No one saw Dan Wheldon coming; especially not his former team Panther Racing and rookie pilot JR Hildebrand.
When the Hildebrand drew through the final turns in the lead of the 2011 Indianapolis 500, how exactly did Wheldon still manage to win it – or more precisely, how was the race lost?
Admittedly, it probably helps if your Honda-powered Dallara has all four wheels intact as you cross the finish line.
To be victorious in motor racing, there is no doubt that skill must come to the forefront; however the right amount of luck – good luck, that is – is also necessity and on Sunday, Dan Wheldon had both skill and luck in spades.
Admittedly patience was a factor too. This race being 500 miles in length there was no need to rush to the head of the pack – Scott Dixon did that.
Having started in the middle of the front row, the Ganassi pilot surged ahead following a sluggish start by poleman Alex Tagliani – indeed Oriol Servia even had enough speed to peak passed Tagliani, but only momentarily.
Tagliani – fired up in his Sam Schmidt prepared Dallara – refused to hang back, retaking Dixon on the 8th tour, but this was early yet; another 192 laps remained.
For Simona de Silvestro, her race realistically came to end before 25 miles had even been run. The briefest of slaps of the wall damaged the suspension of here HVM machine. She would rejoin later, only to retire for good at the one-quarter distance.
Paul Tracy suffered a similar experience after he touched the SAFER barrier on lap 20. While there was no wreck as such, there was enough of a dent in his suspension to render his day effectively done.
The Canadian would lose 25 laps in the pits getting repairs, but returned to the track to pick up positions from other retirees later in the race.
One of those retirees was – inevitably – a KV Racing driver, this time Takuma Sato. The Japanese driver had been running efficiently and quickly all month, only to lose it when it mattered most – this time there would be a full course caution.
With one eye on strategy, the field pitted; only Penske did not seem to have their eye on the ball – indeed for the first time in many years, Penske looked out of sorts at the Speedway.
As Championship leader Will Power exited the pits, it was clear his wheel had not been properly attached, coming off completely before the Australian had even rejoined the circuit. A second stop for a replacement set would leave Power lingering at the rear of the field, but as the green flag waved on lap 29, the Penske runner would not have long to boost his position at the restart.
Indeed, the race came to a halt almost immediately – as the field barrelled into the first turn, an over-enthusiastic EJ Viso attempted a three-wide manoeuvre, only to slam the barrier hard. Another caution.
However, as the dust settled and the field slowed a new leader emerged from the melee. Unconcerned by fracas behind him, Scott Dixon took command of the race once again, leaving Tagliani behind in the brief sprint.
In the pack that followed, Townsend Bell held a quiet 3rd ahead of the quick starting Dario Franchitti (4th), while Servia fell backward to 5th. Wheldon, meanwhile, held a solid 6th following a short battle with Bell early on.
Green conditions returned on lap 34 and it was here that Ganassi began to stretch their legs. Dixon and Tagliani swapped the lead momentarily, while Franchitti cut into the battle up front; first by taking Bell (lap 35), soon Tagliani (lap 44), before taking the lead from Dixon (lap 61).
Wheldon also briefly charged to 3rd ahead of Tagliani and Bell, while Fisher Racing’s Ed Carpenter fought his way into the top six at Servia’s expense.
By the one-quarter mark, Tony Kanaan had also joined dogfight behind Carpenter, while Servia faded. The Brazilian had qualified 22nd, but yet another excellent first stint saw the KV Racing driver power his way through the field.
Even after the second round of stops the Ganassi machines led comfortably, although hic-coughs stopped progress by Kanaan, Jay Howard (Rahal / Letterman / Lanigan Racing) and Danica Patrick (Andretti-Autosport).
Stopping under green, Kanaan pulled into his box – or attempted to, but very nearly collided with Pippa Mann as she was about to rejoin the race. The extra time waiting would cost the Brazilian nearly 20 positions.
Jay Howard had no such trouble, but he did find to his dismay his left rear tyre had been poorly attached. The Englishman was on the apron when his wheel flew off, forcing Howard into the wall. Game over and a safety car.
With the pits subsequently closed, Patrick’s Dallara-Honda ran dry – a quick splash-and-go kept her car running until the pits opened proper, but a second stop shortly thereafter left the American starlet 14th.
Tasting the Wall
Dixon retook Franchitti as the race got under way again on lap 70, although it was not the harshest of fights between the Ganassi duo – both well aware that the race was far from over; however for James Hinchcliffe, the day was done by halfway.
A driver error, rookie mistake or loss of concentration – whatever you call it, the Canadian still lost his Newman-Haas machine, while Indianapolis’ tough walls gained another victim.
Ryan Hunter-Reay almost part of the retired list too. The American had a bobble in his “borrowed” AJ Foyt Enterprises machine on the 78th lap, very nearly wiping the right-hand side of his Dallara away. For a man who never qualified, Hunter-Reay was lucky.
Like the previous set of stops, Hinchcliffe’s accident came slap bang in the middle of green flag stops – and once again Danica Patrick was caught out, again requiring an additional stop.
For once, Ganassi seemed sluggish with Dixon dropping to 5th. Tagliani was also stationary for a lengthy period – sadly for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, it was the beginning of the end of the small squad that could.
Amongst the confusion, Franchitti retook the point ahead of Servia, an on fire Marco Andretti (who started 27th), Carpenter, Dixon with Bell filling out the top six. Wheldon lurked in 7th, with the emerging Hildebrand in 8th.
The green flag flew again on lap 108 and to the delight of the (nearly) packed house, Servia tailed Franchitti, surging ahead five tours later.
It would be a lead that the Spaniard would hold for twenty laps, before Franchitti took it away again on lap 131, but for Newman-Haas, the point had been made. Servia, sitting 3rd in the IndyCar Championship was running very strong.
Dixon too was showing his hand. Despite losing a number of spots, the Kiwi remained calm, knowing full well that the race was still in its relative youth.
A steady pull back up the order saw Dixon climb back to 3rd as the next round of stops drew in, only for the Ganassi man to stall slightly in his pitbox on lap 137; however Dixon would only lose a single spot.
For fellow front row man, Tagliani, the opposite was the case. The Canadian, now suffering with a severely ill-handling car, dropped to 17th and off the lead lap – come lap 148, Tagliani lost his Sam Schmidt Motorsports machine, scrubbing the wall just enough to injure his right front suspension. Game over and another caution.
It would be the first element that locked the result of the race – with two more stops inevitable, Wheldon, Rahal and Servia, amongst others, took to the pits under caution, whereas the Ganassi’s – trying to stretch their fuel – stayed out.
Admittedly, giving the number of accidents that often occur during oval races, it is rare to see long periods of green flag racing, so in theory Ganassi’s strategy could have played out on a different day.
But this year, the final caution period came on lap 158 – only two laps after the restart. Having pitted in the previous stoppage, Bell found himself in 11th battling with Andretti (10th) and Penske’s Ryan Briscoe (12th).
As the trio entered turn one together, Bell squeezed down on the Australian – too much in fact – leaving Briscoe with no room. Wheels inevitably interlocked and the helpless pair slid toward the SAFER barrier to be met with a smash. Another period behind the pace car ensued.
It was an unfortunate end for both – Bell, his day and season effectively done as he returns to unemployment and Briscoe, whose smart climb up the order was digging his way out of a Championship hole.
Now both will be left to consider “what if..?”
Helio Castroneves was another driver left to ponder a poor Indy 500. The Brazilian has not had much luck attempting to capture his fourth “500” win – having started in a poor 16th position, Castroneves clung to the outside of the top ten prior to falling back again.
A shredded right rear tyre on lap 159 didn’t help matters; in fact, it left the Penske runner back in the pits scrambling for 20th position. It all conspires to add further pressure to Castroneves, who has had a relatively poor start to the season and as the potential costs for the new car soar, team boss Roger Penske may be on the verge of shrinking his three-car team…
The lead Ganassi pair – Dixon and Franchitti – took their stops here, placing them 4th and 11th respectively; the team banking on there being a late caution. It would not come.
As the green flew on lap 166, Graham Rahal – in his satellite Ganassi entry – took the lead from Servia. Rahal had started from the tenth row and an early burst through the pack saw the American linger on the outside of the top ten. His pass for the lead was a popular, signified by an eruption from the crowd, but it did not last.
Now running on a full fuel mixture, Dixon scythed through the front three, assuming the point on lap 171; Franchitti, meanwhile, was playing a leaner game, taking Bertrand Baguette (Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan) and Andretti to bring him into the top nine.
When Wheldon and co made for their final stops around lap 177, the Scot pulled in closer to the front.
Kanaan had also pulled back into contention following the earlier pitlane faux pas. The veteran has never won the Indy 500, despite having come close on a number of occasions, yet the KV Racer has led the event in seven different years.
Moves by teammate Tomas Scheckter, Servia and Rahal gave Kanaan 2nd place behind Dixon, but like those immediately in arrears, a stop was necessary to reach the finish.
Dixon, too, pitted, only taking on just enough to get him to the flag – Franchitti, meanwhile, continued to play the fuel-saving game, but was having to run off the pace to compensate.
For Ganassi, it would prove to be a disastrous error of judgement – short-fuelling Dixon made it impossible for him to surge back through the field, while Franchitti was going so slowly that he could not stay ahead of the fresher runners.
With Dixon out of the way, Danica Patrick assumed the lead, but this was to be no fairytale finish for the GoDaddy.com woman for her Honda engine was never far from spluttering either.
When Patrick peeled off the circuit for her final stop on lap 188, Baguette surprisingly became the new leader. The Belgian had thus far played a canny race – despite having impressed during his début season, the cash-strapped World Series by Renault Champion had been dumped for the sponsored Sebastien Saavedra for 2011.
His strong run at Indianapolis was a calling card for a driver that deserves a seat in the IndyCar Series.
With Patrick now dropped to the edge of the top ten, the crowd became more muted; however Baguette was not going to be able to take to the flag either and as the Belgian pitted on lap 197, the crowd erupted once more.
Amongst the festival of fuel stops, JR Hildebrand emerged at the head of the pack. The American had pitted earlier than most, but a clever fuel-saving stint gave Hildebrand the necessary advantage – and while the Panther Racer led, Wheldon was still four seconds in arrears, but closing.
For those precious few laps, Hildebrand led with a certainty that bodes so well for his future; however as JR Hildebrand cleared the 199th lap, the American still had two-and-a-half miles to run.
The crowd rose, as did the tension – Hildebrand in the final few corners only had a single car ahead of him – the Ganassi satellite car driven by Charlie Kimball. The Ganassi rookie had run quietly, but competently for the duration, holding on to the lead lap right to this late stage, but whereas Hildebrand was running lean, Kimball had only fumes in his tank.
With the final turn of the race approaching, Hildebrand caught Kimball – it all happened at just the wrong time. In the belief that Wheldon was close to his tail, Hildebrand kept his foot to the floor through the final curve, only to slide wide on the discarded tyre marbles.
The Panther machine, now robbed of its precious grip, pulled wide onto the track and slammed the wall hard. Undeterred, Hildebrand kept on the throttle, despite the destruction reaped upon the machine, but it wasn’t enough.
As Hildebrand slid ever closer to the flag stand, Dan Wheldon barrelled out of the final turn, sweeping passed the stricken Panther just a couple of hundred feet before the finish, taking a shock victory.
Mild congratulations turned to unhinged celebration for Bryan Herta’s team, taking the biggest prize in IndyCar racing in what was only their second ever race.
Receiving his prize in Victory Circle, Wheldon presented himself an emotional winner as he became only the eighteenth driver to be crowned a multiple victor of the great race.
A Lesser Return
Hildebrand did take 2nd place for Panther – their fourth consecutive runner-up finish (the previous two ironically being earned by Wheldon) – in his crippled machine; his foot still firmly on the throttle.
While many may remember this 500 as the race Hildebrand lost, hopefully he will remember it as the race he came of age – in only his seventh IndyCar race, the 23-year-old displayed a veteran’s touch. He will surely be a winner eventually.
A Ganassi machine did take a top three finish, but it was neither of its front-tier drivers. Indeed it was Graham Rahal next up, some five seconds down on Wheldon. The American had been running full pelt in the final few laps, but was just too far shy of the Englishman.
Finishing in 4th, two seconds further back, was Tony Kanaan, with Oriol Servia (5th) and Scott Dixon (6th) on his rear. Bertrand Baguette eventually came a credible 7th – the Belgian led home a four car train including Tomas Scheckter (8th), Marco Andretti (9th), Danica Patrick (10th) and Ed Carpenter (11th).
Dario Franchitti took 12th place, the last on the lead lap, as his tank ran dry just after the line.
Credited with 13th was Kimball, who was lapped by Wheldon a matter of feet from the line. Will Power, Vitor Meira, Justin Wilson and Helio Castroneves all had relatively anonymous days, as rounded out those lapped once.
Buddy Rice faded throughout the race – the 2004 Indy 500 winner took 18th place, albeit two laps down. Alex Lloyd (19th) and Pippa Mann (20th) were also lapped twice.
John Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Davey Hamilton and Paul Tracy were the last of the twenty-five finishers.
It was assumed that it would be a Ganassi-Penske walkover and could have been had Ganassi got their sums right, but today was all about the underdog – and incredibly enough, an underdog without a drive.
By midnight on Sunday night, Wheldon’s one-race deal with Herta Motorsport officially concluded and the Manchester man faces life on the sidelines once again – but not for long, surely?
Race Rating: 4 out of 5
Results - 200 laps: Pos Driver Team Time/Gap 1. Dan Wheldon Herta 2h56m11.7267s 2. JR Hildebrand Panther + 2.1086s 3. Graham Rahal Ganassi + 5.5949s 4. Tony Kanaan KV + 7.4870s 5. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas + 8.8757s 6. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 9.5434s 7. Bertrand Baguette Rahal Letterman Lanigan + 23.9631s 8. Tomas Scheckter KV/SH + 24.3299s 9. Marco Andretti Andretti + 25.4711s 10. Danica Patrick Andretti + 26.4483s 11. Ed Carpenter Sarah Fisher + 27.0375s 12. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 56.4167s 13. Charlie Kimball Ganassi + 1 lap 14. Will Power Penske + 1 lap 15. Vitor Meira Foyt + 1 lap 16. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 1 lap 17. Helio Castroneves Penske + 1 lap 18. Buddy Rice Panther + 2 laps 19. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne + 2 laps 20. Pippa Mann Conquest + 2 laps 21. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold + 3 laps 22. John Andretti Petty/Andretti + 3 laps 23. Ryan Hunter-Reay Foyt + 3 laps 24. Davey Hamilton Dreyer & Reinbold + 7 laps 25. Paul Tracy Dreyer & Reinbold + 25 laps Retirements: Townsend Bell Sam Schmidt 157 laps Ryan Briscoe Penske 157 laps Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt 147 laps James Hinchcliffe Newman/Haas 99 laps Jay Howard Rahal/Schmidt 60 laps Simona de Silvestro HVM 44 laps EJ Viso KV 27 laps Takuma Sato KV 20 laps 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series Standings Pos Driver Team Points 1 Will Power Penske 194 2 Dario Franchitti Ganassi 178 3 Oriol Servia Newman-Haas 150 4 Tony Kanaan KV Racing 135 5 Scott Dixon Ganassi 129 6 Graham Rahal Ganassi 120 7 Ryan Briscoe Penske 114 8 JR Hildebrand Panther 113 9 Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt 110 10 Mike Conway Andretti-Autosport 102 11 Vitor Meira Foyt Enterprises 96 12 Marco Andretti Andretti-Autosport 95