Last weekend, a miscalculation on fuel strategy cost Scott Dixon an expected pole position for the Indianapolis 500, and saw Dario Franchitti fail to set a time at all in the pole shootout. This weekend the cost of the fuel fumble was far, far worse: it cost both drivers almost certain shots at victory in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

On Pole Day, it was speculated - but unconfirmed by the team - that the reason the two Ganassi cars were under-fuelled for their top nine pole shootout was because IndyCar made a late change to the rules for the shootout and allowed the use of 'push to pass' power assistance to the engine during the qualifying laps. That uses up more gas than turning laps under the regular engine power

It resulted in Dixon losing engine power toward the end of his final qualifying lap, costing him fractions of a second that made the difference between first and second on the grid; and Franchitti lost power at the end of his penultimate qualifying lap, meaning he set no shootout time and had to settle for ninth on the grid.

But at least having gone through that trauma and disappointment, the team would now take a lesson from that day's events and make sure they they double- and triple-checked fuel consumption for the race itself. Right?

How then to explain what we saw on that final laps of the Indianapolis 500 itself? Having Franchitti pit on lap 164 and try and stretch his fuel for the remaining 36 laps to the end of the race was always a marginal call, and replied on there being at least a few caution laps in the remainder of the race - which did not materialise. It seems like it was simply a gamble that did not pay off.

"I don't know. I don't understand right now. They're going to have to explain that one to me," said Dario after the race. "I'm disappointed with the result. I don't second-guess these guys. I only have a very narrow view of what's going on. They have the big picture."

Except that it does seem very strange that the race leader - who had been dominating the lead up until that point - should throw it all away if it was really that marginal a fuel call and so absolutely reliant on the unknowable factor of a late caution. Moreover, Franchitti has historically been very good at maximising his fuel use: so how come his car ran short on fuel when rookie JR Hildebrand was able to match his pace throughout and still have enough fuel to make it to the finish line at speed (hitting the wall out of the final turn notwithstanding)?

And as a further element of the mystery - what happened to Scott Dixon? Under Ganassi's strategy, if one strategy left a driver short, then a different strategy for the other driver should allow him to pick up the fallen standard and still win the race for the team. Sure enough, Scott Dixon was brought in on lap 179 with 21 laps to go, and fuel conservation should not have been an issue.

But instead, Dixon faded in the final laps and ultimately finished in fifth place as his pace dropped off. Unbelievably, it was down to fuel again.

"We short-fuelled, and why we short-fuelled, I don't know," said a deeply frustrated Dixon. "We stopped ten laps later than anybody else on any strategy, there's no way we should run out of fuel."

"Between Dario (Franchitti) and myself, we had this one pretty well covered," he said. "It just didn't go our way. I definitely leave here thinking that I should have won my second 500."

It's an astonishing and entirely uncharacteristic mistake for one of the strongest, most professional and most experienced teams on the IndyCar starting grid and will surely lead to an internal investigation of the mistakes that had cost them the biggest price in American motorsport.

A post mortem will also most likely be underway at Penske, which had already had an uncharacteristically subdued qualifying last week, getting only one of their three drivers into the top nine pole shootout (Will Power, who started fifth), marooned Helio Castroneves in the midfield in 16th and having to go through bump day to put Ryan Briscoe into the race at all in 27th, after Briscoe wrote off his primary car in pre-qualifying practice.

Briscoe ended up the innocent victim of Townsend Bell, who tried moving down and pinching the car on the inside line just once too often, resulting in both cars wrecking against the wall in turn 1 on lap 158,

"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. 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."

Will Power's race was wrecked when the team ushered him out of his first pit stop despite the rear left tyre changer frantically indicating a problem. Sure enough the tyre fell off, and Power had to crawl around a lap to return to the pits for a replacement.

"At the first pit stop, the wheel came loose and knocked the lead screw off, so I had no brakes," he explained. "So we did a stint like that, came in, and had to fix that, got a lap down, and that was it for the day. We just had to try and fight our way back."

And as for Helio's bid to become the first non-American four-time race winner - that ended up lap 158 when he suffered a flat tyre. But even before that he had been battling to stay on or get back onto the lead lap for much of the afternoon, and never looked like a threat for the race win.

"We were able to try to get back on the lead, and then we had that flat tyre," Helio said. "So it was one of those things. In the end, we were just trying to do something crazy, but unfortunately we couldn't do it. We'll go for the next one."

And as for the other big name on the IndyCar grid, Andretti Autosport, the bloodletting has already begin with the firing of team competition director Tom Anderson after they failed to get two of their regular season drivers (Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay) into the race at all. The team were finally forced to buy out the seat of Bruno Junqueira who had managed to qualify the #41 car for AJ Foyt Racing in a highly embarrassing and controversial move.

Hunter-Reay eventually finished three laps off the pace in 23rd, but at least the sponsor brands got an airing at the Greatest Spectacle of Racing. And the team's other two drivers, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti actually had surprisingly strong runs after all the week's turmoil, with Danica leading the race toward the end (only the second time in her IndyCar career that she's run at the front of the Indy 500) until she picked up a nasty vibration late in the run, and Marco also looking as though he might have pulled off an upset win toward the end of the race.

In the end, though, the most remarkable thing about the 2011 Indianapolis 500 is how the big guns misfired throughout the month of May, and left the field open for the small teams like Sam Schmidt Motorsport to claim pole, for rookies like JR Hildebrand to come within a whisker of a famous victory, and for a start-up team (Bryan Herta Autosport) with a driver the regular teams has cast aside (Dan Wheldon) to claim one of the biggest and most prestigious prizes in sport in the world.



Loading Comments...