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Indy 500: Wheldon takes second title as JR crashes

29 May 2011

If you'd asked the bookies, Scott Dixon was pretty much a lock for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 victory; or if not him then his Ganassi team mate Dario Franchitti.

They looked quietly confident throughout the whole of practice week, and would surely have locked out the top two spots on the grid if not for a puzzling fumble with insufficient fuel on their final pole shootout runs, so it seemed that it was a just matter of time before the true natural order was restored come the race start.

Just as expected, Dixon got a flying start and easily passed polesitter Alex Tagliani at the start of the race, but once again Tag showed that he and the Sam Schmidt Motorsport team were not to be underestimated. He wasn't going anywhere, and on lap 8 he stole the lead straight back from the race favourite and stayed there.

A couple of drivers toward the back were not so happy. Paul Tracy was into the pits early: "We had some type of issue going on with tyre vibration. We picked up a really bad vibration in the first stint, and then I started sliding and brushed the wall. We decided to fix the WIX car, get it back out there going ... We wanted to run it all day, pick up as many spots as we could and not end up in 33rd." The Dreyer & Reinbold team did indeed get Tracy back out and he ran to the end, albeit the last of the runners and 25 laps down.

Simona de Silvestro was another backmarker to have early handling problems leading her to brush the wall and damage her suspension: "I made contact with the wall in turn 1, and it bent the upright and the rear suspension. It didn't feel real good, and we realized that the upright was bent." There would be no fairy tale reward for her courageous comeback from the huge crash she suffered during practice week that left her qualifying despite badly burned hands. She would finally call it a day on lap 44.

Before that, Takuma Sato became the first retiree of the 2011 race when he got up too high on the race track and skated into the wall in turn 5. "I couldn't see that the car was inside of me, and by the time I got into turn 1, it was full speed and the car was there and I had to lift," he explained. "I wasn't supposed to be hanging on that way, and it is very disappointing. I really wanted to finish the race."

During the pit stops that ensued, Will Power got a nasty shock when he pulled away from his pit box only to have his left rear tyre suddenly fall off: the tyre changer had been frantically signalling a problem, but his warnings had been missed. Power would have to go round a full lap and come in again for a new set of tyres, and that put him off the lead lap - a set-back from which he was never to recover. "That was it for the day. We just had to try and fight our way back," he said after finishing 14th.

And then it was time for the first double file restart the Indianapolis 500 had ever seen: and they almost got away with it, if only EJ Viso hadn't tried to go three wide into turn 1. "I was running with Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe, and I believe that James Hinchcliffe missed a gear and he lost his momentum out of turn 4," he explained. "Graham Rahal went on the inside, and I went on the outside. Then when we were approaching turn 1, I got hit on my rear left tire and it spun me."

It was Hinchcliffe who had made contact with him: "[EJ] got into us, we got hit and had to come in and save the car from going into the wall on that one," he said. Viso spun off into the wall with a nasty crunch, enforcing a rapid return to a second caution.

Dixon had got ahead of Tagliani before that second caution, and at the restart Tag returned the favour and went ahead again for a lap. But the Sam Schmidt Motorsports car then dropped back to second as the meat in a Ganassi sandwich: Dixon in the lead, Dario Franchitti running in third ahead of Oriol Servia. Tagliani lost his rhythm and fell back, and Servia's speed was no match for the Ganassis and he too lost positions during this stint. It seemed to be coming together very nicely indeed for Chip Ganassi, with one of his junior team drivers Graham Rahal also figuring strongly and one of the biggest gainers of the early part of the race.

Green flag pit stops had just started to cycle through on lap 62 when Jay Howard emerged from pit lane - only to suddenly have his right rear tyre fly off, in a more dramatic version of Will Power's earlier mishap. The loss spun him into impact with the inside wall, robbing him of the chance to get the car back to the pits for new tyres. He was out of the race.

It turned into a remarkably good stroke of fortune for Dario Franchitti, who had entered pit lane just before it was closed for the caution and therefore able to take his stop as normal - a break which saw him take over the lead of the race from Scott Dixon. Danica Patrick, on the other hand, was stuck out on the race track with her #7 running on fumes. She had to resort to a "splash and dash" mercy run and then make a second proper stop when the pits finally properly opened for business, but it wasn't helping her campaign.

It was also not a helpful stop for Tony Kanaan, who had been running strongly up in the top six during this stage of the race. But when he came into pit lane he had the misfortune of trying to pull into his pit just as Pippa Mann pulled out of hers, and she blocked his access. In F1 terms it was "unsafe release" and the responsibility of the team to give her better direction, but that was no consolation to Kanaan.

At the restart on lap 70, the top six order was Franchitti, Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Alex Tagliani, Townsend Bell and JR Hildebrand. The latest attempt at a double file restart was messy (and occasionally three-wide) but without incident, although Dixon cruised past Franchitti for the lead and Tagliani took third from Wheldon. The top five quickly pulled out a gap of some 3s over the rest.

Further back, Ryan Hunter-Reay had been running in 15th in his transplanted AJ Foyt Racing entry, but on lap 79 he got to high up and gave the wall a light tap that broke his rhythm and dropped him to the back of the lead lap in 24th.

As the race made it to the midway point it was time for another cycle of green flag pit stops - and once again, they were incomplete when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out. This time it was James Hinchcliffe who went into the wall in turn 1 on lap 101: "Sorry, boys," he said over the radio, sounding truly gutted for his pit crew.

"At that point, we were driving on borrowed time after what happened with Viso," he admitted. "We were just about to pit; the tires were just starting to go off. Bertrand [Baguette] got a good run on me, and I was really just trying to let him go. I backed off early and was giving him the corner but unfortunately got a little bit in the grey [marbles]. With how worn the tires were, at that stage of the stint I was just a passenger."

Once again the yellow had come out just after Dario had made it into the pits for his scheduled stop; once again, Danica was caught out and had to bring in her #7 for a mercy splash-and-dash and come back for a proper stop when pit lane was properly open.

The pit stops had left Dario in the lead ahead of Oriol, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter, with Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon in fifth and sixth at the restart on lap 107, which was even messier than before but IndyCar was clearly in no mood to waste everyone's time and patience on waving off restart attempts if it could be helped. Helio Castroneves was also in the lead pack, but as lapped traffic - until he promptly got past Dario to unlap himself and put himself temporarily back on the lead lap after all.

Was this a sign that Penske were suddenly starting to show some form at long last? As it happened - no, it was more a sign that Dario was suddenly far less comfortable during this part of the race, the set-up just no longer to his liking as the afternoon warmed up and broke into the 90s Fahrenheit. Servia sensed the weakness and passed Dario for the lead on lap 114, promptly going on to put Helio a lap down again after all.

Dario seemed to adapt and on lap 132 he was strong enough again to retake the lead, but pit stops were looming and he was mightily pleased to get in and have a whole raft of adjustments dialled in to to the car for the final third of the race. This time for once, the pit stops cycled through without a caution interrupting proceedings.

Instead, one came on lap 148 - and sadly it was for the exit from the race of the well-liked polesitter Alex Tagliani, who slid the Sam Schmidt Motorsports #77 onto the marbles and into the wall at turn 4 while dealing with JR Hildebrand. Tag had been dropping down the running order since the midpoint of the race and had already looked a spent force as far as the race win went.

"We had a really good, balanced car early on. It was nice to drive it," he said. "Then all of the sudden, it became very loose. I couldn't really get it back on track ... In one of our pit stops, we thought we fixed it, but we didn't. It's a shame, because early on the car was so good I thought we had a shot at it all race long. But we kind of lost the car at some point; very curious."

With only 50 laps to go now, fuel strategies were starting to come into focus. Most of the cars stayed out of pit lane, but Marco Andretti and Townsend Bell opted to come in, dropping them to 10th and 11th respectively; that left the leading top six lined up in the order Franchitti, Dixon, Servia, Wheldon, Kanaan and Hildebrand, with Danica Patrick running in seventh.

Dario didn't even bother pretending to abide by a double file restart when things got underway again, and just shot off into the lead as fast as he could. But it proved to be a short-lived green flag, with another caution coming on lap 158 when Townsend Bell - who had been unusually inconsiderate of other cars on the track during the day and lucky to escape without any collisions so far - finally rode to the end of his luck.

He pinched down on the #6 of Penske's Ryan Briscoe into turn 1, and Briscoe had no where to go except into the #99. Bell was sent up into the wall and Briscoe followed, the Schmidt Racing car making an unwilling crumple zone for Briscoe's own impact.

"I've got to see the replay, but it seems like somebody hit me in my left rear, I think it was Ryan," said Bell. "I saved it in turn 1 and whammo, it got me again and pinned me in the wall."

Briscoe denied it was his fault, but was forgiving toward Bell at the same time: "I saw Townsend brush the wall in turn 4. Everyone was going down the inside. I was just following through on the inside into turn 1," he explained. "I just think he didn't know I was there, and he just came down and pinched me. As soon as we made contact, the wheels interlocked. And that was it."

Pit stops followed, but with 40 laps still to go it was too far to make it on a single final tank of gas - everyone would have to pit again. Except that on the very last lap of the caution period, two cars decided to dive into the pits and get a late extra top-up of fuel in a bid to make it all the way to the flag after all, now it was just 36 laps away.

Stunningly, one of those cars was the race leader - Dario Franchitti. Surely he wouldn't be throwing his strong lead away and dropping to 12th on a Hail Mary risky stunt? And yet the only driver who decided to follow his lead was the 23-year-old rookie from California, JR Hildebrand. This was either a brilliant, race-winning move for Dario (and potentially an assured second place for Hildebrand in his first Indy 500, too) - or it was throwing away his chance of a third Indy 500 there and then. Only time, and another 26 laps, would tell.

After a race that had looked so stable and as if it was floating serenely toward the inevitable Ganassi win with the only outstanding question being which one of Scott or Dario would come out top, suddenly the whole race was thrown into escalating chaos. Whoever you thought would win, suddenly all bets were off.

Servia led at the restart, but then he was passed by Graham Rahal who led for six laps - and on such a historic day as the centennial Indy 500, how great was it to have a name with such resonance to the sport as Rahal back on top of the leaderboard, however briefly. Then Dixon came back and took the top spot for another seven laps.

On everyone's mind was the inescapable fact that all of these cars needed that extra splash of fuel to make it to the end of the race, and on lap 177 Dan Wheldon fired the starting gun on those desperate make-or-break visits to pit road; Rahal and Servia came in the next lap and Dixon was in the lap after that, which handed the race lead to none other than Danica Patrick for only the second time in her Indy 500 career.

She kept the lead for ten laps, but she was now suffering with increasingly severe vibration problems that were making the car near impossible to drive. "Bad enough to come in?" enquired her pit crew: Danica was silent, wishing that she could stay out and hope for a miracle caution, but ultimately having to take to pit road 11 laps shy of the finish.

And into the breach came Bertrand Baguette, the Belgian racer that no one had even thought was in with the slightest chance. Could it possibly be the biggest upset of the decade - could Bertrand really pull this off? He certainly wasn't afraid of running flat-out, and the idea of fuel conservation didn't seem to have entered his mind. He didn't have the secret of ever-lasting gas tanks, did he?

He came tantalisingly close, and built up a huge lead of 10s over Dario Franchitti in second place. Baguette was running at 218mph compared with 208mph for Dario, but none of that mattered if the #30 couldn't make it to the finish line. It seemed that Ganassi's cunning last-second splash-and-dash at the end of the last caution had done the trick and that the Scot was about to get his third Indy 500 title.

Except Franchitti's lap speed was falling ... and falling ... And now it was no longer just fuel conservation, but worst-case scenario: the lack of any further late-race cautions meant that he wasn't going to make it full race distance either, except by crawling round so slowly that everyone else would get to stream past him. His Indy dream had well and truly disappeared before his very eyes.

If Franchitti couldn't make it, then clearly JR Hildebrand - the only other driver to pit for a top-up at the same time as Dario on lap 164 - wouldn't make it either. It didn't matter that he took the lead with three to go when Bertrand finally had to concede defeat and head to pit road, because obviously he too was about to run dry.

Except the rookie kept on coming. And coming. And still coming. He took the white flag and started his final 2.5 mile circulation, and surely even if he ran dry now he was still far enough ahead of the late stoppers led by Dan Wheldon? It seemed impossible to believe that he now wouldn't make the finish line in first place and claim a famous, historic win in the centennial event - a true rookie win=.

He kept on coming, and the crowd kept on cheering the prospect of an All-American victory on the ultra-patriotic Memorial Day weekend. Up ahead the only fly in Hildebrand's ointment was the slow traffic of Charlie Kimball, but Hildebrand kept up high to make sure he gave his fellow rookie enough room, not wanting to startle him and cause any crashes the last time through turns 3 and 4.

He went high ... and he kept on going higher. Once on the marbles he was gone and into the wall on the exit of turn four, just yards now from the famed yard of bricks marking the start/finish line. It was agonising: the impact against the wall had wrecked the car, there was no way of steering and no power, yet still the car ground its way over the remaining distance, clawing its way forward like some dying animal determined to get its offspring to safety.

It made it; the #4 slid all the way down the track and finally came to a halt on the entrance to turn 1. The only problem was that the process had been agonisingly slow, and before the wreckage could manage to get itself over the finish line there had been a blur of orange and white go past.

Unbelievably, Dan Wheldon had taken the chequered flag first, and would head to pit lane to drink the traditional glass of milk and don the winner's laurel.

"In the corner of my eye, I saw him hit the fence," said Wheldon. "I just carried on by. As Bryan [Herta, car owner] says, you have to make it to the bricks with a car that can go forward with all four wheels. At that point, I knew it was mine."

It was a horrible moment for Hildebrand, who had been holding his destiny in his own hands when he made the error that cost him the most famous of race victories possible. No one could quite believe it, and for a time rumours flew that Panther would appeal the race result on the grounds that Wheldon had overtaken Hildebrand under caution - a strict racing protocol no-no. Two hours later, an official review of the video and photographic evidence proved that the caution had not in fact been out when Wheldon passed Hildebrand's crushed car; and IndyCar officials made clear that even if this had not been the case they would still rule that the Panther was too "wounded" to be legitimately protected by the yellow flags.

Wheldon's victory was confirmed: the British driver who had been left without a regular season drive in IndyCar in 2011 had come almost out of nowhere to claim his second Indy 500 title, after two consecutive years of finishing second (all of them in different teams) and also with a third and a fourth to his name in ten starts overall in this famous race - quite a record.

Dan Wheldon couldn't quite believe it, and the tears streamed down as he climbed out of the car. Team owner Bryan Herta couldn't believe it either: while Wheldon's track record here is undeniable, no one expected him to be seriously in with a chance to win the race with a start-up team, even one run by a motor racing great like Herta.

"We came here to win," said his car owner Bryan Herta, who was a driver here in 2005 when Wheldon won his first Indy 500. "We always said we came here to win ... But we actually won!"

And as celebrations overran victory lane, spare a thought for the young man standing in disbelief next to a wrecked car, running his fingers through his hair, wondering exactly how he'd managed to not get a couple of dozen yards down the road in time.

"I made a judgement call catching up on the #83 [Kimball] and I thought I don't really want to slow down behind him," said Hildebrand. "I've been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint I got up in the marbles and that was it."

“We came here with a rookie driver and everybody says we're going to have trouble and everything, but I can tell you that he did a great job," said Hildebrand's Panther team owner John Barnes. "He drove to a fuel number I didn't think was going to be attainable. We're so proud of him and the people at Panther and the crew."

Amazingly, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan came across the line in third and fourth, while Scott Dixon was restored to fifth after initially being shown in sixth place, as he was inadvertently passed under that final caution by Oriol Servia who was duly returned to sixth place.

"Between Dario and myself, we had this one pretty well covered," lamented Dixon, scarcely believing that all that quiet Ganassi domination had unravelled in the last 25 laps. "It just didn't go our way. I definitely leave here thinking that I should have won my second 500."

But this moment right now was about the winner - Dan Wheldon. "You can think I'm giving you the media cheesy line, but it's not like that," he said "The people that form this team, the relationships that we've all kind of bonded very quickly, has been extremely good. With a Cinderella story we took on the might of Roger Penske's organisation and Chip Ganassi [but] I don't think I saw a Penske in front of me all of the race.

"It's a fantastic day. I just love Indianapolis. I really do. I love Indiana. It's been so good to me, so good to my career. But to these guys for giving me an opportunity, it's tough to beat these big teams. This is a Cinderella story."

Let's hope that "happy ever after" includes a full time deal for Wheldon. And while we're at it, let's use one of our three wishes for a bright and winning future for the richly deserving JR Hildebrand, too, as between them these two drivers gave us one hell of a climax to the centennial Indy 500.


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