pit and replace the front toelink and got a couple laps down. It took 150 laps to get our three laps back."
Clauson's crash on lap 64 in the KVSH Racing/Jonathan Byrd's Racing #88 was the incident that undid Wilson's race hopes. The two-time USAC national sprint car series champion admitted to making "a dumb mistake" after getting up too high on the track while trying not to get in the way of faster cars, causing him to skate off on the marbles into the wall in turn 4.
"It wasn't really that hard of a hit, that angle there," he said. "We were trying to run our own race and our car just went away there towards the end of that first run. Fell back from the pack and was right there in the thick of some leaders trying to get to the bottom and just got up a little high on a long green-flag run there, got up in the marbles and there was no saving it."
Ed Carpenter and Oriol Servia were duelling for 14th place when contact on lap 112 put them both into the wall in turn 1 and out of the race.
"I think Ed got a little optimistic," said Servia. "He had a run on me but it was coming too late. I don't know if he thought I was going to lift or something. I'm sure I'm going to get a phone call once he sees a replay. It's a shame; I think we are both smart racers and we usually don't do those things."
"My guess is there's probably some fault both ways," suggested Carpenter. "I thought Oriol blocked me a little too heavy for that point in the race. He got by me earlier and I didn't block him as aggressively as that. Once I saw what he was going to do, I was on the brakes hard trying to get out of the situation and not crash either of us.
"It doesn't really matter whose fault it is," he sighed. "At the end of the day, both of our days are over. End of a crappy month for me".
The biggest casualty of an on-track crash was surely Tony Kanaan, who had been looking in contention for a race win all afternoon until he crashed in turn 4 on lap 152 just moments after making a pit stop and making downforce changes to the #10 Ganassi car.
"We had been loose all day and we made a change for the last stop and it was apparently the wrong way to go. It's unfortunate," he added. "The car behaves a lot different with five cars in front of you instead of two. It is what it is. I'm glad I'm okay."
In particular, Kanaan's accident - like all the others on Sunday - conspicuously failed to reproduce the frightening spectacle of cars getting airborne and flying through the air after spinning, which had bedevilled the practice sessions and led to emergency regulation change with many experts feeling that this year's race might be jinxed and heading for a big disaster that fortunately proved not to be the case.
"Actually we finally proved that we don't flip every time we crash," agreed Kanaan. "It's a very unfortunate thing to happen to me but if I had to prove it that we don't flip cars anymore, here it is for the critics. Heartbroken but okay."