Damn, what a race! I think anything more than that is unnecessary for the intro.
THE PASSING ATTEMPT – My gut reaction when I saw Takuma Sato make the move to Dario Franchitti's inside into Turn 1 was that he went for it too soon. With the benefit of a day or so to reflect on it, and having seen the replay several times, that hasn't changed.
Sato's reputation from Formula 1 and within his first two seasons of IndyCar is that he's consistently fast but fragile. He'll exceed the limit more frequently than most, which is the sign of a relentless charger never satisfied, but that often ends in tears. Still, one of my favorite all-time moments in F1 was when Sato – driving a geriatric Super Aguri-Honda – passed World Champion Fernando Alonso's McLaren-Mercedes with only a handful of laps to go in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix for sixth place.
Yet there's something about him and last laps this year. At Long Beach, he was the one doing the defending, when Ryan Hunter-Reay lunged from a little ways back and pitched Sato into a spin, costing him his first podium. There was no small sense of irony when the two shared the podium behind Will Power at Brazil, and Sato had finally cracked the top-three at the checkers.
The way I saw it, Franchitti moved low, but left enough of a gap for Sato to stick his nose in there if he so desired – tempting him to make the attempt even if there wasn't completely enough room. That's Sato's contention – that Franchitti didn't leave enough – but I'd beg to differ.
At the point of commitment – and this was a key point my colleague RACER editor David Malsher made – Sato needed to remain firm in sticking with the move. It appeared as though he scraped off just enough speed to where he couldn't maintain the full momentum for the full pass, and that was why he washed out, lost control and smacked the Turn 1 wall.
Because there wasn't contact, it wasn't a case of Franchitti pitching him into the wall as it was Sato just losing control. Had he stuck in it, he may have contacted Franchitti and knocked them both out, but it was two guys going for the win on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. It happens.
Still, the way Sato was closing after the final restart, he only needed to reprise the same elements that helped get him in that position in the first place. He saw an opening and opportunistically went for it, but had he held back, maintained the draft and then been within roughly two-three car lengths back, Sato could utilize the tow to make a run on Franchitti down the back straight. I think he would have had a better chance down that straight into Turn 3, rather than the full-on lunge into Turn 1. And even if he dove for it but say, was left like Sam Hornish Jr. at Turn 3 in 2006 when Marco Andretti defended, he'd have still ended up second.
SATO AS MR. CONGENIALITY – Still, much like JR Hildebrand a year ago, Sato's race on the whole Sunday except for the last lap was a work of brilliance – and hopefully it's one that isn't forgotten. By lap 66, I looked up and Sato was running third – legitimately – from 19th on the grid. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew had no doubt prepped a solid race car, with the team focusing on race trim throughout the month and Honda's improved fuel mileage helped to aid his charge.
My main assignment for the weekend was following fellow Honda runner Josef Newgarden around to chronicle his debut race, but once he was out, I tuned into the Rahal/Sato radio for the final 25-30 laps. With firm but focused instructions, team principal Bobby Rahal coached Sato through the end of the race as he rose, fell and then rose again to get himself in contention.
Sato's prior restart wasn't great, as he entered Turn 4 directly behind cars rather than laying back to get a run out of the corner and launch onto the straight. Rahal reminded him of this, particularly after Tony Kanaan's lap 186 restart when he vaulted from fifth to the lead before Turn 1 – a move Rahal wasn't particularly fond of.
“We've got to have better restarts – you see Tony's leading the race,” Rahal told Sato on the radio in the next caution period. “Remember we have to wind these guys up; it's all momentum. We need a start where you don't get stuck up behind – you need to get a run on the guy. He jumped on the start. We need to be thinking the same thing. We have 10 laps to go, so, you have to go. Let's get heat in the tires.”
When the last restart happened on lap 194, Sato obliged. He laid back and jumped from seventh to fifth. By lap 195, he was third, directly behind the Target Chip Ganassi teammates, and ready to pounce as they exchanged the lead between themselves.
“Nice job, go get ‘em, babe!” Rahal rallied on the radio. “You're right where you're supposed to be. We don't have much time. You've got no pressure from behind, you know what to do. Awesome job.”
Sato made his Turn 1 passing attempt, it came up empty, and the 17th-place finish was yet another 2012 result that didn't reflect the run for team and driver. Yet in a moment of class and humility, Rahal put Sato in a bear hug after the run to congratulate him on his drive, and Sato stayed for at least an hour after the race signing autographs. It was brilliant to witness.
On another positive note for RLL, longtime strategist Scott Roembke was back on the pit wall in Michel Jourdain Jr.'s pit stand, after recovering from health issues.
ANDRETTI'S DISAPPEARING ACT – After a month that they largely dominated and were probably considered level pre-race favorites with Team Penske, Andretti Autosport's 2012 Indianapolis 500 ended with a resounding thud. Only James Hinchcliffe (sixth, equaling his season-worst finish) finished in the top 10 after three cars started second through fourth.
Marco Andretti's day was peppered with frustration over the radio after leading the most laps, and it later ended against the wall. Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the front-row starters, each had their turns near the front of the field but were rarely outright lead contenders. Part-timers Ana Beatriz and Sebastian Saavedra each were involved in a yellow flag period and did little to bolster their chances of further 2012 starts after promising starts to the month. All told, not the day the team needed or wanted.
CARS WITH INVISIBILITY CLOAKS – There always seem to be a couple cars each year at Indianapolis that end up finishing in the top 10 and when you look at it, you incredulously ask, “Where did they come from?”
The prime recipient of that year's honor this year is Oriol Servia. After starting 27th in the first go of the Panther/DRR combo, Servia ran only in the low 20s to high teens most of the day, and with just 40 laps to go, he restarted 18th. At lap 200, he was fourth.
“We got a flat spot on our first stint and I was like, ‘Wow, a lap down already,'” Servia said. “Usually, you get a chance to get your lap back and it didn't happen until the last pit stop. We were last, but on the lead lap. I knew it was our chance. Every restart, we moved forward. It was like non-stop. If there was one more restart, I think we would have had something for the win.
“But, I'm not complaining. Basically last to fourth. I'm super happy. We never gave up. We had a couple of issues. We knew we could do it together. We finished second in the pit stop competition and showed that we have nothing to fear from the big teams. We showed that again on the restarts. I'm extremely proud of all of us.”
Justin Wilson also ran very well throughout the race. He felt very confident in his Dale Coyne Racing setup in race trim, and lived up to it – often running in the top five and ending seventh. Ed Carpenter was owed a better finish, as well, for his own ECR Indy team after charging from 28th to as high as fourth – before spinning out late in the going.
Townsend Bell sneaked up to another Indy 500 top-10 finish, this time P9 in the Schmidt/Pelfrey Motorsports entry. Those who not only were invisible from a results standpoint but also from a coverage one were Bell's SSM teammate Simon Pagenaud and Dragon Racing's two cars of Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge. None of those three ran in the top 10 at any point, and while they all finished, it was still in 16th, 20th and 22nd.
SOME STATS TO CHEW ON – After his frightening accident with Mike Conway, Will Power lost 34 points to Franchitti and 24 to Scott Dixon this race. One or two more of those bad days in the stretch of three straight ovals after next week's run on the streets of Detroit could once again shift the championship momentum – Power's had his mulligan and just needs to weather the storm from here.
Rubens Barrichello has completed five races, with five finishes, four of them between eighth and 11th, and has finished all but three laps. Now, he can add the words, “Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year” to his already stacked resumé.
Ryan Briscoe finished fifth, which was best of the three Team Penske cars, and equaled his best finish of the year so far – this was despite having apparent gearing issues. The fact he was frustrated rather than satisfied given those aforementioned elements is a very positive sign as he looks to continue to improve his performance the rest of the year.
Charlie Kimball has now exceeded his entire 2011 top-10 total in five races (three to two). Like Sato, he's another one who probably would have had another top 10 or two on his scorecard without something happening in the final five laps of a race. While Kimball is by no means a world-beater, he's certainly developing in his sophomore season, enough to give “Ganassi 2” teammate Graham Rahal more headaches and possibly run with the Target duo.
Credit to E.J. Viso who finished his first 500 in five starts, but unfortunately for him, his contact with Franchitti at pit road marked the first, “Oh, no, it's the old Viso” reappearance of 2012.
The Lotus cars were ruled as retired due to “handling” on the official box score after initially being listed as “105 percent rule.” Simona de Silvestro has now only completed 54 laps combined in the last two Indianapolis 500s.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS – Personally, I didn't have an issue with the extended yellow flag period when Josef Newgarden's car was stopped on track with less than 40 laps remaining. For those who suggested a green/white/checkered finish would have aided the situation when Sato crashed and the race ended under yellow, of course, that wouldn't have even triggered a GWC as the leaders had already taken the white flag.
The race featured more passing than I expected and registered a higher TV rating in the first post-Danica Patrick Indianapolis 500. Based on fast national numbers provided by Nielsen Media Research and ESPN, the 2012 race delivered a 4.34 household rating and 6,857,100 viewers – the race's best number since 2008, and an 8 percent increase among households (4.34 vs. 4.03) from last year's race. Both are important qualities to note, and the key is whether IndyCar can maintain the momentum from its banner race. IndyCar heads to Detroit's Belle Isle this weekend for the second of five consecutive race weekends, and another ABC broadcast will permit direct ratings comparisons with the "500" broadcast.
Walking through Gasoline Alley on Monday, there was a surreal feeling of emptiness as teams took down the signs from above their garages, released tires back to Firestone, and packed up. It's the racing equivalent of closing up summer camp and going back on road trips for three-day shows for the rest of the year.